How To Spec Out a Septic Pumper Truck

Pumps? Tanks? Engines? We’ve got you covered when it comes to speccing out a new septic truck.
How To Spec Out a Septic Pumper Truck
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When you’re looking to buy a new pumper truck, Jay Minear has a few words of advice: More — in terms of things like more tank capacity, more horsepower and a more powerful vacuum pump — definitely is better.

Why? It allows pumpers to do jobs faster, which equates to higher profitability; it reduces strain on components; and enables them to do more kinds of work, which helps diversify their business base, says Minear, a sales representative for Keith Huber Corp. and a 17-year veteran of the pumping industry. 

“I know it sounds like a salesman talking, but I know from general experience that more power and capacity is better,” Minear says. “You can pay around $100,000 for a vacuum truck that’s limited in what it can do. Or you could spend $150,000 to $160,000 for a well-equipped truck with, say, a 3,300-gallon tank, a 300-gallon water tank, a 35 gpm/2,000 psi water pump and a 440 cfm vacuum pump. 

“That truck is set up to do almost anything you want to do, from pumping septic tanks and grease traps to cleaning municipal sewer lines to doing industrial cleaning,” he adds. “Guys ask me all the time what they can do with a well-equipped vacuum truck, and I just tell them, ‘Use your imagination.’” 

Speccing out a truck properly depends on a wide variety of variables. As Minear notes, virtually every pumper operates under different conditions that can affect a truck’s requirements — things such as the price they pay for waste disposal, how far away waste treatment centers and customers are located and the terrain in which they travel. But even with all that in mind, there are still some basic things to consider, as Minear explains. 

Fill ‘er up

Minear recommends getting a larger tank, starting with a minimum of 3,000 to 3,300 gallons. Why? For one, there’s a general trend toward larger aerobic tanks, which in turn dictates a need for larger tanks. In addition, larger tanks decrease the amount of disposal trips required, which saves fuel and time, boosts productivity and minimizes truck wear-and-tear. “If you travel a lot of miles, you want as much tank capacity as possible to make it more economical,” Minear says. 

Pumpers should also think about unexpected business developments that could arise that require a larger tank, such as entering the market for grease-trap cleaning (he says a typical restaurant grease trap holds 1,000 gallons) or acquiring new customers that live farther afield. 

Steel’s the deal

While carbon steel and aluminum tanks both offer advantages, Minear says he prefers steel because it’s less vulnerable to corrosion and handles stress and strain better than aluminum. 

Some drivers prefer aluminum because it’s lighter, which allows them to buy a larger tank and still meet road weight restrictions. But Minear notes that by simply speccing a tri-axle configuration — or even quad-axle — a pumper can carry a larger tank and still meet weight restrictions because the extra axles distribute the weight more evenly. 

A tri-axle setup might cost about $7,000 to $10,000 more than a conventional dual-axle configuration, and a quad-axle setup can cost about double those figures. “But it’s a small price to pay for an expensive overload ticket,” he says. 

Another point to ponder: Minear suggests spending roughly $10,000 more to get an ASME/DOT-certified tank that can legally carry hazardous waste. “I like ASME/DOT-code tanks for one simple reason — resale value,” Minear says. “It’s easier to sell a code tank because there’s no limit to what the buyer can haul plus you can make more money by serving different markets.”

Jetter is better

Adding a water jetter, a 300-gallon water tank and a water pump (35 gpm at 2,000 psi) to a rig can cost about $20,000. Or you could spend around $13,000 to $14,000 for a less powerful pump (10 gpm at 2,000 psi). But either way, Minear says it’s an investment that can quickly pay for itself, both in terms of enhancing customer service and adding another revenue stream for jetting services. 

“If you’re cleaning a septic tank and the homeowner says the line is running slow, or you’re cleaning a grease trap and a restaurant owner says a trunk line is running slow, you can put a nozzle on the end of the hose and clean them out,” Minear says. 

Moreover, customers appreciate not having to call another contractor and wait longer to get the line cleaned. “Plus, if you’re cleaning a septic tank that hasn’t been pumped in 40 years, you can use that jetter to literally cut solid debris off the walls of the tank. Sometimes it’s the difference between doing it in half an hour or standing there for four hours.” 

Rev it up

Minear suggests speccing nothing less than a 350 hp diesel engine; personally, he prefers a 425 hp engine, which costs about $8,000 to $10,000 more than the smaller engine. But a more powerful engine handles a heavy load better and puts less stress on the chassis and tank. The gas mileage for a 350 hp engine versus a 425 hp engine is negligible, so that isn’t a factor, he points out. 

“With a larger engine, you don’t have to wind it up or use all its power to make it work,” he explains. “That also relieves strain on the engine and the overall system. Remember, these trucks have a lot of hydraulics to run that take horsepower, like the vacuum pump and the jetter’s water pump, so it’s better to go bigger.” 

Shift work

When it comes to transmissions, Minear believes in the KISS philosophy: Keep It Simple, Stupid. In other words, save some money and spec an eight- or 10-speed manual transmission versus an automatic transmission. The price difference between manual and automatic is about $10,000 to $13,000, Minear says. 

“Lots of guys spend a lot of money on automatic transmissions because they can’t find drivers who can drive a stick shift, but manual transmissions are a lot easier to use these days,” Minear says. “Sometimes guys want more gears to handle bigger loads, but I’d never recommend an 18-speed transmission, or even a 13-speed because I prefer simplicity. If you’ve got enough horsepower up front, the transmission will cover it.”

Pump it up

Minear says both water-cooled and air-cooled pumps can serve pumpers well, but he prefers liquid-cooled pumps, which he says he’s run for up to 12 hours straight without any problems. 

Open-door policy

Minear also suggests investing in two other options: a hydraulic tilt tank and a full-open rear door. This feature costs about $7,000 to $15,000, but can pay for itself by dramatically reducing dumping and tank cleaning time, he says.

“Again, if you’ve cleaned a tank that hasn’t been pumped in 40 years, you’re going to deal with some awfully thick, gooey stuff that’ll be a bear to off-load without a full-lift tank,” he notes. “You’ll be working like a dog to get the tank washed out with a garden hose or whatever else is available. This is where a truck-mounted jetter also comes in handy.” 

The bottom line when speccing out a vacuum truck: It’s better to go bigger because it gives operators the versatility to do more kinds of work — and do it more efficiently, too. 

To make your decision easier, check out some top tanks here.


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