Water Well Journal Q&A

Jeffrey A. Smith, MGWC, president of Smith Well Drilling Inc.
Industry veteran sees contractors persevering through this crisis as they have in previous times.

By Thad Plumley

The groundwater professionals who have worked at Smith Well Drilling Inc. in its 104 years of existence have seen it all in Valatie, New York.

Jeffrey A. Smith, MGWC

The firm is a fifth-generation business, beginning in 1916. This means those who came before or currently work with company president Jeffrey A. Smith, MGWC, have seen multiple recessions, wars, pandemics, and more impact the business.

Through it all, though, there has always been wells that need drilled in the eastern part of New York, and Smith Well Drilling has been there to do it.

The company currently serves the residential, commercial, municipal, and agricultural markets and provides well design, drilling, pump installation, well rehabilitation, geothermal installation, water filtration, and more.

Located not far from New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the United States, the company was fortunate to not experience too much of a slowdown in business.

“Since the state of New York considered the groundwater industry to be essential, we only saw a small decline in our drilling activity,” says Smith, a fourth-generation contractor who has served as president for 38 years. “Our rigs were parked and the employees continued to perform service and repair work, which saw an increase in activity as the majority of people were home.”

Water Well Journal was eager to catch up with Smith to discuss everything that has happened in the groundwater industry this year and where he thinks things are heading for industry professionals.

WWJ: Now that your company is several months behind working near what was the United States’ epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus, what is the biggest lasting impact that you have of the experience?

Jeffrey A. Smith: The COVID-19 crisis has taught us to be more aware and to social distance from our customers and staff. We were concerned that if one or more of our employees contracted the virus, we would have to shut down our business for 14 days to quarantine. This would not have been good economically as our diverse client base would have been forced to reach out to our competitors for their service requirements.

However, as is the case with the groundwater industry, our competitors were very busy and they, like us, don’t have enough qualified and certified help.

We are a very resilient group and will persevere through this crisis as we have in previous times. I feel that the groundwater industry is made up of many dedicated and hardworking individuals who will rise to and face these many challenges on a daily basis.

WWJ: As you noted in the Water Systems Council Town Hall, your company is 104 years old and survived countless downturns, including pandemics and recessions. Was there someone you spoke to about past times? Was it helpful to know that of your company?

Jeffrey: I actually started my own company 38 years ago. However, I spent a considerable amount of time with my grandparents and uncle who were in the industry and would listen to them intently whenever they spoke of both the good times and bad in the groundwater industry.

Smith Well Drilling Inc. is a fifth-generation business that began in 1916 and drills in the eastern part of New York. Photos courtesy Smith Well Drilling.

One thing that always stuck in my memory was that they always had a well to drill and never were without work. As I’m getting closer to retirement, I’m fortunate that I’ve always kept good records, and I can look back and realize that because of our diversification, we will meet our financial obligations and fortunately have our fair share of work in our area.

WWJ: Are there some practices that Smith Well Drilling had to put in place or things that you did due to the COVID-19 coronavirus restrictions that your company is going to keep? Are there any positives that will stick around?

Jeffrey: Our firm has always been diligent about keeping our shop and vehicles clean. We now clean twice a day. We discuss with our clients, prior to our arrival, the concerns for social distancing practices and whether they require us to have masks and/or gloves at the location.

Having to use Zoom or Google Meet certainly is a time-saver and is a great way to have a meeting with suppliers, wholesalers, etc. This is something we will continue to utilize as well as using apps such as FaceTime to speak to our factory personnel when we are in the field and have an issue with a pump, drive, or water conditioner. We also have been using bar code scanning through our phones to place orders to our suppliers that offer this function, and we will continue this as well.

WWJ: Your company works with a variety of customers—residential, municipal, and commercial. Do you think one sector will suffer more than others this year and those sales will come back slower?

Jeffrey: We saw a distinct decline in municipal and commercial work as a result of the COVID shutdown. I think these markets will return, especially if an infrastructure bill is passed by Congress.

WWJ: Smith Well Drilling offers a variety of services such as well design, well drilling, pump installation, well rehabilitation, water filtration, geothermal, and more. Has one segment remained strong for you throughout all of this?

Jeffrey: Definitely our pump service and water conditioning business was strong throughout this crisis. This is due in part to our close proximity to New York City. Many people left the city and were staying full time at their weekend homes or they rented any and all available homes to escape the epicenter in the city.

WWJ: Has this experience reinforced the importance of having a diverse portfolio of offerings to you?

Jeffrey: I recall reading the Water Well Journal in the 1970s and it emphasized the need to diversify then. Definitely it is an advantage to have a diverse portfolio of services.

However, as I previously stated, the groundwater industry is like all the other trades, whereby it is difficult to recruit competent help. We had two times the staff prior to 2008, and we find ourselves working longer and harder today than we did 12 to 15 years ago. The majority of staff in the groundwater industry is older than 50, and therefore I often wonder who is going to perform the services once these baby boomers retire.

WWJ: This issue of Water Well Journal focuses on green technology. What do you think is needed to grow the acceptance of geothermal technology?

Jeffrey: To grow and gain the acceptance of geothermal technology, the consumer and the heating/cooling industry has to realize that going green is not cheap initially. The geothermal industry is always searching out the contractor who will provide the drilling, looping, and grouting at the lowest price per foot.

However, they fail to understand or appreciate the value of a properly drilled and grouted geothermal well system. The cost of labor, fuel, materials, insurance, and drilling equipment is very expensive, and the return on investment in the geothermal market is too low for many of the contractors to invest the time and money for a fixed cost or low cost per foot when they can continue to drill water wells and receive a higher return on investment as well as have future return business from pump and water conditioning sales and repair.

Furthermore, the aging industry personnel can’t turn their backs on their water well business as it is not as cyclical as the geothermal industry. When oil/natural gas prices are low, we don’t hear or see too great a demand for geothermal. When fuel prices rise again, we will see an increase in demand for these services.

WWJ: Are there other innovations or techniques that your company has implemented in recent years that are more energy-efficient? If so, what are they and what impact have you seen?

Jeffrey: I see the use of variable frequency drives (VFDs) on pumps and motors as one of the most energy-efficient innovations in the past decade. They not only save power but also provide less wear and tear on the components due to their soft-start capabilities.

On the drilling side, we have implemented the use of polycrystalline diamond cutter (PDC) bits whenever the formation allows for their use, which has resulted in a higher penetration rate and dramatically reduced our fuel consumption.

We have not seen the use or applications for solar pumps in this geographical area. This may be due in part to our long winters and limited days of sunshine as well as close proximity to the electrical grid.

WWJ: Obviously, 2020 has been tough on nearly every business, but do you see the groundwater industry bouncing back? If so, when do you think you’ll see positive signs?

Jeffrey: Although 2020 has been tough on the groundwater industry, it actually has been tough in New York since 2008 with the collapse of the mortgage/banking crisis. Since that time in New York, the number of new water wells drilled annually has declined by approximately 60 percent and has never come back in the 12 years to the pre-2008 levels.

We do see positive signs of a rebound due in part to the many metro–New York City people looking to relocate out of the city and to the rural areas of upstate New York.

Having said that, I feel that the groundwater industry is made up of many dedicated and hardworking individuals who will rise to and face these many challenges on a daily basis. We are a very resilient group and will persevere through this crisis as we have in previous times.

The groundwater professionals, manufacturers, and suppliers have been an unrecognizable essential service which has kept the water flowing during this pandemic and will continue to provide these services in the years ahead.

Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and director of information products at the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at tplumley@ngwa.org, or (800) 551-7379, ext. 1594.