He Called it the Strongbox

Vintage green restroom was an update of the bulletproof USANCO unit that replaced many first-generation wooden models on construction sites

Last December, I posted a photo of a mystery portable restroom I came across at a Dubuque, Iowa, construction site while on vacation. I called its owner, PRO Clark Wolff of Selco Inc., who said the tough-as-nails green unit went back about 30 years, and that he still placed a number of them at construction sites most vulnerable to vandalism.

I asked readers if they could identify the early rotomolded unit. I received tremendous response, with most industry veterans guessing the same answer as Wolff gave, the Strongbox from El Monte, Calif.-based USANCO Inc. Kevin Keegan of KeeVac Industries Inc. in Denver was the first reader to give the USANCO answer.

But it appears that the answer is only partially correct.

One of the many e-mails and phone calls I received over the trivia question came from Jim and Jamie Wachsman of Ventura, Calif.-based JW Enterprises, who said Jim’s father-in-law, Harvey Heather, owner of United Sanitation, had developed the revolutionary one-piece plastic Strongbox in the late 1970s or early ’80s as a way to update his own inventory of thousands of handmade wooden restrooms. Jamie, the fourth generation to work in the portable sanitation industry, and Jim got the retired Heather on the phone to discuss the unit in the photo.

DEMAND GREW

As he replaced his wooden units with the featherweight (by comparison) Strongbox, Heather started seeing a demand from other contractors for the unit. So he went into production, manufacturing the unit eventually at a facility near Fort Worth, Texas. By 1985, according to the Wachsmans, Heather tired of manufacturing and sold USANCO.

That’s where industry veteran Gregg de Long, currently the Western Regional sales manager for PolyJohn Enterprises Corp., picks up the fuzzy history of the Strongbox. According to de Long, Heather sold USANCO to Dow Chemical Co., which continued to produce the unit under the Union Plastics brand. Dow altered the original molds to produce the design shown in the photo. The Wachsmans and de Long said the plastic outline of a square waste tank and the black plastic skid give away that Wolff’s unit was the Union Plastics version of the USANCO design.

The USANCO company molds changed hands a few more times, and were eventually bought by PolyJohn, which kept them for a time, but never produced a unit on that design, de Long said. The company eventually disposed of the restroom molds, and de Long and a few others said they heard some of the molds wound up in Australia.

The importance of the Strongbox and USANCO is that Heather had a vision to replace the bulky wooden units of the industry’s infancy with a lighter, sturdier and easy-to-clean unit that changed portable sanitation service, de Long said. While Heather was producing the units, de Long went to work at USANCO as a salesman.

BIG IMPROVEMENT

“They were pretty revolutionary in a lot of respects,’’ de Long said. “They had a lot of characteristics of a well-designed fiberglass unit. They were easy to clean, rigid and nice to haul on trucks and trailers. Harvey always did everything right.’’

Many of the efficiencies and accounting practices used by successful PROs today started with Heather, de Long said. When the industry was exploding in Southern California, Heather was driving improved professionalism, from the design of vacuum trucks to how routes were run to promoting positive public relations, he explained.

“He was always trying to drive this industry 10 notches above where it was,’’ de Long recalled. Heather, a founding member of the Portable Sanitation Association International, challenged the industry status quo and his employees, too. “Everybody who worked for him, either you got on the train or he threw you off at the first big bridge. He worked so hard to change what kept this industry in the dark ages.’’

The USANCO units showed amazing durability. They were tough, wind-resistant and you can still find them if you look hard enough.

“If they were made right, they were bazooka-proof. If they made it past the five-year mark, they’d go off the charts,’’ de Long said. “I know some I sold to people that you could still walk up to and beat with a baseball bat and they’d still work.’’

LASTING IMPRESSION

I heard that story over and over again from contractors who still have a bunch of these units sitting in the back of their yards. They can still pinch hit in an emergency, and some contractors report some are still placed in remote, long-term service with success.

Jim Wachsman pointed out the design downfalls that eventually rendered the tough units obsolete. He said the biggest problem was the one-piece design made it impossible to incorporate a white roof, making them dark inside. Also, the design made it more difficult to nest many units efficiently for shipping from the manufacturer to the buyer, raising costs. And the units had no grab handles, making them difficult to handle by today’s standards.

Among contractors who keep a few of the USANCO units on hand is Bobby Little Bear of POTCO in Grants, N.M. Little Bear e-mailed to say the units still look respectable and that she’s always thinking about ways to alter the units for special uses.

“I have joked about all the fun modifications I could make to them, and on one occasion, I did,’’ she said in an e-mail. “I fixed up special units for one customer … a ‘his’ unit in camouflage with a window and a magazine rack, and for ‘her’ a Pepto-Bismol pink interior with silk wisteria, wallpaper trim, a tapestry seat cover, rug, doily and vase with flowers.’’

As for the legacy of the bulletproof USANCO Strongbox, Chad Rott of Penthouse Portables in Las Vegas, Nev., put it succinctly in an e-mail:

“After nuclear fallout, all that will be left are roaches and USANCOs.’’

MORE RESTROOM TRIVIA

Here’s another mystery for the portable sanitation sleuths out there: Who knows the story behind this prototype restroom, another brainchild of Harvey Heather? What material was it made from and why did Heather think it would have a significant impact on the portable restroom industry? Send your answers to me at editor@promonthly.com.



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