[This is an article by John C. as part of our Side Hustle Series. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like (and how much it pays) to clean out septic tanks and portable toilets, now’s your chance ;)]
For the last couple years I have noticed that most of my friends and co-workers have a side hustle, but I have had trouble committing to one.
Finding something I care about doing that I can make some decent money with AND balance with my nuclear career has been difficult to find. [Editor’s note: Yes, he just said NUCLEAR CAREER!] Starting a business would be especially difficult because sometimes I am gone for months at a time.
A good friend of mine, Ron, runs a portable toilet and septic tank business and recently I started helping him out. Although he first wanted me to help with some organizational issues, I have since started working in the field.
The key to this working for me is that the job is flexible. My main job is working refueling outages at nuclear power plants, which is a very seasonal job, with most projects being in the spring and the fall. During refueling outages I perform routine preventative maintenance on steam generators and ice condensers. Typically I work six 12 hour shifts per week and work about six months out of the year, with about half of that time traveling away from home. I try to work as much as possible at the two plants that are within driving distance of my house.
The really busy season for portable toilets and septic pumping is summer, which is a very slow season for nuclear plant outages. Because of this I am able to do this job in my down time from my main gig.
Doing Something Important
When you think about jobs that are crucial to modern society, waste removal is at the very top of the list. When I was a kid, my dream job was to be a garbage collector. I wanted to be the guy riding on the side of the truck throwing bags into the back.
I like physical work and I truly think that waste removal is the backbone of society. It’s not quite my childhood dream job of trash removal, but septic pumping is pretty darn close. Wait for your septic to backup and let me know what the most important job in the world is lol!
Properly servicing septic tanks is necessary to protect the environment as well. Pumping a tank keeps the solids and scum in the septic tank from building up too much, which can cause damage to the drain field. A drain field that is clogged with solids will contaminate the soil and allow waste to enter the ground water.
Nationwide there are an estimated 26 million septic tanks in use. Of the roughly 1.3 million tanks in my home state of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality estimates that up to 25%, or up to 325,000 tanks are failing across Michigan.
In addition to believing in the mission, I also believe in the company. My friend who started this business has put a ton of effort into building this business and operates it with a passion. He is one of the hardest working people I have met, and being around people who have a solid drive does wonders for motivation and attitude.
How I Got Started
I knew that Ron ran this business and since I was truly interested in how the business worked, I asked if I could do a few ride alongs to learn about it. Ron also knew that I was a bit of a finance geek and he wanted some help from me in looking over his numbers and improving on the fiscal aspects of the business.
I spent several days over the course of a few months with Ron working on the numbers and learning how the business operates. I originally didn’t have any intent in actually working for him, but when he asked if I wanted to do some paid work for him when my most recent project at the nuclear plant was done, I jumped at the chance. An added bonus for me is that the shop is only 2 miles from my front door!
Most people have no desire to be in this line of work, but regardless of what the business is, if there is a business you are interested in being a part of, I would highly suggest asking the owner to teach you what it’s all about (on your own time of course); and then evaluate what you can do to be of service to the company.
Most business owners (especially ones who are already your friend) will be more than happy to find ways to gain a dedicated and hard working team member who actually cares about the business, especially on a temporary or part time basis.
What Is a Septic Tank?
A septic tank is a large container located in the ground to filter and manage waste products. Most residential septic tanks are between 500 and 1,500 gallons. In houses equipped with a septic tank all household drains lead to the septic tank, where solids sink to the bottom, water fills in the middle and scum floats on the top. A pipe carries the water in the middle to the leach field, where water is distributed into the yard and filtered through gravel and soil.
Periodically these tanks need to be pumped out to remove solids, scum and inorganic material that should not have been flushed to begin with.
Don’t know if you have a septic tank? Chances are if you live in a city, you are connected to a city sewer system. If you aren’t billed by the city for sewer usage (usually with a water bill), then you most likely have a septic tank.
Locating the Tank:
The first thing we have to do when we get to a client’s home or business is find the septic tank(s). Very few septic tanks have a riser and lid installed so we have to find where the tank is located in order to open it up. The main tool for this job is a T bar with a length of about 4′.
We look at the house and where the vent stacks are to get a general idea for where the tank should be and then test the ground with the T bar. If we get multiple hits at about the same depth then chances are we are on the tank. We can then use the bar to figure out exactly where the tank is at, and then we dig to get to the service opening. When we dig we try to keep the turf together so that when we are finished the lawn can be restored to looking as close to new as possible.
Removing the Lid:
Most lids to septic tanks are large pieces of concrete with a metal loop for a handle. Although these lids are heavy the real difficulty is that they are often stuck. Sometimes we have to pry on them and tap the lid with a hammer to loosen it up.
We have come across a few tanks where there is no lid, just an open hole. This happens because in older tanks that have a full cement slab for a lid that can not be moved without a tractor, the first time they were serviced someone punched a hole through them and put a piece of metal over the hole when they finished. Give it a few decades and that metal completely rusts away.
When digging we have to be cautious because it is possible to dig right into the tank. In situations like this we will install a PVC riser and lid to the tank to keep the tank closed off and to provide for easier servicing in the future.
Pumping And Dumping
The septic truck has a strong vacuum system and we use a 3” vac line to pump out the tank. We keep over 100′ of vac line on the truck, but the longer the hose run is, the less power the vac system has. When pumping a septic tank the goal is to empty the top layer and the sludge layer before you run out of water because the water helps the vac hose function properly. It is often necessary to stir the tank with a shovel in order to break up large deposits of fats and solids.
For most families a tank should be pumped out about every 3 years. Tanks that have gone substantially longer are more likely to fail by allowing a large build up of solids to enter and clog the leach field.
When we have a full truck we go to the municipal dump station to empty the truck. The dump station has a large opening at ground level with a metal screen. The dump station also has a large capacity water hose to use to help with cleaning out the tank and keeping the sludge flowing. We empty the truck and through an opening at the top of the truck we flush the tank with water to clean out the tank. The metal grate fills up with everything that should not be flushed, clothing items, toys, latex items, etc. We use a rake to pull this stuff out and it goes into a dumpster.
Yes, this job does have some downsides. The smell is certainly not pleasant, but it generally is tolerable. You tend to get dirty from digging and from handling the hose. I think it goes without saying that this is not a job to wear nice clothes to! To be on the safe side I wash my clothes immediately after getting home.
Another issue is when someone hasn’t serviced their tank regularly, where instead of servicing every three years it has been 10, 15, or 20 years since the last service. In these situations we tend to have to do a lot more work to break up the solids on the top layer, which means more time working directly over the septic tank opening.
How Much it Pays
Currently I am earning $12 an hour, working as an assistant for septic pumping. I just got my chauffeurs license and will be able to drive the portable toilet service trucks in the summer, which will let me earn a few more bucks an hour. In order to drive the septic truck I would have to get a CDL as well.
It might not sound like much, but this can easily add up to an extra several thousand dollars a year. Since Mrs. C. and I are already saving 20%+ of our income, every dime I make doing this can go directly to long term savings. Septic tank pumping may be the least sexiest side hustle out there, but the job is flexible, it’s important, and it pays!
Now who wants to join me? :)
John C. write about personal finance at Action Economics, a blog focused on taking immediate action to improve your finances. John C. lives in rural southwest Michigan with his wife and 2 boys.