You Better Like the Cold If You Want to Clean Restrooms at the Top of Lake Superior

Thunder Bay’s Jacky Ward of A-1 Sewage Services is happy to share her experience to help northern PROs cope with severe conditions that will come around in a few months.

You Better Like the Cold If You Want to Clean Restrooms at the Top of Lake Superior

Technician Dawn McKillop pumps a PolyJohn Enterprises restroom while running a daily service route.

At 34 years old, Jacky Ward has many years ahead in her career in the portable sanitation industry.

“I’ve got another 30 years to go — might as well make sure this place is going to be as profitable for me as it was for my mom and dad,” says Ward, second-generation owner of A-1 Sewage Services in Thunder Bay, Ontario, the business her parents, Jack and Lynn Ward, purchased in 1989.

Her father passed away in 2013, and Lynn and Jacky Ward now run the company. A-1 Sewage Services — which started with only 10 restrooms — now has about 250 units, mostly from Satellite | PolyPortables and PolyJohn Enterprises, as well as eight restroom trailers (10-stall, five-stall, three-stall, two-stall and four single units) mostly built by Forest River, Rich Specialty Trailers and McKee Technologies. It also has hand-wash stations from PolyJohn Enterprises and Satellite | PolyPortables.

The fleet includes three trucks: a 2008 Peterbilt 325 with a Conde (Westmoor) pump and Transway Systems 300-gallon waste and 225-gallon freshwater slide-in steel tank; a 2014 Ford F-550 with four-wheel drive, a steel Transway Systems 300-gallon waste and 325-gallon freshwater slide-in tank and Jurop/Chandler pump; and a 2018 Ford F-550 with four-wheel drive, a SchellVac Equipment 550-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater steel tank, and Wallenstein pump.

A-1 Sewage Services also pumps septic tanks, holding tanks, and grease traps and inspects Ecoflo systems (Premier Tech Aqua). The lightly populated service territory is broad, and the closest major city is Duluth, Minnesota, four hours south.

1. Location, location, location

Thunder Bay is located in a remote area of Canada — the closest major Canadian city, Winnipeg, Manitoba, is eight hours away.

“Because our locations are so remote, we’re pushing sometimes 20 units a day because we have so much driving to do,” Ward says. “Our service area is three hours southwest and three hours northwest. We could drive two hours before we even get to the first restroom we serve.”

Because of the remoteness, the company has to build travel time into its charges. “Our local area is a flat-rate price; for anything outside of that, we flat-rate a minimum charge and then charge by the hour for delivery, pickup and service.”

Even though their Ford F-550 trucks have GPS capability, the remoteness means cell service is often spotty. “Three years ago, we bought a satellite phone in case of emergencies,” Ward says.

“Most of the roads aren’t always on the GPS,” she adds. “We do a lot of handwritten directions and take as much information from the customers as we can.”

2. BRRRing on the cold

On the north shore of Lake Superior, where temperatures often dip below zero degrees F, it can be hard to find trucks and tanks suited to the frozen location. Canadian Ministry of Labour standards require portable restrooms to have a flush toilet, sink and preferably heat. “We have a couple of different options for our contractors,” Ward says.

The cold has often compounded problems for A-1 Sewage Services. Ward says they once had a three-compartment freshwater steel tank on a truck break when the temperature hit 37 degrees F below zero. And on another truck, Ward had to build an insulated box on the bed to ensure it didn’t freeze.

Keeping water in the restroom holding tanks fluid provides unique challenges. In the coldest winter weather, A-1 Sewage Services makes its own brine solution of 2 pounds of rock salt per gallon of water; that gives a freezing point of zero degrees F. “Because we dump into lagoons in the ground, we can’t use methanol,” she says.

“In winter, we are servicing 70 units weekly,” Ward says. “The operators have to carry extra salt. Even with the salt and small ceramic heaters on in the restrooms, most of the time the toilets are frozen.” The heaters are electric, so all job sites must have access to power.

Her operators use steel breaker bars to cut through the ice at the top of holding tanks, leaving enough room to fit a 2-inch hose for evacuation. “We break up as much of the top layer as we can and then pump the waste,” she says.

“It takes them extra time to break up the toilets, and you can’t spray down the units because it would freeze,” Ward says. Instead, “We keep the cleaning solution in a bottle in the truck … and race out and clean the unit.”

Operators brush snow off the outsides of the units; many of the units are insulated with what Ward calls “snowsuits.” “We buy our coats (lightweight insulated covers sold under the name Cole Cover) through PolyJohn Canada,” Ward says.

Dumping in the winter is another challenge. While the city of Thunder Bay has a wastewater treatment plant, Ward’s company is about 30 minutes away. That means in addition to facing fees, they’d also have restricted access hours.

So, despite the steep upfront and regular maintenance costs, about 18 years ago A-1 Sewage Services constructed 10-by-40-foot lagoons on its property to hold and treat waste that meets Ministry standards for dewatering trenches. A-1 Sewage Services has 10 lagoons at one site and three others outside the city.

“The water leaches out, and the solids are removed and taken to a solid waste landfill,” Ward says. Once a year, an environmental consulting company tests the groundwater to make sure it is clear.

“We use a pit for two years, let it rest for a year and then clean it out.”

3. Expanding to include trailers

While she didn’t own any until 2016, Ward believes she kind of “made the market” in her area for luxury restroom trailers. “I bought two, and we’ve just grown since then,” says Ward, who has purchased an average of two new trailers each year since then. She now owns eight trailers.

“I just put them out in place of restrooms. For the first year, my two went out 11 times,” she says. The next year, she rented them 33 times.

“People had no idea what they were until I brought them in,” Ward says. “Now they’re going out on long-term construction sites, weddings, parties, concerts.” Because she provides them all with full attendant service, “It’s a very time-consuming part of our business,” she says. “At events, there is someone with the trailers at all times. When at a wedding, someone goes midway through the evening and does a restocking/cleaning and water fill.”

For transport, Ward uses a McKee Technologies 20-unit and 12-unit Explorer transport trailers and two homemade flatbed trailers.

4. Women in industry

Being a woman in the industry has never presented a problem for Ward, who works both with her mom, who does bookkeeping, and Dawn McKillop, their main restroom service provider. Ward’s sister, Samantha Ward, a registered nurse, helps out at major events when short staffed. Kathy Mortimore acts as dispatcher.

While she doesn’t advertise the business as being female owned, she is proud of it. “I do all the delivery and pickup of restroom trailers,” Ward says. “For the most part, we have women servicing our portable restrooms.”

Ward says some customers are surprised when she pulls up to a job site. “Everyone always goes to the guys first, and they (point at me and) say, ‘She’s the boss.’ They’re just a little shocked.”

She credits some of that to her youth. “I’m young, but I’ve been doing this a long time. It was always something I wanted to do.”

5. Sharing her knowledge

At a recent Portable Sanitation Association International convention, and at the prompting of PolyJohn Canada, Ward presented on restroom cleaning techniques.

“In the last three years, I started going to more of the PSAI events; I was excited but nervous at the same time,” says Ward, who had 30 to 40 attendees at each of her four sessions. She pulls from her own experiences to offer advice to other operators, presenting not really tips, but rather things she and her team focus on — “little things we see as challenges working in the cold.”

She also attends the annual convention of the Ontario Association of Sewage Industry Services. “It’s about meeting people, talking with them and getting a different point of view,” Ward says. “Being able to compare notes with someone who isn’t your competitor is really helpful.”

She also speaks of the value of keeping units clean to enhance customer service and reputation. “It’s our name on the door. It’s our reputation. Our customers respect our units because they know we’re going to take care of them.”


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