Rural Pumpers Remain Optimistic, Franchise to Replace Aged Steel Tanks

Newfoundland’s wilderness pumpers promote the value of routine septic service and replacing failing steel tanks to customers who’ve never heard the message.
Rural Pumpers Remain Optimistic, Franchise to Replace Aged Steel Tanks
A residential septic system installed by Gale’s is ready for inspection. Gale’s made the septic tank and distribution box, while the riser and lid are from Tuf-Tite Inc. (Photos by Marg Gale)

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As the only septic service providers for about 150 miles in a remote area of far southwestern Newfoundland – a large island in Canada’s eastern Atlantic Provinces region – Gerard and Marg Gale face an array of challenges.

For starters, consider fuel prices, which have topped $5 a gallon for years. Then throw in customers that are more than 100 miles away from Gale’s Septic Cleaning Ltd., the business the couple started in 1993 in the small town of South Branch … a host of neglected septic tanks in the company’s service area that haven’t been cleaned for decades, if ever … a less-than-robust economy that leaves residents with little disposable income … and the week or more it can take to procure repair parts, which arrive by boat and airplane from mainland Canada and the United States.

“Equipment breakdowns can be a bit of a challenge,” says Marg. “We can’t just go down the street and get repair parts, so breakdowns usually cost us a bit of time.”

But amid the hardships, there’s still reason for optimism. Spurred by the discovery of mineral, oil and natural gas deposits, the provincial economy is showing signs of renewed vigor. And in 2009, Gale’s Septic diversified – and created a new revenue stream – by becoming a Turtle Tanks franchise.

Based in British Columbia, Turtle Tanks are round, concrete septic tanks (halves make 500-gallon tanks and two halves make a 1,000-gallon tank) allowing Gale’s Septic to capitalize on a growing customer need as thousands of steel tanks in the region reach the end of their life cycle.

Moreover, the Gales are in the process of grooming their daughter, Shelley, to take over the business in a few years. Shelley returned to Newfoundland in 2009 after spending five years traveling and working in Southeast Asia and England and another five years working in western Canada.


A lack of competition coupled with demand for service prompted Gerard and Marg to establish Gale’s Septic. After several decades of working as a welder in the boilermaker trade, Gerard was looking for a new business to tide the couple over until his retirement. Since all homes and businesses in the area rely on septic systems, the couple saw an opportunity.

“We started off by welding a 1,000-gallon tank to a trailer,” Marg says. “The only other provider was 150 miles away. One of our biggest challenges was tanks that haven’t been pumped for years. In fact, I grew up in a house with a family of 16, and our tank wasn’t pumped until we started the business.

“We still pump tanks that haven’t been cleaned for 30 years, and some of them still function,” she continues. “It’s strange how it works. They must have very good drainage systems. Most of the steel tanks we pump are 500- or 600-gallon capacities.”

Business was slow at first. But with telephone book and newspaper advertising, Marg says people gradually caught on to the fact that they benefit from having their septic tanks pumped regularly. Word-of-mouth referrals also spurred growth.

The company’s roster of equipment has expanded over the years. The company currently owns a 2004 Mack truck, bought used, with a 2,500-gallon steel tank and Fruitland Manufacturing pump; a boom truck built on a 2006 Sterling chassis with a 12-ton capacity Hiab crane; two backhoes made by Caterpillar Inc.; a Crust Buster made by Schmitz Brothers LLC; a Steam Jenny pressure washer, manufactured by Jenny Products Inc. and used to clean machinery; a 14-foot Ford box truck to transport supplies; and a 2012 Ford F-450 pickup truck.


Fuel prices pose a constant challenge, especially with a service rig getting about 7 mpg. The cost of fuel is built into the company’s rates, and Marg is thankful that, for the most part, customers understand and don’t complain about the company adjusting prices as fuel costs rise.

On the other hand, the company can dispose of septic waste more cost-effectively than most haulers, transferring it to a collection pit located on land the company leases about 10 miles from its home office. The operation allows the Gales to cut down on transportation costs. Such pits are legal in Canada and subject to an annual inspection by the provincial government; Gale’s Septic has been using the same pit since the company’s inception.

The pit measures roughly 120 feet long by 80 feet wide by 8 feet deep. It’s located in a former gravel pit, so it drains well. Before dumping waste, employees add Bio-Clean, a blend of bacteria and enzymes that break down septic waste, into the tank. The company collects an average of about 12,500 gallons of waste a week, Marg says.

Thanks to the pit’s location near the center of the company’s service area, it’s easy to achieve route efficiency; the driver generally runs routes in out-and-back fashion in whatever direction makes the most sense on each day. “When we go, we book for a full load – usually three or four customers,” Marg explains, noting that a full route takes a whole day to complete. “We try to save a dollar wherever we can.”


Motivated by the prevalence of failing steel tanks throughout their service area, Marg and Gerard decided to sell and install Turtle Tanks in 2009. Under a franchise agreement, the couple can manufacture the 1,000-gallon tanks, using a set of forms that create two halves of the round tanks.

Concrete is solving a big problem with the steel tanks, which the Gales say are proving to rust out in 15 to 20 years. “My parents have a concrete tank that’s 80 years old and they’re still using it today,’’ she says.

“We can get concrete whenever we need it … the supplier is only about 30 miles away,” she adds. “We usually keep seven tanks in stock. We made six molds for ourselves [based off the original mold from Turtle]. That was a winter project. Gerard is a welder by trade, so he’s very resourceful and creative.”

The Turtle Tanks are easy to install because they don’t require squared-off excavating, which is more difficult and takes more time to do. At about 4,000 pounds total, the tanks also weigh less than traditional concrete tanks, meaning Gale’s Septic doesn’t need larger cranes to handle them. Furthermore, the couple says, round tanks are easier to clean because there aren’t any hard-to-reach corners where waste can get stuck.

“We think there’s strong market potential,” she continues. “We’ve seen some pretty crazy tanks around here … people who buried old cars and ran a pipe down into them, or built big wooden boxes. Some people have pretty much buried just about anything and used it as a tank. But we think people will want to put something in the ground that lasts.”

That growth potential is gaining traction; Marg says tank sales and additional pumping have helped business revenue grow by 50 percent last year. But further growth will require ongoing customer education about the benefits of concrete tanks, especially since steel tanks cost about $400 less – a considerable sum of money for many budget-strapped families in the area, Shelley notes.


Marg and Gerard plan to hand off the business entirely within the next few years. Marg says Shelley’s world travels have prepared her for running the business. Currently, Shelley handles many office-management functions while learning the ropes.

“All her traveling turned my hair gray, but it did wonders for Shelley in terms of knowledge, confidence and self-esteem,” Marg says. “She learned how to survive on her own over there … she even survived the [2004] Indonesian tsunami, so running a business should be much easier than that.

“She has two small children now, so she’s settling down,” she adds. “She was in high school when we started, so she grew up with the business. We’re expecting a very smooth transition.”


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