It's an old saying in the trades that if you want to really keep a secret, bury it in a copy of some new building's specifications, that way it's sure to be ignored even if it's noticed. We've all read into the hundreds if not thousands of pre-bid specs and how many times have we really read them as opposed to reading over them?

I'm not saying we should read every word of, say the furnishings spec or the painting spec or even masonry spec, but how many times have we then been bit later on during the job when a duct runs interferes with an overhead cabinet or we find out when deep into the job that the interior exposed painting spec for visible piping isn’t in the piping or mechanical spec, but was buried inside the Division 9 boilerplate. And by the way, did you happen to pick up the fact that all penetrations through finished exterior masonry had to be either precisely core drilled or diamond-sawed?

Remember that those words in the specs always take precedence over what’s shown on the plans. The plans normally have a tiny CYA note hidden somewhere along the lines of, "These plans are diagrammatical, not literal, and do not show every individual component of each system and the bidder is cautioned to reference best practices in their respective trades in calculating their bid."

This means if it's not shown on the plans, but is mentioned in some spec section somewhere even if it’s not your own, then when you bid it you own it!

When getting ready to do an estimate for a job, the very first thing I've always done is carefully read The General Conditions, then The Supplementary Conditions, then the Existing Conditions sections before even cracking a look at the plans.

Ninety-plus percent of the time if there's ever going to be any real "landmines" buried in the specs either on purpose or by accident that could really potentially blow your job up, such as a tiny sub-font footnote stating, "Mechanical contractor shall be responsible for locating and proper removal of any and all pre-existing subterranean fuel oil tanks if any, or while an initial site survey did not locate any existing asbestos piping insulation, the plumbing/piping contractor shall be responsible for proper disposal of all existing asbestos insulation if any is found."

Such a landmine, such as this type of footnote, will usually be somewhere in the General, Supplementary or Existing Conditions sections.

After carefully reading those sections then I turn my attention to other trades' specifications that might contain a loose grenade within the painting, concrete, furnishings, outside utilities and electrical specs, etc. Only then do I open the plans where I start building the building in my head to create a 3D model of it using the site plan, foundation, structural steel and architectural detail sheets before beginning to study my HVAC/ piping/ mechanical/ plumbing plan sheets. I do my takeoff in this order so I can apply and resolve in my own head what incongruities I may have discovered while examining other the plan sheets of other trades.

I'm never shy about hitting the engineer or architect with an RFI about something which might stray over into a gray area of interpretation. When something on the plans is in clear conflict with a verse from a chapter of the specs, I'm much more respectfully insistent on a written clarification before bid day than if it's something somewhat incidental on the plans only which might or might not affect the amount of the bid. If it's something I've caught that really could affect other subcontractors' bids, then having my question answered and a clarification sent out to all those on the bidders' list is a good thing, not a bad thing, since it brings us all back to the same level playing field. And I don't have to worry about a competitor beating my bid because they missed something that I picked up but they didn't.

Remember too that with a handful of rare exceptions, what's in the specs are based on national standards issued by national certifying boards and are a minimum floor, not a maximum ceiling spec. If I've got a special deal for this month from a supplier for say, small gate valves 2", under which meet the spec for those kind of valves on the job and exceed the operating parameters for ball valves at a cost which is nominally lower than my typical rate for ball valves in general, it only makes common sense to ask the engineer if it would be OK to use gate valves across the board where gate and ball valves are shown. By doing this there maybe a small but real savings of a few hundred dollars that may or may not translate into the company getting the job on bid day.

But just make sure not to get into needless pissing contests with architects or engineers, for those are the most expensive games you'll ever lose.

There was an A/E firm we all used to deal with in our local market way back when they always insisted in poured-lead-joint joints and extra heavy hub cast iron pipe for roof drains. They had been using this spec on their jobs for decades and it didn’t matter to them if it did add 0.00093% extra to the job cost. They had always done it this way and by God if you got the job you'd do it this way too. All of us subs would just shrug our shoulders, sigh deeply and plug a number for it and hope that the one dude in the company that could pour a horizontal hubstuff lead joint wouldn't quit by the time we got the job.

In massaging and working job specs to your best advantage, you have to have an understanding of their entire lay of the land, always think outside the box to try making an extra honest dollar, be sure to pick your battles with those who sign the checks very, very carefully.

Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via e-mail at: