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Bottom Line: Upper Valley portable toilet providers are flush with customers

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 7/31/2021 9:48:48 PM
Modified: 7/31/2021 9:48:48 PM

Bad jokes aside, the business of supplying port-a-potties is nothing to turn up your nose at.

Just ask Jessica and Steve Hurd, of Newbury, N.H., and John Tomlinson, of Plainfield.

The Hurds and Tomlinson both got into the portable toilet business a few months before the coronavirus pandemic struck. Turns out that was a smart decision.

Since then customers have only been waiting in line to rent their facilities.

“We were a bit nervous at first, to say the least,” said Jessica Hurd who, along with her husband Steve took over Ron’s Johns Chemical Toilets shortly before the pandemic crippled the economy, and they braced for seeing their first summer in business go down the drain.

“But it’s worked out really well,” he said.

Today’s conventional wisdom has it that the lucrative businesses of the future are in tech, health care or finance. The urgent need for portable toilets suggests, on the contrary, that there is always a good business in tending to people doing their business.

“I just can’t believe the demand for portable toilets now,” said John Blakeney, of North Pomfret, former owner of JB Portable Toilets, who still works at the company “doing a little maintenance and answering the phone.”

When demand goes up supply goes down, and that’s the problem facing people seeking to rent a portable toilet.

For port-a-potty owners, the less time a customer requires a portable toilet, the more money they make. That’s because they charge a monthly rate for a unit, regardless whether a customer only wants the potty for a few days.

Rental rates at Upper Valley Portables range from $150 a month for a “standard unit” up to $300 a month for a “formal” unit, the latter frequently used for weddings and is painted white and comes with a mirror and sink (the fees include weekly cleaning and restocking service).

“The folks we usually use said they were out (of portable toilets),” said PJ Skehan, executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce, who said he recently needed to obtain “26 to 28” port-a-potties for the upcoming Quechee Hot Air Balloon, Craft & Music Festival, over Labor Day weekend, which draws about 10,000 people annually.

“I called around to several places, and they all said they were booked through October,” said Skehan, adding that he was surprised to learn there has been a run on portable toilets. “Who knew?”

Fortunately, Skehan was able to secure his potties from Tomlinson, who spent 30 years working as a certified registered nurse anesthetist before he opened Upper Valley Portables in 2019.

Today, Tomlinson has 100 portable toilets and two employees.

“We’re growing,” he said.

Tomlinson said there are several reasons for the port-a-potty shortage, probably the biggest factor being the demand from contractors who are required by OSHA to have toilets available at construction sites.

With building projects extending longer than normal because of supply chain issues with building materials, contractors are leasing portable toilets for longer than they usually would, thereby leaving fewer units available in the event rental market.

Another factor is greater demand for port-a-potties from public institutions, such as schools and government offices, that didn’t want people coming inside their buildings and are still holding onto their commodes.

“If they ordered one before, they order four now,” Tomlinson said.

“I could easily have rented 250 toilets this year, 150 more than I have,” he said. “We’ve turned away more requests than we’ve rented.”

Scott Hausler, director of parks and recreation for Hartford, said he discovered how hard it is to find portable toilets when he put out the town’s RFP this past winter for suppliers to bid on the contract.

“I sent out a request to whatever I could find on the internet in the region,” said Hausler, who added he was “kind of surprised” when only “one in five responded.” He contracted with JB Portable Toilets.

Given the added cost burden to comply with the state’s heightened protocols for cleanliness, Hartford has ordered only two “permanent” potties this summer for use — at Lyman Point Park, where the town has its outdoor concert venue and bandstand, and Kilowatt Park South, where the boat launch is located — compared with the eight to 10 units the town would ordinarily require.

“If we ordered them all like before, it would have thrown our budget out of whack,” said Hausler, who noted that temporary potties would still be available on an as-needed basis such things as for the flag football program at Ratcliffe Park.

Exacerbating the problem is that portable toilet manufacturers are facing their own supply chain issues, particularly when it comes to sourcing plastic, and that in turn is leading them to be backed up in delivering port-a-potties to rental companies.

“I’ve had a truckload of restrooms I ordered in April that still are not here,” Tomlinson said. “It used to take a week. Now they are telling me it’s 12-plus-week delivery times.”

Jessica Hurd, of Ron’s Johns, said that she and her husband have forgone ordering more potties this year because “they wouldn’t be delivered until past our busy season.”

Blakeney, who calls “this summer one of the busiest we’ve ever had,” said JB Portable Toilets is getting calls from people as far away as northern Vermont near the Canadian border who are trying to rent port-a-potties, something he’s never seen in more than four decades in the business.

And this year Blakeney has seen a new customer wanting to rent portable toilets: people who are hosting outdoor parties but don’t want people coming into their homes to use their bathrooms.

“A few folks have told me when they have parties with free food and beer, people show up who they don’t know,” he said. “So they are renting a toilet and locking the house.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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