*West Coast Water Works Warehouse (W4) in Corona, California
According to the 2019 State of the Water Works Industry (SOTWI) survey, the number-one concern among waterworks professionals was renewal and replacement of aging water and wastewater infrastructure, which has been a consistent area of concern over the past few years within the waterworks sector. Other factors continuously posing challenges are the lack of financing for capital improvements, long- term water availability and the lack of a skilled workforce to complete jobs ahead.
The survey, conducted annually by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), documents that despite some key industry-wide challenges, waterworks professionals were feeling more optimistic about the health of their industry in 2019 than they had felt over the past 15 years. The projected five- year outlook was also optimistic, showing an 8.5% revenue increase. The optimism likely would have carried on through 2020, but so far this year the industry is facing a disruption like never before; the COIVD-19 pandemic.
Economic outlook and trends
The strong economy in 2019 and early 2020 was pointing towards a year of growth for the waterworks industry, among many others in the industrial PVF realm. “The economy has been strong. Scrap and oil markets have remained soft. Despite the fact that the price of ductile iron has increased, all other product costs have remained consistent,” says Rory Budds, director of waterworks at F.W. Webb. “With a less volatile market, distribution can have more inventory on the ground to support our customer’s needs.”
It’s clear that the economic impacts of COVID-19 have disrupted business outlooks, but other factors are still at play. Master distributor W4, aka Westcoast Water Works Warehouse out of Southern California, explains that in addition to COVID-19, weather has played a huge role in operations lately.
“March was already slightly slow because of rain. Southern California has been getting way more rain than usual,” Brian Voss, owner and president of W4, says. “The slowdown has kind of worked in our favor during the pandemic. We are able to get a lot more cleaning done and we’ve had the chance to implement new procedures while waiting for better forecasts.” Voss explains that January and February were looking good and setting the stage for a successful and busy year. In fact. W4 was up 15% in sales this February compared to February 2019.
Ray Cade, president of Winsupply’s Winwater division in the Raleigh, North Carolina market, says he expected another record year before the pandemic. “Before COIVD-19, building was strong and there was no known end in sight,” he says. “Since then, there have been rumors of several large builders putting projects on hold. Other local builders that appear have adequate capital to fund their projects have continued with business as normal.”
Product trends and customer needs are likely to vary among different areas around the country, but smart technology innovations such as leak detection prove to be prominent industry wide.
Budds says manufacturers are investing in smart technologies to differentiate themselves from their competition. “Most repair products have become commoditized at this point and there are very few substantial differences in those products,” he explains. “Instead, we are seeing an influx of products that get ahead of water main breaks. Products such as smart fire hydrants or iHydrants are really starting to generate buzz due to the fact they can read water temperature and surge pressure. These are both critical indicators municipalities and water companies can use to get ahead of repairs.”
iHydrants help water utilities prevent potential leaks or water main breaks, both of which lead to excessive damage to roads and highly undesired loss of water. “When water utilities invest in new water-metering technology products, they are potentially avoiding major disaster down the road,” Budds notes. “The bottom line is no utility wants to lose any opportunity to bill its customers. These water-meter technologies and iHydrants have come a long way in helping maintain accurate billing methods.”
When asked about new product trends, various presidents of Winsupply’s Winwater divisions across the country also mentioned iHydrants and leak detection. Storm drain retention, advances in meter reading technologies and products giving the ability to remotely monitor line pressure and temperature in real time are all leading the waterworks industry.
Another trend some are seeing in municipal waterworks is the use of larger diameter material, which Todd Evans, national sales manager for Midland Industries, accredits to recent developments in available technology. “In years past, certain infrastructures would require 6- or 8-inch service lines,” he says. “Now, in those same infrastructures, we can use 12-inch delivery systems that have greater capabilities for carrying water. It’s simply because the technology to operate with larger diameter products is available and becoming easier to work with.”
On the residential side
As always, manufacturers of residential and commercial waterworks products are focusing on products tough enough to break up solids and resist clogging; COVID-19 has only amplified this demand. “COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue of keeping the residential wastewater stream clear of nonflushable materials,” explains Bo Gell, product manager of Xylem’s wastewater division. “Since March, plumbers have seen an increase in calls for clogged pipes and sewer systems because people are flushing wipes down the toilet instead of throwing them in the garbage.”
Residential wastewater systems are under more stress performance wise with many people staying home. “Local plumbers have seen an influx of calls during the outbreak to replace or repair residential water systems,” Gell adds. “People need to be educated about how the additional load on our wastewater systems affects all of us; increased stress leads to higher fees or taxes in order to process that waste.”
In addition to the affects inflicted by the pandemic, there is an increased need for repair products throughout the residential market, which often happens in spring, Gell points out. “For many homeowners, the spring thaw has resulted in flooding, causing an increased demand for products to repair and replace sump pumps and assist with emergency water removal,” he says.
Residential product needs parallel with and directly impact the waterworks infrastructures municipally. “There is a focus on developing products suited for handling the modern wastewater stream, which are all of the nonflushable materials that are a clogging menace and creating problems both locally and widespread,” Gell notes.
Commercial needs and moving forward
Preventing service gaps and taking the necessary precautions to help customers feel safe is important. Winsupply notes that many customers have been trying to get as much product on the ground as possible before non-essential construction is halted.
Actions such as noncontact pickup and delivery are helping distributors move product. “F.W. Webb is asking our customers to call ahead for pickups at all of our locations so that they don’t have to enter the building. We will package and/or palletize all material and have it ready at our doors or loading docks when customers arrive. When delivering product, drivers are practicing social distancing and always wear PPE. To limit their time on jobsites and personal contact with customers, we ask our drivers to call our customers before arriving and coordinate unloading with the customer,” Rory Budds says.
In terms of customer needs, waterworks distributors and manufacturers alike agree that the key is taking the problem off the customers’ plate and continuing to provide the needed products for essential businesses.
When asked about overcoming challenges to continue serving customers, Bo Gell says, “As a supplier of essential products and services for critical sectors related to public health and safety, Xylem is committed to serving our customers. In addition to deploying technologies to help maintain the continuity of critical infrastructure, we are running online education and certification modules to close critical knowledge gaps as water networks are put under new stresses as a result of the pandemic. We are continuing new product development and are moving forward in our mission to make sure clean water is available and waste is removed.”