How to decode “or equal” in a bid specification
Or equal" clauses in bid specifications allow bidders to propose alternatives to specified products, ensuring competitive bidding and suitable substitutions based on agency-approved equivalency in character, quality, and performance.

By Randy Thompson, P.E

25 March 2021

3 Min read


How to decode “or equal” in a bid specification

Google “engineer jokes” and you’ll receive a long list of results. Most of them poke fun at engineers for being overly technical, left-brain dominant thinkers. You will not find many references to engineers being creative or artistic. However, engineers are a lot like artists. Both spend months or years working on a project, which is then displayed for public consumption.  

For an engineer, displaying a masterpiece means their project is advertised for bid. At this point, it is common for viewers to question the “why” and “how” of the project. Questions include, “can the project be completed faster, cheaper, better?” These questions commonly lead to evaluating “or equals.” 

An “or equal” in a specification means that a bidder can substitute an item in place of the specified manufacturer’s product name. This practice is done so that specifications do not limit competitive bidding. Public contracts have the right to require an “or equal.” Any substitute must, in the opinion of the purchasing agency, be equal to the referenced item in terms of character, quality, and performance. 

Commonly, product data sheets (PDS) are used to compare a specified product and any proposed equivalents. However, comparing data sheets is not always comparing apples to apples. For example, let’s look at PROPEX® Pyramat® 75 High Performance Turf Reinforcement Mat (HPTRM). The published UV Resistance is 90% strength retention at 6,000 hours per ASTM D4355. Independent lab data combined with projects that have been installed and exposed to UV rays for 20 years, confirm a 75-year design life, even when vegetation is sparse. 

There is not a standard for reporting on a product data sheet, so some “or equals” may state 100% UV resistance but omit the number of testing hours. At face value, 100% seems better than 90%, but without the contextual hours, the “or equal’s” design life may actually be less than 10 years. If design life is a critical factor for the project in question, then a 75-year design life is important. 

Another challenge in comparing “or equals” is that some use ASTM test methods that are not related to the industry to achieve higher values. If outside support was used during the design phase, it’s a good practice to re-engage these people during the “or equal” approval process. If outside support was not utilized, look for individuals who are subject matter experts to help review attributes of an “or equal” product.

Sometimes a proprietary specification is acceptable, specifically if only one manufacturer has the testing or material properties to satisfy a requirement. In 2019 the Federal Highway Administration revised its regulations to allow States to use propriety or patented materials in Federal-aid highway projects to encourage innovation in transportation technology and methods.

A specification can also be written to allow new technology to compete with products in a traditional category. For example, PROPEX Armormax® is commonly used as a rock riprap alternative or to replace concrete-based solutions. PROPEX Armormax promotes reinforced vegetation, offers a lower carbon footprint, and costs less than traditional erosion and slope stabilization solutions.

Proprietary products may also be specified when in use on other complementary projects in a locality. The rules around “or equal” approvals will vary. The most important thing to keep in mind, when choosing a solution is to do the final step, ensuring the constructed solution is in the best long-term interest of the project.