Jobs booked out months to years in advance was the landscape for groundwater professionals in 2022.
By Thad Plumley
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Job schedules go out several months. Work weeks routinely hit 60 hours. And there is little to no time off. If you could just add another crew—or two—to your company. . . .
I bet it does. After all, that is the reality most companies are experiencing in the groundwater industry today. Professionals are busy. Check that, professionals are absolutely slammed!
As Water Well Journal looks back on 2022, busy workloads dominated the pages and images of the year.
“Everyone I know is booked out three months to two years depending on the area,” says Scott Fowler, CWD/PI, president of Dahlman Pump & Well Drilling Inc. in Burlington, Washington.
“We have lots of customers chomping at the bit, but we can only go so fast as we can and are limited by manpower and the type of ground we drill in. We just tell them they are on our list and we’ll get there as soon as we can. My poor secretary takes the brunt of the calls from customers wanting a date. I feel sorry for her.”
While it shut down much of the world, the pandemic actually jump-started the busy boom for many groundwater contracting companies. Many Americans are leaving densely populated cities for rural areas and their new houses under construction need water well systems. There are still others deciding that home they thought they would build in their retirement can start now as their employer no longer needs them in the office five days a week.
“Honestly, COVID-19 has been a godsend for well drillers like me out West,” says Fowler, the president of the National Ground Water Association in 2008. “People want to move out of the big cities because many of them can work remotely now.”
Being busy is certainly what every company owner wants. But it has come with some headaches too.
Part of the busyness is due to the continued difficulty in hiring employees. While supply chain issues are not as impactful for some products as they were in 2021, the issue is by no means over. Some jobs continue to be ones where multiple trips to the work site are needed simply because all the parts are not available at one time.
These issues have led to something else—safety concerns. Fatigue and stress can certainly come with employees logging 60-hour work week after 60-hour work week, and those are something you never want when working with and around heavy machinery.
The best way to combat those is often with honesty, according to Brian Snelten, PG, the 2022 NGWA president and an area manager for Layne Christensen, A Granite Company, in Aurora, Illinois.
“We all need to remember we can’t do everything right now and handle each thing one problem at a time,” Snelten told WWJ in its June issue. “I’ve found being honest with my customers on realistic schedules is the best way to keep them happy. They may not like what we tell them, but the more information we can provide on the delays or reasons for changes, they usually understand. They just want to be kept up to date.”
Geothermal Boom on the Way?
A geothermal boom has been speculated in the groundwater industry for decades. It goes back in the pages of WWJ to the days of a geothermal superhero being on the cover of the magazine in the 1980s.
Once again, the idea of a busy geothermal boom is being speculated. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which was mentioned in the WWJ September issue, was signed into law by President Joe Biden on August 16 and includes several policy priorities that could be impactful to groundwater professionals—most notably geothermal tax credits.
The $739 billion budget bill included provisions extending residential and commercial geothermal tax credits, which were set to expire in 2023. In fact, various geothermal tax credit extensions run through the year 2034.
Ricky Tompkins, owner and one of the operators for Reliable Pump & Well Services LLC in Montgomery, New York, thinks geothermal jobs in the commercial sector are going to gain significantly in popularity next year.
“My thoughts on geothermal for 2023 is it is going to be an amazingly busy year with tax rebates pushing 30 to 40 percent and even more for commercial in the state of New York,” says Tompkins, who serves as the geothermal representative for the Empire State Water Well Drillers Association and is a drilling representative for the New York Geothermal Energy Organization.
“For most large housing projects, it wouldn’t be smart for them to go any other way.”
Greg Beach, co-founder and CEO of Geo-Hydro Supply Ltd. in Sugarcreek, Ohio, and a past chair of NGWA’s Suppliers Section Board of Directors, also thinks the credits are going to spark interest. In fact, he wonders if demand may outpace the ability to install systems.
“In light of the recent unprecedented legislation being signed by the President, I see playing out a significant expansion of demand in the geothermal heating and cooling market. However, increased demand could far exceed the industry’s ability to install new geothermal systems in homes, businesses, government projects, and nonprofit organizations.
“In many areas of the country, geothermal drilling is not as profitable as well development, geotechnical and environmental drilling. And with the labor shortage, there are plenty of rigs but not enough operators. So, if I’m a drilling company owner, I’ll put my money on the most profitable markets.”
More Success in Washington
There is no doubt it was a good year for groundwater in the nation’s capital. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 not only brought geothermal tax credits but also included $4 billion allocated for drought relief programs at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The funding will be allocated to programs in reclamation states that aid in combating long-term impacts of drought. Funding for drought relief programs, especially in USBR states, was an issue of importance along with geothermal tax credits when NGWA had its Smart Water Policies Virtual Fly-In in April.
“I’m proud that our dedicated volunteers stood up and fought for these issues year after year,” NGWA CEO Terry S. Morse, CAE, CIC, said, “because geothermal tax credits and drought relief are not just important for our members and their businesses but also the future of our country.”
WWJ also reported that the Healthy Drinking Water Affordability Act was introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) in April to provide grants for water testing and treatment technology to individuals, nonprofits, and local governments in rural communities.
The bill, which would provide grants for water quality testing and the purchase and installation of point-of-use or point-of-entry water quality improvement systems, has already garnered bipartisan cosponsors and is one NGWA has noted it will be watching in 2023.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continued this year to work towards its goal of a national regulation for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) as part of its PFAS Strategic Roadmap that it announced in 2021.
WWJ detailed four health advisories the agency released in June. The advisories provide technical information that federal, state, and local agencies can use to inform actions to address PFAS in drinking water, including water quality monitoring and optimization of existing technologies that reduce PFAS.
“It’s more important than ever that we let the science and data guide these actions because the more we learn about PFAS and PFOA, the more we seem to uncover about how serious and complex the problem really is,” Morse told WWJ in June.
A Change at NGWA
For as long as most people working in the groundwater industry today have been manning the controls of a drilling rig or installing a pumping system, Kathy Butcher, CMP, has been helping train and educate them. However, an era ended when Butcher retired as the NGWA director of education on June 30 after 49 years with the Association.
Butcher, who grew up in a water well drilling family in Pennsylvania, oversaw NGWA’s vast educational offerings which include a mix of short courses, conferences, custom courses, online offerings, and Groundwater Week, the biggest trade show in the industry.
She also oversaw for decades NGWA’s voluntary certification program and The Groundwater Foundation’s Darcy Lecture Series in Groundwater Science and McEllhiney Lecture Series in Water Well Technology, which have been presented all around the world.
“She is a consummate professional with a work ethic that is unparalleled today,” Morse said in WWJ’s June issue at the time of her retirement. “Over the past nearly 50 years with the Association, she has contributed more to the organization and industry than any person before and more than likely after her.”
A Time for Innovation
WWJ has always showcased innovation in the industry and 2022 was no different. The July issue featured a Q&A with Brian Larson, co-founder and CEO of Darcy Solutions Inc., a company pioneering a patent-pending approach to geothermal heating and cooling that is believed to be more cost-effective, energy-efficient, and environmentally friendly.
The company uses a heat exchanger to transfer heat with groundwater rather than sediment and rock, but without using any of that groundwater or risking its contamination in the process. Therefore, the system requires fewer holes drilled to meet heating or cooling demand, reducing the surface-level space required by as much as 95%.
“That’s the biggest benefit that our approach provides: We get a much higher level of energy exchange per hole in the ground,” Larson said. “We end up seeing savings up front, and when it operates, we see additional savings in operating costs. As a result, our paybacks are under 10 years.”
WWJ also had a feature article in May on Boreline’s FlexiRiser from Hose Solutions Inc., which has emerged as a potential game-changing drop pipe option for submersible pumps, and an article in October on a safety tool called the Energy Wheel that helps employees better identify hazards in the workplace.
There are definitely rising materials costs, some supply chain hiccups remain, and the housing market is slowing down. However, busy work schedules at water well drilling and pump installation firms remain—for now.
Joe Haynes, president of Little Beaver and Lone Star Drills, which manufactures water well drills, horizontal boring kits, and mini trenchers, thinks 2023 is going to be one filled with contractors still drilling wells in a variety of environments. He thinks the need to ensure they have the right equipment to earn a profit, though, is going to be magnified more than ever.
“As we look ahead to 2023, we see customers being even more motivated to find drilling rigs that match their application and their budget,” he said. “Water well drillers can benefit from working closely with manufacturers to understand what size drill and features they truly need for their jobs and plan ahead to offset extended lead times that are still affecting the industry.”
However, there is no doubt a slowdown could be on the horizon. After all, the highs never remain a constant; they always level out.
“I believe the economy will continue to slow ’til the next presidential election,” Fowler shared. “Calls for new wells and well inspections have fallen dramatically for us, which tells me people are finally tightening their belts.”
Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and the director of publications for the National Ground Water Association. He is currently the secretary for the AM&P Network Associations Council Advisory Board. The AM&P Network is a national association for publishing professionals.. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (800) 551-7379, ext. 1594.