Beyond Toilets: Other Sanitation Opportunities Available to PROs

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Beyond Toilets Other Sanitation Opportunities Available to PROs

As a portable sanitation business owner and operator, your in-depth knowledge and experience in pumping and hauling waste from portable toilets can lead to other opportunities in the sanitation industry. Have you considered expanding your service offerings to include other elements of sanitation such as holding tanks, RVs, cesspools, grease traps and septic systems?

This market strategy can benefit your business in three key ways:

  • Increasing revenue
  • Broadening your customer base
  • Providing more year-round work

You may receive calls asking if you clean out waste from receptacles and systems other than portable toilets. This could be a sign that opportunity is knocking! We’ve put together some basic background information that may help you decide if you are interested in saying “yes” to this potentially profitable work.

If so, dig deeper. Research each thoroughly. Talk to other PROs who already offer these services. Find a mentor – someone who has business experience in these other categories of sanitation.

Holding Tanks

Holding tanks are an excellent entry point to expanding your offerings. They require regular pumping and are easy to service. Holding tanks are a common rental offering from portable sanitation businesses, so they may be part of your operations already.

Holding tanks are closed (watertight) temporary storage units, usually made of heavy-duty, durable plastic. They are connected to portable toilets, sinks and showers to hold blackwater or greywater. They can be daisy-chained together to increase capacity. Holding tanks are often rented for use at long-term construction, industrial, agricultural and disaster sites, as well as marinas and even homes, so there are plenty of opportunities out there to gain extra business.

Holding tanks manufactured by portable sanitation companies usually offer accessibility through multiple 3-inch cleanout ports. It’s a pretty simple operation – connect the hose and pump. When you’re sucking air, you’re done!

Prices may be determined by the capacity of the tanks and how often they need to be serviced. Keep in mind that they are often used at remote locations, so transport and mileage may play a part in your pricing strategy. Like portable toilets, tanks must be accessible. Your customer should clear all equipment, vehicles and materials that could block your way. If you have to wait to pump due to inaccessibility, consider charging an additional standby fee. Tanks on executive washroom trailers and RVs are priced differently.

We are highlighting holding tanks used only for portable sanitation. There are underground storage tanks (USTs) and above-ground tanks that are used to store many other liquids, especially fuel, oils (petroleum products) and hazardous substances. Servicing these, as well as maintenance and repair, is an operation that is not really compatible with portable sanitation.

Recreational Vehicles

RVs have excellent potential as a secondary market for your business. Servicing is quick and easy.

There are two tanks that require cleanouts. The gray water tank stores water from sinks and showers. The black water tanks store the sewage from the toilet. Depending on the class size of the RV, the gray water tanks hold from about 8 to more than 90 gallons. The black water tanks are usually a bit smaller than the gray tanks, holding from about 10 to more than 80 gallons.

The RV’s driving motion breaks down the waste solids so the contents become liquid, which is then evacuated through the discharge valve. The tank is vented to help prevent implosions when hooked up to a vacuum source.

You may want to contact private RV campgrounds, especially more “primitive” sites without dump stations, to gauge interest in having regular service visits. While many RV owners dump their own waste, others don’t want to mess with it. Also, many RV renters may appreciate having a cleanout service.

RVs are also often used at construction and other worksites, so on-site servicing may be a more economical alternative to driving it to a dumping facility every week. You’ll want to get the word out to your construction and industrial clients.

Standard RV sewer hoses are 3 inches in diameter. Toilet wands specifically designed for RVs that are used to clear clogs in the waste pipe are available. When servicing, you may want to use a holding tank containment tray to catch drips and spills, and keep some buckets and towels on hand just in case.


Cesspools, also called cesspits, are a relic of outdated sanitation methods. Compared to today’s sanitation technology, cesspools are substandard systems, because while they are designed to capture sanitary waste, they do not treat waste. Nevertheless, many continue to be used, and so you may receive requests to service them. (According to a recent article, Hawaii has the highest rate of cesspool use in the U.S. with about 88,000.)

According to the EPA, a cesspool is a shallow, underground system for disposing of sanitary waste. Most consist of a concrete cylinder with an open bottom and/or perforated sides. Sanitary waste from toilets, sinks, and washing machines enters the cesspool and percolates out. Some will say a cesspool is nothing more than a hole in the ground.

Non-residential, multiple dwelling, community or regional cesspools are considered large-capacity cesspools. You will not receive job requests to pump these because the EPA banned the construction of new large-capacity cesspools in 2000 and required the closure of all existing large-capacity cesspools by 2005.

A cesspool connected to a single-family residence that doesn’t serve other structures and receives only residential sanitary waste is considered a small-capacity cesspool. These are the ones you may be contracted to pump out.

They are not federally regulated. However, small-capacity cesspools may be regulated by state and local government agencies such as departments of health. Many communities and localities allow them (through “grandfather” clauses) to continue operations until they no longer function. Then, they must be disconnected and replaced by modern septic systems.

The major problem with cesspools is that over time, greases, oils, soap scum and small solid particles build up on the walls. These layers of buildup prevent the water from filtering through the walls at the normal rate. As a result, the cesspool starts to fill up with water. When the cesspool fills up with water, it must be pumped out to avoid backups into the house.

Without corrective action, the buildup will continue. In extreme cases, the walls don’t allow water to pass through at all. The cesspool has essentially become a holding tank, requiring frequent pumping.

Cesspool Servicing Suggestions

  • Verify that it is a cesspool, not a septic system – If the property owner seems uncertain, you can ask them to check. Most counties keep records of septic installation.
  • Verify that the cesspool contains only residential sanitary waste – You can’t dump the waste if it contains oil, solvents, etc.
  • Verify that the cesspool is located on level ground – You can’t drop your hose over the side of a hill and get vacuum back up to the truck.
  • Verify that the riser cap or cesspool opening is exposed – Unless you plan to offer excavation services, you won’t have the equipment or time to dig out the access to the cesspool.
  • Inform the customer that you can pump only to a depth of 25 feet – Attempting to vacuum for depth beyond 25 feet will burn up the pump on the
  • Make sure you can reach the site – The location of the cesspool could be a problem, especially at remote rural sites.

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Grease Control Devices (GCDs)

Servicing grease control devices (GCDs), also known as grease traps or grease interceptors, is a big step-up in complexity and responsibilities compared to holding tanks and RVs.

Restaurants, commercial kitchens and other food service establishments (FSEs) use GCDs to capture FOG (fats, oils and grease) that are produced during food preparation, cooking and cleaning. A GCD is typically a passive (gravity-fed) plumbing device installed in a sanitary drainage system used to collect, contain and remove food waste, including FOG. GCDs are usually located underground and outside the FSE. Common sizes run from 300 to 3,000 gallons but can be larger.

GCD servicing offers advantages that can make your business expansion into this area worthwhile:

  • There are a lot of GDCs out there. You’ll find them at restaurants and cafes, as well as any facility that has a commercial kitchen, including hospitals, schools, hotels, prisons, food processing facilities, grocery stores, bakeries, catering facilities, commissaries, cafeterias, convenience stores, churches, nursing homes and clubs or organizations.
  • GCD pumping is year-round work. A typical cleaning schedule is every 90 days or when 25% full of FOG. However, seasonal slowdowns, such as at restaurants, can affect the schedule.
  • Cleaning is often required by law. Many ordinances state that if GDCs cause sanitary sewer overflows because they aren’t cleaned, the establishments are in violation of the law and are liable to civic penalties.
  • Servicing must be performed (usually) by a certified grease hauler. Besides, most FSEs don’t want to touch the stuff!

Yellow Revenue

Another surprising opportunity of GCD servicing is the potential to create an additional revenue stream by selling grease!

In addition to the FOG that ends up in the grease traps, there is also a waste product known in the industry as yellow grease, also called used cooking oil (UCO), used vegetable oil (UVO), recycled vegetable oil and waste vegetable oil (WVO). It’s the grease and oils from deep fryers, grills and griddles that have not been contaminated by FOG. Yellow grease has value; it can be recycled into products such as biofuels.

A hauler will often make a deal with the customer to provide separate storage containers for yellow grease, then either pay the customer for the grease or discount the cleanout service. The hauler can then sell the grease on the grease market.

In fact, new separation technologies are being developed to convert brown grease (a recycling term for FOG) into biofuel. Should you enter this service market, keep your eye on these FOG-to-fuel processes as another potential revenue source in the future.

Business and Legal Considerations

GCD servicing makes sense as an additional revenue source because you use almost all of the same equipment as portable sanitation (vacuum trucks and water jetters).

The basics of servicing the GCD are to pump out the entire contents, scrape or pressure wash the interior, and inspect it for holes, leaks, and the condition of baffles and lids. With more experience, you can take on maintenance, repair and installation.

Haulers are also responsible for providing the customer with a pumping manifest upon completion of the job and maintaining records. The National Restaurant Association notes that typical minimum information requirements include:

  • Name of hauling company
  • Name and signature of operator performing the pump-out
  • Documentation of full pump-out with volume of water and FOG removed
  • Documentation of the level of floating FOG and settled solids
  • Documentation if repairs are required
  • Identification of the disposal facility

Before you take your first job, you should check on disposal. Does your waste disposal facility accept FOG? If not, where is the nearest facility that does? What are the dumping fees?

Some PROs who have built up their business invest in a truck dedicated just for grease collection. You might consider one in the 800-1,000-gallon capacity range. Extra hose may be a necessity to reach smaller grease traps located in kitchens.

You will also have to familiarize yourself with state and municipal codes and laws. Most of the time, you will have to be certified to haul grease, which may mean receiving training or taking a certification class and obtaining a permit. You may have to submit a surety bond and provide Proof of Insurance/Liability coverage for your truck. Contact your state and local water authorities for information.

Septic Tanks

According to the EPA, more than one in five households in the United States use a septic system. The opportunity is there to expand into the septic market, especially if your service area includes a lot of rural territory, where it’s usually not cost-effective to have sewer systems.

You must balance the exciting potential of this new market with the investment you’ll have to put into it. The septic industry is a complex, carefully regulated industry. You can handle it, but you’ll have to gain a full understanding of the process and become familiar with all the finer points – not just cleaning, but inspection, and eventually maintenance, repair and even installation, as well as permits, applications, codes, regulations, and being able to give good advice to your customers. It will take time to reach a level of professionalism that the top providers have.

Entering the septic system servicing market also means a financial investment. There will be permit and application fees, insurance, and investment in equipment, especially as your septic business grows.

Before jumping into the market, research the local septic businesses currently in your location. See how saturated your service area is. Check pricing. Check review sites to see if local septic businesses are providing the level of quality service you expect to give.

As with GCDs, check the availability and costs of disposal sites for septic waste in your area. (As they say, once it’s in your truck, you own it. So, make sure you have a place to put it!)

Contact your municipal, county and/or state governments for the critical information you need to proceed.  As a portable sanitation operator, you can’t just start cleaning and hauling septic waste. Without the proper authorizations, you could be in violation of the law.

Septic System Principles

According to the National Environmental Services Center, a septic system is a self-contained, underground wastewater treatment system. It has two main parts, a septic tank and a drainfield, also known as a leachfield. The tank is a watertight box, usually made of concrete or fiberglass, with an inlet and outlet pipe. The drainfield is a buried series of trenches or a bed lined with gravel or sand.

The tank will also have inlet and outlet baffles and a filter on the outlet tee that helps remove solids from the wastewater. A distribution box (D-box) lies between the tank and the drainfield. It helps distribute the wastewater evenly in the drainfield.

In the septic process, wastewater from the home flows into the septic tank, where it forms three layers:

  1. Solids lighter than water (such as greases and oils) that float to the top as scum
  2. Solids heavier than water that settle at the bottom as sludge
  3. A middle layer of partially clarified wastewater.

The solids stay in the tank until it’s pumped out. Meanwhile, the water flows from the tank to the drainfield through a series of perforated pipes or drain tiles. The water trickles into the gravel and through the soil, naturally removing harmful bacteria, viruses and nutrients.

Servicing the Septic System

The first crucial step is to locate the tank. Fortunately, many septic tanks have risers from the manholes that are easy to access. Older, unserviced tanks may be buried. Tank location can be a service you provide if the customer doesn’t know where it is. Many counties keep records of the exact locations of septic tanks. You can also follow the outlet pipe from the house. There are even electronic transmitters that can be flushed down the toilet to locate the tank.

A buried tank manhole must be dug out. It can be four feet underground. Excavation can be part of your service, but keep in mind that it’s not uncommon to dig in the winter when the ground is frozen. You can offer to install risers on tanks to bring the lids up to grade.

Most modern tanks have two compartments that must be pumped out. They are accessed via the manholes (not from inspection ports). Older tanks may have heavy cement lids that require a prybar to loosen and move. Newer lids (easily purchased online) are plastic. When pumping out the tank, it’s helpful to have a muck rake to loosen the solids.

Once the tank is pumped, it should be rinsed. The filter should be cleaned and the condition of the lid and baffles checked. The tank should be inspected for damage or root infestation. Roots are perhaps the most destructive problem of septic systems.

With experience, you will be able to offer guidance to the customer on the condition of the septic system and any maintenance and repairs it needs.

Equipment Considerations

The big difference between septic tanks and portable toilets is size. The average capacity of residential septic tanks is 750 to 1,500 gallons.

Some PROs who get into the business opt to have a truck dedicated solely to hauling septic waste. One septic business owner recommends a truck with a 2,000-gallon tank, or even better, 3,600 to 4,000 gallons. “The larger the better,” he told us. “Remember, disposal is downtime.”

While portable sanitation units are serviced with 2-inch diameter hoses, septics are serviced with 3- or 4-inch diameter hoses. Every inch is three times faster on the job. Multiple lines of hose are often necessary, especially in rural areas where the tank may be hard to reach. (Never drive your truck onto or across the drainfield to access a tank.)

With larger tanks and wider diameter hoses, you’ll also want to look into purchasing a stronger, high-capacity pump.

Should you make a total commitment to full-service septic service, you will build up an inventory of septic products and service equipment, such as:

  • Septic locators: Soil probes, metal detectors, the flushable locator mentioned above
  • Septic inspection tools: Poles, Sludge Judge®, video inspection equipment
  • Septic tank cleaning tools: Water jet, muck rake, tank scraper
  • Septic maintenance products: Alarms, tank lids, risers
  • Excavation equipment: Heavy-duty machinery for tank and drainfield installation
  • Septic business software: Business management, GPS tracking, routing optimization, operations

Disclaimer: Content provided by JohnTalk is intended solely for general information purposes. JohnTalk does not claim to offer legal, tax, investment or accounting advice. We do not accept liability for direct or indirect losses resulting from the use of information provided. For specific advice about starting or investing in a business, consult with a qualified and licensed professional.

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