Texas long-haul restroom crews rack up the miles over rough terrain to provide comfort for energy pipeline workers.
Travel trailers might seem like odd items for a portable restroom operator to own. But they’re standard operating equipment at QP Energy Services, which is anything but a business-as-usual portable sanitation company.
Based in Smithville, Texas, and owned by Cy Quackenbush and J.R. Pickens (the Q and P in the company’s name), the contractor provides restrooms for crews building pipelines in the oilfields of Texas, as well as parts of Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Because pipeline projects cover a lot of territory, providing restroom service requires a very systematic approach, not to mention long hours and miles and miles of driving every day.
“On a typical 100-mile-long pipeline, we send out two trucks and two employees,” says Quackenbush, 33. “We set up one restroom per mile, and each guy works six 12-hour days a week and cleans 50 restrooms twice a week — even three times, if necessary. Some days they might drive 350 to 400 miles a day.”
The job sites are typically in remote locations, often hundreds of miles from home. As such, it’s common for employees to stay on the road for up to three to four months at a time. That’s where the company’s 10 30-foot travel trailers come into play.
Employees tow the trailers to RV parks located near a job site; finding conveniently located parks is never a problem. “They’re everywhere,” Quackenbush says.
Each travel trailer houses one employee. Sometimes the company will opt for motels or hotels; cost is the primary determining factor. “If it’s more economical to use an RV park, which might cost us $400 to $500 a month (per trailer), than a motel, then we go with the (travel trailers),” he explains.
Preparing for these long-term projects requires a lot of strategic planning. Employees pack a cargo trailer with supplies such as toilet paper, gloves, cleaning products and deodorizers. If the destination is far away and requires many restrooms, QP Energy drop-ships the units by truck to the job site. Furthermore, the company has to obtain disposal licenses in each state in which it works, Quackenbush says.
How far will QP travel to do a job? “We’ll go just about anywhere if we can make enough money on the job,” says Pickens, 36. “It’s not like we pioneered how to do jobs like this, but we’re one of the few outfits that do it this way.”
Keeping up employee morale is one of the biggest challenges Quackenbush and Pickens face, due to the long hours and time away from families. The company tries to get employees home once a month, but it doesn’t always work out that way, the two owners say. “Sometimes we buy them a 12-pack of beer and cook steaks for them while they’re on the road,” Quackenbush says. “We try to make it a family atmosphere as much as possible.”
Because the “roads” employees travel on every day are little more than bumpy, rutted-dirt paths running along the pipeline right-of-way, QP Energy relies mostly on roughly a dozen Ford F-350, Ford F-550 and Dodge 5500 service trucks, most equipped with four-wheel drive. They all carry slide-in units, mostly built by Lely Tank & Waste Solutions with a few outfitted by KeeVac Industries. They all carry aluminum tanks that range in size from 300 gallons waste/150 gallons freshwater to 1,100 gallons waste/400 gallons freshwater. Most of the trucks feature Jurop/Chandler pumps; the rest are equipped with Conde pumps from Westmoor Ltd.
The slide-in units also make sense because the trucks wear out so quickly. “We can’t depreciate our trucks fast enough — this isn’t a normal restroom business,” Quackenbush notes. “Some of our trucks have 300,000 miles on them and haven’t been paid off yet. … They’re driving on rocky roads and are in four-wheel drive most of the time. That’s why we like slide-in units; when the truck wears out, we just move them to another truck.”
FROM THE CLASSROOM
Quackenbush and Pickens took unusual career paths to the portable restroom industry. Quackenbush grew up in a family with strong ties to the Texas oilfields and worked in the oilfields for five years after graduating from high school. He then earned a business management degree at Texas A&M University-Kingsville before taking a job as a high school teacher, where he met Pickens.
After earning a degree in criminal justice and playing baseball at the University of Mississippi, Pickens was drafted by the Oakland A’s. He played minor-league baseball for five years and served as a college baseball pitching coach at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi before taking a baseball head-coaching job at the same high school where Quackenbush worked.
“My family owns a rental company and were starting to get into portable restrooms,” Quackenbush explains. “So I decided to break away with J.R. and do our own thing. It seemed like a business that would offer a good return on investment and it wasn’t capital intensive.”
“After teaching, I got into oilfield work on the production side,” Pickens adds. “But I wanted to spend more time at home and start a family, so I got into sales at Cy’s uncle’s rental business. I had a bunch of contacts in the oilfield industry, so Cy and I started QP and we haven’t looked back.”
The duo started out with two service trucks and 56 portable restrooms. Now the company owns roughly 1,200 restrooms and about 30 hand-wash stations, all manufactured by PolyPortables.
“Our goal after year one was to have 100 restrooms out in the field,” Pickens says. “But by the time year one came around, we had surpassed that with 300 or so restrooms. We were pretty pumped about that.” By the end of year two, that number grew to 700 restrooms.
Today, the company owns 29 service trucks, mostly built by Lely Tank & Waste Solutions. That includes 20 trucks with slide-in units, as well as two larger vacuum trucks outfitted by Lely on two Ford F-750s with 1,100-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater steel tanks with Masport pumps. The company also owns two larger vacuum trucks built out by FlowMark on Hino and International chassis with 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater steel tanks and Masport pumps.
In addition, QP Energy relies on 10 Cavalier-model RVs made by Gulf Stream; six cargo trailers, nearly two dozen trash trailers and about 15 utility trailers, all made by Texas Trailer Supply; five New Holland skid-steers; 10 home-fabricated combination trash/restroom trailers; and roughly 60 homemade restroom trailers that each carry two standard units.
DRIVE TO SUCCEED
What factors drove such quick growth despite a relative lack of industry knowledge? First of all, the partners were motivated to do better by previous low-paying jobs. Second, they took a never-say-no approach to their business. And third, they were willing to learn from their mistakes.
“We were hungry and go-getters,” Pickens says. “We wanted to be successful … so we chased everything we could, everywhere we could. We sort of figured it out as we went along.” Adds Quackenbush: “Someone would call and ask if we could get to a job site within days, and we’d automatically say yes and figure out the details later.”
The duo also credits employees for the company’s success, including James Aregood, safety and operations manager; Farrah Cook, office manager; David Smith, asset manager; and Cristobal Lopez, regional manager and trainer.
Great customer service also drove growth. Quackenbush and Pickens believe that simple, commonsense practices — such as delivering and cleaning restrooms on time and personally answering phone calls 24/7 — are critical to generating repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals. Customers also appreciate the fact that when they call, they can speak directly with the owners.
They also emphasize customer service by embracing technology. All orders and pickup slips are texted and emailed to technicians via iPads for speed and efficiency. Time stamps on emails and texts let them know technicians receive messages, too, plus they don’t have to stop and waste time writing down messages the way they’d have to with verbal messages, Pickens say.
“There’s virtually no paperwork,” Quackenbush says. “That’s a big help because sometimes guys are 500 miles from our office, and we don’t want to have to rely on them to keep all those papers together until they get back home.
“With things like manifests, pickup slips and delivery tickets, we just hit ‘send’ and they all automatically go to our server,” he adds. “This also allows us to send out invoices faster and more efficiently, which increases cash flow.”
After QP Energy had established a core group of customers, Quackenbush and Pickens didn’t have to chase so hard for business because they’d earned the reward of repeat business. Moreover, other customers would see their restrooms on job sites, get the phone number off a restroom and call. “It all happened organically,” Pickens says.
The two men also decided to emphasize professionalism, and build a unique and easily recognizable brand. Route drivers wear uniforms (fire-retardant coveralls) and keep their shirts tucked in, wear nametags and wash their trucks every day. They meticulously clean restrooms. Trucks are nicely lettered and logoed, with no corny, human-waste-oriented slogans.
“We want our employees to take pride in their company and respect what we have … and customers notice that,” Pickens says. “They’re also very polite — everything is, ‘Yes, sir,’ and, ‘No, sir.’” Quackenbush adds. “It’s something we preach all the time. We’re trying to build a roster of high-energy, independent and proactive employees.”
All of QP Energy’s trucks are equipped with dashboard-mounted GPS units, made by Garmin. And because the company commonly has as many as 600 to 700 restrooms out in the field, technicians also use Garmin’s geo-stamping technology, which digitally tracks location coordinates for each unit.
“It’s linked to a barcode on each restroom,” Quackenbush explains. “That way we always know where all the restrooms are. It’s critical on a pipeline job with, say, 200 restrooms. Whenever we move a restroom, we delete the old geo-stamp and create a new one.” Further, if one technician gets sick or quits, geo-stamping makes it easy for the substitute driver to find the restrooms.
The satellite-based technology also enables QP Energy to either affirm or refute customer complaints about uncleaned restrooms. It’s easy enough to match a service truck’s GPS retroactive map with a geo-stamp to see if a technician actually came or not, Quackenbush says.
Quackenbush and Pickens admit that they sometimes get concerned about their dependence on one market sector and have had “serious talks” about diversifying their customer base by getting into residential and commercial markets. But in some respects, they’re victims of their own success. “Every time we think about it, we get a call for another big pipeline project,” Quackenbush says.
Because most of their clients work on the downstream end of the oil industry instead of upstream on the fracking end, QP Energy hasn’t been as hard hit by the dramatic decreases in oil prices. As such, they see growth ahead.
“Our plan is to grow when the market’s right,” Quackenbush says. “We never say no and we’re not going to start now. If we don’t have enough trucks and restrooms, we’ll go out and buy them. … When (oil) production starts to go up, we’ll grow with it.
“We’d love to have 10,000 restrooms. … We’re both in our mid-30s and we’re still eager,” he continues. “But we want calculated and smart growth. We’re not done just yet.”
Safety is a top priority
There’s a good reason why many of the service trucks owned by QP Energy Services are outfitted with a rear video camera as well as two dashboard-mounted cameras: on-the-job safety.
One dashcam points forward to record things such as hard braking, major accelerations or accidents. The other films the driver, which discourages technicians from talking on cellphones while driving, says Cy Quackenbush, a co-owner of the company, which primarily services restrooms placed along pipeline construction projects in remote areas.
“Early on, we had a couple of wrecks and in another instance, a guy backed into a fiber-optics box,” he recalls. “Restroom sales in the oilfields are so different from residential and commercial markets. There are so many more strict safety rules we have to deal with.”
Oil refineries and large pipeline construction companies simply won’t hire contractors with poor safety records. And the more safety-related technologies that QP Energy adopts, such as the truck video cameras, the better the company’s standing with customers. “We get points for investing in all this technology,” Quackenbush says. “It shows we take safety seriously.”
QP Energy employees learn quickly that safety is a top priority. In all, they receive roughly 24 hours of in-house classroom training, including an eight-hour course taught by James Aregood, the company’s full-time safety and operations manager. Aregood is a certified Health Safety and Environment instructor.
That training covers topics such as CPR, first-aid protocols and blood-borne pathogens. “We’re supposed to inform employees about risks associated with dealing with human waste,” Quackenbush says.
Technicians also learn about the hazards of working in the oilfield by taking courses developed by PEC Safety. The courses are accredited by SafeLandUSA, a volunteer organization made up of major and independent companies, contractors, associations and educators. The group encourages companies to use a standardized safety orientation to improve industry safety.
Employees also learn about snakebites, spider bites and different wild animals they might encounter along the pipeline right-of-ways where restrooms are located, Quackenbush adds.