Change Comes Slowly to Service Truck Industry, Yet Small Units Continue to Appeal to Customers

The men and women who operate portable restroom service trucks and buy related equipment tend to be a reserved group—at least when it comes to the products they buy. Reliable equipment that is simple to operate—that’s what they want. Period. 
This relatively conservative group of consumers embraces the basics even more than usual when their businesses are threatened with a terrible economy. They want equipment that operates simply and that is unfailingly reliable. Give them those two basics, and the people who service portable restrooms will focus on the rest: riding out the economy and hoping for better times. When they do decide to buy, many choose small units because they are no longer servicing a large volume of portable toilets. Again, the blame goes right back to the economy. Stagnant construction equals fewer portable toilets. And fewer toilets means small units that now can do the same job that previously demanded large tanks.
That’s the environment that manufacturers of portable restroom service trucks and equipment are finding themselves in today. Even when manufacturers have introduced relatively minor changes to trucks or added labor-saving equipment, few customers are buying. Considering that the industry does not readily embrace change, even when they feel confident in the economy, it is not hard to imagine what is happening today.
The lone exception seems to be a desire for smaller trucks, according to Wes Tuttle, General Manager of truck design for Satellite Industries. The company is located in Minneapolis, Minn., and has been in business for almost fifty years. Satellite Industries sells not only service trucks and equipment but also hand-wash stations, portable restrooms, chemicals, and related products. The company sells products in seventy-five countries and is the number one supplier of portable sanitation equipment in the world.
Tuttle said some of Satellite’s trucks have been redesigned to provide lower working heights and to make more space on the truck for service equipment. However, the bottom line is that the trend has been for smaller trucks, primarily because of the economy. One of the biggest clients of portable restrooms is the construction industry, especially home construction. With far fewer homes being built today, the need for large, heavy trucks that can service many portable restrooms does not currently exist.
“With less construction going on, the travel times are stretched,” Tuttle explained. That means that smaller jobs can do the job that in past years required larger units. With farther travel times, the smaller trucks also help to save fuel costs.
Tightened emissions standards have also affected truck design, making it more difficult for engineers to integrate equipment onto the chassis.
At the beginning of the recession, Tuttle and others in the field saw new customers coming into the market because they were looking for a career change. The smaller units were appealing because they obviously were less expensive than large trucks and offered a lower-cost way to get into the business. That is no longer true, in Tuttle’s experience, because the credit market has tightened, and it is very difficult for newcomers to get money to buy equipment—regardless of the size.
“It’s a very labor-intensive industry. It’s a service business, it’s not a commodity, and a lot of the big contractors are not around anymore, and the big home builders who were building twenty or thirty houses at a time are not there anymore,” he noted.
Aside from size, some customers are attracted by the increased fuel efficiency of newer Satellite truck models, resulting in new sales. For example, the 2011 model that the company is introducing has at least a ten-percent increase in fuel efficiency compared to the 2010 model, according to
LaVerne Charlet of L.C. Tanks in Paducah, Kentucky, said the industry has many fine companies and types of equipment in the marketplace—some are the result of modifications and related improvements—but they are only useful if people buy them. And that is the problem: consumers are not ready to resume buying because of the economy.
“This economy has slowed business down to a trickle, not only in the waste industry but in others. The portable restroom business is so tightly tied in with construction, and construction is about non-existent. It’s an extremely slow market,” Charlet said.
L.C. Tanks has been in business for forty years. Charlet founded the business, which is a main distributor of Progress Tanks. He also sells Midstate Tanks.
The company’s newest product is a truck-mounted slide-in unit by Progress, which can hold 450 gallons of liquid, 300 pounds of waste, and 150 pounds of water. Again, the unit is small enough that it allows a portable restroom service contractor to go out and serve a few toilets at a time without incurring the expense of using a larger unit. Charlet reiterates that the economy, unfortunately, is the reason that the small units are attractive right now.
L.C. Tanks also sells units that can be slipped onto the back of pickup trucks or hauled on trailers. The 1,000 gallon tanks are suitable for septic tank pumpers.
“It seems like smaller is more popular now because of the price,” Charlet said. “I do a lot of quoting, and I stay busy. But they (the customers) are just afraid to bit the bullet right now to buy. I think once people gain a little confidence, we will see an upshot in orders.”
Over at Imperial Industries in Rothschild, Wisc., Tom Aerts acknowledged that people in the liquid waste industry tend to be set in their ways. They do not readily embrace change.  For example, his company recently introduced a caddie to hold items on portable service trucks. It has been met, however, with a lukewarm response.
Stricter emissions standards have also resulted in some changes on units, with manufacturers faced with the formidable challenge of fitting all the necessary components in an already limited space. That reason is what drives manufacturers and distributors such as Imperial Industries. The company recently brought out an Aluminum Toilet Transporter. The unit is made of aluminum channel and tubing, which makes it lighter than traditional units, yet it is durable enough to withstand the stresses of daily use. The stainless steel pivot rod adds strength, increasing longevity. Torsion springs were added to make it easier for operators to lower and raise the rack into position. With the springs, the operator can move the rack with one hand, saving stress and strain on his back, Aerts explained.
Imperial Industries has also come up with a way to limit the number of times an operator has to make a trip to his cab when servicing portable toilets.  The solution? Three- and four-switch, lighted control boxes. Imperial is selling a three- or four-function control box that is installed on the drivers’ side of the service unit behind the cab. The weatherproof box, rated at 1800 psi, has lighted switches and is offered in three- or four-switch versions. The switches control the PTO/vacuum pump, water pump, and work lights, Aerts explained.
Will the addition of conveniences help bring more customers into the marketplace? Or, will smaller units keep sales moving for manufacturers, at least in the short term, until the economy improves and the credit market loosens? Manufacturers are throwing their hats into both arenas, hoping that either or both will strike a chord with customers.
Improvements, while slow to be embraced by some in the industry, certainly are not rejected by everyone. “Good haulers are always looking for ways to make things more efficient,” Aerts said.


Story by Marie Elium


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