Emerging Needs and the Next Generation of Contractors

Expanding into water treatment can do more than improve your business model.

By Greg Gruett

It’s a familiar story in water well drilling and water treatment as well as for thousands of small businesses across America. Fathers and mothers establish companies and eventually pass the torch to their sons and daughters who take the reins and bring their own unique perspective to the business.

A water softener is installed in a boiler room of a business.

We are at a transition point in which millennials are coming of age and moving into leadership positions in these family-owned operations. The critical questions now are: How can those with well drilling businesses set the next generation up for success? In what direction should these young leaders take things in the future?

An excellent example of a well drilling company heading into this shift is Edward Powell Pump & Well Drilling Inc. in Aston, Pennsylvania. As 27-year-old Nathan Powell explains, his grandfather and great uncles started drilling wells in the 1950s, opened their own company in the 1960s, and eventually passed ownership to Nathan’s father and uncles.

Since its founding, Powell Pump & Well has diversified into offering residential water treatment services, a move that Powell says helped the business quadruple in size since the second generation took over.

Now, the Powell family is looking at who is next in line: Nathan and his two brothers. But taking over the well drilling operation wasn’t necessarily his original plan.

After attending college, Nathan moved into the corporate world and became a mortgage broker for several years. That experience, however, left him feeling unfulfilled.

“It was hard to be passionate about it,” he says. “It wasn’t nearly as rewarding as providing people with quality water for their family.”

Nathan’s father had been encouraging him to come back to the well drilling business because he wanted to add a sales division to spark more growth, and he knew his son’s time spent outside the industry would be useful.

“I grew up in this business and started working for my dad when I was 12, but it was good to get out and experience how other businesses work,” Nathan says.

The Powell family sees where there is a need and understands where demand is growing. Nathan points out fewer homeowners need drilled wells. At the same time, there is increased public knowledge and awareness around water quality. This presents an opportunity to contractors who are already having conversations about water with homeowners.

So, what’s the first thing Nathan recommends contractors do before diversifying into water treatment?

“Look for an education,” he says. “Water treatment is complex. Find someone who can offer support and walk you through all the problems you’ll face.”

Problem water can come in many forms. Contractors already have regional expertise around groundwater quality and know how different it can be from one home to the next. There are, however, common culprits that cause issues in the home. Contractors should begin by understanding the filtration systems and media used to address what is in the water.

Water Quality Problems Contractors Can Fix

1. Hard Minerals

Three generations, including Nathan (left), Ed (middle), and Chris (right), have contributed to Powell Pump & Well’s success. The company’s evolution into water treatment will help continue this success into the future.

Hard water is the most familiar and prevalent problem in residential water treatment. Yet there are many homeowners, in both rural and urban areas, who don’t realize how important it is to treat that water. Others assume water treatment is a do-it-yourself job simply requiring a softener from a big box store.

The truth is, nearly every home in the country stands to benefit from basic water treatment solutions such as water softeners. Around 90% of households in the United States have water that is considered hard, including those with municipal water.

The modern home needs to run on soft water. High-efficiency, water-using appliances including water heaters, dishwashers, and washing machines are adversely affected by hard minerals. The scale buildup causes them to operate at a much lower efficiency than specified and can decrease their expected lifespans.

Adding to that, many states have banned the use of phosphates in detergent due to environmental concerns. Those phosphates were added to help combat the poor cleaning performance caused by magnesium and calcium ions. Without them, the need for in-home water treatment is even more apparent.

Contractors who can install equipment that softens water not only provide a valuable service for current customers, it also allows them to expand their customer base and serve people with city water.

2. Iron and Manganese

Iron and manganese are two metals that often contaminate well water and cause headaches for homeowners. They are a common issue in regions such as Pennsylvania, where Powell Pump & Well is located.

Both iron and manganese present the nuisance of staining fixtures and laundry with a rust or dark brown color. They may also cause metallic-tasting water. Although the problems associated with these metals are usually considered aesthetic issues, there is growing evidence suggesting long-term exposure to high levels of manganese may present a health concern.

While manganese is an essential nutrient in the right amounts, studies indicate too much can be toxic to the nervous system and is of particular concern to young children and the elderly.

A standard water softening system can remove small amounts of iron and manganese, but they will not be effective against anything above a moderate amount or if the metals are present in a dissolved state. Dissolved iron must first be oxidized to turn it into a particle before it can be removed from the water. If a homeowner is having problems with staining, it’s likely that additional filtration is necessary in a point-of-entry (POE) system.

There are multiple ways to filter out high iron and manganese in residential water. An exceptionally effective media for well water is synthetic zeolite, which is particularly adept at removing iron and manganese while also reducing hardness.

That’s not something a homeowner can get from a softener at a big box store. They need the advice of local experts like their water well contractor.

3. Drinking Water and Emerging Contaminants

As Nathan Powell points out, there is heightened awareness around residential water quality. The 24-hour news cycle and social media help spread the word among concerned homeowners, which means contractors are regularly asked about water quality.

The Water Quality Association defines emerging contaminants as those that pose a risk to human health and the environment, but are not yet fully understood. They include things such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the water supply. These contaminants are considered potential “endocrine disruptors”—and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to get a better understanding of their impact.

There is also chloramine, which is a compound of chlorine and ammonia used to disinfect city water, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is a chemical that comes from industrial runoff.

Homeowners with private wells may have concerns about the presence of contaminants such as nitrates, bacteria, or arsenic in the groundwater. Unlike hard minerals or iron and manganese, these contaminants may not be detectable by human senses, but their presence in drinking water and possible health risks make them an area of concern.

Contractors who branch out into water treatment can provide solutions that bring peace of mind to their customers. That could come in the form of a whole-home filtration POE system, or it could be a point-of-use (POU) solution, such as an under-the-sink reverse osmosis (RO) system.

More Than Just a Job

Distaste for a desk job isn’t the only reason people like Nathan Powell see the family business as a better place to work in comparison to the corporate world. A small business that provides an important service to the community has purpose, and that’s something younger generations want out of their careers.

A 2017 Wells Fargo study on millennials found 94% of those surveyed said a fulfilling career is an important aspect of their lives. A separate study from Cone Communications in 2016 found that 88% of millennials believe their job is more fulfilling when they can make a positive social or environmental impact, and 75% would even take a pay cut for that type of job opportunity.

That’s likely why—in addition to enjoying the chance to work with his father, brothers, and other family members—Nathan is proud of how the company uses its expertise to drill wells in Ghana, providing people with fresh drinking water.

The sense of purpose and meaning, however, extends to everyday work as well. Nathan says solving problems with water treatment is more than just good for business. “It’s good for your customers,” he adds. “It’s not just an add-on. It’s essential for life.”

Expanding into water treatment can do more than improve your business model. It can also provide you and your employees job satisfaction.

Greg Gruett is vice president at Water-Right Inc., a family-owned manufacturer of water treatment products. Gruett also serves as vice president of sales for Mineral-Right, makers of Crystal-Right zeolite media.