Hello and welcome to get Flushed, the world’s favourite sanitation podcast. My name’s Pete and this show is brought to you with the support of Sanitrax International.
Last week, I shared the audio from the efficiency webinar I did with John Gadeken from ServiceCore. That content was very much intended for established restroom operators looking to protect their margins against the backdrop of rising inflation.
This week, I want to shift focus and talk about how to become a restroom operator. I decided to produce this episode after I received an email from Toliver Washington who’s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Toliver is looking to become a restroom operator, and by that he means becoming the owner of a restroom business rather than becoming a driver or manager for another provider.
Tolliver sent me a list of questions that I’m going to use as the basis for this episode. I’ll work through them and then sum up with a few more thoughts of my own at the end.
1. How many potties did you start with?
There’s no right or wrong answer to this one and a lot depends on what you’re hopng to achieve, If the restroom operation is a side venture to 'test the water', you can start with 10 or 20 units. If you’re hoping it will be your main source of income from Day One, you’ll need a lot more than that.
Rather than focus on the number of potties, work out how you can afford to spend up front, many hours you want to commit each week and how much revenue you need to generate to cover your costs, give you an income, pay back any loans and hopefully generate enough profit to let you expand and grow the business.
As a rule of thumb, one guy in one truck can cope with up to 300 units, but that would be a tough week if they all go out and new entrants with little or no previous experience might struggle to keep on top of them all. In that scenario, I’d suggest you start at a level you can manage, set up a really good regime and work on building a solid reputation for reliability and consistency. That way, you’ll have a great foundation when you’re ready to grow the business.
2. How much does it cost to start up and did you secure any local or federal grants for the business?
I’ll answer this by saying that much depends on the way you decide to get into business. And for me, there are three main pathways into the portable sanitation industry:
1. Start from scratch
2. Buy an existing business
3. Add restrooms to an established business that already provides complimentary services like fencing, dumpsters, plant hire or marquees
Obviously, the size of your investment really depends on the pathway you choose and the size of the operation you launch or acquire. At the top end, United Site Services was valued for sale last year at a cool $4 billion dollars. At the other end, Curtis Ingalls at CrapperKing will be able to help you find a dozen or so second-hand restrooms for a few hundred dollars apiece., I’d work on a minimum of $:
Sanitation is a legitimate business so I'm sure there will be some form of start-up support, especially post-covid. Lots of central and local governments fund enterprise agencies that offer a range of support from advice to funding and even incubator premises to help businesses get off the ground. Talk to the small business advisor at your bank and join the Portable Sanitation Association, which has a tremendous library of support materials and a fantastic network of experienced operators and suppliers.
3. Do I need to purchase my own "Septic / Pumper Truck" or can I subcontract this with a waste removal company?
I’ll say here that it's certainly possible to sub-hire another company to clean your units. A lot of people that run luxury restroom trailers do that because they can't justify the expense of buying their own vacuum truck from the get go.
However, there are several issues to consider.
• the first is that other companies are likely to be very busy in the current market and may not have the capacity to take on extra work.
• If they can fit you in, they may not actually want to. There’s a good chance they’ll see you as a threat. In my experience, most people in the industry are willing to chat, share ideas and give you information. But actually giving a new entrant competitor a leg up may just be a bit much to ask.
• If you can find another PRO to help you out, bear in mind that they are unlikely to prioritise your units ahead of their own. Common sense says they'll try to fit you in when it best suits them. That could become a real challenge if you have any cleans that are time critical where the truck must be on site at a specific time.
• you'll have to cover the cost of their service. That will be less painful if you can negotiate a cheaper rate with them. But in the current market, demand is very high and nobody needs to cut prices.
• it could be hard to get subcontractors to clean your units to the standard you require. I've seen this happen. They cut corners because it's not their customer. That can soon upset your client and ruin your reputation
• I’m not saying it can’t or won’t work, but you really need to agree a contract that works for both parties.
4. Where would I get rid of the human waste once the portable potty is cleaned ?
The simple answer is that portable toilet waste usually gets discharged to the sewer or at the local waste water treatment plant. Expect to pay a charge for this. Rates will vary., but simple dump fees are often based on volume, measured in cubic metres or gallons – or weight, measured in tons.
Some waste water plants use a multiplier based on Total Suspended Solids (TSS) and Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD). These charges can soon add up because porta potty waste tends to be very concentrated with a lower water content than regular household sewage flushed through the pipes.
If you can get a permit to dump directly to sewer in your yard, but that’s becoming more of a challenge and usually means you have to apply for various building permits, resource consent, trade waste consents. Here in my home town, there are 20 operators. Only one has permission to dump through a discharge point in their yard.
I will add here that waste disposal is becoming more and more of an issue for PROs, so much that the PSAI is holding a round table discussion on this topic for members December 16th.
5. Is it possible to secure any government / federal contracts ?
As an operator, I've done lots of police/emergency calls (after hours, time critical, good payers), lots of disaster response (NZ has a lot of earthquakes) and lots of local council contracts and community events. Those were often quite demanding contracts, especially where they were awarded by competitive tender, where price is always a factor in the decision.
If you get involved in long term public deployments on the street or in parks and reserves, bear in mind that the cabins tend to get vandalised. If you do win those jobs, make sure you set out your liability for damage really clearly in your contract.
6 . Where do you store your equipment ?
A secure yard is important. Fenced and with locking gates, a secure shed or container for supplies and CCTV cameras if possible. As I said at the start, restrooms are in high demand at the moment and it’s not unusual for equipment to get stolen.
A lot of pumpers buy rural properties with plenty of space and work from home (some good cost savings to be offset there).
Whether you buy, rent or lease, look for a place with enough room for you to expand. Concrete areas are better and easier to work on than gravel. A mains sewer connection is incredibly helpful, but you may need to apply for permits/consent to set up a wash-down area or discharge to sewer. Too many local conditions to give a definitive answer here.
7 Would buying bigger sized restrooms help separate you from the competition?
Most restrooms are a standard size, but some manufacturers do produce units with a larger cabin. The Polyjohn Fleet is a good example and has 24% more interior space than a standard portable restroom cabin. In theory, that should be more appealing to clients, but not every customer will appreciate the difference. Using bigger units will also affect your transport plan because each one will take up more room on the truck or trailer. That won’t be too noticeable on a one-off pickup or delivery, but you’ll notice it when deploy lots of units at an event if you can only carry 12 jumbos compared to 18 regulars.
For me, a better way to differentiate is to look at flushing toilets instead of open tanks. Flushers give a much better user experience, but do require more work. Fresh water flushers mean you have to carry more water and will collect more waste (because you add more water every time the restroom is used).
Recirculating flushers use recycled waste water to flush. You add more blue to those, but blue turns green after a week or so, which means the units need to be cleaned at least weekly. You also need to flush the pump lines with clean water, which a lot of PROs fail to do. If you don't do that, the old waste contaminates the new blue straight away.
Another way to stand out is to add a handbasin in the restroom cabin, but again, that creates other challenges that need to be managed, not least carrying enough fresh water to refill every unit.
8. How should I market the company and should I used Social media , posters or target specific customers?hat hasn't been updated since:
When I started Get Flushed, I described the market segments or type of customers that use portable restroom services.
• Home Building and construction -
• Civil Projects like roading and infrastructure builds and repairs
• Events – these can be any scale from one cabin for an evening at a family party to hundreds of restrooms at multi day festivals and events
• Agriculture and Forestry
• Civil Defence and Emergency Response
There will be more, but these are the most typical. A good approach is to identify the sector you want to supply and target those customers directly. If you want to supply house builders, visit their offices and show homes. If it's civil construction, swing by the project office and ask who makes the decisions. It’s all about relationships. Find the right people, gain their trust and let them know what you can supply.
One word of warning though. Don't try to win business by offering ridiculously low prices. Lots of PROs do that, but it's a naïve tactic and in the end, nobody wins. Not the customer, not the restroom users and not you. A better approach is to set fair rates that cover your costs and give you a margin, back that up with great service and a Can DO attitude.
9 Do I require any particular type of insurance as a PRO?
I’d say the usual types of business insurance - public liability, income protection, asset protection. The PSAI is a great source of information for this, but you’ll see lots of advertisers in trade magazines like PRO Monthly.
Portable Toilet Waste is an infectious substance, so you need to take precautions to make sure you and your staff don’t get sick. That means having the proper PPE and getting immunised against hepatitis, tetanus and other infectious diseases commonly associated with human waste. You can hear more about this in Season 1, episode 3, which I called Lifting the Lid.
As I’ve said many times, restrooms are in high demand, the industry is an attractive proposition and there are few barriers to entry. That doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing. PROs work long hours, they work in all weathers and they deal with waste that most other people don’t even want to talk about. But as I’ve learnt from my guests over the past two years, it’s a great industry filled with great people providing excellent service to their clients.
Ok, that’s all for this week. There are two more episodes left before the Christmas break. Please visit podinbox.com/getflushed and leave a message if you’d like to ask me a question or give a shout out to your team. And drop me a line if you’d like to appear on the show, sponsor an episode or advertise on Get Flushed next season. There’s a link in the notes, but my email is [email protected]
Once again, thank you for your time. I’ve been Pete and you’ve been listening to Get Flushed, the world’s favourite sanitation podcast, brought to you with the support of Sanitrax International, the world’s leading provider of modular, fresh water flushing vacuum restroom systems.