Looking back, looking ahead

Irrigation & Lighting's columnist Chris Pine reflects on the year behind and the year ahead.

It is hard to believe that it is time for us to start getting ready for 2024. It seems like 2023 had all the makings for being a “way less than normal” type of year. But as I step back and look at it from a few different perspectives, it seemed to look a lot more “normal” than recent years. Here are a few thoughts on how that’s happened.

The economic forecasts for 2023 were erratic 12 months ago. My four years of economic study had me intrigued as with many real economists, since we’ve been largely treading in unknown territory. The potential for some drastic scenarios were believable when looking at historic economic trends and reactions.

As everything has turned out, many elements of the economy that were reacting to some of the extreme changes in the global economy the last few years (economies being shut down around the world, supply change disruptions due to change in demand, inflation resulting from huge injections of funds into economies, etc.) actually tended to slow and move back toward what is accepted as normal (at least in North America), such as inflation, unemployment levels and economic growth.

Interestingly enough, the majority of economists are now predicting more of a “soft landing” with many of their models. Most of our landscape irrigation industry businesses benefitted tremendously from the economic activity during the pandemic, so this slowdown and return to more of a “normal” business pace and growth level seems to be happening in most geographic areas.

So, what does 2024 look like and how can we in the irrigation industry prepare?

One thing that has consistently had a dramatic impact on our industry is the weather, and 2023 regularly reminded us of that. The only thing that we might be able to call “normal” with the weather of the past few years are extreme weather cycles and events. From areas with historic rains to drought to high and low temperatures, expecting and preparing for these events has become a necessary strategy for our industry.

Obviously, the presence of extreme weather impacts the ability to perform the work we do and the demand for what we do. It is also impacting the tools and technology that are changing our business. For example, the presence and function of weather sensors and those inputs into our irrigation controllers becomes more and more critical when managing irrigation systems today. Models that rely on “average” rainfall will obviously become less relevant with the extremes being so normal.

So, what does 2024 look like and how can we in the irrigation industry prepare? I believe 2024 might reflect more of what we are now accepting as “normal.” Economic models tend to align with some level of moderation. Consumer demand has flattened and hopefully interest rates will level off (or decrease!) and most models point to more consistency. Many contractors I interact with are largely seeing these trends and most are expecting the same. There do seem to be some differences in the residential and commercial markets in many areas, which are seeing more strength in commercial projects. We are also seeing consistent demand in major renovations as more and more systems begin to show their age.

Probably the most consistent, universal challenge limiting companies’ growth is the availability, cost and development of our workforce. Regardless of geographic area or market segment, this is almost always one of industry’s primary challenges when discussed with owners and management. There are no easy solutions, and more and more companies include human resources as a major function of their organizations to acquire and develop their staff for growth, 365 days a year. Another interesting development in many markets is the billing rates for irrigation technicians have regularly crossed and sailed past the $100 per hour threshold, reflecting the cost of putting qualified technicians on the road to service their clients.

Finally, my best wishes for success in 2024. Hoping many of you will be able to attend the Irrigation Show and Education Week this month in San Antonio. The opportunities that are present for education, networking, learning about all the innovation and future direction of our industry might be the best investment in getting prepared for the new year.

Christopher Pine, CLWM, CID, CIC, CLIA, CIT, MCLP, is a principal of IrriTech Training and the president of BluGreen Solutions in Pocasset, Massachusetts. He can be reached via email.

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