Connecticut’s Chiarella Family Overcame a Rough Business Beginning

The first truck at Danbury Septic Tank Service went up in flames, but the small family pumping business recovered and has enjoyed a long, satisfying ride.

Connecticut’s Chiarella Family Overcame a Rough Business Beginning

Working with a waterfront scene in the background, Richard “Richie” Chiarella II removes tank lids while Mason Cleveland pulls hose to the tank.

Danbury Septic Tank Service celebrated 50 years in business in 2018, which would be impressive for any business, but it’s even more impressive for a company that suffered a disaster in its second year. The young company’s first truck went up in flames on July 1, 1970.

Carole “Muzzy” Chiarella — who with her husband, Richard Chiarella, owns the company — recalls the day vividly.

“My husband was coming up out of Ridgefield (Connecticut), pulling a hill. It was an older truck we had to put oil in just about every day. The truck backfired, the motor caught on fire and the flames came right up through the cab,” she recalls. “My husband jumped out and the whole truck was lost, right in the middle of the hill. He got out with his shirt burning.”

Richard Chiarella had another shirt in the cab of the truck that had $60 in the pocket. He briefly considered going in to get the money, but he thought better of it.

“We lost it, but that’s better than losing his life,” Carole Chiarella says. “The fire even melted the steering wheel. There was nothing there but a metal frame, no seats. That was our first downfall, but we ran out and got another truck, got back on the road and just kept on going.”


Kept on going and then some. The original truck, a REO Diamond T that was a converted oil truck with a 2,800-gallon tank, was replaced with a 1967 Ford F-750 with a 1,600-gallon tank. Now Danbury Septic Tank Service is operating with truck Nos. 15 and 16, although there never was a truck No. 13. Richard Chiarella just skipped that number. That kind of superstition is understandable for someone who had such bad luck with truck No. 1.

The company has two large frames in the office with photos of all the trucks Danbury Septic Tank Service has used over the years.

The current fleet includes a 2006 Peterbilt with a 4,000-gallon steel tank. It was built out by Transway Systems and has a Masport pump. The other truck is a 2007 Freightliner with a 2,500-gallon steel tank built out by Amthor International with a Jurop/Chandler pump.

Carole Chiarella’s family has four generations in the septic pumping business. Her grandfather started a septic pumping business, D and S Septic, in Norwalk during the early 1900s. Her father started M and M Septic in Danbury in 1950. Richard Chiarella and her brother, Phil Mazzucco, started Danbury Septic Tank Service together.

In the early 1970s, Carole Chiarella’s brother and Richard Chiarella split the company, with her brother taking the installation part and Chiarella taking the pumping.

The Chiarellas’ sons Richard “Richie” Chiarella II and Phil Chiarella also work for Danbury Septic Tank Service. Richie Chiarella  joined the company right after graduating from high school. The younger son, Phil Chiarella, went to culinary school, became a chef and owned a restaurant for five years before joining the family business.

There is potential for a fifth generation in the business. The younger Richie Chiarella and his wife, Halaia, have a son, Drew, 8, close to the age the boys started helping their father on the pump truck during summer vacations.


Now both Richie Chiarella and Phil Chiarella have also started companies of their own. Richie Chiarella, 49, operates Hard Rock Contractors, which installs and repairs septic systems and does stump removal and other site work. Phil Chiarella, 42, operates PJ’s PortaJohns and Septic Service. Chiarella and his girlfriend, Toni Coladner, have a dog named Jewels that rides with Chiarella in the service truck and is well-known to customers. 

All three companies operate from the same property in Danbury.

At one point, both sons were working full time for Danbury Septic Tank Service and the company was operating three trucks. Only two are needed now since PJ’s PortaJohns and Septic Service has become a full-time occupation for Phil Chiarella, although he is available to help out when necessary. Richie Chiarella works full time for Danbury Septic Tank Service and operates his contracting business as a sideline.

PJ’s PortaJohns and Septic Service has grown from one used truck and eight portable restrooms in 2006 to three trucks with more than 200 portable restrooms (mostly PolyJohn) and three JAG Mobile Solutions restroom trailers.

Phil Chiarella’s most-used trucks are a 2016 Ram 5500 with an 800-gallon wastewater and 350-gallon freshwater aluminum tank built by Amthor International with a National Vacuum Equipment pump and a 2011 Ford F-350 built out by Robinson Vacuum Tanks with a 400-gallon waste and 200-gallon freshwater aluminum tank and a Conde (Westmoor) pump. He also uses a 2008 Ford F-750 with an 1,800-gallon waste and 400-freshwater Amthor International steel tank and Jurop/Chandler pump. Often PJ’s PortaJohns and Septic Service’s workers will empty the smaller trucks into the 1,800-gallon tank so they don’t have to make so many trips to the wastewater treatment plant.

The elder Richard Chiarella, 73, has had two knee replacements and is semiretired now. Carole Chiarella, 74, handles the phones, bookkeeping and scheduling, as she has the entire 50 years. There were times she went out on the truck with her husband in the early days.

“I can’t afford her now,” Richard Chiarella says.

The company has had many workers who were not family members.

“There have been many employees over the years. Basically, it was a helper for each truck,” Carole Chiarella says. “It’s hard work dragging hoses, running the pumps, digging.”


That part of the business — the hard work — hasn’t changed in 50 years, but lots of other things have.

“We used to go down to the local landfill in Danbury and they had a great big lagoon,” she recalls. “You’d back up to the lagoon and empty your truck and drive away, and it was probably $20. Now you’ve got the sophisticated sewer plant, and it costs you $80 to $90 per thousand gallons just to empty the truck, so if you got 3,000 or 4,000 gallons on there, you’re talking $300. Things have changed considerably as far as the dollars go. The regulations have increased on the septic systems and how they are installed and the sizes, and now they have filters on them. Everything just got a little more complicated.”

Septic inspections for real estate transactions have become a substantial part of Danbury Septic Tank Service’s business. Such inspections are not required by the state in Connecticut, but Chiarella says most banks require them. Even customers who don’t require bank financing usually want a septic system inspection, she says, especially if it is an older home.

The company grew substantially in the 1990s, first with the acquisition of another septic pumping business and the next year with the acquisition of that company’s property. The property is a 6-acre tract in Danbury in a mixed commercial-residential area. Danbury Septic Tank Service is the third septic pumping business to occupy the property.

The Chiarellas tore down some of the existing buildings and erected a 40-by-60 steel building that houses all three of the family’s businesses.

The expansion has been a good move from the very beginning, although it was almost too good at first. Just before the business sale was completed, Carole Chiarella mailed out her monthly reminder postcards to Danbury Septic Tank Service customers whose service dates were coming up. The previous owner of the purchased business had done the same. 

“About a week after we purchased the business, we got 38 pump jobs in one day,” Chiarella recalls. “My husband and I were going crazy answering the telephone. We had our customers calling us, plus their customers calling us.”


Richard Chiarella, who holds the third septic cleaning license issued by the state of Connecticut, 000003, says the biggest changes in the pumping business since he started are the vacuum pumps that empty tanks a lot faster than the diaphragm pumps that were on Danbury Septic Tank Service’s first two trucks. Another big change, he says, was regulatory: The state decided that septic tank access should not be more than a foot below the surface, to make sure they are still accessible even if the ground freezes.

“We are obligated to tell the homeowners when we get there that their tank is too deep and they are going to need a riser,” Chiarella says. If they do need a riser, Danbury Septic Tank Service custom makes them from high-density polyethylene pipe from Advanced Drainage Systems. Danbury Septic Tank Service buys the HDPE pipe in 20-foot lengths and cuts them to size on site.

Carole Chiarella takes care of the company’s scheduling. After every routine pumping, the company calculates, based on the size of the system and how many people are in the house, whether it should be two or three years before the next service call. Chiarella maintains the information in a database and uses it to send out reminder postcards to the customers.

“When we first started in the business, we did all of this on index cards,” Chiarella recalls. “And then we would file them downstairs. When a customer would call, I would go downstairs and look through the file, pull the card and see the last time and the size and so forth. I’ve been in bookkeeping all my life. Back in the ’80s I decided it was time to learn the computer, so I took some computer courses at the local high school. And then I took another computer course from some company. I’m not the best at it, but I poke along.”

She uses QuickBooks for the bookkeeping and Microsoft Works to maintain her database. Danbury Septic Tank Service’s website designer gives her technical assistance if she needs it.

Chiarella also handles marketing, which is through the phone book, Google and, to celebrate the 50th anniversary, an advertising campaign on the local radio station.

“Being in business 50 years, we’re very well-known, so we get a lot of referrals from customers,” she says.

She says their usual service area is a 30-mile radius from their shop in Danbury, but they have one large account, an auto racetrack, that is more than 40 miles away.


Chiarella’s recordkeeping and scheduling skills also get tested with grease pumping, another one of the company’s services.

“Grease is a big issue here because a lot of towns won’t take it,” Chiarella says. “Danbury does take the grease, but I’m only allowed certain days. I can take 3,000 gallons twice a week. I have to figure it out — that I can do so many restaurants this day and this many that day — because I cannot go over 3,000 gallons.”

She says she can normally serve all the customers with two days a week, but she is always close to the limit of what the local treatment plant will accept. If she can’t dispose of the grease in Danbury, the options are treatment plants in New Milford and Torrington, both more expensive and farther away.

Chiarella is well-aware that it is impossible to please everyone, but she tries. The company’s slogan is “Service is our last name.”

“We give everybody a two-hour window. We say we’ll be there between 10 and 12, or something like that, but 99 percent of our customers are very happy with that. We do try to accommodate everybody we can as quickly as we can, and we give everybody very good service. In my office I have a folder with letters from customers thanking us for the good service and saying the boys are polite. I keep those letters.”

Another letter she has kept is from the mayor of Danbury congratulating the Chiarellas on their 50th anniversary. It is in a frame in the office, near the photos of 50 years’ worth of trucks. That’s one way the Chiarellas have celebrated their anniversary.

Another way is visible to everyone who drives past their property in Danbury. There is a big sign out front that reads: “Thanks for 50 great years to all our customers and friends. The Chiarellas.”

One sideline after another

It’s not unusual for entrepreneurs or anyone else to have a sideline business — sometimes called a side hustle. It’s the same for almost everyone at Danbury Septic Tank Service — Richard and Carole “Muzzy” Chiarella along with their two sons, Richard “Richie” Chiarella II and Phil Chiarella.

Two of the sidelines, septic tank installations and portable restrooms, are not unusual for people in the pumping business, but along the way, the Chiarellas also acquired a duplex that they remodeled and are now renting. That’s become Carole Chiarella’s side hustle. The duplex was part of the package when Danbury Septic Tank Service acquired the property of another pumping business in 1997.

Over time, the Chiarellas fixed the roof, the windows and kept remodeling as rental income came in. They’ve had good luck keeping tenants, Carole Chiarella says. Son Phil Chiarella, when he came back home to work in the family business after five years running a restaurant, lived in one of the units for 12 years.

“As each one of them moved out, that gave me the opportunity to make more improvements, because let’s face it, you can’t rip out a bathroom or rip out a kitchen when someone is living there,” Carole Chiarella explains. “When the units changed hands, I would go in and remodel a little bit more or paint a little bit more or do something to make it homey.”

In 2006, Phil Chiarella started a portable restroom operation, PJ’s PortaJohns and Septic Service. At first he split his time between that company and Danbury Septic Tank Service, but now his side hustle has become a full-time job. Danbury Septic Tank Service, where he still helps out if he’s needed, has become his sideline.

In 2008, RichieChiarella started Hard Rock Contractors, which installs and repairs septic systems and does stump removal, site work and rototilling.

The success of those side businesses makes their mom and dad extremely proud.

“The biggest thing for me was to see the accomplishment of both of my sons expanding their businesses,” she says. “Now we have excavating, portable restrooms and septic cleaning. That to me is very important because it’s all family.”


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