The Evolution of the Vacuum Truck

A lot has changed in the pumping industry over the last couple decades, including many improvements to the vac truck
The Evolution of the Vacuum Truck

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The world of vacuum trucks has changed and grown over time, and those entering the field now are exposed to something that looks a bit different than what the Vanderveens or Coffeys of the industry took note of when they were the newbies.

Hank Vanderveen began his career back in 1971 working as a territory manager with Lely Pacific Inc. before working for a vacuum pump importer, manufacturers, and now as Amthor International’s vacuum tank product manager.

An industry mainstay for almost 30 years, Roy Coffey started on the shop floor building tanks and has held positions as a welder, mechanic, shop foreman, general manager and product manager. For the past 11 years he has been with Lely Tank & Waste Solutions, currently as a sales manager.

What’s stayed the same according to these industry veterans? “It’s still a round tank, and you’re still hauling sludge in it,” Coffey says, and Vanderveen echoes the same thought. “Basically the tank has stayed about the same,” he concludes.

Changes? There have been a few, and these guys would know.

Truck transformation

Vanderveen recalls the days when diaphragm pumps would pull the vacuum off the engines of trucks. While driving down the road the manifold would suck the air out of the tank, and by the time a driver arrived to the job site there would be 15 to 18 inches of vacuum at most. They didn’t want to lose it, either, because if they did it would take another 15 minutes to build up enough vacuum to handle a septic tank.

One of the problems with this method is that the cold air would hit the valves and about once a year they’d have to do a valve job on the engines, so there was plenty of excitement when the rotary vane was first introduced. This power take-off (PTO) driven pump only took a minute or two to build up enough vacuum to start pumping. “That was quite an evolution at the time,” he says.

In the last 10 to 15 years there have been more tri-lobe blowers, which can create a lot more airflow, fill a little faster and lift a little higher, Vanderveen says. There’s also been a transition to the lighter aluminum tanks over the course of the last decade.

Coffey says some of the biggest differences he’s noticed over time are the size and price tag of the trucks. “Back in the day we did a lot of the 1,500- and 1,600-gallon vacuum trucks,” he explains, “and today we’re doing more in the 3,500 to 4,500 range.”

In the mid-80s you could put a unit together for $10,000, he recalls, and today you put that same pump and tank system together for about $40,000 to $45,000. “The pumps have gotten bigger, the tanks have gotten bigger, and the trucks have gotten more expensive,” he adds.

The above photo is from a Lely ad in the 1981 (first ever) Pumper Show issue. 

Customer changes

Both Coffey and Vanderveen agree that there are more amenities being added to the chassis in recent years, which customers often add in order to make it more comfortable for the drivers and help with retention efforts.

“Now we’re putting jetters on them, we’re putting backup cameras on them, we’re putting alarms on them, things that will automatically shut the system down – technology we have today that we didn’t have when I started in this industry,” Coffey says.

Owners are more conscientious about making sure the gross vehicle weight rating of the chassis is compatible with the tank size, says Vanderveen, and there are a lot more automatic transmissions now, too.

In years past, customers were typically mom and pop shops, Coffey says, but now he deals with more big businesses. Another tangible change is the way customers now utilize and rely on the Internet during the shopping process.

Even so, Coffey says finding ways to add a personal touch is as important as ever when it comes to developing repeat business, and that type of relationship-building extends into his interactions with colleagues as well.

“One of the things I like about this industry is that I compete with a lot of people, but when I go to a trade show or I run into them out on the road we can shake hands and go sit down and have dinner together,” he says, “and we’re still friends.”

This photo shows a current Amthor tank.


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