Boom Times

Bishop’s Full-Time Portables RIDES THE wave of domestic energy exploration by providing portable sanitation at Pennsylvania natural gas rigs
Boom Times
Technician Jason Brown connects the vacuum hose to a restroom trailer before pumping the tank.

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In fall 2005, hardware store and gas station owner Steve Bishop bought a small portable restroom operation, looking to supplement his existing businesses in Ulster, Pa., with a steady new revenue stream. What he got instead was a small business tsunami.

That’s what happens when a town suddenly finds itself amid a feverish business boom, courtesy of one of the largest natural-gas plays in the history of the United States, the Marcellus Shale formation, which covers a broad swath of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. Bishop’s restroom business, Bishop’s Full-Time Portables, is one of many companies benefitting as well as struggling to keep pace with the economic boom.

“We had about 150 restrooms and no restroom trailers when all this started, and just two small service trucks,” says Bishop, who also owns Bishop’s True Value Plus Mini Mart. “Now we have about 650 restrooms, 24 restroom trailers and 15 service trucks.

“At times, it’s hard to keep up,” he continues. “I look out in the yard and see a load (of restrooms) come in and six days later, we might have just six left … you think you’re caught up, and then something happens and you’re right back behind again. But that’s business. It’s all a great opportunity.”

Much of the company’s restroom inventory supports crews at construction sites for drilling pads and pipelines. The rest stands at construction sites for things such as motels, mini-marts, restaurants and bars in jobs associated with the gas play, Bishop says.

 

THERE’S MONEY UNDERGROUND

Local residents have known for years that natural-gas reserves lie thousands of feet below their town. But it wasn’t economically feasible to tap those reserves until horizontal-drilling technology came along, Bishop explains.

Up until then, Bishop sought nothing more than an add-on business to complement the hardware store and gas station, which he says were “just kind of chugging away.” He found just what he wanted in the form of a small, local portable restroom business.

“The guy who owned it sort of outgrew himself,” Bishop says. “He didn’t want to hire any employees, but had more work than he could handle alone. It was a turnkey operation, and we took it over in October of 2005, which gave us the winter months to get a feel for how it worked, and gear up for the following spring.”

Bishop started out with a modest marketing campaign that included advertising in a local newspaper and putting more visible lettering on the trucks. Between that and word-of-mouth referrals, he says sales revenue almost doubled during the first year of operation.

But that early growth was nothing compared to the deluge that started in June 2008, when the first drilling rig appeared in the area. Suddenly there were 20 rigs – and that was from just one drilling company.

“Now there are more companies drilling in the area,” Bishop says. “Nobody really had any idea about the size and impact this would have on our area. When it first started, some of our county commissioners went to a town in Texas to gauge the impact. They came back and said it’s going to be a lot different from what we’ve known, and told us to get prepared … especially in terms of an influx of people and traffic from water trucks carrying water in and out for fracking. Some guys who had two (water) trucks now might have 20 or 30 to haul freshwater in and frac water away to treatment centers.”

How does a small businessman handle thiskind of fast, unexpected growth? For Bishop, the answer is four words: business line of credit. He says he was fortunate because he doesn’t believe in carrying a lot of debt, so he had sufficient equity built up in his business to borrow money for the influx of unplanned capital expenditures.

“I prefer to have as little debt as possible,” he says. “I never planned on making those expenditures, but I was fortunate enough to get the call, and my low debt allowed me to obtain loans. It could’ve just as well been a restroom company other than me. I was in the right place at the right time and our nearest competitor is about 20 miles away. I was able to make some (equipment purchases) out of cash flow and financed the rest.”

 

EQUIPMENT AT THE READY

Today, Bishop’s roster of equipment includes 650 restrooms, mostly from Satellite Industries Inc.; twenty 10-foot restroom trailers manufactured by Rich Mobile Restrooms and Black Tie Manufacturing (each trailer features heat, air conditioning, two toilets, two sinks with automatic shut-off valves and two waterless urinals); and 500 250-gallon plastic holding tanks made by PolyPortables Inc.

To pump sewage from holding tanks at temporary rig worker housing facilities, Bishop’s relies on a 2000 International 8100 with a 2,500-gallon steel tank, a 2006 International 4400 with a 2,500-gallon steel tank and a 2010 Peterbilt 340 with a 3,600-gallon steel tank, all built by Pik Rite Inc.

To service restrooms, the company owns the following trucks built by Crescent Tank Mfg. with steel tanks: a 2006 GMC 4500 with a 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater tank; a 2006 Chevrolet 6500 with a 950-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater tank; a 2008 Isuzu NRR with an 850-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater tank; a 2009 GMC 5500 with an 850-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater tank; and a 2011 Ford F-550 with an 850-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater tank. The company also owns another 2011 F-550, equipped with a 650-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater steel tank, built by Satellite Industries.

“I like the flat tanks from Crescent because you can actually put six restrooms on top by using a lift gate,” Bishop says. “That comes in handy if we get a call from a site where a company is finished fracking and they ask us to leave two restrooms there, but take away, say, four others and deliver them eight or nine miles down the road to the next site.

“Without the flat tanks, we’d have to make two trips, or drag a trailer around, which isn’t very practical because there’s not a lot of space at the drilling sites because of all the trucks, people and equipment,” he adds. “It’s a huge advantage for my business. I can send those trucks out and carry 12 holding tanks, too.”

 

CHANGE IS GOOD

The business spurt forced Bishop to erect a 60- by 80-foot pole building for a garage and shop facility. He says keeping trucks indoors reduces wear and tear during winter because they won’t start out frozen on winter mornings. “We’re also working on getting a full-time mechanic on board,’’ he says. “Right now, we lean on local repair shops, but sometimes you can’t get work done when you need it. Having someone on board would help minimize downtime.”

Bishop’s currently works with three drilling companies and services about 24 drilling-rig sites twice a week. All three contacted Bishop through a word-of-mouth referral from a local excavator who built drilling pads for the companies. Interestingly, the drilling companies are responsible for cleaning the restroom trailer interiors, while Bishop’s crews service the restrooms and holding tanks. The length of time the restrooms, trailers and holding tanks stay at each site varies, depending on how many wells crews drill at each pad.

“We set up anywhere from 15 to 24 holding tanks per rig. The rigs run 24/7 and crews there use portable temporary housing,” Bishop explains. The holding tanks are hooked up to the mobile trailer homes, which the drilling companies rent from another contractor.

The dramatic increase in business is prompting Bishop to consider embracing new technology, such as routing software that includes Global Positioning System capability and software that monitors equipment maintenance schedules.

“We need to achieve more density on service routes, both for the gas fields and the monthly rentals,” Bishop says. “There are times when I find we have trucks following each other around, plus it’s hard to get new drivers familiar with all the locations. It used to be simple because I knew where drivers were if we needed something addressed. Routing software will allow us to service sites quicker through increased efficiency.”

 

LOOKING AHEAD

It looks like busy times ahead for Bishop, who estimates the bulk of the drilling-rig service work will go on for the next 10 years or so. “A lot of it depends on how much land each company leases, and whether the price of natural gas stays high enough to warrant continued drilling,” he explains. “Who knows – business may double or triple next year. Maybe there’s potential for that, maybe not. It’s hard to know.”

Does Bishop ever worry about over-extending his business with investments in equipment that might suddenly become idle? “Yes, I worry about buying all this equipment,” he says. “But it’s all about taking risks. Nothing is guaranteed, but when the opportunity is here, you take advantage of it while you can.

“We’re fortunate to be busy,” he adds. “In a lot of places around the country, it’s not. Even 100 miles away from here, you don’t see all the hustle and bustle you see around here.”



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