Northern Pumpers Bid Farewell to Winter Woes

Pumpers from places like Minnesota, Alaska, Alberta and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan talk about what it takes to survive a harshly cold and snowy winter as a septic service professional

Northern Pumpers Bid Farewell to Winter Woes

Bill Leppala of Tula Toilets and Septic in Ironwood, Michigan, is a walking example of the hardships winter pumpers endure.

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As the winter of 2017-2018 comes to an end, let’s take a moment to bow our heads in a show of respect for the men and women who pump out septic tanks in some of the more … inhospitable parts of the world, and congratulate them for surviving until spring.

Sharing stories and advice from the frozen tundra, pumpers we’ve spoken to from faraway lands like Minnesota, Alaska, Alberta and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan talk about what it takes to survive a harshly cold and snowy winter as a septic service professional.

Nathan Gagnier of Canessco Services in Edmonton, Alberta, knows all too well how badly a severe Canadian winter can kick pumpers' butts. During winter in their region, it’s not unusual for temperatures to dip to 30 degrees below zero. That stops a lot of things from working well, from pipelines that freeze to hydraulic controls on equipment that barely function — even employees who work outdoors.

But despite the brutal conditions, which can run from late October through March or April, work rarely stops for employees at Canessco Services, an industrial cleaning and wastewater services firm.

“When it’s minus 30 degrees, you’re just trying to keep water from becoming a giant ice cube,” says Gagnier, operations manager. “We use water-recirculation systems in our vacuum trucks to keep water constantly moving. And the trucks are equipped with boilers to provide hot water for thawing pipelines and hydroexcavating frozen ground.” 

Dressing for success in such harsh conditions requires wearing insulated coveralls (good to 40 degrees below zero) made by Helly Hansen and Carhartt; balaclavas and knit hats; waterproof gloves; and insulated, steel-toed rubber boots from Dunlop. Gagnier says workers typically wear an insulated liner under their waterproof gloves for extra protection. Some workers prefer Ski-Doo mitts to gloves.

“But those mitts can be bulky, so if you’re working on something that requires fingers, sometimes you have to take them off,” he says.

Canessco Services workers take other steps to handle the cold, from taking breaks as needed inside trucks to constantly scrutinizing trucks’ operations. “Everyone knows that things take longer in winter. … The trucks operate slower because the hydraulics slow down,” he says. “Instead of using hydraulic fluid, we use automatic transmission fluid (as hydraulic fluid) year-round on our combo vac trucks because it’s less viscous.

“You also have to pay more attention to your unit,” he says. “For example, if you try to extend a boom when it’s frozen up, you might break it. Or if a pump freezes up, it might cost $20,000 to fix it because you cracked the head.”

What’s the toughest cold-weather job Gagnier recalls? Hydroexcavating atop a hill a couple years ago, with wind chills of 22 to 31 degrees below zero. “We were trying to locate a pipeline on the side of a hill, so there was nothing to block the wind,” he says. “We had to excavate a hole 35 feet deep. It was real cold, but it needed to be done. You just dress really warm and take micro-breaks to warm up inside the truck.”

In rare instances, sometimes it’s just too bitterly frigid to work outside, he adds. “If it’s too cold, we don’t send our guys out — unless it’s a real emergency,” he says.

Minnesota’s Polar Vortex

A deep snow cover in Hinckley, Minnesota, during the cold snap of 2013-2014 turned out to be a blessing for customers of Ardell and Janelle Kick, owners of Purple Pumper. In many Minnesota regions, however, there wasn’t enough snowfall to prevent freeze-ups, and there were many emergency calls for pumpers when temperatures hit below zero for more than 50 days.

Winter is the roughest time of the year to run a septic service business, the Kicks agree. While work slows considerably in the first few months of the year, Purple Pumper is busy in December as customers want to get work done before the holidays.

Despite the cold, Ardell Kick must have the flexibility to move while he’s working, especially in the clothes he wears.

“I don’t wear anything special for the cold; in fact, I try to dress as lightly as possible. I usually wear hunting boots as they are basically a waterproof hiking boot. I also wear regular jackets.”

The cold can make work uncomfortable, and it also poses dangers. Kick recalls an incident working in temperatures at 10 degrees below zero that left him with a broken finger and a stranded truck.

“I got a rock stuck in my hose. Because I could no longer feel my fingers, I could not feel the rock as it was slipping out of the hose,” he says. “It nearly took my finger off when it finally came out. Trying to get obstructions out of pipes or equipment is one way to easily break fingers."

And that’s what happened. Kick had to go to the emergency room.  

“There sits your truck full of septage in someone’s driveway when it’s 10 degrees below zero. This is not something workers have to deal with in warmer regions,” he says.

Because Kick had a cast on his arm that day and was unable to drive the truck, his father, Dennis, had to move the truck. Ardell Kick has also had days when it took him three to four hours to get home — when it should have taken an hour — due to freezing rain on the roads or other extreme weather. On days where he’s hit with treacherous weather, Kick finishes only two to three jobs when he’s used to pumping 10 to 12 tanks on a good day. 

Cold Alaskan winters

Ronnie Ashbach of Sani-Can/Lemeta Pumping & Thawing faces climate challenges while running her business solo. The company is located near North Pole, Alaska, in suburban Fairbanks. While the community is often lashed by vicious cold and wicked winter storms, it’s located about 1,700 miles south of the actual pole.

“Our first business in Fairbanks was a feed store catering to clients who operated dog sleds,” Ashbach says.

When cold weather strikes North Pole, drainlines begin to freeze and it’s time for Sani-Can to kick its subsidiary, Lemeta Pumping & Thawing, into high gear. At the ready is the company steam truck, a 2000 Isuzu NPR box truck outfitted with a steam generator/boiler from Vapor Power International.

Thawing season runs primarily October to April, says employee Shaun Barlow. He says line thawing is an art, performed almost by intuition as the steam hose is fed slowly down the pipe and the ice is gradually melted. 

“The best way to describe the progress of the hose is a stutter,” he says. “You have water melting and steam condensing and you need to go in by feel, not progressing faster than the pipe volume can take it.”

One of the hazards of the job?

“The easiest way to unthaw a sewer line is through the clean-out from the outside,” he says. “If they don’t have a clean-out, you need to go in through the pipes and you hope it’s frozen, not plugged, because introducing steam into that can be messy.”

The company’s portable restroom fleet numbers roughly 500 units and growing. Most units are from PolyJohn Enterprises. Rounding out the inventory are wheelchair-accessible units from Satellite Industries and a Porta-Lisa restroom trailer from JAG Mobile Solutions.

Sani-Can also builds its own line of Arctic restrooms to withstand extreme weather conditions. The units feature PolyJohn interiors and steel frames. Foam insulating panels are sandwiched between the interior and new exterior plastic hulls. Sani-Can usually keeps a half-dozen of these models in stock, some holding up to four restroom units within the framework. 

“One of the big differences between a portable restroom business in Alaska and the lower 48 is that it’s more expensive to operate them here,” Ashbach says. “Freeze-thaw cycles kill them, and we have the added expenses of salt and de-icers. If you can get 200 uses out of a portable restroom in the summer, you can only get 100 out of them in a typical winter.”

Encouraging early pumpouts with a winter surcharge

During the summer and early fall, Bill Leppala of Tula Toilet and Septic in Ironwood, Michigan, appreciates the beauty of the lakes, rivers and woods in the Upper Peninsula where he pumps tanks and services restrooms. But for about seven months each year, he faces nature’s other side — 200 inches of snow and a slow thaw that forces up to 90 days of road restrictions.

His territory is on the western edge of the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin. Despite the challenges in this sparsely populated and economically challenged area, Leppala takes pride that he provides services year-round in the region around Ironwood and Hurley, Wisconsin.

“My biggest difference compared to most pumpers is the weather here,” Leppala says.

In late September, he prepares for winter by stowing tire chains in his truck.

“Some of the holding tanks are at the end of driveways with a 7 to 10 percent incline, and we can have 6- to 12-inches of snowpack,” Leppala says. He had put on and removed the chains five times last winter before the end of December.

Because he doesn’t close down during the winter like other pumpers in the area, he has some work to earn income. He has provided restrooms for the city of Ironwood and pumps a restaurant’s 10,000-gallon holding tank weekly.

When the snow starts to melt, road restrictions require him to get permits that allow him to haul at low speed and for limited use. Restrictions can stay on for more than 90 days.

He says it’s handy for education and reminders to customers about his $30 winter surcharge or when road restrictions are on and a $10 permit will be required. The extra fees encourage customers to plan ahead for servicing septic tanks during better weather in the summer or fall. He says he doesn’t charge extra for customers who need frequent pumping from a holding tank, though.


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