The owners of North Dakota’s Mon-Dak Water & Septic started out as oil rig roughnecks, so they know what it takes to keep their energy exploration customers happy
In the North Dakota oil fields, where luxuries are few, it’s more than just irritating when waterlines freeze and there’s no water for basic needs like taking a shower or making a pot of coffee.
Curt Vachal and his son, Beau, understand that. They have worked in the oil fields. Since March 2005, however, they’ve been on the other side of that situation, providing water and septic services to oil rigs and other companies servicing the drilling companies.
As production of the Bakken Formation has boomed, the family business in the little town of Stanley, N.D., has grown from father and son to a company with two divisions and 25 employees. Beau manages the Mon-Dak Water & Septic side, while Curt branched off into another oil field business, H & K Construction, which does on-site dirt work and crushes scoria rock to landscape finished drilling sites.
Their success, they agree, comes down to an emphasis on service and a strong work ethic.
“What we say is, there are no holidays in the oil field,” Curt says. “As long as nothing happens on Christmas or New Year’s Day, you have them off. If something happens, you go to work. Otherwise, the oil field is 24/7, 363 days a year.”
OIL FIELD TO ENTREPRENEURSHIP
The Vachal family history in oil started with Curt’s father, John, who has provided telephone and communications services for about 31 years. Cell phones have reduced the demand, but at 68, John still offers services in areas without cellular coverage — in addition to running a farm near Ross, N.D.
Curt spent six years as a roughneck on the drilling rigs in the early 80s, and his wife worked as an oil field geologist. Their son Beau worked as a roughneck on the rigs for about eight months. He was working as a car salesman in 2005, when his parents recognized that the booming oil fields were ripe with opportunity to start a new business. They decided to take the advice that had been given years before to John.
“People in the oil field had always told my dad he should get into water and septic,” Curt says.
Beau agreed to team up with his dad, and Mon-Dak Water & Septic opened for business, with Beau managing. The name is short for Montana-Dakota, which reflects the region they service.
“Most of the work we have acquired has been new rigs coming in or from companies that have used us in the past,” Curt explains. “In the very beginning, Beau was out beating the brush, handing out business cards and talking to people. Now we’ve established ourselves.”
Mon-Dak has become a true family business with Curt’s wife, Lynnette, working as the office manager and Beau’s wife, Kim, working as the financial manager. Curt and Lynnette’s daughter, Cassandra, 22, works for H & K Construction running excavation equipment, and their son, Austin, 17, works summers and some weekends doing rig moves and other Mon-Dak work. Mon-Dak also employs several members of the extended family.
BUILD FOR QUALITY
“When we started, everything we did was going to be based on quality of service. I’ve turned down work because it’s too far away. It’s going to stretch us so far out that I know I’m not going to be able to supply them with the service I expect,” Beau says. “It takes a lot of years of hard work to build a good business reputation. It doesn’t take very long at all to ruin it.”
The company’s first focus was supplying water, septic service and portable restrooms for workers living on oil drilling sites. The Vachals built the first restrooms themselves. The 5- by 6-foot units were built for heavy duty, to suit roughnecks and withstand North Dakota winds and long winters.
“We built the first ones on skids, but always needed something to load or unload them,” Beau recalls. “After the first three, we realized that was not adequate, and we began putting them all on trailers.” It wasn’t long before they were busy, and they hired local builder Adrian Belstad to construct the portable units.
Along with the restrooms, they set up freshwater and waste holding tanks at worker camps and rig sites. A Mon-Dak crew moves in the water tanks and plumbs the skid-mounted living quarters and offices. The average rig site uses 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water a week. Freshwater is delivered and wastewater is removed twice a week.
The goal is to stay on top of it – especially during the winter, when it seems workers use even more water and bad weather makes driving difficult to impossible. Technicians service portable restrooms twice a week.
“We put a lot of thought into our setup and how we eliminate freezing problems in the winter. We spend money to eliminate issues,” Curt says.
For example, they spend about $600 to winterize every 100 feet of flexible PEX hose with heat tape, Polyfoam pipe insulation and duct tape. That generally ensures that the water won’t freeze between the tanks and the living quarters, which eliminates the complaints from workers over freezing lines.
“Our phrase is any idiot can do water and septic from May to October, but November through March separates the men from the boys,” Curt says.
After 25 to 35 days with restrooms and water tanks on a rig site, Mon-Dak crews return to unhook them and move to the drilling company’s new site. Those sites are easy to keep track of on a map. One of Beau’s duties is scheduling workers as efficiently as possible, with some sites as far as 125 miles from the shop.
January through May are the toughest months due to the weather. During the winter, the portable units are inside heated buildings on rig sites to avoid freezing and make them easy to pump. When they are set up outside in areas without electrical power Mon-Dak workers set up PolyJohn Enterprises units with removable holding tanks. They can lift the tanks out, replace them with empty ones and haul the frozen units to the shop to thaw and pump out.
Water tanks are outfitted with tank heaters to prevent freezing, but sometimes the biggest challenge is getting to the tanks. Late last winter, an early thaw washed out the road to one oil rig site. The company hired a helicopter to bring in fuel and made arrangements for a Mon-Dak driver to deliver water to a Sno-Cat (Tucker) tracked vehicle rigged with a 1,000-gallon holding tank. They pumped the tank full three times for the Sno-Cat to deliver and fill the holding tank on the rig site.
Getting around on the maze of gravel roads is difficult enough for locals, but many of Mon-Dak’s employees are from out-of-state including California and Georgia. North Dakota Job Service helps find workers, but finding places for new workers to live is the biggest challenge. Many live in campers they winterize as best they can. Recognizing a need for housing for their employees and for other workers, the Vachals are in the process of developing a worker camp of their own.
JOB SITE EQUIPMENT
Since those first homebuilt restrooms, Mon-Dak’s sanitation inventory has diversified and expanded greatly. “We put everything on trailers, because in the oil field everything moves,” Beau says.
To meet demand, he has about 150 PolyJohn PJN3 units mounted on steel trailers built by Prairie Truck Equipment in Minot. “With the road conditions, using a steel-built trailer works best as we can fix it if it (the frame) bends,” Beau explains.
A wide range of oil field service companies prefers the lighter and less expensive units. Some operations typically move often, such as companies that provide fraccing services, so sturdy, easily moveable restroom units are necessary. Drilling rig companies, on the other hand, generally prefer the heated, insulated units.
Beau tried various models, including flushable and incinerator toilets in the heated sheds. Results have been spotty using the incinerator toilets, due to users not knowing how to operate them properly.
Standard drop-tank restrooms with holding tanks work better in the oil field. Mon-Dak has 32 insulated units between their custom-built toilets and the single and double American Hauler units they purchased from Prairie Truck.
Keeping up with the demand has also meant expanding the truck fleet. The Vachals’ most recent additions were former dairy trucks – three quad-axle Kenworth trucks (2000, 2001 and 2006) with 5,500-gallon stainless steel tanks for hauling potable water.
“The biggest thing is that being a stretch-frame truck, it’s easier for the guys to handle and get around rigs,” Beau says. It’s much easier to back up a 32- to 40-foot truck than a semi with a trailer. The former dairy trucks with insulated, food-grade tanks are ideal for hauling water.
The rest of the Mon-Dak trucks are a combination of units bought used of unknown manufacturer, or built out by Dickinson Pump Sales in Dickinson, N.D., and some new units – a number purchased from Satellite Industries. The vehicles include: 2002 Sterling with a 3,600-gallon steel tank, a 2000 International with a 4,000-gallon steel tank and a 2001 Kenworth with a 4,500-gallon steel tank – all outfitted with Masport 400 pumps; a 1999 Mack with a 3,500-gallon steel tank and a Jurop 260 pump; 2003 and 2005 Kenworth winch trucks; a 2002 International semi, 1997 Western Star semi; three Ford F-450 portable sanitation trucks (a 1995 with 500-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater steel tank; a 2000 with 650-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater steel tank and a 2011 with 400-gallon waste/100-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank).
The future of Mon-Dak is promising. While the residential side of the business is small – pumping three to 12 septic tanks a month and some portable restroom rentals – the oil field work continues to boom. Beau, 27, is appreciative that his parents provided the opportunity for him to manage the water and septic company, while Curt branched into another service.
“It works good that Dad does one side of the business and I do another,” Beau says. Running Mon-Dak is more than a full-time job. As he receives calls from new customers, schedules workers and keeps track of the steady movement on the oil fields, he has to make sure he has enough portable restrooms and trucks and a big enough crew to keep up with the quality service that the company promises.
“We basically keep a running ad going for people,” Beau says of worker recruiting efforts. “We’re expecting we will be picking up even more work next year. There were 186 oil rigs in August, and they project up to 225 rigs by the end of the year.”