Equal and approved!
Let’s kick things off with a bold statement: this article may raise eyebrows, but it dives into a crucial conversation about the issues and complexities resulting from this common specification phrase.
“Equal and approved” is a term often included by consultants in project specifications, and it’s quickly become every contractor’s new best friend. But what’s the real story behind it? What does “equal and approved” truly signify?
It is assumed that when “equal and approved” is added to a specification, it typically means that the entity issuing the tender is open to alternative products, materials, or solutions that are equivalent in terms of quality, performance, and specifications to those originally specified in the tender document.
Here’s what these terms typically entail:
Equal: This means that the bidder can propose a product or solution that is not exactly the same as what is specified in the tender document but is functionally equivalent. The proposed alternative must meet the same performance, safety, and quality standards as the specified item. It allows bidders to suggest substitutes that might be more readily available or cost-effective.
Approved: The term “approved” implies that the alternatives proposed by the bidder must be reviewed and accepted by the tender entity before they can be used in the project. This review process ensures that the proposed substitute indeed meets the required standards and specifications. But this then adds an additional layer of complexity. Who is approved to approve the recommended alternative? Does this even take place? And who is left with the problem if the alternative wasn’t approved and is far from equal?
What’s the motivation behind this phrase?
We fully appreciate why the term “equal and approved” is used in specifications. In good faith, it aims to promote competition and flexibility while ensuring that the final choice still meets the necessary quality and performance standards. It gives bidders some flexibility in their proposals whilst striving to maintain quality control and adherence to project requirements.
However, in reality, it’s usually a gateway to value engineering exercises, providing contractors an opportunity to offer something cheaper and inferior in an attempt to influence the procurement process. This often encourages a “race to the bottom” mentality, which sees bidders trying to undercut the competition, but often at the price of sacrificing quality standards.
We initially expected this statement to spark some controversy, but through discussions with various industry stakeholders, it has become apparent that this concept is widely accepted, hence becoming the contractor’s new best friend.
”It’s usually a gateway to value engineering exercises, providing contractors an opportunity to offer something cheaper and inferior.”
Kieran Byrne, Architect & Engineering Manager (UK & Ireland)
Are there any legal or liability considerations?
Our research would suggest that there are legal and associated liability considerations when a tender specification includes the terms “equal and approved.” Here are some important points to consider:
Bidders who propose alternative products or solutions under the “equal and approved” clause are typically responsible for ensuring that their proposed alternatives meet all the specifications and requirements outlined in the tender document. If their proposed alternatives do not meet these requirements or if they fail to secure approval for their substitutes, they may be held liable for non-compliance and could be disqualified from the bidding process.
One would assume that the entity issuing the tender will have a process for evaluating the tender returns and have a good understanding of the specification and associated technical complexities, allowing them to approve or decline the proposed alternatives with full confidence. Bidders should follow this process carefully to ensure their proposed alternatives are reviewed and accepted in a timely manner. Failure to obtain approval can result in the bidder being unable to use their proposed alternatives in the project, leading to potential delays in the program of works and added costs.
If a bidder’s proposed alternative is accepted and used in the project, they may be held liable for the performance of that alternative. If the alternative fails to meet the required standards or causes issues during the project, the bidder could be subject to liability for any resulting damages or additional costs incurred by the project owner.
Disputes can arise if there are disagreements over whether a proposed alternative is truly equal and approved. Who will be responsible if a contractor recommends an alternative product at a cost-saving; this change is then approved, and it is later found out that it isn’t ‘equal’ to the originally specified product.
Let’s not forget the legal considerations of the proposed materials. The use of some manufacturers products is banned on certain projects due to local and international laws. Bidders must ensure that their proposed alternatives comply with all relevant laws, regulations, and industry standards. Failing to do so can result in legal liabilities and potential legal actions.
”If a bidder’s proposed alternative is accepted and used in the project, they may be held liable for the performance of that alternative.”
Steven Kenny, Architect & Engineering Manager (EMEA)
What does this mean within the security industry?
Let’s consider the application of the term “equal and approved” within the security market. It’s worth questioning whether true equality exists when conducting a side-by-side comparison of the devices in question. While we can make direct comparisons based on vendor data sheets, we must remember that data sheets often serve as extensions of marketing materials designed to persuade buyers. Vendors may offer either modest, conservative information or overly ambitious data, which may not necessarily be validated. This data often represents ideal conditions where all device aspects perform optimally. Understanding every detail of a vendor’s data sheet can be challenging.
In the context of video surveillance cameras, the definition of image quality and usability is complex. Metrics like DORI (Detection, Observation, Recognition, Identification) focus on pixel density but don’t guarantee usability under varying light conditions.
Additionally, standards like IK and IP ratings, which are often seen as a benchmark of the quality of materials, prominently feature on data sheets. These standards often undergo self-certification processes, and their independent testing lacks standardized procedures, leading to inconsistencies.
Here, we’ve highlighted instances where data sheet metrics may be used as comparisons to suggest “equal”, but the results aren’t always clear-cut. The term “equal” also fails to consider the impact on other systems. For example, specifying compression standards like H.264, H.265, or smart codecs may yield different bandwidth and storage requirements from various vendors due to camera complexities. These differences significantly affect capital expenditure, total cost of ownership, and ongoing operational expenses. One small change here may fundamentally alter the network and infrastructure design, the storage requirements, and the associated power and cooling needs throughout the systems’ lifecycle.
Equal and approved may not genuinely provide equivalent solutions. It can lead contractors to propose seemingly equal but substantially different solutions, potentially burdening the end client with an inferior system or increased operational costs throughout a possible 10-year period of the system’s lifecycle.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to this challenge. We encourage those responsible for creating specifications to rethink the use of “equal and approved.” Instead, provide explicit details to address system operational requirements comprehensively, considering sustainability, cybersecurity, brand ethics and other factors to define quality beyond a datasheet. Vendor policies and processes vary widely in the security industry, making true equality elusive.
Recognizing that “equal and approved” means different things to different stakeholders with varying motivations, we must be prepared for potential misuse. Without careful evaluation and the right decision-makers, cheaper, inferior solutions may be accepted solely based on cost, undermining the effort invested in designing specifications to meet operational requirements and mitigate risks.
Kieran Byrne & Steven Kenny Axis Communications Architecture & Engineering (A&E) program