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Waste Not

The portable-toilet biz isn't just shit work


Published July 20, 2005 at 10:16 p.m.

It's a hot summer afternoon and you're grooving to some outdoor music. Only one thing threatens to interrupt your plein-air pleasure: the increasing urge to pee. You tear yourself away from the tunes in search of relief, through mosquito-infested woods and past poison-ivy patches to a spot that no one else has yet discovered -- you hope.

Fortunately, Vermont's concertgoers, construction workers and back-yard socializers have a more appealing option for outdoor elimination: portable toilets. Sure, they're hot, stinky and -- after two days at say, a Phish show, downright scary -- but it sure beats the organic alternative, particularly if what you're there to do is "number two."

Brothers Derek and Darin Pratt got into the "waste management" business in 1978, when they bought a pump truck while living on a dairy farm. Five or so years later, they bought their first pair of portable toilets. Now they co-own P&P Septic -- the largest purveyor of Port-O-Lets in northwestern Vermont, with 900 units available. On Shunpike Road in Williston, the fraternal entrepreneurs are growing their "business" from ours.

SEVEN DAYS: Say you have a portable toilet that needs cleaning. What exactly do you do with it?

DEREK PRATT: We have multiple service trucks, and they have compartmentalized tanks: a vacuum tank and a water tank. The operator will go into the toilet and vacuum up the contents in the holding tank. A tank is about a 60-gallon capacity. There's pressurized water in the truck, so they bring the water hose out, hose it down, take a brush and a bucket with detergent and water and scrub it down. Then they'll put a chemical charge in it, which is a biodegradable deodorant, pretty much. It makes it smell nice.

SD: How many toilets do you have out right now?

DEREK: The 4th of July weekend is one of the busiest weekends for us. We have 100 toilets out right now -- just for private parties. And that doesn't include the toilets we have on route -- construction sites, farm stands, multiple businesses that we supply toilets for.

SD: How sanitary is the sanitation business?

DEREK: Actually, it's very sanitary. The operator doesn't really come in contact with the sewage -- it's all done mechanically. In fact, most of the sanitation guys come back clean because they've been washing and cleaning all day. They use rubber gloves and safety glasses just in case. Everybody has been splashed before, but that's pretty typical in this business and it's no big deal.

DARIN PRATT: It is kind of hard to advertise for this sort of thing. They don't come running to you, you know? Like: "Wanted: Man to clean toilets." There's only a select few who would consider doing it, anyway. It's a great job, though; about half a dozen of my friends who I used to hang out with ended up working for us. They come to work and say, "This isn't as bad as the label reads."

SD: Let's say you have a concert venue or a big sports event, how do you decide how many toilets are needed?

DEREK: We figure that for your short-term events -- like a half a day -- we figure we need about one toilet for every 100 people. On a construction site, where we service them weekly, it's more like 10 people for a toilet per 40-hour week. See, portable toilets are really sanitary, but when you don't have enough toilets for the amount of people, that's when you have problems.

SD: Where's the oddest place you've ever had to put a toilet?

DEREK: We have cranes that pick them up and set them on rooftops; we've had them down in granite quarries and on boats -- construction areas and barges. We actually had a portable toilet in the courtyard of Mt. Mansfield High School.

DARIN: Yeah, somehow the kids got the thing up to the roof of the school. You get eight to 10 twelfth-graders and a little bit of rope, they can get it up there pretty quick. And of course the doors were too small to get it down.

SD: So how did they get the toilet down?

DARIN: I don't know. We never figured it out.

SD: OK, so I know you guys have probably heard every shit joke in the book, but are there any practical jokes you two have come across?

DARIN: Yeah, at a Grateful Dead concert a few years back, we had about 10 or 12 toilets flopped over on their doors, which means you're trapped. The tip-over is probably the dirtiest trick. One contractor kept filling his toilet with rocks. We came to clean it, and our service tech had to bite the bullet and empty the rocks out of it. So we come back next week, and the thing's filled with rocks again.

SD: Wow, so there really is a lot that goes on in these things.

DARIN: Oh, yeah, they burn them, run them over, they shit in the urinal. We probably spend about $40,000 a year cleaning graffiti off the toilets. They think it's just a big joke because it's only a portable toilet, but to us, it's a big investment. Bizarre things happen, though. We had this one guy who had a portable toilet for three years because he didn't have a toilet in his house. In his toilet he had a telephone and paintings hanging on the wall -- it was like a room. So he got way behind on his money, and we sent a guy up there to look for him. We get a call later saying, "Hey, this is Johnny. I'm on the guy's phone in the toilet and I can't find him anywhere."

SD: When people ask you what you do for a living, what do you tell them?

DARIN: You're going to be treated like dirt in this line of work, that's just a rule. Ninety percent of them will say, "What a shitty job you got," but then there's always about 10 percent who are glad to see you on-site because you're cleaning their toilet.

DEREK: The portable-toilet business does have an image problem because of the subject matter. I tell them that I'm a sewer-drain contractor. I'm certainly not embarrassed; it makes a good living and it's good honest work.