How to Measure and Calculate
Cubic Yards of Debris

There's a pile of debris in front of you; how does one calculate cubic yards consistently and accurately? In an age of computers and calculators, it seems the the ability to estimate anything is becoming a forgotten skill. So, even if you haven't done much estimating, you need to get very good at it.

Some have said that you need to think of a washing machine to get an approximate mental picture of a cubic yard. Unfortunately this is not close. A typical washing machine is somewhere 1/2 and 2/3 cubic yard.

Get Familiar with a Tape Measure

Everybody knows that a cubic yard is three feet by three feet by three feet. Can you picture how long three feet is? Can you picture an area three feet by three feet? If you're used to using a tape measure, this is probably easier for you. It would help if you begin to think of, and to describe, distances in feet, rather than "from here to over there".

If you see a pile of debris try to estimate its width and length is multiples of three feet, and then estimate its depth in multiples of three feet. If it's six by nine, by three feet deep, it's 6 cubic yards. If it's spread out all over the floor, picture it in one pile. Begin to recognize familiar pieces of furniture (3-seater couch, stuffed chair, dining set, dresser, and chest of drawers, shelves, etc.) by their cubic-yard dimensions. This will take some practice, but you can learn how to calculate cubic yards with proficiency.

Do You Need To Compact The Debris?

You don't have to break everything down to measure its displacement volume. You may break the legs off a table to pack it into your truck or trailer, but you don't need to do that before you calculate cubic yards. Make your measurements as you take your before photos. Don't rearrange, consolidate, or stage the debris for photos or for making measurements.

Now, while it's not an exact science, a degree of precision is possible—

My son and I were estimating the cubic yards of one of the largest jobs we've ever done. So we split up and each did our own count, to see how close our separate estimates would be. After walking over about an acre of debris-strewn property, we compared counts. He had counted 480 cubic yards, and I had counted 450. That's a difference of just a little over 5%. We were pleased that we had counted the cubic yards so nearly the same.

What Happens If Your Estimate Is Not Accurate?

There are at least two possible negative consequences:

  1. If your client does not ask for an bid ahead of time, but simply pays you for the cubic yards of debris you've removed, they may look at your photos and reduce the amount they're paying you, telling you that your count is too high. If you're consistently too high as you calculate cubic yards, you will develop a reputation for bad counts, and your invoices will regularly be discounted. They may even decide not to work with you any more.

  2. If your client asks for a bid ahead of time, they generally won't question your estimate of cubic yards in your bid, but they will definitely question and reduce your count in your bid approval, if your before photos don't support the count you've submitted.

Your Photos and Your Calculations Must Match

In this industry, we are paid by what our photos show. So, it is always in your best interest to take very comprehensive photos of the debris, and then make sure that when you calculate cubic yards, they match what can be seen in the photos.

When your photos and your counts consistently match, your client will probably give you the benefit of the doubt if there is ever a reason for a question. On the other hand, if you consistently over estimate the volume of debris, and your client must regularly reduce your count, they're going to expect that they have to do this every time.

Develop a good reputation with your client by making accurate will benefit your with more and better work in the long run. Learning to calculate cubic yards is a valuable skill; finding a place for free latex paint disposal is a valuable resource.