Mark and Kris Coelho Move to Land-Spread Septage and Portable Sanitation Waste

Following a several-year break from the pumping industry, a couple returned to breathe new life into Oregon’s La Pine Septic Service.

Mark and Kris Coelho Move to Land-Spread Septage and Portable Sanitation Waste

  The crew at La Pine Septic Service includes, from left, Claire Coelho, Kris Coelho, Mark Coelho, Daniel Cole, Frank Stoltz, John Metzer, Jason Cox, Summer Wollenberg and Andrew Brunk. (Photos by Joe Kline)

Interested in Business?

Get Business articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Business + Get Alerts

Mark and Kris Coelho’s return to the septic service business after a decade-long hiatus began in a Staples parking lot in Provo, Utah.

       That’s where they reviewed the books for La Pine Septic Service in La Pine, Oregon, after using the office supply store to receive and return a nondisclosure agreement for the business. The Coelhos had been on a road trip to Durango, Colorado, checking out a different septic company when they decided to do a quick internet search for other West Coast companies for sale. They found La Pine Septic, and not long after, Mark was planning a trip to Oregon. Suddenly the Coelhos were back in the septic game. Fast-forward another decade and the couple has turned La Pine Septic from a fledgling business into a much more prosperous one by adhering to many of the same principles they followed with their previous septic company. But they have also incorporated some new approaches this time around such as establishing their own disposal solution, which recently went into service.

         “We decided we’d both hit the grindstone, work as hard as we could to build up the company and turn it into something that was big enough and strong enough to where — when we got ready to sell it — we’d have our retirement,” Mark says. “We’re basically there. We’ve grown it exponentially to over three times what it was doing when we bought it.” 


         The Coelhos’ septic industry experience goes back to 1991 when they started operating Big Jim’s Honey Buckets in Central California. Within three years, they had increased the company’s gross revenue by 35%. They brought a second septic company into the fold and produced a similar growth trajectory.

         But in 2001, a problem arose. The Coelhos caught an employee embezzling.

         “Kris went through the books, and she eventually got to a quarter of a million dollars. I said don’t go back any further. I don’t even want to know,” Mark recalls.

         His attorney and CPA suggested filing for bankruptcy, but he decided against it.

         “I told them I wasn’t going to do that,” he says. “I got letters in the mail regularly about companies doing that to us. I said all those vendors are our friends, and we’re going to pay our debts.”

         It required a couple years of hard work. Kris says no employee ever missed a paycheck, and Mark took on a second job to support his young family. Kris took the lead, and eventually the Coelhos got everything paid off upon the sale of the company.

         “We ended up with not even 20% of what we sold the business for, but we paid all the debts back,” Mark says.

         After that, the couple and their family moved to Star Valley Ranch, Wyoming, where Mark started working at a phosphate mine.

         “We were just kind of floundering,” Mark says. “We were staying above water, but we were not really where we wanted to be for when we were ready to retire. We decided we should go back into the recession-proof septic business.”

         The couple looked at a business in Lewistown, Montana, and then Durango, Colorado, which is where they were returning from when they discovered the listing for La Pine Septic in Oregon. After closing on the company in June 2013, the Coelhos established a 10-year plan. Now that they’re approaching the end of that plan, they’re satisfied with what they’ve built. 


         Today, La Pine Septic runs four portable restroom trucks and three septic pumping trucks with nine employees, producing three times the gross revenue from a decade ago. On the restroom side, the focus is largely on construction with some special events work as it comes up. La Pine Septic also often rents toilets to people who own lots in the area and park an RV on them for the warm-weather months. For the septic pumping, a significant revenue boost came from becoming an official maintenance provider on alternative treatment technology systems.

         “In Central Oregon, there is a problem with nitrate,” Mark says. “They think it’s getting into the water table, so they started requiring people to install nitrate-reducing systems instead of the old style leach lines. They started going into sand filters and these ATT boxes. We saw a big opportunity there for becoming a maintenance provider. You have to be certified by the DEQ and go through classes. I went through the classes and got certified. We have 150 accounts now on just the maintenance providing.”

         The septic pumping fleet includes a 2004 Peterbilt 330 from FMI Truck Sales & Service with a 3,600-gallon aluminum tank (3,400 waste, 200 fresh); a 2007 Peterbilt 330 from FMI Truck Sales & Service with a 2,500-gallon aluminum waste tank and a 100-gallon freshwater tank on the side of the truck; and a 2022 Peterbilt 330 from Tank World with a 3,900-gallon aluminum tank (3,700 waste, 200 fresh). All the trucks have Masport pumps.

         For portable restrooms, La Pine has a 2011 Ford F-350 featuring a Conde (Westmoor Ltd.) pump and an aluminum 400-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater Progress tank; a 2012 Ford F-450 flatbed with no tank; a 2019 Ford F-450 from Best Enterprises with a 600-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank; a 2021 Ford F-450 from Best Enterprises with a 600-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank; and a 2022 Ford F-450 with a self-built 600-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank. The company has about 500 Satellite Industries restrooms and 20 hand-wash stations from Quadel Industries. 


         When the Coelhos bought La Pine Septic, the company had been through a few different ownership cycles and wasn’t in peak shape. Outside of some operational efficiencies to improve upon, the company’s reputation in general needed to be restored.

         “That was a challenge,” Mark says. “It took awhile for people to believe again in the service we were able to provide.”

         A simple combination of clean trucks and word-of-mouth went a long way.

         “That is the best advertising I’ve ever found,” Mark says.

         “People expect septic equipment to be dirty and grungy, but our trucks shine,” Kris says.


         All of the trucks get washed at least weekly, sometimes more. Mark has a good relationship with the owner of a truck wash in La Pine, Jerry Cehrs of Valley Pressure Washing.

         “I barter with him and offer snow plowing services,” Mark says.

         The Coelhos have 16 acres where they live and also have the La Pine Septic office/shop. So in addition to the regular washing, the fleet’s customer-friendly appearance is maintained by always keeping the trucks parked in the 4,000-square-foot heated and insulated shop.

         “If you don’t catch eyes or your truck looks like it’s falling apart when you’re going down the road, you’re hurting your business,” Mark says.

         Then there’s the La Pine Septic employees.

         “You can’t be in a business like this without having good people, and we feel that we have a great crew,” says Mark. 


         Counting on municipal facilities to offload waste can get expensive, not to mention the inconvenience of always having to adhere to their operating hours. That’s why Mark was always interested in finding his own disposal solution, going back to his days operating in California, but he didn’t make that goal a reality until just recently.

         “When we got to Oregon, the city would shut down on the weekends, holidays, things like that. But people don’t stop using the bathroom obviously, and we may still have to go out and pump a septic tank. That spurred us on more. It was the need. I didn’t want to be at the mercy of the city, and we were also paying big bucks.”

         La Pine Septic handles on average 1.3 million gallons of wastewater annually. Depending on the municipality, Mark was paying as much as 13 cents per gallon for disposal. His disposal costs are now about 4 cents per gallon with his land-spreading operation.

         Mark spent three years doing his homework first, building the process equipment and studying the local requirements for land-spreading septage as well as what was being done in different states. He worked closely with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to understand exactly what he had to do to meet standards before submitting his application.

         La Pine Septic’s receiving plant officially went online in June 2022 at a 233-acre land application site. It starts with a 400-gallon stainless steel milk tank outfitted with a 5/16-inch bar screen. The screen lifts hydraulically and offloads into a hopper.

         “That way you’re not fighting the trash and natural waste that comes through a septic tank or a portable toilet. It’s basically hands off as far as my technicians go,” Mark says. “They dump into this screen and the screen dumps into a hopper. And then the screen returns back into the milk tank so that they can continue dumping.” 


         After that is a grit catch containment, and then a pipeline that travels to a mixing tank where a Patz 3333 pump agitates the waste and adds hydrated lime to balance pH to DEQ specifications. The pump also loads the stabilized waste into a 2004 Ag-Gator for land application.

         “They say you have to mix for at least 20 minutes and rest the material for 30 minutes,” Mark says. “And then you take a pH sample and once your pH gets 12.5 or above, you have to rest the material in the mixing tank for half an hour. If it stays 12.5 or above, you can go directly into the spreading rig and go to the land application.”

         The DEQ requirements call for three parts septic waste to one part portable toilet waste on what can be spread. Mark says he has yet to have any issues hitting the correct pH levels.

         “I attribute a lot of the good results I’m getting to the pump itself because it does such a good job with the agitation,” he says.

         Mark also has a 21,000-gallon frac tank for storing waste that won’t immediately go to the Ag-Gator.

         “If the trucks are running hard and I don’t have time to stabilize the material, then I send it to the frac tank,” Mark says. “Then later I can go to the frac tank back into the mixing tank and do my stabilization and ground application.”

         A single pump handles the entire operation, but Mark has a vacuum truck on site that can be used as a backup for agitation if the primary pump fails.

         “I will never be down as far as agitation and getting the waste properly mixed,” he says.


         The application site is 4 miles away from the La Pine Septic shop and owned by a large company that wants the soil amendments from the septage.

         “It’s on 233 acres that I don’t own, but the people that do, they want our stabilized material to build the soil,” Mark says. “It’s a large company that owns over a quarter of a million acres in Central Oregon. We’re just at the beginning stages with them.”

         That acreage is a big reason why Mark chose land application over other disposal solutions like dewatering.

         “It all depends on your situation,” Mark says. “I got lucky that I found a large land-owning company that loved the concept. When you get into dewatering, it is a lot more expensive to get set up. We did it the most economical way that we could. We’re able to do land application due to the acreage availability.”

         In time, Mark envisions taking on additional septage from other pumpers, but he’s not at that stage yet.

         “I have to know myself that it is improving the ground and is working properly before I consider taking anyone else’s waste,” he says.

         For others interested in finding their own disposal solution, Mark advises not becoming discouraged by stringent requirements and red tape.

         “You just have to do your due diligence,” Mark says. “Study the requirements of the state you’re in and be sure to follow the requirements of the regulatory agency. You have to go by the parameters that they set.”


         Mark remembers his earliest days in the septic business in California. He initially couldn’t get a loan from the bank to purchase Big Jim’s Honey Buckets because he had no prior industry experience. But the owner trusted that Mark would be successful and set up a one-year lease for Mark to run the company and establish that experience.

         It’s been a circuitous journey since — success with that first business, leaving the industry for a decade, and finally returning to it to build up a struggling business. However winding that path has been, Mark says he and Kris have ultimately arrived to where they wanted to be.

         “The main retirement planning we’ve had is building this company as strong as possible. We’re trying to grow it large enough to where when we are ready to retire, we can.”  


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.