The smell starts as soon as Buster Downing pops the septic cork.
A dark, noxious brew goes almost to the top of the tank. He sticks in a long, thick hose, starts up his red and yellow truck and, on a homeowner’s neat manicured lawn, offers a little Septic System 101.
If it’s not toilet paper, don’t put it down the flush.
Watch out for anti-bacterial soaps.
He makes a point to touch some things with gloves (his own hose) and some things without (the homeowner’s hose).
When his hose starts to suck air on the bottom of the tank, he adjusts it to another corner.
“You probably think I’m gross: It’s the same idea of getting to the bottom of a frappe cup, try to get that last bit,” he says. (Wow. May never drink a frappe again…)
For 35-plus years, George “Buster” Downing, president of G.A. Downing Co. of Minot, has cleaned septic tanks and rented portable toilets.
The job almost entirely sucks, in a good way.
It’s vacuums and nozzles and pumps and lots of working outdoors. A lot of times, it’s remarkably clean work. But there is that nagging smell.
“Usually, the first thing people will say is, How can you stand that?’ Well, I’m immune to it. Smells like money to me,” he says.
Since it doesn’t smell like money to everyone, Downing adds cherry lube to the pumper truck’s oil, a sweet scent that winds its way out the tailpipe and mingles with other odors.
He’s kind of immune to it by now, too.
Probably the worst thing he’s ever dropped down a septic abyss was a pen, so on the job he wears shirts with flap-pockets. “I had a fellow that was always dropping pens, cigarettes, sunglasses – and he didn’t buy cheap sunglasses. And no, we didn’t retrieve them.”
Homes ought to have septics emptied every three to five years. There’s no magic to landing on the exact best time, and he laments that it’s often an “out of sight, out of mind” chore.
So people forget until things back up. Downing says there are ways to be attuned to your toilet to know when it’s almost time.
The clue: flush length.
When the flush gets slower, it’s time to get pumped. Only most people don’t notice. He draws an analogy to driving a car that tugs to the right. You get used to it. It’s not until someone else hops in your car and asks “how do you drive this beast?” that you think about it.
“It’s kind of hard to measure,” he said. “After the fact, you say, Oh my gosh, what a difference.'”
A little septic fact: A healthy tank is always filled with water. A four-gallon flush pushes four gallons out into the drain field. It’s when the tank fills with too many solids that it’s time for a professional house call.
Or when it clogs on too many Handi Wipes, cigarette butts, baby diapers or allegedly flushable products.
“They are flushable all right, but when they get down here they don’t break up,” Downing says. “People think anything that will go down that flush is perfectly good to go.”
He’s clearly no fan of the anti-bacterial craze either. Bacteria’s needed to break down solids; all those soaps down the sink kill bacteria in the tank.
“This is where the Rid-Xs of the world come into play,” he says. But careful: “There’s so-called snake oil in some of them.”
World of port-a-potties
Portable toilets have slowly unseated septic cleanings as generating the most business for his company. People rent them for all sorts of occasions: weddings, ball games, job sites.
There’s a formula to it: So many people for so many hours means so many johns.
Portable Sanitation Association International estimates there’s 1.4 million port-a-potties in use worldwide.
No worldwide figures on how many get up-ended annually by jerks.
Downing’s company gets calls for knocked-over toilets 30 or 40 times a years. It’s always a wicked mess.
“They take a lot of work,” says Bradd Downing, Buster’s son. “We’d like to see that down to nothing.”
The older Downing admits he has the occasional day when his wife has to meet him at the office with a change of clothes. There’s the unexpected, unpleasant clog and plenty of opportunity for ill-timed splatter.
He hoses the old clothes down before bringing them inside.
“Most people will tell you,” he says, “I’m a clean freak.”