This Florida Environmental Services Company Builds a Reputation for Solving Tough Industrial Cleaning Challenges

U.S. Submergent Technologies trucks pull sands and solids and return water to tanks and infrastructure, limiting hauling costs and plant downtime.

This Florida Environmental Services Company Builds a Reputation for Solving Tough Industrial Cleaning Challenges

U.S. Submergent Technologies’ leadership team includes, from left, Cindy Boss, Paul Meding, Michael Kisling, Denver Stutler Jr., Paul Del Favero and Aaron Hood.

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Removing accumulated sand, grit and other debris from tanks, pipelines and other infrastructure at wastewater treatment plants without the hassle and expense of bypass pumping or taking facilities offline — and doing it with just one stand-alone vehicle — might seem like mission impossible. But it’s standard operating procedure for U.S. Submergent Technologies (also known as USST), a company that’s using proprietary technology to establish a beachhead in the wastewater-service industry.

The technological secret sauce that allows the Winter Park, Florida-based company to operate this way? Nine so-called Combination3 (as in “Combination Cubed”) vacuum trucks that the company engineered to more efficiently remove debris from “wet” infrastructure — and differentiate itself in a crowded market for environmental services.

As implied by the “cubed” in the truck’s name, these units bring three distinct capabilities to job sites, all integrated onto one truck chassis. Vacuum power is supplied by Roots blowers (Howden), hydraulic downhole pumping capability is courtesy of a proprietary pump, and waterjetting power is generated by a Hammelmann water pump (120 to 360 gpm at up to 2,500 psi).

The radical twist here is the downhole pumping capability. First of all, it largely leaves water behind in whatever it’s cleaning, significantly decreasing hauling costs for customers. But it also enables USST crews to clean everything from large-diameter pipelines, digesters, and lift stations to ponds, lagoons and tanks under fully surcharged conditions.

The bottom line: No need for time-consuming line bypass pumping or taking facilities offline to drain them in preparation for vacuum cleaning.

“As a company, we focus on infrastructure that can’t be easily cleaned by vacuum power,” says Denver Stutler Jr., the firm’s chief executive officer. He helped found the company in 2011. “For example, we recently estimated cleaning a 13-foot-diameter tunnel, 130 feet belowground. In the worst-case scenarios, we can even put pumps in series if we need to go even deeper.”


The Combination3 trucks are the centerpiece of the company, Stutler says. “These trucks can clean in a dry or partially dry environment or fully or mostly wet conditions because they carry technology to do those different tasks,” he explains.

“If it’s a dry environment, we use vacuum power,” he continues. “If it’s wet conditions, we use a hydraulic pump to remove debris and restore capacity to systems. Using a pump to move liquid waste often is better than vacuum power because the latter treats water like debris. But because suction can move only one ‘atmosphere’ at a time, it will first fill the tank with water before it gets to moving the sand.”

But a pump will remove both the sand and the water and do it up to 10 times faster than vacuum power. Moreover, the truck’s system separates the sand, grit and debris from water and sends the latter back into whatever infrastructure it’s cleaning, Stutler explains

“At the end of the day, municipalities don’t need to take a well or a lift station offline,” he says. “That’s critical because in many cases, it’s almost impossible to shut down things such as lift stations or smaller treatment plants.”

As a theoretical example, Stutler cites a tank that’s 10 by 10 by 10 feet, for a total of 1,000 cubic feet of capacity. If there’s a 2-foot-thick layer of sand, a conventional vacuum truck would essentially haul away all 200 cubic feet of debris, both debris and water, instead of 120 to 140 cubic feet of just sand. “Plus, we can save maybe several days of confined-space work if we clean wet infrastructure when it’s wet, which saves customers money on additional labor and keeps things safer for our employees,” he notes.


Of course, good equipment doesn’t matter without good employees to operate it. To attract and retain quality operators, Stutler says the company focuses on creating a culture centered on communication and respect. “Our field crews drive our business,” he explains. “They’re the backbone of delivering on our promise to customers.

“We’ve found that, first and foremost, you have to treat everyone with respect,” he continues. “This is a very important part of our culture. We also strive to communicate — keep people in the know about what we’re doing. We also try to connect everyone’s role to the overall function of the company so everyone understands how their contribution each day contributes to what we do overall.”

Operating a company that both develops its own proprietary technology and serves as a contractor that uses that equipment poses some challenges. (While the trucks are patent protected, the company does not plan to sell them to outside third parties.)

For starters, research/development and manufacturing costs aren’t for the faint of heart. And it took several years and a lot of trial and error to perfect the technology, says Stutler, who partnered with the truck’s inventor in 2011 to raise capital and bring the product to market. (The inventor eventually left the company.)

“What kept us going was the belief that there truly was value in what we were doing,” Stutler says. “In the correct application, we’re a really good solution for restoring capacity to wastewater infrastructure. But we’re not trying to get in front of vacuuming technology, which we feel still occupies an important place in the market.”


Stutler’s path to leadership at USST, which included stints in both the public and private sectors, is almost as unique as the technology it developed. Raised in Florida — the company’s primary geographic market — Stutler graduated in 1989 from the University of Central Florida with a Master of Science degree in civil engineering.

For about the first 10 years of his career, Stutler worked for a large environmental engineering firm, which gave him experience in wastewater management. He eventually rose to become a part owner of the company.

In 1999, Stutler accepted an appointment as the chief of staff in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. After that, he served as chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush from 2003 to 2005. He capped off his public-sector career by serving as secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation from 2005 to 2007, managing an annual budget of $9 billion.

Stutler left the government sector in 2007. In 2011, he joined forces with the inventor of the Combination3. The first prototype was built by the end of 2012, and company officials did a “seeing-is-believing” tour in 2013, cleaning infrastructure for potential customers for free. “That’s where real value emerged — an opportunity for potential customers to kick the tires and test the equipment,” he says. “We didn’t do work for hire until the middle of 2013.”

The company’s marketing efforts received a jump-start in 2015, when the state of Florida established a grant program to help restore capacity at wastewater treatment facilities in small rural communities. “It created awareness of the capacity problems caused by sand buildup in (treatment) infrastructure,” Stutler says. Using the equipment in actual field demonstrations also helped the company further fine-tune its design.

But overall, Stutler was buoyed by a study that showed many Florida wastewater treatment infrastructures with mediocre operating grades. “Ultimately, I saw an opportunity to provide a valuable service with an innovative piece of equipment,” he says.


Building a better mousetrap doesn’t guarantee instant success, however. “Educating customers and developing markets is much harder than building a truck,” Stutler concedes. “It took five years for us to perfect our message to customers.”

The company’s basic pitch essentially boils down to this: It’s less expensive to use the Combination3 technology to restore lost capacity at treatment plants than it is to expand brick-and-mortar facilities to compensate for lost capacity. In fact, the company estimates that every cubic yard of debris removed from a facility saves municipalities $3,000 — money not spent on restoring capacity.

As such, removing 300 cubic yards of sand can save a municipality roughly $900,000 in infrastructure expansion costs, he says. “We typically can remove the sand for less than 10% of the value of rebuilding the capacity,” Stutler says.

Sand buildup is similar to clogged arteries: It’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind scenario for most municipalities. In one case, USST thought it might remove 50 to 70 cubic yards of material from a 28-foot-deep treatment center tank that could not be taken offline. But instead, crews pumped out more than 300 cubic yards — equivalent to 450 tons of material. That restored significant treatment capacity to the plant, he says.

“We get a lot of ‘Wow, we had no idea there was that much sand in our system’ from our customers,” he continues. “From time to time, we get into a plant and it’s absolutely amazing how much sand there is. A lot of these plants haven’t been cleaned since they were built.

“A lot of the sand comes from inflow. … You’re looking at miles and miles of 8-foot-long sections of RCP (reinforced concrete pipe) strung together to collect wastewater,” he says. “Those pipes shift and crack over time for a million different reasons.”

Like so many other environmental service companies, USST faces stiff competition in its market, especially since customers view almost every job as suitable for conventional vacuum technology. That forces sales staff to evaluate jobs carefully, he says.

“Our biggest thing is to reduce competition by focusing on what we do better than others,” he explains. “Initially, it’s easy for our sales team to think that a tank-cleaning job is just a tank-cleaning job. But in reality, it may not be our kind of tank-cleaning job.

“We typically clean pipes 24 inches or more in diameter because our equipment works best in larger pipes,” he continues. “So 80% of pipework on the street is not in our wheelhouse. But on the other hand, bypass-pumping of a 48-inch pipe can be costly and sometimes isn’t even a viable option.”


Looking ahead, Stutler would like to expand the company’s geographic footprint by perhaps establishing two branch facilities outside of Florida this year and two more in 2020. In the long term, he envisions 10 branches in other states, dedicated solely to restoring capacity in wet infrastructure. “After that, we might let our technology blossom into other market sectors (for wet cleaning),” he says.

But the CEO also understands there are many facets to growth, and all involve challenges. As such, being patient and moving carefully and strategically is critical to avoid overextending company resources.

“We have to be patient and be sure we’re first doing Florida right,” he cautions. “But the cool thing is customers are finding we can solve their problems. We love to solve problems and create value for customers that they otherwise might not recognize — get to that clogged artery before it causes a bigger problem. In the end, we restore capacity for customers and make their jobs easier by doing our job well.”

Solving tough jobs

U.S. Submergent Technologies has faced many tough jobs. Like a 60-inch collection line clogged by sand in the middle of a retirement community. Or a wastewater treatment plant suffering from declining capacity and rising energy costs, caused by accumulated sand and debris.

By using proprietary technology, a Combination3 multipurpose vacuum, pumping and jetting truck, the company’s work crews resolved these problems with no bypass pumping or facility shutdowns required.

In the private retirement community, the Combination3 truck was able to jet the accumulated sand 375 feet upstream to a manhole, where the pump removed it — even though the pipe was fully surcharged. At the treatment plant, workers removed more than 180 cubic yards of sand and other debris from a 20-foot-tall surge tank — and did so with the facility remaining fully operational.

Moreover, the Combination3 truck runs quietly in pumping mode, operating at 70 dB, which means it’s minimally disruptive in residential areas. “You can stand next to it while it’s running and talk on a cellphone,” says Denver Stutler Jr., the company’s chief executive officer.

Each truck features vacuum and hydraulic methods of picking up debris, waterjetting capability and dripless tubing systems.

The company owns nine Combination3 units, seven of which were built in-house. The company is looking for an outside manufacturer to build future units, Stutler says.


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