Exhibition Shows Hopeful Signs of Renewed Economic Activity

This has been a tough year economically for the municipal water and wastewater market and the world as a whole.

Pennwell web 90 135

This has been a tough year economically for the municipal water and wastewater market and the world as a whole. Once recent bright spot, at least for our industry, was WEFTEC '09 in Orlando. The annual conference and exhibition hosted by the Water Environment Federation was surprisingly busy and upbeat.

With just over 17,000 attendees, total attendance was down slightly from previous record-setting years. However, the exhibit hall floor was busy and the exhibitors I spoke with were generally happy with the quality and quantity of the attendees. There were several periods on the floor when I had to weave through the crowd as I moved from one appointment to the next.

A big part of my job at WEFTEC and similar shows is to talk with exhibitors about the new products they have on display. I wouldn't say this was a big year for innovation, but there were some interesting products and technologies being introduced.

Buzzwords and phrases heard on the floor included "energy efficient," "compact", "modular," "cost-effective," and "user-friendly," among others. The trend seemed to be offerings that allow utilities to do more with less -- less space, less money and fewer people.

One concept discussed more than once on the show floor involved reducing the carbon footprint of water utilities. Energy efficiency of new products or systems is one obvious way to reduce carbon footprint, but there are more subtle ways to achieve that goal, including reducing the amount of biosolids that are trucked away, optimizing chemical consumption, making appropriate decisions on the materials used in construction, and even managing your staff and how they move around the utility service area.

One example of a treatment process change involved moving to anaerobic digestion with the goal of reducing aeration costs, increasing methane production for on-site power generation and at the same time reducing the amount of biosolids produced.

While business was brisk on the show floor, it's just so much hot air until the conversations are converted into sales. And the economy was on everyone's mind.

Generally, the people I talked with agreed that, so far, the Federal stimulus program has been more of a road block than a business stimulator. Projects that were ready to go were put on hold while utilities competed for Federal funds; the Buy American provision also has slowed the approval process. Those who had actually seen stimulus-funded projects break ground were in the minority. However, most were hopeful that the barriers were starting to lift and work was about to begin.

If activity on the show floor at WEFTEC is any indication, the municipal water & wastewater industry is emerging from the economic doldrums and we can expect to see growing a list of new construction and rehab projects breaking ground over the next several months.

Pennwell web 90 135James Laughlin, Editor

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