I still remember working as a state employee maintenance electrician of North Carolina, showing up at a very full and busy community college office, to look into adding a new circuit and receptacle on a solid brick wall covered in shelves. The director in charge of that space said something to the effect of "You can just put a new receptacle right here; so how much time and money do you think this will take? By the way, this is for this really expensive equipment we ordered yesterday." Ok...stop right there; more information is needed here! Maybe if this person had found an electrician that can run power through thin air, has wireless receptacles, and can turn any light bulb on with anything you want to plug into....the answer to the work request described above would have been very easy to give on the spot. The reality is that all trade work, including electrical, is not magic. There are fine lines between estimating and guessing and dreaming.
There are variables, methods, rules, surrounding circumstances, and available resources that will always determine the best outcome for an electrical estimate. An experienced electrician should be able to confidently give upfront pricing for basic repairs and installations after looking at a job site in person. This kind of upfront pricing is a general number that would include enough money to cover general time and materials for that electrical contractor to do a job and make some profit. However, even experienced electricians need more information sometimes which require their time, energy, and tools to give a seriously potential bid or estimate on a project. As a customer, it is important to understand that there is a difference between a general upfront price for a small job versus an insightful estimate that will realistically reveal important details of a job (details you might want to know sooner than later). To illustrate this we could go back to my work request example above.
In the work request example above, I could have told the department director (customer) on the spot to budget a high number that I made up in my mind to justify any possible scenarios of materials and equipment rentals that may have gone into that job. The number would have been very high, so high that the customer would probably want to reconsider what was about to be commissioned. On the other hand, if I told that customer that I needed some more information and time to learn about the job before giving a potential job value, then the customer would have had an additional route to choose from...an educated estimate. An educated estimate has more value than a general upfront price, and consequently, requires some additional compensation for the estimator. In this example, the price or fee for an educated estimate was more man hours charged from one college department to the other for investigation...which was a painless option enough to take. The size and electrical requirements of the new equipment had to be documented, the path and material choices for new electrical circuit distribution were explored, and the logistics of clearing out major obstacles like shelving and furniture and work areas was planned out before the electrical work was ever done. The end of that story is that the customer chose getting an educated estimate and later had a successful electrical installation because he/she chose to invest in an educated estimate.
Whenever you as a customer considers a project at your residence or business, you can consider what information might be helpful for any contractors that will be involved, including your local, reliable, electrical contractor. Also, you can ask your potential electrical estimator about any possible fees that would be in order for an educated estimate. It is common that a contractor will credit back any estimate charges when you award the work to him. I hope that one of the main concepts you take from this article is that sending a single photo of a project to an electrical contractor and asking for an educated estimate is asking for a magical number from a magical electrician....be careful if you do get what you asked for. My understanding of magic is that it is not very sustainable. Even a free visit in person from your potential electrical contractor will open up enough information for the contractor to give a fair bid on your work request.
As the owner and operator at Safe Current Electric, I can tell you that I will encourage an educated estimate on a larger project, like running power to a new detached garage shop in the backyard, but I would not want to charge for giving an estimate in person for replacing a 20 foot high chandelier. Any estimate charges we ask for is going to be upfront before we begin the process of an educated estimate. If you award the job to us afterwards, we simply credit this charge to your total job bill. Paying for an estimate may be or may not be a new concept to you. It never should be the selling point on choosing a quality contractor. Sometimes, when a customer decides to go collecting several quotes from several contractors, paying for multiple estimates is not the most economical route. Safe Current Electric wants to work with your budget for sure, but we do not ever want to sacrifice quality over quantity.