We get behind the wheel of one of Pumper magazine's Classy Trucks by having a Classy Conversation with Timothy Wheeler of Tim Wheeler's Septic & Excavating in Minford, Ohio
At 36 feet long, 11 1/2 feet tall and 30,000 pounds with an empty 5,000-gallon steel tank, Tim Wheeler's Septic & Excavating of Minford, Ohio features one formidable septic truck.
“It’s a common reaction when I go somewhere — people will say, ‘well, I thought you were bringing a pumper truck, not a cruise ship,” says driver Timothy Wheeler. “But it always goes where I need it to go. You just need to wiggle it back and forth and put it in the driveway.”
Wheeler and his father, company owner Tim Wheeler, bought and rebuilt the 2000 Sterling LT9500 five years ago. “That truck had 21,500 miles, and it was originally a crane truck that was used to set basement walls,” says the younger Wheeler. “It was a super heavy-duty truck with double frames and heavy suspension and steering components, and we turned it into a pumper truck. It’s the biggest septic truck in our area.”
An empty semitruck weighs about 24,000 pounds, according to Timothy. “Whereas our truck weighs 30,000 pounds empty. And then when it gets loaded with sewer, it weighs 70,000 pounds all together, so it’s 40,000 pounds of sewer driving down the highway.”
Rebuilding trucks since ‘81
Instead of buying new, Tim Wheeler's Septic & Excavating has rebuilt its septic trucks since 1981, with the 2000 Sterling clocking in as its seventh rebuild.
“We wanted something that could really stand up to the weight of the liquid,” says Timothy. “If you look at a lot of the other trucks in the industry, they’ll use retired tractor-trailers. Those were really built to pull the load on the trailer, not directly over the truck’s suspension, so you get a lot of swaying back and forth and it’s easy to lose control of the truck.”
This Sterling’s heavy-duty build was what caught the Wheelers’ attention. “Whenever you get a really heavy-duty truck with double frames and 46,000-pound rear suspension and a 20,000-pound front axle, it just takes that extra liquid and carries it like it’s not even there because it’s so solidly built,” says Timothy. “We already liked heavy-duty trucks anyway, but we knew that the septic truck had to be heavy-duty for the amount of liquid it would be hauling.”
At 5,000 gallons, this truck carries the largest tank the company's fleet has had. “The last tank was 3,600 gallons, and that last one was the biggest one prior to this one. The company that built it was surprised about the size of the tank. I can get in it and stand up, easily. It doesn’t look like it in the picture, but I’m 6 feet tall and I can stand up in that tank, straight up and down.”
Maneuvering a truck this size takes skill and comes with a unique set of challenges, particularly with a mostly residential customer base.
“I’ve had to back it across bridges that were made of wood, and like I said, when the truck’s empty, it’s 15 tons,” says Timothy. “One time I was backing across this wooden bridge, and about halfway across the bridge was popping and cracking, and I was really scared about that, but if you stop, then the bridge is going to collapse.”
Bridges are its biggest downfall, according to the Wheelers. “That and sharp curves, since it doesn’t turn that well,” says Timothy. “And since the truck is so long, it can get stuck easy if you get it off in soft ground. It has trouble off-road.”
Besides these few exceptions, the handling of the heavy-duty Sterling is exceptional. “I always call it a giant, supersized Ferrari because it sticks to the road like one.”
After putting on about 80,000 miles in the last five years, Timothy says he wouldn’t change anything on the truck. “Other pumpers in the area had the same reaction as mine when we were building it. It was just a bunch of laughter and ‘that truck is too big to do anything in the job of pumping tanks,’ but once you get in it and drive it for a while, I wouldn’t trade it for a smaller one. I wish it was 5 feet longer. Once you get used to driving it, it’s like driving a big car.”