Pumpouts suck: The dark art of emptying the holding tank

Matt, Ben and Jeremy Randall wrestle with the Edson pump, dismantling it for another winter. Photo by Randy Randall

May, 2021

By Randy Randall
For Points East

The boys hate pumpouts. They say it’s a disgusting, smelly job, and only good for tips. They groan when someone calls in on the radio asking for one. But it’s a service we have to provide. Based on the size of our marina, state and federal law mandates that we have the ability to pump out holding tanks.

But here at Marston’s Marina in Saco, Maine, we keep it simple. A hose on the fuel dock is connected to an Edson pump on shore. This sucks the contents out of a boat’s holding tank and pumps it up to our bathrooms, where it joins all the other waste going into the city sewer system.

But it wasn’t always like this. Years ago we met the rather low demand by using a hand-operated pump on a wagon. The boys rolled this down the docks to the boat and operated the handle to suck out the holding tank. They hauled the cart up to the bathroom and emptied it into the septic tank. This worked fine until one fall, in the hurry of taking the docks apart and dodging bad weather, they parked the pumpout cart in the woods and forgot about it.

Next spring the foul odor emanating from the full waste tank was staggering. “Gross!” the boys said. There was no other word for it. They recoiled from touching the stinking tank. It fell to the owners to dispose of the over-ripe waste and the contaminated cart. Who says management has the easy job?

But we still needed to provide the service, and moved on to a heavy duty, large-capacity system that empties directly into the city sewer system. It’s state-of-the-art, and approved by Maine DEP.

But even this system has not been without its ups, downs and stunning failures. Like the day the hose exploded. Jeremy was sucking out a large power cruiser and the pump was rumbling and tumbling, gulping the poo, when the suction hose blew off the pump. Like some deranged cobra swaying and jerking in the air, the hose whipped back and forth spewing sludge all over the office, the deck, the gangwalk and the seawall. It took a power washer and two or three tide cycles to finally be free of the stench. Customers who happened be in the parking lot at the time said the failure was spectacular, and were glad to be out of range at the time.

The pipe to the septic tank is buried under the parking lot. One sunny morning in late July we were getting set up for our annual customer picnic by sweeping the area. We smelled it first and then discovered brown fluid seeping up through the pavement. Oh, no. We had a hundred or so customers and their families arriving in a few hours to eat burgers and hot dogs and spend the day. We rigged hoses and sprayed the parking area over and over. But the stink and the brown water continued to percolate up through the pavement. We were stuck. We made a hasty decision to relocate the grills and coolers and picnic tables to the far side of the marina and cordoned off the parking area. We poured gallons of disinfectant onto the pavement. The afternoon was lovely, the people came and enjoyed themselves and never knew there was a major poop leak just 75 yards away. We rented a pavement cutter and sliced open the parking lot to reveal the crushed septic line.

One of the few redeeming qualities to pumpouts is the often-generous tips that come with them. But not always. Last summer a really big cruising yacht called and asked for a pumpout. Young folks crowded the boat. Guys and gals all with drinks in their hands, music playing, and every one apparently oblivious to the mundane process of sucking out their toilet tank, which was taking place right behind them. The holding tank was huge and the suction port was down low on the stern. I crouched on the large swim platform, pressed the rubber nozzle over the outlet and opened the valve. Part of our hose is clear plastic so you can tell how things are going by watching the liquid flow and gurgle. No one even acknowledged the old guy kneeling on the stern of the yacht holding a yellow suction hose. The party never missed a beat while I sucked too many gallons out of the enormous tank. The pump labored and sucked and time dragged on. My hands began to go numb from holding the nozzle in the same position. Usually pumpouts are over within a few minutes, but this one never ended. About 15 minutes in I caught the “captain’s” attention and asked him to check his gauges. He flipped on the switch to the digital display. “It’s empty,” he yelled above the music. I stopped pumping, eased myself off the swim platform back onto the dock, hung up the hose, turned off the pump, looked at the captain and said, “That’ll be five bucks.” He gave me a credit card. When I returned with the slip and the card he quickly scribbled on the receipt and turned to fire up the engines. He didn’t need to be shoved off as the boat had bow thrusters. I waved goodbye as they pulled away. They didn’t even say thank-you. And, of course, there was no tip.

Frequent contributor, correspondent and friend Randy Randall is co-owner of Marston’s Marina in Saco, Maine, and a dreamer and waterman of the first order.