One Truck, One Proud Family and Almost 80 Years in the Pumping Industry

A-1 Septic’s “Big Blue,” their single Classy Truck rig has supported the family business for 16 years and counting

One Truck, One Proud Family and Almost 80 Years in the Pumping Industry

Brian and Tamara Russell pose with Big Blue, the truck her father, Henry Howland Jr., ordered 16 years ago. As a surprise for her father, Tamara entered the truck for Pumper’s Classy Truck, and it appeared in the magazine in 2009 shortly before he passed away.

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Guess I’m still on my two weeks.

That’s the joke Brian Russell continues to make occasionally, more than two decades after taking over the fieldwork for A-1 Septic Tank Cleaning from his father-in-law, Henry Howland Jr. What was initially proposed as a two-week gig while Howland recovered from a back injury has morphed into Brian and wife Tamara running the longtime Topeka, Kansas, septic company, now in its 76th year.

“I just wanted to see it go on more than anything,” Tamara says of her journey into the septic trade.

With two older siblings uninterested in getting into the family business, Tamara decided to take on the role. She got further involved in 2002 when her father stepped back from his job duties, and since 2009, when he died, she and Brian have led the company full time.

Their plan is to keep up what has made the company successful for decades — including their 16-year-old vacuum truck — with hopes that potentially a fourth generation, their son Lukas, could continue A-1 Septic Tank Cleaning’s legacy down the line.

THE FAMILY TRADE

A-1 Septic Tank Cleaning started with Tamara’s grandfather, Henry Howland Sr., in 1947. He ran the company full time until 1973, when Tamara’s father took over. From there, operations just naturally transitioned to yet another generation of the family.

“I’ve done little things here and there for as long as I can remember, whether answering the phone for my dad or helping with the books,” Tamara says. “Then in 2002, my dad said he was going to step back and let me do more, but he continued to answer the phone until he passed away.” 

All these years, A-1 Septic has kept it simple as a one-truck company. For a time, Tamara says her father considered adding a second truck to bring her brother into the company, but that didn’t pan out. A-1 Septic stayed a one-truck operation.

“I also think my dad was having thoughts about the expense of a second truck,” Tamara says. “Brian and I haven’t really considered adding a second truck either. We’re happy maintaining what we’ve already built.” 

A-1 Septic has stayed around its home base of Topeka, typically traveling no more than about 30 miles for a job. Perhaps the most significant change over the years has been the amount and makeup of A-1 Septic’s workload as the Topeka community has grown. More houses have been built in areas with no sewer service. More restaurants now exist and local dog food plants Hill’s Pet Nutrition and J.M. Smucker’s have grown.

“We do more commercial work now than my dad did,” Tamara says. “Topeka has grown. More restaurants have popped up over the years, and we do a lot of grease trap cleaning. That’s one thing. And two, we’ve done a lot of work for the dog food plants. My dad did Hill’s Pet Nutrition back in the day, but they hadn’t grown as large as they have now in the area. When we’ve had a contract with them, Brian has had to do it almost every day.”

A RELIABLE RIG

Among the many constants for A-1 Septic is its service truck nicknamed Big Blue, a 2008 Peterbilt 340 from Transway Systems. Back in its youth in 2009 it was even one of Pumper’s featured Classy Trucks.

“That was the last truck my dad kind of had a say on as far as how everything was set up and how it was ordered,” Tamara says. She and Brian flew to Buffalo, New York, to pick it up. She says she remembers calling her dad from the road while driving it back to Kansas.

“I called him from somewhere around Iowa and said, ‘This thing is huge. I’m going to call it Big Blue.’ So Big Blue has stuck all these years,” Tamara says. “My dad always wanted one of his trucks to be featured in Classy Trucks, but he had never submitted any. So I told Brian when we were driving it back that I was going to submit it for Classy Trucks after we got it lettered. We surprised my dad. We didn’t tell him that we were going to do it. So when we got selected, he was amazed. He passed away that year it was featured, but he got to see the truck in there. That was the important part.”

Big Blue carries a 3,600-gallon Progress aluminum tank, with vacuum created by a Masport HXL 400 pump. The truck has a PACCAR PX-8 power plant tied to a 10-speed Fuller transmission (Eaton Vehicle Group) transmission. Work features include a three-stage telescopic hoist, matching aluminum toolboxes, and a custom “It’s Time” indicator float gauge. Exterior accents include aluminum hose trays, diamond-plate aluminum hose guard on the tank and aluminum wheels.

Keeping the truck this long wasn’t necessarily the original plan. Tamara’s dad used to maintain a five-year cycle for changing out trucks.

“The reason he did the five-year cycle is he thought it was better to get rid of a truck before it got too many miles on it and he wanted to be able to still get something out of it. I think that was his thought,” Tamara says. “We weren’t really planning on keeping the truck this long. It just kind of happened that way. Originally we thought maybe 10 years. But we had so many issues with the truck in the beginning before we got it running right, I think we just developed an attitude of, ‘Nope, we’ll just keep this one going.’”

In 2008, Big Blue was one of the earliest models engineered for low emissions, so some tweaking was unfortunately necessary before it became the reliable workhorse it is today after traveling 220,000 miles.

“There were problems with the diesel particulate filter and the turbo,” Tamara says. “It was all under warranty, but it took about four years to get through all of that. Since then, it’s been pretty good. There have been little things here and there, but Brian does his best to take care of it. It gets babied.” 

A-1 Septic has a shop to store Big Blue. As long as the truck has already been in service, Tamara says the hope is that they can get another 10 years out of it.

“However long it will last,” she says. “Brian keeps saying he’s going to retire in maybe 10 years, so he’s hoping it lasts that long.”

GREASE SERVICE

A-1 Septic has benefited from some local regulations. For about a decade, restaurants have been required to clean grease traps quarterly. That coupled with Topeka’s growth and the increase in the number of restaurants has meant significantly more grease trap work than the company used to handle.

“When that regulation started, that’s when grease trap work really picked up for us. It makes up maybe 40% of our work now,” Tamara says. “My dad was doing grease trap work, but he just didn’t have as much to do back then. It was maybe 10% of his workload.”

A-1 Septic maintains simple verbal contracts with its grease trap customers.

“If they want us to do it, we just get them on the schedule,” Tamara says. “Some are three months, some are two months. It just depends on the particular situation; how bad their grease trap gets and what the city says they need done.”

Another helpful regulation is the requirement for riser installation at the time of a home sale, which has been in place for about 20 years. It keeps Brian focused on profitable pumping rather than searching for septic tanks and excavating to access them, Tamara says.

“Brian doesn’t do any locating or digging to get to a tank,” she says. “If there’s one that needs it, we have excavating companies we refer for that because one person could be spending hours locating and digging when they could be pumping instead. We don’t have to call the excavating company very often. Usually that’s one of the questions we ask. Do you have a riser? If they say no we see if they can have it uncovered before we get there. A lot of times homeowners will do it themselves.”

GENERATION NEXT?

Since 2009, A-1 Septic’s staff has been solely Brian and Tamara, outside of one year when their son Lukas, 31, joined the team.

“We did that to see if it was something he might consider later on down the road,” Tamara says. “He’s doing his own thing right now, so we’ll see. I’m sure if something happened and we had to be away and one of our regular customers called, he’d get in the truck and go. We keep his hauler’s license current.”

In the meantime, Brian and Tamara, both 53, are looking at another decade of running Big Blue and providing Topeka’s community with quality septic service for almost eight decades.

“We’re just saving money and investing,” Tamara says. “We’ll keep operating how we always have.”



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