For replacement contractors, the ongoing California drought and the ensuing mandatory water restrictions either means that business has dried up or flooded back in—depending on what you do. And as California goes, so go the other Western drought-ravaged states.
Thanks in part to new residential rebates and looming penalties, California landscape contractors are seeing the biggest uptick in business, followed by plumbers. Roofers and gutter installers, meanwhile, have seen their calls wither away. “A drought is kind of a drought in business,” said Mark Graham, associate executive director of technical services for the National Roofing Contractors Association. “For most building owners, if it’s not raining, you’re not having leaks, and you’re not thinking about your roof.”
The same holds true for gutter installers, said Bill Michalek, owner of San Diego Rain Gutters. “Our business is off 30% from six years ago, although the drought is not totally to blame.” Michalek wrote in response to a question on LinkedIn. “…We went from six to seven crews to two to four… It’s been brutal.”
In contrast, landscape designers are seeing a marked increase in business for two main reasons: first from the improving economy, and second from customers looking to replace water-hogging landscapes, said Sandra Giarde, California Landscape Contractors Association executive director. “For our members, it’s really added to their book of business,” Giarde said. For example, Go Green Gardeners in Van Nuys, Calif., said business increased 300% after Gov. Jerry Brown announced mandatory water restrictions, according to an NBC4 Los Angeles report.
But it’s not just a newfound sense of responsibility that’s whetting the public’s appetite for landscaping jobs. Many cities have also instituted turf removal rebate programs. Los Angeles, for example, offers $3.75 per square foot of turf removed. At the same time, entities are changing how they charge for water. “That’s going to hit people in their pocket books,” Giarde said. Along with changing out landscaping, she said many customers are upgrading their irrigation systems to more modern, water-sipping installations.
And this stream of new business will likely grow even more if the state’s fractured rebate system gets repaired, Giarde said. Currently two separate bills are winding their way through the legislature, which would either provide $2 per square foot in state rebates for turf removal, or a tax rebate of up to $2,500.
Legislation is already seeding new business for plumbers, said Mike Barker, President of Barker & Sons Plumbing. He pointed to California SB 407, which requires all single-family residential properties to have water-conserving plumbing fixtures by 2017. “We’re starting to see more toilets being changed out,” Barker said.
But those change outs have led to another surprising source of new business: stoppage due to low-flow toilets. Barker explained that residential drainage was designed for higher flow rates, and there’s often not enough water to get the waste out properly, especially for toilets that don't’ get used a lot. “From that perspective, it’s a plumber’s dream and a homeowner’s nightmare,” said Barker, who’s also the president of the California Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association.
Along with low-flow plumbing, Barker said that plumbers are starting to do more gray water system installations, which capture water normally drained from showers and washers for irrigation.
So far, Barker hasn’t seen as much new business as he expected. But he’s confident it’s coming. “Before, we were suggesting changes and people weren’t responding. Now they’re asking for them. That’s been the change,” he said. “As they see their water bill penalties soar, the green will affect the green.”
But just as the drought is forcing change for customers, it’s also going to affect contractors, warns Javier Lesaca, owner of Lesaca Landscape Company. For instance, he said drought-tolerant landscaping doesn’t need the same kind of care as traditional turf, which is a core part of most landscaper’s business. “So maybe we won’t be there mowing grass every week. Maybe we’ll be hand pruning plants and fluffing mulch and fine tuning irrigation systems,” he said. “There are changes to come. And if you’re willing to accept the change, there’s opportunity.”