Anyone who’s ever used a portable toilet knows how unpleasant they are. Between the stench and the general lack of hygiene, the port-a-john is usually a last resort — and a pretty disgusting one. But if you think that’s bad, imagine being the person who’s got to clean these bad boys up after an outdoor music festival or a few days on a construction site.
Enter Brian Schmidt, co-founder of the portable toilet company Rent A John in Santa Rosa, Calif. He’s been in the business for 17 years, performing daily duties like cleaning and transporting the mobile toilets, and you better believe he’s seen it all.
One has to wonder how someone gets into such a business. A passion for poo? Love for the loo? Not exactly. For Schmidt, port-a-john maintenance is a family business. He started helping his father with the business almost two decades ago, and ended up sticking with it long-term.
And for all the crap he deals with (sorry … we couldn’t resist), Schmidt’s day-to-day is actually pretty typical for a field service guy — answering phones, hitting the road, making deliveries, ordering equipment, dealing with advertising, and most importantly, keeping customers happy.
But, of course, there’s also the not-so-typical stuff … like the hold-your-nose cleanup jobs. First, they’ve got to transfer the waste from the toilet to a tank on a truck. Then, Schmidt says, to get the … stuff from the truck to a holding tank, they use a pressurized tank and vacuum to essentially suck it out. And sometimes, the hose gets clogged up.
One employee, Schmidt says, “made the mistake of not de-pressurizing the tank and decided to detach one of the high-pressure hoses. It sprayed waste everywhere like a fire hose, covering him, the truck and some of the surroundings with raw sewage. We spent hours cleaning up the mess and had a good laugh afterward.”
And when the sewage isn’t spraying all over the field service employees, it’s spraying all over the port-a-johns themselves. Schmidt said the toilets are often abused in any number of ways, including graffiti, having the walls cut off, and even burning. However, the most common form of abuse is finding poop all over the walls, floor, and seat. Schmidt has collected some horror stories over the years.
“We do a charity event in San Francisco for the homeless, and we typically get our restrooms back with sprayed feces on the wall, like it exploded out of them,” he said.
That’s where the company’s 3000-psi high-power washer and a few gallons of bleach come in handy. A few good blasts of water and other cleaning agents are used to restore the toilets back to respectability (well, acceptability, anyway). But what about the smell during the cleaning process? Is it something cleaners ever get used to?
“Normally, my portable toilets don’t smell,” Schmidt says. “We do our best to prevent that kind of stuff in the first place, but I do find sewage smell very offensive.”
Ultimately, though, being a port-o-potty cleaner can have some positive aspects. Rent A John is a small business, but it keeps busy year-round with general consumers renting the portable toilets once per year during the summer months for parties, weddings, and festivals. Contractors, painters, and landscapers, on the other hand, tend to rent during the spring, summer, and fall months while roofers and septic employees rent during the winter when it rains more often.
While maintaining port-o-potties is undoubtedly one of the dirtiest jobs a field service worker can have, it’s a necessary — not to mention pretty well-paid — gig. In fact, portable toilet cleaners made the top 10 list of highest paid dirty jobs with the average worker earning up to $50,000 annually. Good thing, because no one should take that much crap for low pay.
“This is no doubt a very hard job,” Schmidt says. “You get no respect from most people, you’re driving all the time, which statistically leaves you with a much greater chance of getting into an accident, and you don’t get vacations or down time. There are days I do like it, especially when compared to some of my friends with dead end jobs. This job is always different and interesting.”