- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - At a career juncture 15 years ago, Bryan Niemann had the opportunity to “do portable restrooms or a lawn mower service.”

“Lawn mowers are more seasonal, so I chose portable restrooms,” said Niemann, owner of Port-A-Pot LLC in Rising City, Nebraska.

“It was a good move,” he said. The unceasing call of nature just about guarantees a steady stream of business.

The ongoing boom in construction and the growing popularity of outdoor weddings has the area’s portable toilet suppliers scrambling to keep up with demand.

The industry saw dark days when the Great Recession put a damper on building projects and entertainment spending, said Karleen Kos, executive director of the Portable Sanitation Association International, a trade group based in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“Construction is one of the main uses of portable restrooms - the other use is concerts and fairs,” Kos said.

Last year, Oasis Portables in Bennington, Nebraska, bought out Port-A-Johns, boosting its inventory from 200 to 800 units. Owners Dale and Jenny Christianson started with a trash company, then were offered the chance to get into porta-potties. “I said ‘no,’ and my husband said ‘yes,’?” Jenny Christianson said.

“Last year was a good year,” she said. “We’ll probably add some more units next year.”

The Omaha World Herald (https://bit.ly/1UdPjEH ) reports that in the past five years or so, portable restrooms have found a new niche away from the bread-and-butter construction sites - the special event market. Luxury models boast marble or granite countertops, wooden floors, heat and air conditioning, and stereo systems.

“Some of them are nicer than my own bathroom at home,” said Molly Leonard, vice president of On Site, which supplies upscale models to the Omaha market.

Calculating the required number at an event is both art and science, said Leonard, who’s based in the company’s Minnesota headquarters. One unit is good for about 250 uses before it’s full, but besides headcount, you have to factor in the length of the event and whether alcohol is served.

Omaha’s Eagle Services luxury models include a VIP trailer with black marble countertops and two fireplaces - one on the men’s side and one on the women’s side. It can accommodate four men and four women.

RiverWest Park in west Omaha provides wedding parties with standard portables, but about one-third opt for a deluxe experience, which, depending on the model, can add $725 or $1,050 to the bill. “You have people in tuxes and dresses,” said Bill Novak, director of operations.

Luxury models can cost tens of thousands of dollars for the toilet purveyors to purchase. As for amenities, the sky’s the limit.

Standard models, on the other hand, typically sell for $1,000 and up, said Rob French, owner of A-Relief Services Inc. in Bellevue.

To keep pace with local demand, French has doubled the number of units, from 600 to 1,200, in the last three years, purchasing a St. Louis company to boost inventory. “We’ve done well,” he said.

French employs a dozen workers to service the company’s “fleet” that’s deployed at construction sites and outdoor events throughout the metro area. Service varies from once or twice a week to daily.

On construction sites, the federal government has a hand in determining how many portable toilets are onsite. “You need one unit per 400 man hours,” but more may be needed if “contractors are ramping up on the job” or “you’ve got a lot of people on the job site drinking coffee,” French said.

State and local guidelines often spell out how many portable toilets, including handicapped- and wheelchair- accessible, must be in place at county fairs and public events. Portable toilets are the last thing people want to think about, Kos said, but woe to the promoter who, ahem, skimps on facilities.

“It just sets the whole event up for failure,” she said.

Trying to get a handle on new housing starts? Check with the local portable toilet suppliers.

“We have one homebuilder who has no less than 40 different houses in process - and a unit at each,” said a spokeswoman for Eagles Services in Omaha. The company reserves 1,200 units just for construction.

A portable has a life span of about 10 years, and there’s a designated hierarchy of use. “The last thing you want to do is put a new unit at a construction site,” French said.

New and pristine, they make the rounds of weddings and special events, he said. With wear and tear they’re demoted to “concert” status. After a few too many cigarette burns, their concert days come to an end and they’re placed at parks, campgrounds and people’s beach houses. The last stop is a construction site. “They get really dinged up there. They carve in them. They graffiti them.”

Theft and vandalism are hazards. Someone stole one of A-Relief’s handicap-accessible portables, a $2,500 loss. “I’d sure like to know what they did with that!” French said. Another “burned to the ground last year after they put fireworks in it.”

The portable toilet made its debut on the American homefront during World War II. Men and, for the first time, women were recruited for the war effort to fill enormous but often hastily built factories and shipyards, where indoor plumbing took a back seat, said Kos, of the toilet trade group.

“To make it possible for workers to not have to go to Timbuktu to take care of nature … they inventively used these big barrels and built a makeshift outhouse around that.”

The postwar housing boom created demand for portable toilets. The first were constructed of plywood and paired with a 55-gallon drum. Fiberglas entered the picture in the 1960s, replaced by more durable plastic models in the late 1970s. Today, there are an estimated 3.4 million portable restrooms dotting the globe, including 2 million in North America, Kos said.

Despite their availability, in the past some contractors skipped the expense.

“I’ve been in construction since 1984 - back then, not everyone wanted to pay for them,” said Kirk Rogers, construction superintendent for Habitat for Humanity in Omaha. “In those days, the porta-potty was a bucket in the garage, and if you had to do more, you run to the nearest gas station.”

Thankfully, “it’s not as scary as it used to be.” Rogers has more than 20 houses under construction in north and South Omaha. “Each house has a porta-potty,” he said.

In this business, one size doesn’t fit all. Construction creates the need for special models: Slimmed-down versions are designed to fit into freight elevators at high-rise projects; stabilizing legs prevent tip-overs on uneven surfaces; and models that bolt onto a trailer keep road crews on the go.

Still, users complain.

“Not much room in there,” said a construction worker, exiting a beige-colored portable labeled Johnny on the Spot at a job site near 72nd and Grover Streets in Omaha.

Portable restrooms are produced in a range of hues, including sedate tans, and corporate grays and forest green. But for a splash of color there are brilliant yellow and cobalt blue models. Others, in a display of whimsy, add faux wooden siding and a crescent moon above the door, in a nod to the traditional outhouse motif.

Disposal charges are levied by the gallon, said Niemann, based in Rising City. Niemann pays about one to five cents per gallon at nearby wastewater plants for disposal, he said. French receives a big bill (he wouldn’t specify the amount) quarterly from the City of Omaha.

“Green” portables that use biologics - organisms - to break down material are making inroads. Traditionally, formaldehyde has been used in the tanks, but fewer wastewater treatment plants accept formaldehyde-laced water. Still, in hot climes, it’s the preferred compound. Nothing “masks the smell as vibrantly as formaldehyde,” Kos said.

The next wave of innovation is expected to arise from research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is sponsoring an initiative to “reinvent the toilet.” The Seattle-based nonprofit is seeking “waterless” designs that can function in arid locales, Kos said.

If any of those designs are perfected, some facets are likely to be integrated into the commercial models, Kos said.

Still, there’s a Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect” aspect to the business.

Despite upscale models, despite an impressive bottom line, operators say mentioning their livelihood can trigger a bout of the sixth-grade snickers.

“Who grows up thinking they’re going to run a porta-potty business?” French quipped. “I’ve heard all the jokes, but you still laugh. A crappy day is a good day for me.”

___

Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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