Following a year unlike any other, industry experts analyze trends & expectations for the coming year
Reimagine Our Future
No doubt 2020 was a disruptive year. However, this year showed that we must reimagine our future. Whether it was the COVID-19 pandemic, massive fires in the West, drought regions around the globe, ongoing political drama, or social unrest, 2020 showed that it is time we recalculate our vision of the future.
What affected many of us was the social unrest in response to the high-profile killing of Black people. However, social injustice also translates into water availability and quality issues. There are many regions of the world where the impoverished have little to no water or water of questionable quality. In some places, women must walk great distances to gather water. We do not need to look far. The Navajo Nation is a case in point. About 30% or 54,000 of the Navajo population do not have running water. Navajo people are forced to drive miles to collect barrels of water to truck home for their use.
There is now a project underway to help end this crisis, but it is long overdue. This inequity in water quality is not unique to Native Americans. The predominantly Black residents of Flint, Michigan; University Park, Illinois; and other similar communities have experienced water quality issues due to aging infrastructure and poor water quality management for many years.
Unfortunately, these social issues are not confined to any one country or industry. Nations and businesses must do more to reach into communities to foster change and create education and job opportunities. We are fortunate that our industry and the Water Quality Association (WQA) is taking the lead in tackling social injustice. WQA initiated the Women in Industry (WIN) program in spring 2019. This program, of which I am a founding member, combines one-on-one mentoring from industry leaders, group learning, and networking opportunities for women. The first year of the WIN initiative we had seven mentees. In 2020, that number has grown to 20. WQA is furthering these efforts in 2021 with a program addressing diversity, equity and inclusion.
As we move into 2021 and beyond, we need to take our heads out of the sand. We must recognize these injustices and collectively as an industry create opportunities for all people. Our meeting rooms should be representative of all peoples. If our staffs are not representative of all people, then how can we expect to understand our customers or grow our businesses? Change begins with each one of us — individually and together.
Focus on Water Quality
2020 has certainly been a unique year with unprecedented challenges, and it has turned out not at all the way many of us thought it would in November or early December of 2019. COVID-19 has of course disrupted the entire world for most of 2020, forcing almost everyone to regroup, rethink, adjust, pivot and adapt. I have been amazed at how the water industry has done this, moving so many events, activities and functions to a virtual format, and taking other major steps to promote safety when conducting necessary in-person activities.
As we move to the end of 2020, the good news is that the vaccine is coming. Vaccinations will not happen overnight, but as we move through 2021, life will return more toward the pre-pandemic normal that we now realize how much we miss. Of course, it will not be just like old times. There will be certain changes that will become permanent. Some of these changes will be accelerations of trends that were previously happening, albeit at a slower pace.
Although some of the virtual events for the water industry have been quite well adapted and beneficial, not all of them have worked as smoothly or created as much value as we had hoped. I believe that a return to in-person events will occur as soon as it is safe to do so. We have done quite a bit virtually, but most colleagues I have spoken with agree that face-to-face interaction is invaluable, and they wish to return to it.
It may take longer for international participation in in-person events to become widely possible and/or practical. This may be a trend that will not fully develop until 2022. However, for sure this also will happen because of the value of face-to-face interaction and the ability to visit people at their headquarters, their factories and their sales offices internationally.
As we overcome the pandemic, water issues and concerns will resume a position of prominence for governments and for citizens alike. The pandemic has not helped solve any water issues, and in fact some of them may have become exacerbated due to so much focus being diverted. I have actually been surprised at the amount of focus that we have been able to maintain on water quality during the pandemic. This increases my confidence that water quality will be a key issue for society in our (hopefully arriving soon) post-pandemic world.
Lead & PFAS
The past year has been especially challenging for everyone with the emergence of the COVID-19 virus. While the virus is blamed for various business being shut down to slow the spread, the water treatment business remains an essential business to all, and in many cases, has been able to grow during these challenging times. That being said, I believe we are all looking forward to a new year with hopes of a vaccine allowing us to get back to more normal times. Trade shows, conferences and other in-person training events are sorely missed and will start to occur in 2021, when it is safe to do so.
Heading into 2021, the two prevalent topics in water quality, continue to be lead and PFAS. Lead in drinking water has always been a concern, but was brought into the spotlight when Flint, Michigan, showed extremely high levels of lead were being found due to a new source of water that was highly corrosive. Furthermore, it became a concern across the country with changes being presented in the Lead & Copper Rule. Additionally, there were more concerns with school drinking water supplies and potential lead levels. Several states require testing and remediation of schools that were found to have elevated lead levels, so this continues to be a focus for water quality.
While PFAS is a group of chemicals that are often referred to as emerging contaminants, they are not new. The legacy PFAS chemical, such as PFOA and PFOS, have been around since the 1940s and are quite persistent in our environment, specifically our water. Subsequently, this group of contaminants will continue to be the focus of numerous water cleanup initiatives as more testing reveals just how widespread contamination is.
While the U.S. EPA is looking for more information before establishing any regulations for these contaminants, states are taking it upon themselves to regulate and clean up these contaminants to protect their citizens. While there are various health effects associated with PFAS, one is particularly concerning at this point and that is that PFAS exposure can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines. This was studied on typical childhood vaccines; however, the implications with the potential COVID-19 vaccines remains a concern. Additionally, a recent Danish study also indicated that those with higher levels of PFAS in their blood were more likely to experience more severe symptoms when contracting the COVID-19 virus.
The water treatment industry will continue to grow as consumers become more aware of contaminants and potential contaminants in their drinking water. Many professionals are experiencing significant growth this year in their businesses. This growth has likely come from those working from home and using their water more, perhaps noticing more taste, odor or discoloration problems that are associated with the water. Looking to next year, as more people get back to work and the economy gets back on-track, the water treatment industry will enjoy continued growth as water is essential to life.
For every industry, including water, 2020 was a uniquely disruptive year. While the effects of COVID-19 will still be felt in 2021, they will begin to settle and reveal how our industry will look in a post-pandemic world.
As WQP reported in December 2020, more than 52% of our industry saw a negative impact to sales due to COVID-19, while the three leading positive impacts included Internet, Company Website, and New Product/Service Launches. These positive impacts are especially noteworthy when considering an area that Crystal IS has focused its attention on: the post-pandemic scenario in offices and the growth of a remote workforce.
This year, Gartner found that 74% of companies plan to shift at least some of their employees to remote work permanently. Global Workplace Analytics predicts that 25% to 30% of the workforce will still be remote or partially remote by the end of 2021, up from 3.4% pre-pandemic. The significant shift towards working remotely threatens to reduce the market for office water delivery and installs, while increasing the amount of water usage and importance of water quality in residential homes.
Residential accounts may offer lower revenue and more service visits than commercial accounts, yet there are a number of issues that make consumers more discerning and committed shoppers. For example, when it comes to groundwater issues, EWG found that roughly 60% of Americans may be exposed to PFAS in their drinking water. In addition, a national survey conducted by Vital Vio found 83% of Americans more inclined to buy disinfection products.
Distributors who can cater to these demands by offering products that reduce the costs and frequency of service visits may have a leg up in this new era. In a post-pandemic world built around social distancing measures, serving customers through cost-effective digital interactions and products that enable fewer service visits will be key areas for our industry to grow upon.
Great Things to Come
How different things are now than just one short year ago, when I was writing my water treatment industry outlook for 2020. No one could have anticipated the pandemic and the business upheaval of the past year, of course, but looking back at how we weathered it should give us confidence in our ability to navigate whatever 2021 has in store.
We started 2020 with a revised Water Quality Association (WQA) Code of Ethics and a commitment to help our members understand ways they could discuss legitimate water quality concerns without wading into the murky waters of scare tactics.
“When people use scare tactics to sell services or products, it puts our industry’s reputation at stake,” I wrote. “We want our members to be reputable ambassadors for our industry.”
In the early days of COVID-19, when non-essential businesses had to close, WQA advocated for and confirmed water treatment as an essential service state-by-state, as well as at the national and international levels. Armed with the scientific knowledge that the coronavirus was not spread through drinking water and following WQA’s recommendation against door-to-door sales while fears were running high, WQA members developed new business practices to navigate customers’ health and safety concerns and proved to be reputable ambassadors of an essential industry.
We are eager to see if the public agrees with that assessment. WQA is conducting its next Consumer Opinion Study early in 2021, which will give us an idea of how the public views our industry. Look for results later in the year.
The new year brings a new administration in Washington. The WQA global government affairs team will be monitoring what regulatory and policy changes emerge that may affect our members. What will the new direction be toward water and the environment? Will point-of-use and point-of-entry products be included in any infrastructure bill that emerges? We will be keeping an eye on new policies and funding that will help the business community continue to recover from the pandemic.
We are hoping to return to an in-person WQA Convention & Exposition in 2021. We have delayed the event three months to buy a little time to improve the opportunity of hosting a real, in-person gathering. “IMAGINE” is the theme for the July 28 to 30, 2021, event in Las Vegas. Originally, we thought we would be imagining the possibilities for your water treatment business, or imagining a world with quality drinking water, but right now I, for one, am just imagining how good it will be to see each other in real life instead of on our screens.
Another exciting development in 2021 is WQA’s move to a new international headquarters and laboratory. It is only about a mile from our former facility in Lisle, Illinois, but the space is bigger and well-planned to handle future growth. It is outfitted with technology that allows greater capacity for product certification, testing, education and membership services. Join us for our 2021 Mid-Year Leadership Conference in nearby Oak Brook, Illinois, in September and we will show you around.
While our lab has remained open during the pandemic and the moving process, the majority of WQA’s employees have been working remotely since mid-March and are eager to get back to in-person teamwork. Like all of you, we have been tested personally and professionally in 2020 and now enter 2021 stronger and more confident in our ability to imagine great things for our industry.