I suspect many of our readers are small shops or started out as small shops — less than 10 employees, maybe five or six trucks? Sound like you? And there comes a time when opportunities arise to make a jump to commercial-sized jobs. I don’t have an exact definition for when a job or project is considered commercial compared to residential.
I know some of the large custom homes I have worked on over the years certainly felt like they were commercial in size, complexity and dollar amounts. When we started to bid and compete for commercial jobs, it took a bit of a mindset switch. Here are some of my recollections on the different thinking and methodology required to jump into the commercial market.
Most commercial projects we were allowed to bid included engineered drawings. It was rare to find even the large high-dollar residential plans with mechanical specs or drawings included. Every bidder was able to spec any brand or type of equipment suitable to meet the load or architect interpretation of the suitable components. It always led to a complicated bid opening for the general contractor or the homeowners, trying to compare apples to apples when no bid spec is outlined.
I believe a lot of the substandard installations are directly related to this free-for-all bid approach. As a result, you would see a large swing on bid pricing depending on the equipment whims and acceptable installation practices. Contractor A might feel an appropriate DHW recirculation piping should include an insulation package (timed recirc pump, etc.), whereas Contractor B decided that energy consumption or a low bid number was the driver of their bid.
With an engineered design, generally, the result was equipment that was at least sized to the spec and possibly installed to the standard dictated. The architect, engineer, general and building owner all had the same plans to work from to assure the work was performed to the intent of the design.
Areas to brush up on
There are some gray areas to be aware of if you jump into this market. Look for unusual specs that may fall under the responsibility of the plumbing or mechanical contractor. One of our first commercial jobs was a small medical center. One spec we missed in the bid process was sterilization of the plumbing potable water piping.
Somewhere in the spec, a procedure was lined out for the piping sterilization to be performed by a certified contractor versed in sterilization methods. The contractor was responsible for testing of the system and documentation assuring the piping was safe and germ-free. Gulp. Missed that and didn’t know how to do it.
Another area often ignored or not rigidly enforced on residential sites was jobsite safety requirements. Back in the olden days, the OSHA folks must have had a substantial budget, as they would appear with regularity on larger jobsites, writing up infractions. Most OSHA inspectors were fair and would allow you to make the corrections, then return to confirm your upgrades before penalties were imposed.
I highly recommend that you have a trained, certified safety officer or foreman on your crew. You can sub out safety training for your entire staff. OSHA and your insurance carrier are great allies for making sure your team is up to speed on safety protocol and equipment.
It was during one of these inspections I learned the difference between round and flat extension cords. Ladders needed to be in perfect working condition; power tools are required to have a cord with an intact ground prong. A meticulous, well-meaning OSHA inspector can find all sorts of violations on the jobsite itself, as well as with the tools and equipment being used. I suspect safety requirements are more strongly enforced in the litigious society we now live in.
One area you should brush up on is plan reading. Other than my technical drawing class in high school, I never had any formal training on reading all the details on blueprints. In a complex job with multiple mechanical trades such as plumbing, hydronics, fire protection, medical gas, electrical, HVAC, security alarms, etc., it is good to know who is going to get on site first and what the space allows for all the trades to work within. In today’s digital age, all this can at least be modeled before the subs arrive on the site.
Also of great importance these days is the ability to get online training for all or most of the required skills. Courses are available from local community colleges, manufacturers, listing agencies and third-party companies specializing in most segments of the contracting business. In some cases, these courses in first aid or technical skills may contribute CEUs or hours to maintain your licenses.
Networking can be incredibly helpful when contemplating commercial work. Joining a trade association gives you access to like-minded and similarly focused shops. I cannot imagine there are many jobs or building projects that someone hasn’t tackled before you. Find a friend or mentor or rep to guide you with first-hand experience.
I remember being involved in a trade association where we visited each other’s shops to ride along and see how they bid, staffed and ran their operations. This opened my eyes to not only methods for running my business, but also to tools, trucks and equipment I had not seen in my area. It allowed me to get a leg up on my competition by sourcing these tools, equipment and knowledge not yet available in my market.
So, consider taking on a commercial project. Get all or as many of your ducks in a row as possible, ask for help and maybe get a second set of eyes on a bid before you submit. Make it a worth your while, and include some error room. Don’t be afraid to say no to a job or to a contractor who has a habit of “value engineering” the spec or your potential profit.
Happy New Year, and have a safe and prosperous 2019!