Bigger is Better

A Wisconsin pumper with a fleet of 6,000-gallon trucks finds efficiency and the professional look needed to take the family business well into the new century
Bigger is Better
Dale Kuettel empties a Kuettel’s Septic pumper into the company’s septage storage system.

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Take a look at this Kuettel’s Septic Service company article featured 10 years ago in the March 2004 issue of Pumper magazine. We spotlight the company again in a follow-up story to see how the business has evolved over the last decade: “Pumper Rewind: An Eye on Future Trends Keeps Kuettel's Booming.” 

The case for switching from 2,300-gallon pumpers to the biggest tanks available on a quad-axle platform was pretty easy to make for Kuettel’s Septic Service. 

“The bigger the tank, the more you’ll get done,” says Cheryl Kuettel, office manager for the company, based in Hortonville, Wis. “The guys make more visits per load. The three of them go to 35 jobs a day, and there are some miles in between. It’s not unusual to put on 100 miles a day. This gives us more flexibility.” 

While Cheryl states the obvious major reason for bigger rigs, Kuettel’s is the rare pumping contractor to make the jump in the company’s growing region in Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley. Cheryl knows of no other local contractor supersizing its fleet. That makes Kuettel stand out for more than just good service. 

The shiny big rigs make a statement about the company: It is investing for the long haul. It is adjusting to construction of ever-larger holding tanks. It is a professional outfit. And customers are taking notice. 

Cheryl notes that smaller pumpers are referring special customers to Kuettel’s. The company is emerging as a leader in a region with a great deal of suburban development, while waste haulers with outdated equipment are retiring. 

“One thing about the guys,” Cheryl says of her husband, Duke, his brothers (Douglas and Dale), and their father (Richard) who run the operation. “They are very into looking professional. The septic industry doesn’t shed a very good light on the people who usually run these types of businesses. We get a lot of good comments on the way the guys look and present themselves. The uniforms they wear; these are clean-cut guys.” 

Tanks a lot

But before they notice the brown and tan company uniforms and Duke’s clean shave, customers see the new, tricked-out trucks running down the road. And these units are a better calling card than the hodge-podge of smaller, second-hand trucks Kuettel used to run. 

Soon after the family business started, the Kuettels determined that buying used vehicles wasn’t the way they should go. Used trucks meant more maintenance headaches, and downtime on one truck meant they had to ride the others harder. As they updated the fleet in the 1990s, the Kuettels bought new trucks and ordered bigger tanks. A 4,500-gallon tank proved just a step to current trucks with 5,800- and 6,000-gallon capacities. 

At present, Kuettel’s owns:

  • A 2003 Volvo with 6,000-gallon T-Line Equipment tank.
  • A 2001 Sterling with 5,800-gallon tank installed by T-Line.
  • A 1993 GMC-Volvo with 5,800-gallon T-Line tank.
  • A 1996 Ford I-8000 with 2,300-gallon T-Line tank.

The company also owns a van-mounted Mustang water jetter and a Chevrolet flatbed truck with a 700-gallon slide-on T-Line tank for portable toilet cleaning. The portable sanitation side of the business has 200 restrooms, most from PolyPortables Inc. 

The three brothers head in different directions every morning with bigger trucks while their father goes out with the lone 2,300-gallon tanker for smaller jobs or to clean holding tanks located in tight spots. 

Duke schedules the work routes the night before – each driver might make several stops without returning to the home base, or clean out one big holding tank of 4,000 to 6,000 gallons and head back. The flexibility of the larger trucks leads to greater profitability and the ability to take on more customers, Cheryl says. 

It doesn’t hurt that the bigger trucks offer better driver comfort. Working long hours to grow the business, the owner-operators appreciate the softer air-ride of the bigger trucks over the sometimes bone-jarring ride of their previous rigs. “They can sure tell the difference on their backs from the old trucks to the new trucks,” says Cheryl. 

A weighty issue

Having a big unit is one thing. But you have to know how to use it. While drivers require the same standard commercial license (CDL) to operate the standard or larger tankers, the bulkier trucks take some getting used to. Winding, narrow suburban driveways can present a backing challenge. Low-hanging tree limbs and new blacktop driveways can be a liability hazard. The Kuettel drivers have answered all the challenges, and in the process calmed the fears some residents have of the bigger trucks. 

“Some customers are afraid of seeing a semi come into their yard,” Cheryl says. “A lot of them think we’re going to wreck their driveway. If I had a brand new concrete driveway and somebody drove in with (the bigger rig), I’d be a little nervous too. We explain that there’s nothing to worry about. We’ve learned from experience that the trucks don’t do any harm.” 

While the weight and size of the trucks hasn’t posed a problem, the Kuettels are careful when approaching certain pumping jobs. They will ask customers to trim back low-hanging branches so that the trucks don’t break them off, and so that the branches don’t scratch the trucks’ finishes. For new blacktop driveways in the summer, Duke Kuettel schedules visits for the cooler, early-morning hours, and with an empty tank. Each truck carries 200 feet of hose, letting drivers park off lawns and on firm footing. 

Looking sharp

“If anything looks questionable, we stay on the road and run the hose,” Cheryl says. “You lose suction from the pump, it’s harder on the equipment and it takes a lot longer. But you have better customer relations. A lot of pumpers in our area, if they can’t back right up to the tank, they’re not going to pump.” 

Kuettels mix and matches different chassis with tanks custom outfitted by T-Line Equipment in nearby Reedsville, Wis. The fabricator buys raw tanks and adds hatches, valves, ladders and hose pans. The tank is painted to match the company’s brown and tan colors, and decal signage is provided by R.J. Marx Inc. in Appleton, Wis. The company chooses chrome components to further stress a clean and professional operation. 

“Oh my goodness, my husband loves chrome; he likes it to look flashy,” Cheryl says. The trucks have reflective wheel wells, lug nut covers, rims and stacks. “When you have a truck coming down the road with chrome, it just looks prettier. It dresses it up.” 

All indications so far say that Kuettel’s Septic Service is dressed for success.

SIDEBAR: A WAYSIDE FOR WASTE

At certain times of the year – especially in the sloppy late winter/early spring months – Kuettel’s Septic Service had few options to getting rid of waste from its 5,700 customers with septic systems. 

There are weeks when the company’s permit from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources won’t allow injecting waste in 400 acres the company has approved for that purpose. And three area wastewater treatment plants will take waste from holding tanks, but not from septic systems. 

So two years ago, the Kuettel clan, long a dairy farming family, decided to adapt a manure pit for service as a sewage storage tank. Now, the facility includes a 720,000-gallon blue Harvestore Slurrystore tank, manufactured by Engineered Storage Products Co., which takes everything the company’s trucks can pump at crunch times. 

“It got to the point where we were so fed up with – where do you go with it?” says Cheryl Kuettel, office manager. “If you want your business to grow, you have to be there for the customer. 

The above-ground storage solution always piques the interest of fellow pumping contractors, who face situations where they can’t spread or inject waste on land, Cheryl reports. The Kuettels are familiar with a few dug lagoons used for storage, but they haven’t seen an area pumper set up a Harvestore pit. 

Trucks pump the sewage into the pit during times when injecting is prohibited. A crust forms over the top of the open pit, limiting odors. Later, the sewage is agitated and pumped from a discharge pipe over the top of the pit and into a liquid manure spreader outfitted with injectors. The Kuettel drivers inject the sewage into fields – mostly on their own farm – in the evenings or during slack times. 

The company hopes to use emerging hose and pump technology to allow waste to be pumped directly from the tank into tractor-mounted injectors through long hoses that can be pulled out into the fields. The process would eliminate the need for a traditional trailer-mounted manure spreader. The waste from a full tank will cover a 30-acre application, and the farm fields can take two applications annually. Right now the family’s acreage is more than enough to handle the company’s needs. 

The pit was installed by Midwest Glas Lined Storage in Rubicon, Wis., a specialist in adaptive reuse of Harvestore pits. The round pit stands 15 feet tall as installed, but adding additional rings to the top may increase its capacity, Cheryl explains. 

The approval process for the pit took about six months and required the company to get a Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit from the state. An engineer was required for the project, and the Kuettels worked with Don Brittanacker of Omni Engineering in nearby Appleton. 

In addition to gaining the approval of neighbors before construction, the Kuettels have to file an annual report tracking sewage flowing into and out of the pit. 

“Be prepared for a lot of paperwork and red tape,” Cheryl advises pumpers considering a system like Kuettels’. “They drag their feet like any government entities. We had to go through the town, the county and the state.” Approval went relatively smoothly because the company owns land surrounding the pit, and because the neighbors are mostly farmers who have similar challenges overcoming odors. 

The Kuettels explored lagoon storage but decided that the Harvestore provided a solution that was cleaner and had a nicer appearance. Either storage solution might be worthwhile to many growing pumping contractors, Cheryl says. But the Kuettels were well equipped for the storage facility because they already owned ample rural land and farming equipment left over from their days as dairy farmers. 

The unit cost $85,000. “It’s not cheap. It’s an investment,” Cheryl says. “The money was well worth it because it means less stress and we don’t have to worry about where we’re going to go with the waste.”



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