From maple syrupin’ to mountain biking, Garren Calkins has been finding his portable sanitation niche in the rugged and beautiful Vermont woods for 30 years.
The northeast corner of Vermont – with its farm-dotted hills, country villages, lakes and forests – is known as the Northeast Kingdom. “We’re in our own little world here,” says Garren Calkins, owner of Calkins Portable Toilets Inc. in Danville, Vt. “It’s quieter, there’s lots of mountains, dirt roads, covered bridges.”
The famed Von Trapp family settled here and still runs a guest lodge. Tourists and sports enthusiasts are also drawn to the natural resources of the region. The attractions of the area have provided the base off of which Calkins has built up a successful portable restroom business.
Calkins got started in 1983 when he heard the Danville Fair needed more restrooms. Enlisting the help of his uncle, he offered a solution. “My uncle, retired U.S. Air Force, decided to build four wooden outhouses with 35-gallon civil defense cans as the holding tanks,” he explains. The units were finished in time for the fair and were well received. And since he had been working with his brother who owned a septic pumping business he had a truck available to do the pumping.
ON THE GROW
With four units now on his hands, he sought out other events he could offer them to and soon found himself in business. He purchased nine more units, picked up some tips from PolyJohn Enterprises co-founder George Harding, and Buster Downing of G.A. Downing Company Inc. in Minot, Maine, and started knocking on doors.
Today he’s got close to 700 units in a mix of brands – Satellite Industries, PolyPortables Inc., and PolyJohn Enterprises – and a variety of colors. “We try to offer everybody what they want,” he says. Construction and special event units are kept separate. He also has 12 PolyJohn hand‑wash stations and 30 ADA-compliant and wheelchair-accessible units, with another 20 new ADA-compliant units from Five Peaks Technology. Units are hauled with his four 2000 to 2008 GMC and Chevy delivery trucks (all with lift gates) which carry between three and eight units, as well as a 12-unit Explorer trailer from McKee Technologies Inc. and an eight-unit carrier built from a converted snowmobile hauler.
He operates out of the same facility as an excavating business he started about the same time, Garren R. Calkins Excavating, which repairs, builds and installs septic systems. Their shared staff of six full timers is often supplemented with part-time and temporary help, mostly retirees, during busier periods.
The company has work year-round but what they do changes slightly with the season. For example, as spring nears and the maple tree sap begins to flow they provide units to the sugar houses who hold sugar-on-snow parties and open houses for the public. Construction, which accounts for about 65 percent of the company’s work, starts up again in late spring.
Summer brings in the backwoods campers such as Boy Scout troops and music camps and contests. The company provides portable restrooms and its own version of large-capacity backcountry hand-wash stations.
“We converted some freshwater holding tanks, put in some spigots – springloaded – so the graywater can just run on the ground,” Calkins says. Mountain biking is also becoming increasingly popular, especially with the Kingdom Trails, one of the top biking networks in the world. Besides portable restrooms, Calkins may consider offering shower trailers in the future.
For bigger summer concert attractions, he partners with other vendors because of the large number of units required. Some of their more notable concerts over the years have included the Grateful Dead and the homegrown rock band Phish.
In autumn, they’re busy with harvest festivals and fall color events for the tourists. This is also a popular time for weddings, as are spring and summer, as the region’s rustic wedding barns (remodeled old barns) have made the area trendy for destination weddings. Calkins will be ordering a Black Tie Products 22-foot restroom trailer (three stalls on the women’s side, one stall and three urinals on the men’s) specifically to get into this market. “We’re going to start off with one and gradually add as needed,” he says.
Business slows considerably in the winter, particularly construction, but winter sports do provide opportunities for work. For example, for the cross country skiers and snowshoers the company sets up units at crossroads and warming huts. At ski resorts, slope groomers with special attachments on their vehicles take the company’s units up the mountain for the lift attendants and bring them back down once a week for cleaning.
Winters are the most challenging for the company. Being only a few miles from the Canadian border, the season is typically long and severe. Temperatures can plunge to -30 degrees, which can cause the problem Calkins jokingly refers to as “frozen assets,” particularly when units get overused. “The trucks can’t service them, so we swap them out real quick, thaw them out and clean them up,” he says.
The company uses salt to limit those problems. Their newest service vehicle – a 2012 International TerraStar built out by Amthor International with a Masport Inc. pump and an 800-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater aluminum tank – has a third compartment for 200 gallons of saltwater brine. “We put saltwater in the holding tanks and fill the urinals with rock salt,” Calkins says. “We put windshield wash in the water to do the washing, then wipe it down real quick.” They also use products from Chempace Corporation and Walex Products Co.
The company installed side compartment tanks to carry saltwater brine on their other two vacuum trucks – a 2005 Freightliner M2 outfitted by Teamco out of Warwick, Quebec, Canada, with an 800-gallon waste/300-gallon steel tank and a Wallenstein pump from Elmira Machine Industries, and a 2012 International TerraStar built out by Progress Vactruck with a 750-gallon waste/250-gallon freshwater aluminum tank and a Conde pump.
HAVING FUN WITH IT
Calkins is not always just a behind-the-scenes guy when it comes to regional events. In the interest of community spirit, he’s had a few chances to showcase his line of work – all with a sense of humor. One year the theme for the annual Danville Fair was Open Door Community. It was meant to be a welcoming gesture, but Calkins put his own spin on it for the parade.
“I set up a load of portable [restrooms] on my 12-place trailer,” he says. “Maybe half of them had people in them with the door open. They wore shorts but they also had long pants that they had down by their ankles.” He says it brought a lot of laughs and won them the “best comments” float award.
On another occasion, one of the owners of the Thunder Road racetrack in Barre, Vt. approached him with an idea. Calkins has been sponsoring events and providing portable restrooms for the track for at least 25 years.
“About ten years ago the owner said, ‘Let’s have a porta-potty race,’” he says. There were four divisions, each with a driver and a four-man pit crew to push their entry down the straightaway. Each team built their unit in the spirit of “anything goes.” Calkins made a toilet-paper finish line, helped with flagging and passed out trophies – the Golden Throne award to the winner of the race and the Golden Plunger award for best design. The race was a big hit and is now an annual mid-season event.
The Northeast Kingdom may sometimes feel like it’s in a 19th century time warp with its red barns, white steeples and country inns, but Calkins knows he’s got to keep up with the times. Current technology trends and tough competition from an out-of-town company pushing low prices have forced him to take a hard look at some of his current practices. He’s working on operating more efficiently and getting serious about Internet marketing.
“We’re going to stay calm,” he says. “We’re just going to work our way through it.” He’s talking to customers and working out some specials with the schools, but is going to stick to his prices. “If you’re in business you’ve got to make money,” he says. “It’s service that we try to provide.”
To reduce costs, Calkins has adjusted the size of his territory. At one time, he’d go nearly anywhere, but with rising fuel costs he’s had to rethink that practice. “We pulled in the territory three or four years ago because the ones on the outskirts just weren’t making the money,” he says. Today he tries to keep it to a 75-mile radius.
To increase business, he’s focusing more on the Internet, although he still has his phone book ad. He admits this is not his area of expertise so he’s working with a professional to update his website, improve search placement and develop smartphone apps for his customers so they can order service from anywhere.
A GOOD LIVING
Despite the slower-paced way of life in the Northeast Kingdom, Calkins has been able to draw on the unique assets of the region to bring in enough work to support his business and his family for 30 years. He’s especially proud he’s been able to put his five kids through college.
“That was a big thing,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to have been in the business.”