Looking Forward: Pumping Industry Pioneers Foresee Continued Growth

It’s fun to reflect on the past 35 years of Pumper magazine, but it’s even more intriguing to think about where the wastewater industry will be 35 years from now.
Looking Forward: Pumping Industry Pioneers Foresee Continued Growth
Kenney Lee, right, was profiled with his crew at Metro Septic in a 2012 feature story in Pumper.

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Pumping industry pioneer Tom Ferrero recalls something his father told him when he was a young man just entering the workforce in about 1970: “You better get yourself a job. In five years we’ll be out of business because there will be sewer everywhere,’’ the elder Ferrero warned. Tom chuckles today when he tells the story. So many years later, that grim forecast for the liquid waste-hauling industry couldn’t be more wrong.

“My son is 45 years old, and we just do more and more work and there is no end to it,’’ Ferrero says today. His son, also named Tom, has continued to enjoy double-digit growth at Franc Environmental in Pennsylvania – even through the tough economic times of a few years ago.

The business growth leaves Ferrero, and others in the industry bullish about the future. And I have to say I feel the same way.


When I noticed the 35th anniversary of Pumper magazine on the horizon (the first issue was published in June 1979), I decided to call a few friends in the pumping industry. I wanted them to reflect briefly on the growth and maturity of the industry and, more important, take a look forward at what the trade magazine might be writing about 35 years into the future. It was amazing to consider how far we’ve come since the days of cesspools, rudimentary vacuum trucks and relatively little government regulation. But it was fascinating to think about the seemingly limitless possibilities that will face the next generation of pumpers.

From early in my tenure as editor at Pumper, I’ve seen a lot of reason for enthusiasm for this industry. Hardworking contractors are performing a valuable, necessary and environmentally important service. Attending many years of the Pumper & Cleaner Expo – now being rebadged the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment and Transport (WWETT) show – I’ve watched as the tools of the pumping trade have become better and better. I’ve witnessed the exploding professionalism of the small-business people who keep this industry humming along.

But this forward-looking exercise – as much as any of those developments – makes me hopeful for the future. We are working in a dynamic environmental services industry. With a growing drumbeat for a cleaner environment, the need for drinkable water sources and the demand for development, the outlook for more work – creating family-supporting jobs for pumpers – is off the charts. Companies that can pump, haul and treat liquid waste will simply be in demand across North America.

It was gratifying to hear industry veterans explain how Pumper has helped them over the years. Just like our featured cover story contractor this month – John Simison of Bouse House Enterprises – contractors tell me they read the magazine cover-to-cover and then file it away for future reference.


Gretchen Hole, owner of Swanky Restroom Trailers in Holly, Mich., told me she’s made all of her equipment vendor contacts through the magazine and trade show. The magazine is part of the reason she feels fulfilled by her 15-year career in portable sanitation.

“I love my profession. I love my business,’’ she says. Profession is the key word for Hole, who has changed her company name and focus to land high-end wedding clients and a string of contracts with movies and television show locations. “I wanted to bring in more money for my trailers, and I wanted to create an image that I’m worth it. And I am worth it.’’

Kenney Lee, owner of Metro Septic in Cartersville, Ga., keeps all of his Pumper issues on a bookshelf and returns to them often to reference a helpful contractor profile story or look over the ads. He’s bought two vacuum trucks out of the classifieds and made numerous equipment purchases based on Pumper ads. A 2011 article Lee read about the dewatering facility in California – at Sweet Pea Septic Services owned by Dean Trevaskis – has cemented his long-term goal to develop his own disposal plant.

“Reading how he went about processing was a pretty neat story,’’ Lee says. “Being able to have that openness about what companies do in other parts of the country, having that networking opportunity available is helpful.’’

Lee says having his company featured on the cover of Pumper in 2012 brought a great deal of respect his way from other local pumpers.

“I had a lot of people in the industry locally who credited that to us being a better company out there. I pride myself on that and I think that, too,’’ Lee says.


That’s enough pats on the back. Let’s talk about the future. I invited Ferrero, Hole and Lee, along with our Septic System Answer Man, Jim Anderson, to predict the biggest trends they expect in the pumping industry over the next 35 years. From our discussions, I’ve come up with this short list for your consideration:

In 35 years, more septic systems

Contrary to what you might hear from city planners, there will be more onsite systems to pump in 35 years, not fewer. As Ferrero explains, the percentage of homes with septic systems dropped to 25 or 26 percent with the real estate downturn a few years ago. But currently 30 to 35 percent of new housing starts feature decentralized wastewater systems. “And that percentage is going up. There’s just going to be more of them,’’ Ferrero contends. Why? A lot of people still want to live away from congested cities and have bigger lots. Also, as onsite technologies advance, more properties with borderline soils can be developed at a reasonable cost. As a smaller percentage of the cost of a new home, onsite systems are becoming a bigger bargain all the time, he says. The price has come down for advanced systems and, with care, they figure to last much longer.

An explosion of onsite and service technology

Onsite systems have gone from clay tiles and concrete pipes to sophisticated treatment systems in a very short time, says Anderson, so there’s reason to think more amazing treatment solutions are on the horizon. “We started with cesspools and look where we are now in terms of different types of systems,’’ says Anderson. “And your systems are going to need an expanded amount of care so they can last longer.’’ That means a burgeoning O&M business added to the pumping and installing specialties. And vacuum trucks? Anderson sees more technologies for onboard separation of solids and liquids, and returning cleaner water to the tank for dispersal.

Pumpers take control of disposal

As municipal treatment plants continue to discourage accepting septage and states and provinces close the loop on land application, pumpers will take control of their destiny and find creative ways to process wastes. As Ferrero explains, his business started out dumping loads for free through suburban manhole covers in the early days, and then cities started implementing small fees. But now, disposal costs are a serious issue for most pumpers. Ferrero and Anderson have already observed the emergence of a variety of dewatering technologies aimed at serving small and medium-sized pumping operations.

“I hope it goes to individual systems tailored to individual pumpers,’’ Anderson says. “Our guys need to embrace those concepts. It’s not enough to put it on the truck and show up at [the municipal plant’s] doorstep and figure they’ll take [the waste] at a good price forever into the future.’’

There is no doubt private disposal is already a growth area. Just ask Lee, who is contemplating starting his own dewatering operation. “Everybody is talking about how to get rid of septic. The municipalities don’t want it,’’ Lee says. “If I could build my own plant, I would be able to control my own costs. It would be wonderful to pull into the shop at the end of the day, dump my truck and get back on the road in the morning.’’

Portable sanitation moves upscale

We see it already. A smattering of construction customers are asking for hand-wash sinks and hand sanitizers. Wedding parties are calling for VIP trailer units in the backyard. Special events order some standard units along with more upscale facilities for VIP users. Hole has built her new business on these heightened expectations. “I expect a big change, that people want more than a standard unit. They want something nicer,’’ she says. “And money-wise for events like weddings, you make a lot more money for a lot less work.’’ Look for portable sanitation providers to mine upscale markets and promote better sanitation standards in general.

Better oversight, stronger regulations for a cleaner environment

Systematic regulation and education standards may seem scattered and a long time in coming for pumpers, but progress is being made, Ferrero says. “Think about 35 years ago, every pumper was on an island unto his own.’’ There really wasn’t any effort toward continuing education; contractors did their own thing with inferior tools. Without locators, cameras and jetting equipment, “If we didn’t find a tank, we just started digging,’’ Ferrero recalls. But he and Anderson have witnessed the growth of trade associations, participation in events like the Pumper & Cleaner Expo Education Day, and a handful of states taking on service standards and professional credentialing. There’s a long way to go, but the industry will get there. “I have a sense the industry is getting better and smarter and is providing better service to the customer,’’ Ferrero says.


Will we realize fantastic dreams, like efficient ways to convert waste to energy and better systems that will make water-quality concerns a thing of the past? Ferrero won’t bet against it. “Look what you and I have seen in our lifetime. We can’t be so cocky to think that what we’ve done in our generation, what we’ve done in 50 years, that nobody will have that steep a curve in the future,’’ he says. “They keep inventing stuff all the time and it keeps getting better.’’

What do you think? Are there trends you think we left off the list? Send me an email at editor@pumper.com and we’ll include your opinions in an upcoming article. I invite you to file away this column for the next 35 years, and then pull it out to see if our predictions hit the mark.


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