North Dakota’s Gustafson Septic Service relies on heavy-duty trucks from Progress Vactruck to pump remote worker camp septic systems.

Tough working conditions demand equally tough vehicles, which is why Gustafson Septic Service Inc. relies on four tandem-axle Mack trucks to service septic tanks at worker camps and oil-drilling rigs in northwestern North Dakota and eastern Montana.

Three of the Macks carry 3,600-gallon aluminum tanks and one carries a 4,000-gallon aluminum tank, all outfitted by Progress Vactruck. They utilize Masport, Inc. pumps. Painted the company colors of blue and white, the rigs run on Toyo 11R 22.5 standard truck tires. The company bought the trucks through KeeVac Industries, Inc., says Allen Gustafson, who co-owns the Stanley, N.D.-based company along with his three sons, Nick, Phil and Jared.

Gustafson says he prefers the heavy-duty Macks for their reliability and durability, which are key factors, given that drivers must traverse rough roads to get to remote drilling pads. He specs trucks with double-locking rear differentials to minimize the chances of getting stuck on the roads, which are particularly bad when they get wet, he notes.

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"Every gravel road has a 30 mph speed limit — that's how rough they are," he says. "And some roads are so bad that the speed limit is 15 miles per hour. These are mucker-ditch roads that weren't made for heavy traffic. If we get a little rain, they get all muddy and rutted ... you can get stuck right in the middle of the road."

Three of the four trucks feature manual transmissions; one utilizes a Mack transmission and the others feature Fuller transmissions made by Eaton. All have either eight or 10 gears.

Durability is an issue because in a typical day, a driver might put on up to 400 miles while traveling to remote drilling operations, not to mention wastetreatment plants that might be 100 miles away. Waste disposal in the region is problematic, due to rapid development spurred by the Bakken formation shale-oil boom; most small towns cannot accept more sewage because the lagoon treatment systems most of them use are already operating at peak capacity, Gustafson says.

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"Those lagoons were built to handle just the towns, so when you're pumping about a million gallons of waste a month like we do, you can really impact those lagoons," he says.

The lighter-weight aluminum tanks are also critical to the company's bottom line because they enable drivers to carry more waste while still staying under load-weight restrictions, which are strictly enforced in North Dakota. The weight limits go down when road conditions are bad; in spring, Gustafson says drivers typically limit their loads to 2,000 gallons to meet weight restrictions.


Moreover, the larger-capacity tanks enable drivers to do more work per day when compared to the much smaller 2,000-gallon tanks the company used to have. At a typical drilling rig, a driver might be able to finish a job in two loads, compared to three or four loads years ago when the company used smaller tanks. The productivity gain is even more dramatic at large worker camps, where the company might pump as many as four or five loads a day, seven days a week; it might take a truck with a 2,000-gallon tank nine or 10 loads to do the same job, Gustafson explains.

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"The bigger tanks translate into fewer (disposal) trips, which saves the customer money through reduced mileage fees and allows us to make more calls per day," Gustafson says. "In extreme instances, if we can eliminate even two loads a day, we might be saving up to six hours of driving."

Gustafson also points out that the more fuel-efficient Mack 430 hp diesel engines in the newer trucks get better gas mileage — about 6 mpg versus 5 mpg with the older trucks. That might not sound like a lot, but over the course of 100,000 miles and with diesel fuel at about $4 per gallon, that saves around $13,300, he says.

"They're expensive trucks, but the fuel savings alone make them worth it," Gustafson says. "They're very reliable, which is important because we have to drive a long way to get them serviced. We expect to get 400,000 to 500,000 miles out of them."

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