Nova Scotia

Porta-potty providers pooped by pandemic push for privies

Since March, portable toilet companies say business has been on a roll, as people rent outdoor thrones for their two-week quarantines, job sites double up on the number of cans, and home septic tanks need more frequent emptying than ever before.

When nature calls in quarantine, people call to rent a porta-potty

When nature calls in quarantine, people call to rent a porta-potty

CBC News Nova Scotia

7 months ago
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major challenge for many companies in Nova Scotia, one industry has found that business is bursting. The CBC's Emma Davie explains. 2:34

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, like many business owners, Mark Pratt was worried his company could go down the drain.

Pratt is the CEO of Sea + Sky Portable Restrooms — and with no big parties in need of a porta-potty, the future seemed murky.

Who, in the middle of a pandemic, needs a portable toilet? 

As it turns out, a lot of people.

Since March, portable toilet companies in Halifax say business has been on a roll. People are renting outdoor thrones to use during their two-week quarantine when no separate bathroom is available, job sites are doubling up on the number of cans for workers, and home septic tanks need more frequent emptying than ever before.

Many people are renting out portable toilets, like this one at a home in Halifax's south end, for university students coming home for Christmas in need of a separate bathroom for their two-week isolation. (Emma Davie/CBC)

The companies have spent tens of thousands of dollars this year, ordering new equipment to make sure they have enough stock to cover their backside.

"I kept going, 'OK, well, it will slow down next week.' But it just kept getting busier," Pratt said. He hired two more full-time staff members to meet the urgent need.

With the flexibility of working from home, many people decided to move back to the East Coast and needed to quarantine, a requirement for most people arriving to Nova Scotia from outside Atlantic Canada. This time of year, Pratt said they are seeing university students coming home for the holidays in need of a separate john while they isolate.

And when nature calls in quarantine, people call to rent a porta-potty.

Mark Pratt is the CEO of Sea + Sky Portable Restrooms in Halifax. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Jack Werry, owner of Jack's Expert Flush & Toilet Rentals, said he's working six days a week. Of his 325 portable toilets, all of them are occupied.

"Everything I have is out," he said. "I've ordered five times this year more toilets than in a normal year."

In fact, Werry said he spent $150,000 on new units to keep up with the demand — plus another $85,000 for a new truck to add to his growing fleet.

"I can say of all the businesses I've owned, this is the best one," he said, chuckling.

Werry even bought a new truck this year because the demand for service has been so high. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Phyllis Druhan with Royal Flush said they, too, have had a number of people using portable loos to quarantine.

"It was something new to me. I've seen a lot, been around a lot, and this was the first for this type of situation. But we embraced it and we're taking care," she said.

While business usually slows down in the colder months, the companies use a winter chemical to prevent tanks from freezing up. Pratt said there are also insulated covers with heaters — ideal for keeping your tushy toasty.

"Our dilemma now is with winter coming, now everybody would like to have an insulated toilet," Pratt said. "Now there's a backorder of insulated toilets."

Many people doing a two-week quarantine have turned to portable toilets during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

People also want the "Cadillac units," Pratt said — those that come with an electronic hand-sanitizer dispenser, a foot-pedal-operated sink and a motion-sensor light.

"These are the special events, wedding units, but they've now become the pandemic units," he said.

It's certainly an upgrade from what often comes to mind when people think of porta-potties: unclean, smelly, or even out of order.

Werry said while the stigma has been around, it's changing thanks to the "very fancy" toilets that exist now.

This may be the kind of ugly image people conjure up when they think of a portable toilet. But companies say the newest models have sinks, foot-pedal flushing and are even heated. (Shutterstock/Lou Cannon)

People are also renting trailers or borrowing RVs from friends in order to isolate. That, combined with people spending so much more time at home, meant the demand for septic tanks to be emptied has exploded.

Werry said one woman moved home from B.C. and was isolating in a trailer. She needed the tank emptied and he took her up on the job.

He said the customer stays inside while he goes around to the back of the trailer and uses his hose to pump out the tank, so there is no direct interaction with the people in isolation.

"She'd leave the money, the cheque, then I'd go to the next one and it would continue on from there. People just calling one after the other," he said.

Companies are also having trouble keeping handwashing stations, like this one, in stock. (Emma Davie/CBC)

But it's not just the commodes that have these companies pooped. The demand for handwashing stations has also grown throughout the pandemic.

Pratt said they haven't been able to keep them in stock and have even had to turn customers away. The company he orders from had requests for 7,000 stations and they were backordered until November.

In the early days of the pandemic, Werry said most of his handwashing stations went out to grocery stores. But the requests kept flooding in, even as he tried to order more. Eventually, he started making them himself, with the help of a carpenter.

While many job sites used to have one or two porta-potties, they've bumped those numbers up during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Many job sites are also looking for more handwashing stations, as well as additional ladies and gents rooms — even designating some latrines specifically for out-of-province workers to limit them from going into the main company buildings.

"A lot of times it was one or two toilets on a job site, now it's four or five," Werry said.

Pratt said hand sanitizer is also difficult to his hands on — and keep in stock. On job sites, he said a litre cartridge used to last three months. Now, sometimes a litre only lasts one week.

Pratt said in the spring, when people could not find hand sanitizer on store shelves, they turned to theft: stealing the cartridges out of his portable toilets. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Pratt said sanitizer theft from toilets was a huge problem back in April. As store shelves emptied of sanitizer, people went searching in porta-potties.

"We've never had to lock them before, but we had to lock them because they were just disappearing," Pratt said.

He said they have just had to "bulk up again" on sanitizer, not wanting to be backordered and left without.

As soon as a rental is up, Werry said he packs it up, takes it for cleaning and then immediately brings it to a new site. All 325 of his portable toilets are currently in use. (Emma Davie/CBC)

"Originally, I didn't want to be the glutton guy who was hoarding hand sanitizer and toilet paper," Pratt said, laughing.

The bottom line? These businesses won't be slowing down any time soon.

"I think it's sad to say, but I think COVID is going to be around for quite a while," Werry said. "So I think we all have to learn to live differently now. I certainly am."