7 Questions to Ask Before You Start Pumping Grease

Just like oil and water, septic and grease trap waste don’t always mix well in a pumper’s business plan

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Adding grease trap service can be an alluring prospect for pumpers eager to grow and expand from traditional residential septic service. It’s easy to see dollar signs when you pass several fast food restaurants and convenience stores as you run the daily septic pumping route in your service territory.

But securing new grease trap work is more complicated than driving up to your local McDonald’s and pitching your vacuum services to the store manager. Contractors venturing into this area need to do a lot of planning before plunging a hose into that first trap. And hopefully we can help with that effort in this issue of Pumper.

This month we focus on grease trap service and disposal, both by spotlighting equipment used for this specialty in our Product Focus feature and through our Pumper profile. I’m happy we get to make a return visit to St. Louis-based Grease Masters, which has built a successful specialty in grease trap and related kitchen cleaning services.

I befriended Grease Masters owners John and Pam Remstedt many years ago at the Pumper & Cleaner Expo, before it was called the WWETT Show. You couldn’t find a more enthusiastic couple in the pumping industry — and their years of attention to customer service has made Grease Masters a thriving company over the years. We first featured John and Pam in 2010, and they have enjoyed double-digit growth every year since. I encourage you to read our new profile story and am sure you will learn valuable insights into providing grease service.

Like the Remstedts, I have talked to many contractors who run successful grease operations and those looking to add this specialty in the future. I’ve come away with many tips to share.

Before taking on your first grease trap customer, ask yourself these questions:

Do you have the right truck?

The most efficient way for pumpers to service grease traps is to have a truck dedicated to collecting that waste stream. Pumpers have told me it can be a time-consuming hassle to schedule the same vacuum truck for both septic and grease trap waste, primarily because treatment plants want to separate the flows.

If you have a truck to use exclusively on a grease route, you should determine if it has the optimal capacity for the traps you’ll clean. If you are serving a suburban or rural area, a large-capacity tank and a bigger rig will probably help your efficiency — pumping multiple large traps between runs to dump.

If you work in a congested urban area, a smaller truck in the sub-2,500-gallon range, will let you maneuver closer to the traps and park easily in city neighborhoods. Portable wheeled drum-style vacuum systems are often handy to reach kitchen traps when hose runs from outside are inconvenient or impossible.

A scent box deodorizer for the truck tank exhaust will also be a bonus as restaurants will want to limit offensive odors wafting into their dining room

Where will you dump?

Access to convenient and reasonably priced grease disposal varies wildly from region to region. Municipal plants nearing treatment capacity often turn away high-strength wastes like restaurant grease. And if they take it, the per-gallon fees may be surprisingly high. So you might be forced to drive greater distances to find a dumpsite, requiring you to pass along the elevated fuel and time costs on to your kitchen customers.

Before getting started, survey all the area treatment plants to find out if they will take grease and, if so, whether capacity will become an issue if this service takes off for you. If there are no good options but demand for the service still exists, do you have a way of storing grease to be transported in bulk loads by a third-party transporter?

Can you make the numbers work?

The key to adding any new service is making sure it can be a profitable venture. We’ve discussed the preferred dedicated truck for grease trap service and the need to research disposal costs. You also have a good idea of what your labor costs will be based on the skills and workload of your existing pumping crew. Also, you’ll have to dedicate time and marketing dollars to develop the new specialty. Balance all of those costs against the number of potential customers you could land and how much you can reasonably expect to charge them for grease trap service. Remember that you need to generate a reasonable amount of revenue for any service or it’s not worth firing up the truck and driving down the road.

Do you have the right customer base?

By their very nature, septic service companies are usually located either in rural locations or the suburban fringe of cities where municipal sewer service lines end and decentralized wastewater systems take over. The closer your business is to major population centers, the more likely you will have high numbers of the types of businesses requiring grease trap service. Survey

your area both for a concentration of fast-food restaurants, pubs or taverns, or institutional kitchens found at places like jails, hospitals and nursing or assisted living facilities.

Then consider the motivation these businesses would have to hire you and schedule regular cleaning service. It’s clear that demand will be driven not only by how busy these restaurants and institutions are, but by the level of regulation they face by local governments and health departments to keep their grease traps clear. Required quarterly service, for example, creates a better environment for your business than, say, if the cleaning intervals are left primarily up to the businesses.

Lastly, if you determine a strong customer base exists, take a look at how many of your competitors are fighting for the grease business. Barriers to entry in providing this service — including the dedicated truck and disposal issues — may discourage neighboring pumpers from offering the service and give you the opportunity to land a greater percentage of the local business.

Will it impact your septic pumping?

If pumping and maintaining septic systems is your bread-and-butter service offering, you have to ask yourself if getting into grease — though possibly a lucrative endeavor — is a wise move in the long run. If you’re trying to expand into grease without adding staff, this may spread your crew too thin to satisfy your loyal septic customers. If grease service takes off and you are not prepared for the additional workload, you could be pushing out septic pumping appointments further on the calendar or find it more difficult to take on emergency work that can be both very profitable and great for building your reputation as a problem-solving company. However, if you are committed to providing quality service in both specialties, make sure you have the staff, training and equipment to handle the work.

Can you offer associated services?

Companies that build a strong clientele for grease trap work may find they can upsell other services to these loyal customers. Once you get going, are you ready to offer range-hood cleaning, other cleaning or janitorial services or portable sanitation that may be requested? There is also the possibility of making money by recycling collected waste streams like brown grease and cooking oil.

It’s a great benefit when you can leverage more work from loyal customers rather than building the business by seeking out new customers. Be sure to take offering associated services into account when you’re looking at adding grease trap service.

Is your crew on board?

On a number of occasions, I have encountered pumpers who prefer cleaning septic tanks to performing grease trap work — a few even balking at the prospect of running a grease route. Usually it has to do with offensive and lingering odors associated with grease trap work and that grease traps can present a greater customer service challenge.

Yes, the general public would probably think septic tanks would be more unpleasant to deal with than restaurant grease traps, but pumpers who have done both have a more nuanced opinion. Most I’ve talked to prefer dealing with septic tanks. So make sure your technicians are ready, willing and able to take on this new specialty with enthusiasm.


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