Tucson Portable Restroom Operator John Fehser Taps Into Alternative Energy to Boost Profits

In the desert Southwest, Ace Pumping & Portables built a solar-powered dewatering facility that processes waste and generates revenue from the electric utility

Tucson Portable Restroom Operator John Fehser Taps Into Alternative Energy to Boost Profits

Jacob Junker, the plant manager, attaches an EnviroZone liner to a Dragon Products dewatering box at the company’s in-house processing plant.

John Fehser saw tipping fees and travel costs rising for taking portable restroom waste to his county landfill.

So, in 2005, he decided to process the waste himself. Today his company, Ace Pumping & Portables in Tucson, Arizona, has four dewatering boxes that process about 30,000 gallons per week. Meanwhile, 65 solar panels mounted on a steel canopy over the boxes have all but erased what was once a $600 monthly electric bill.

The solar energy installation does more than save money: It helps position Ace Pumping as an environmentally conscious player, going above and beyond to safeguard resources. That, combined with a reputation for reliable, timely service and meticulous cleaning, helps the business thrive.

Fehser and five team members cover the Tucson area, servicing construction sites and special occasions of all kinds, from backyard parties and weddings to huge events such as the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show and La Fiesta de los Vaqueros rodeo.

Founded in 1988 as a septic system pumping business, Fehser’s company gradually built up its portable restroom service until, 10 years later, the restroom side took off. Today restrooms account for about 95% of the company’s revenue.

PROFITABLE “MISTAKE”

Fehser started the business with partner Zeke Carlson. “I got into it by mistake,” he recalls. “We had an auto body shop and a full crew of body specialists. We built our first truck for the septic service industry, and the guy we were selling it to backed out.” (As fate would have it, that guy, Ron Baldwin, is now a key member of Fehser’s team.)

Unable to sell the truck, Fehser and Carlson bought a Yellow Pages ad and went into the septic pumping business, keeping the body shop along with a salvage yard they owned. “We bought six portable restrooms in 1989 to see how it would go, and it has built from there,” Fehser says.

The restroom business increased slowly until 1998, when it began to explode with growth in the Tucson area. “I pulled out the telephone book and counted 135 body shops,” Fehser says. “And then I counted five portable toilet companies. So I thought maybe that was something we ought to pursue.” He sold the body shop in 2006; Carlson has since retired, leaving Fehser as sole owner.

Meanwhile, in 1990, Baldwin moved back to Tucson after six years living in northern Arizona and went to work for Ace Portables. “He is my No. 1 guy now,” Fehser says. “Without him, I don’t know if I could do it. He’s the head man for the routes and the servicing. He’s been with me for 30 years.”

DIVERSE CLIENTELE

The business mix breaks down to about 40% construction and 60% events. The restroom inventory includes about 300 PolyJohn Enterprises units and 100 Five Peaks units, about 30 of which are ADA restrooms and 10 are flushable. The 50 hand-wash stations in inventory were supplied by PolyJohn Enterprises.

In 1998 the company bought its first restroom trailer from Ameri-Can Engineering. It was well received in the market, so Fehser had the body shop team start building more luxury units. There are now seven trailers in inventory, from 15 to 35 feet, each with oak cabinetry and stalls, granite or marble countertops, music, air conditioning and other amenities.

The trailers are a mainstay for weddings and parties, but they have also come into play for higher-profile occasions, including events surrounding visits to Tucson by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The focal points of the year for the Ace Portables team are the gem show and the rodeo. The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, the biggest event of its kind in the world, draws thousands of visitors from 30 countries. The show and related events run for 16 days in February, encompassing three weekends, at numerous sites around the city.

“The various hotels rent out room where the exhibitors display their materials,” Fehser says. “There are also tents on baseball fields and soccer fields.” Most of the restrooms are for the outdoor venues, but some hotels rent units to handle the overflow crowds. Ace typically rents about 150 portables and all of its trailers for the event. La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, also in February, includes nine days of rodeo. The Ace team provides daily service for about 85 units at the rodeo grounds.

PROCESSING WASTE

In time, handling a growing volume of waste became a costly problem. The waste had to be driven 50 miles to the county landfill, where tipping fees kept rising. “We were spending so much on driving to the landfill to dump that we weren’t making a profit to speak of,” Fehser says. “I was tempted to sell the business and just be done with it.”

Instead, he started processing the waste in a used dewatering box. When that showed promise, he expanded the operation. Today Ace has two 25-cubic-yard dewatering boxes from Dragon Products and two used dewatering boxes, all parked on a concrete slab beneath a steel canopy.

“When you drive in, you hook up to a strainer that my partner Zeke devised,” Fehser says. “Everything goes into the strainer and then into a Franklin Miller Model TM851206 in-line grinder.” The material is delivered to holding tanks totaling 70,000 gallons and then batch-processed. A mixer blends the waste with polymer, and the liquid is then pumped into the dewatering boxes.

The boxes are lined with single-use, disposable mesh screens (EnviroZone). “The water goes through the holes in the liners, and the solids separate out,” Fehser says. “We take the solids to the landfill, and we have a permit to discharge the liquid into the sewer. It’s just a huge improvement.” Ace accepts waste from other restroom operators and from septic pumpers. Of the 30,000-gallon weekly volume, about two-thirds comes from other contractors.

The solar installation dates to 2011. At that time, Fehser says, the cost of solar panels was subsidized by the government to the tune of 85%. “The dewatering boxes were out there, so we thought, Why don’t we build a cover over the top to provide a solar holder and protect the boxes and protect us from the sun?”

The 65 228-watt solar panels (Serengeti) power the entire operation. “I used to have a $600-a-month electric bill, and now I have a $35-a-month electric bill that’s just a service charge for being hooked up to the utility,” Fehser says. “I don’t use any electricity. I’m selling electricity every month to Tucson Electric Power.”

GETTING IT DONE

Fehser credits his company’s success to “an unbelievable crew.” Besides Baldwin, key people are Melissa Lynch, a 10-year team member who handles routing for deliveries and service and all office functions, and Jacob Junker (15 years), who manages the waste processing plant. The team also includes route drivers Patrick Newell (nine years) and Bob Foisey (one year).

The restroom service fleet includes:

Two 2016 Dodge trucks with 1,100-gallon waste and 400-gallon freshwater aluminum FlowMark Vacuum Trucks tanks and Masport pumps.

Two 2018 Dodge trucks with 800-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater FlowMark aluminum tanks and Masport pumps.

Three older Isuzu trucks with WorkMate aluminum tanks in sizes from 500 to 800 gallons waste and 150 to 300 gallons freshwater and Masport pumps from FMI Truck Sales & Service.

The company has a variety of transport trailers fabricated in-house.

In hiring people, Fehser says, “I wish I had some magic secret for it. If people come in, look me square in the eye and say they’ll give it a try, I’ll give them a try.” He does perform background checks before offering employment.

One prospect he took a chance on, Marco Gonzales, was overweight. “He walked in and just lit up the whole room,” Fehser says. “Because of his size, I was a little bit hesitant, but he was just the nicest guy in the world. He didn’t know anything about the business, but he picked it up, he worked hard and he cared about everybody here. He was very happy that he was given a chance.”

He worked for the company for six years before passing away in late 2018: “He was a good guy, and losing him was like a losing a member of the family.”

A family atmosphere is what Fehser tries to provide. “Pretty much around the clock, we’ve got somebody here,” Fehser says. “People start at different times so we can avoid traffic delays and get everything done. If someone has a family function going on, they can adjust their hours and it’s not a problem.

“We’re not the kind of place where we just put in eight hours and go home. If something needs to be done, everybody’s willing to put in the work. If somebody needs something outside of work, we all try to help.”

To keep good people, he provides competitive wages, profit sharing, and monthly or quarterly bonuses. Profit sharing kicks in after one year; after five additional years, team members are fully vested. “I make a pool for the bonus money,” Fehser says. “If you’ve been here for six months or longer, you get one share of the pool. If you’re here two years, you get two shares. If you’re here three years or longer, you get three shares. That way everybody gets something. A new person who’s working hard is not overlooked.”

KEEP ON GROWING

Ace Portables grows mainly based on quality service and reputation. The company has a website but doesn’t use social media or paid advertising. “My trucks and my units out in the field are all advertisements,” Fehser says.

“We stand out because we say with our actions that we’re respecting the environment. The solar energy is a good indication of that. I would like to get into recycling the sludge we have by mixing it with yard waste. That’s an upcoming project.” 

And to think the whole thing started with a mistake.


Clean is the deal

Tucson, Arizona, is a competitive market for portable restrooms. Ace Pumping & Portables doesn’t offer the lowest prices, but it promises excellent service.

“I’ve learned to pay attention not just to price, but service,” says John Fehser, owner. “We try to deliver the best service and the cleanest units, and we’re there when we say we’re going to be there. If somebody else wants to charge less, that’s OK.

“My employees are real conscientious. We go in and blast-out the unit with water and bleach. We wipe the whole thing down, spray the fragrance and put fresh chemical in. We wipe down the outsides and take care of any graffiti. It takes more than eight minutes for us to clean a unit; it takes closer to 12 minutes. You can tell we were there after we clean them out. Our customers notice, and they are the judge and jury.”

For chemicals, Ace Portables relies on Walex Products. “I’ve been working with them for 25 years,” Fehser says. “If there’s something they’re trying to develop, they send me samples and I promise I will try them. That’s where driver Ron Baldwin comes in. He likes to find good products that smell nice, won’t stain and are easy to use. We used to use chemical in the drum, but now we use dropins. There’s a lot less waste.”

Fehser counsels construction and event customers on how many units they need and where on the site to place them. “When we give a bid, we’re going to bid on the number of units the customer needs. I don’t want them calling around later and saying we didn’t give good service. We put a little extra into everything.”




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