North Dakota restroom rental and pumping services contractor grows with Bakken oil boom.
When Duane Barth purchased The Rental Store in Jamestown, N.D., in 1996, he had no idea portable sanitation would one day account for 80 percent of his business. Back then video rentals were a hot-ticket item at his four locations around Jamestown. Now, the outdated movie rentals are only available at one location, while the seven old portable restrooms that came with the business have been replaced with about 300 new units.
What dramatically changed the business was the Bakken oilfield boom. Though Barth’s main business is located about 300 miles from the heart of the shale oil drilling frenzy, the impact of the oil industry is felt throughout most of North Dakota. A booming economy translates to more construction, more money and more demand for portable restrooms among oil and service companies willing to pay the extra mileage for The Rental Store’s services.
“They recognize the clean [restrooms], and they find out who we are. If I had to say the biggest item that’s helped us, it’s service, service, service,” Barth says. But Barth is the first to admit he had to quickly learn the finer points of portable sanitation service when the business heated up.
Learn on the fly
“I had to gain knowledge quickly,” Barth says about his introduction into the portable restroom business. “A potato processing plant went in 10 miles away, and I had orders for 15 units.”
With just seven old restrooms on hand, Barth contacted Satellite Industries to purchase new units. Then he and his two sons (ages 10 and 12) stayed up all night assembling new units in time for delivery. The restrooms were nice, but servicing them was challenging to say the least.
“When we started here we had a 1984 Ford truck with a service body, and it had a small 300-gallon [waste] tank and a 100-gallon freshwater tank. We took a generator with us to pump the water, and we had a pump we mounted on the side box for the vacuum for the truck,” he recalls. The first time out, Barth learned the rig didn’t create enough vacuum. It took him 2 1/2 hours to pump a couple of restrooms.
“I could have taken more out of those toilets with a Dixie cup,” he recalls. “I talked to Satellite, and they told me what I needed. That was my indoctrination.” Fortunately, Barth is mechanically inclined and had applicable experience.
“I was familiar with pumping liquid out of something. I was in the tire business for 13 years, and we had a farm service truck. Farm tires a lot of times have calcium chloride in them, which means if you are going to work on one of them, you’re going to have to pump the calcium chloride out of the tire,” Barth says.
Between help from manufacturers and a Bismarck competitor, Barth learned about the portable restroom industry.
“After I had the [rental] business for a short period of time, it was easy to see portable restrooms were a big part of the business,” Barth says.
“We’ve grown because we’re not afraid to get out there and look for business, knocking on doors, putting up fliers and cold calling,” Barth says. “If you have a personal relationship, they come back again and again. I have the attitude that they won’t walk away. If there’s a problem, I’ve given customers restrooms for free for up to six months in order to keep their business.”
He got his first oilfield client in 2008 when he rented restrooms for workers on the Keystone pipeline. After that work was finished, companies he worked with asked for restrooms at oil rig sites. As demand grew, Barth added a satellite office (Bis-Man Portable Toilets) in Bismarck, which is 100 miles closer to the oilfields.
Barth charges mileage from Bismarck for servicing the oilfield restrooms. Companies willingly pay it, because The Rental Store technicians deliver the services clients request.
“We’ve been fortunate to pick up some big accounts up there. We give them excellent service,” Barth says. That includes servicing the restrooms twice a week for some clients – and always thoroughly cleaning the restrooms.
“Nobody likes a dirty restroom,” he explains. “You shouldn’t be able to smell a restroom 10 feet away. We make sure we use enough chemical to reduce the odors.” Workers use Walex packets and Cabana Spray by Safe-T-Fresh. With summer heat, they spray an extra dose for longer performance.
Currently, technicians wash down the restroom, refill the chemical and hand sanitizers and spritz a fragrance spray to keep it fresher longer.
Building a tough fleet
Barth has four trucks: a 2008 Ford F-550 from Lane’s Vacuum Tank Inc. with a steel 1000-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater tank and Masport pump; a 2006 Chevy 7500 with a 2,300-gallon aluminum tank and Masport pump from Lane’s; a 2012 Dodge Ram 5500 with a Satellite Industries 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank and Masport pump; and a 2001 Ford F-350 from Satellite carrying a 270-gallon waste/130-gallon freshwater steel tank and Conde pump (Westmoor Ltd.).
Except for the 2008 Ford, the trucks are four-wheel drive, which is important for navigating the rugged terrain of the region’s oilfields, especially during the harsh winters.
Portable restrooms include 50 Maxim 3000 and 150 Tufway units from Satellite and 150 Wave units from Armal. The Rental Store carries 20 PolyJohn Enterprises hand-wash sinks with hot-water systems. A 2012 Dodge 3/4-ton pickup pulls a 16-unit restroom delivery trailer built locally by Midwest Machine. He also offers 50 dual-unit lowering trailers carrying Armal units.
Waste from all operations is hauled to the Jamestown wastewater treatment plant.
Once Barth had a few restrooms in the Bakken, word spread that his units were clean, and more clients started calling. “Oilfields have brought some excitement into the business,” he says.
With the growing opportunity comes challenges regarding safety regulations. Technicians working oil rig locations must wear flame-resistant clothing, steel-toed boots, hard hats and safety glasses at all times and be equipped with H2S monitors and go through special safety training. The monitor sensors detect dangerous hydrogen sulfide gases, and oil companies require them to be worn by all workers on oil drilling sites.
Weather, specifically relentlessly strong winds and cold winters, adds challenges. Barth looks for sturdy restroom units and takes great care in assembling and placing them to last in these conditions. It’s not uncommon for drivers to log 600 miles per day to reach remote units.
For winter, technicians add a salt/methanol/water mix to keep the restrooms thawed. Pumping can still be a challenge however, with hoses frequently freezing. The Rental Store also provides heaters to keep the restrooms thawed. Before they offered heaters, Barth recalls a couple of restrooms that were partially melted when customers installed their own heaters that were too large and too hot. The makeshift heating caused damage to his units, but it’s not the only damage he’s encountered.
“I’ve had some shot up with a shotgun or rifle,” he says. There have been vandalism issues, too, and as a result, he’s developed a zero-tolerance clause in his contract. If the restroom is ruined, the customer pays for it.
While most of his portable restroom business is related to the oilfields, Barth finds plenty of opportunities closer to home. Some are related to disasters, such as the 160 restrooms rented around nearby Valley City during spring flooding a couple of years ago.
Most rentals are related to growth, such as when the Keystone pipeline was installed from North Dakota to South Dakota, and he rented out 200 restrooms to cover a 250-mile stretch.
Clients contact The Rental Store for events as well, including an annual air show.
One popular event celebrates St. Patrick’s Day. Despite snowy weather in 2013, “Running O’ the Green” organizers upped their order from 20 to 30 restrooms. Participants (usually between 2,000 and 3,000) start at Jamestown’s trademark 26-foot tall buffalo sculpture and make their way through the streets with stops at local watering holes – and the portable restrooms. The event’s entry fees are donated to people who have cancer and a camp for people with disabilities.
Because of industrial expansion, Barth anticipates demand will continue to grow. An ethanol plant and fertilizer plant are going up 10 miles from Jamestown, and The Rental Store is already servicing restrooms at a big expansion at a John Deere air seeder manufacturer.
“I really thank people who made us successful, and we continue to strive to be the best we can be. I believe that the secret to being successful is hard work,” he says.
Barth, who has suffered several neck injuries and drawing close to retirement, has stepped back from day-to-day operations with plans to sell the business to a couple he recently hired as managers. Still, he anticipates there will be plenty of work for the future.
“North Dakota has a booming economy, and I don’t see much slowdown for at least the next 15 to 20 years.”