FASTPIPE RESIDENTIAL (FastEst Inc., www.fastest-inc.com, 800/ 828-7108) is a clever and quick drag-and-click estimating program for residential and light-commercial plumbing work that estimates room by room. The solution, which takes advantage of templates and sports a well-stocked library of plumbing fixtures and related items, compiles labor and material costs as the user places symbols representing specific types of fixtures and parts onto a room plan.

Updated at least four times a year, the database has more than 100,000 items, including fixtures from most manufacturers and all the pipe, valves, fittings, flanges and hangers necessary to complete an assembly, along with industry-standard labor estimates for each item from the Mechanical Contractors Association of America and Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association. Estimators can add, delete or change any item to reflect their own true costs.

Before putting together the estimate, the user identifies which manufacturer's products each fixture symbol will represent. The estimator selects the appropriate item — e.g., a water closet, sink or tub — and it appears on the drawing screen, where he can then easily relocate it. The selected item includes components, stops, traps and piping accessories.

For additional room piping and house mains, the estimator selects the size and the appropriate item from a takeoff screen, which is customized, based on a selected piping system, such as "domestic water." After the quantity is entered, the item is automatically added to the evolving takeoff list, stashed in a corner of the screen.

Any room "built" on screen can be used as a template for other jobs. The program comes with a library of precalculated rooms, for example, a standard bathroom with a toilet, tub, shower and lavatory, for which manufacturers or products can be swapped out. It is possible to save an entire existing house as a template, enabling speedy assembly of a new plumbing estimate for a similar house.

FastPIPE will download the bid into an Excel worksheet that includes a recap page, a bill of materials page, a fixture page and a proposal page.

The program provides a line item for the piping runs in the Excel worksheet and includes the piping costs in the final estimate printout. The solution will print out a fixture list for each room so the mechanic on the job knows where the equipment goes.

OCR software
One of the challenges of computerizing office operations has been converting paper forms and other hard-copy documents into an electronic format that is modifiable. Scanning, alone, won't do the job because a scan is just a picture. And re-typing is extremely time-consuming.

Enter OmniPage Professional 15 optical character recognition software (Nuance, formerly ScanSoft, www.nuance.com) that converts scanned text documents to Microsoft Word documents that you can change or update on your computer.

The OCR solution allows users to convert any scanned printed page or other scanned hard-copy printed material (such as a spreadsheet, specification sheet or product cut sheet) into an electronic document that looks and performs just like the original. It can convert a PDF file already on the PC to a Word document so the material can be edited as if it were an original Word document. (Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format is a popular way to send and archive documents but the documents are "locked" and don't allow editing.)

The program has increased accuracy through the various versions over the years, at this point sporting a stated 99+% level of word accuracy and often makes zero mistakes. Moreover, the software can be trained to react "intelligently" to recognize any "repeat" inaccurate conversions and make the corrections automatically. OmniPage 15 Professional can also play back the converted material as audio for audio proofing of the typed text.

Because the software recognizes and formats columns, tables, bullets, footnotes, punctuation, graphics and symbols, it can convert charts and the resulting file becomes an electronic form that can be modified or filled in online. For example, if the source document is a paper-based Excel spreadsheet, the solution enables accurate retention of individual cell properties throughout, maintaining a fully functioning spreadsheet.

For large volumes of documents, it is possible to use Batch PDF conversion to convert CAD drawings from completed projects or other files, saving time when creating secure compressed PDF files for archiving.

The program also offers digital-to-digital document conversion, which transforms existing digital documents into other formats of digital documents, essentially just by ordering up a "save-as."

The software can create PDF files from any PC application, enabling secure sharing, storing and archiving of those documents without risk of anyone modifying them after the fact.

Another nifty feature: The solution integrates a Google Search Indexer so users can search their hard drive for any document created with the program just by using keywords, a method more effective than using Windows to search for files.

OmniPage 15 Professional includes password protection and supports encryption of sensitive information and digital signatures to ensure authenticity of converted documents and the archival process.

Bill and Patti Feldman are freelance writers for magazines, building product manufacturers and other companies on a broad range of topics. They can be reached at productpad@verizon.net