Porta Potty, outhouse, Johnny-on-the-Spot, and honey bucket are but some of the words people use for those plastic, square portable toilets. I chatted with Robin Fairclough over at Northwest Vacuum Services in Whitehorse about portable toilets, and got to ask every question you never thought to ask about those plastic booths.
“Be careful of who you’re marrying,” Robin said to me with a laugh when I asked her how she got into the portable-toilet, septic and vacuum-truck business. “You never know what you might end up doing.”
Robin and her husband, Robert, are partners in Northwest Vaccuum Services. Together with five employees, they operate three vacuum trucks and 150 portable toilets, the majority of which are distributed around the Yukon right now.
Summer is the season for portable toilets, though they always have a few out year-round. The demand is driven by the construction industry and all kinds of events ranging from music festivals, to dog shows, weddings and graduation parties.
Robin always asks a lot of questions when people call to request toilets. “I’m not being snoopy,” Robin said. “There’s a lot of planning.”
There’s a bit of math involved in knowing how many portable toilets are needed at any given event. She said as long as no alcohol is involved, the average person uses the washroom five to eight times per day. They have a small box outhouse that has a 30-gallon capacity and is good for 200 uses. Their larger 50-gallon outhouse can handle about 400 uses.
“And what if alcohol is involved?” I asked.
Robin laughed a little, and said if you drink, then you know. It turns out that events where alcohol is consumed use double the outhouse capacity because people who are drinking use the facilities twice as often.
She also noted that those of us who urinate standing up typically fill the portable toilet a bit more slowly, as a nearby tree poses an easy alternative.
The portable toilets get shipped out with two rolls of toilet paper, and many of them come with hand sanitizer. Robin said she likes to keep the newest portable toilets for weddings.
In the summertime, as demand goes up, Northwest Vaccuum Services hires a full-time employee just to handle the portable toilet program. The larger 50-gallon portable toilet is cleaned out with a vacuum truck, but the smaller 30-gallon one has a removable box for the waste, so you can actually remove the waste box and trade it in for a clean one, all while keeping the toilet in place.
I asked if they’ve ever found anything of value while cleaning the portable toilets. They often find garbage (please don’t put your garbage in the hole!), but also the occasional cellphone and articles of clothing.
I confided in Robin that one of my fears is someone tipping over a portable toilet while I’m inside. I asked if my fear is a reasonable one. “I’ve never had anybody say they’ve been tipped over while they’ve been inside,” Robin said. While they can be tipped over, she said it wouldn’t be easy. The portable toilets have a wide base (four feet by four feet) and are eight-feet tall. Empty, they weigh 120 pounds, but the waste can add up to 300 pounds. “They would really have to work at it,” she said reassuringly.
Really big windstorms have been known to tip portable toilets over. Robin did suggest that portable toilets be placed up against something solid, when possible.
Portable toilets last a long time: They’ve only lost a couple over the years. Robin said that sometimes people try to light them on fire. She said Yukoners are generally pretty good to the portable toilets.
When she said that to me, I wondered if that’s because Yukoners seem to be more welcoming to the idea of outhouses than people are in other places I’ve lived. A lot of Yukoners use outhouses as their main commode, after all.
I asked Robin if there’s a preferred term for Porta Potty in the industry. She told me folks are welcome to use “whatever name gets the job done,” but did note the construction industry tends to refer to them as portable toilets.
So, whether you call them a sh*thouse, a portalet, a Jon or a port-a-loo — don’t put trash in them, don’t set them on fire, and rest easy knowing they’re pretty hard to tip over.