Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Porta-Potties Work


Servicing Porta-Potties
Glastonbury Festivalgoers wait for the portable toilets to be cleaned in Somerset, England.
Glastonbury Festivalgoers wait for the portable toilets to be cleaned in Somerset, England.
Martin Godwin/Getty Images

Cleaning out a porta-potty has to be one of the world's worst jobs, right behind ... wait ... nope, that's actually the worst one. On a typical day, a portable sanitation worker will service 40 to 50 different units [source: Cutter]. "Servicing" is a euphemism for sticking the business end of a vacuum pipe down into the unholiest of unholies and sucking up the contents.

The porta-potty vacuum is attached to a tanker truck equipped with a large waste storage unit and a smaller freshwater tank. Once the contents of the potty are removed, the sanitation worker fills the tank with a few buckets of freshwater and then adds the required squirts of blue goo or a pre-measured packet of dry solution.

Sadly, cleaning out the holding tank is often the least disgusting part of a porta-potty worker's job. People, you see, are filthy animals. They will deposit waste where no waste should ever be deposited: next to the seat, on the seat, in the urinal, on the floor, on the walls and on the ceiling (don't ask).

People will also drop all sorts of non-crap "crap" into the tank, where it's destined to clog the vacuum. One anonymous porta-potty worker wrote about finding cell phones, glasses, lots of drug paraphernalia, the occasional lethal weapon and the sadly less occasional wallet full of cash or expensive piece of jewelry floating in the blue poop swamp.

The prize for absolute worst-case scenario goes to the tipped over porta-potty. Storms, errant vehicles and hilarious pranksters will sometimes knock over a portable toilet, but the real nightmare is when it tips over on its door. In that situation, the worker has to lift up the unit as a tidal wave of waste pours out, coating every internal surface. The worker will actually have to step inside the poop-marinated box to clean some hard-to-reach areas [source: Cutter]. Oh boy.

Porta-potty vacuum tankers deliver their horrible contents to municipal wastewater treatment plants, where it is added to the rest of the sewage sludge. Each porta-potty unit is serviced on a weekly basis, or more often in high-use areas. So next time you see one of these trucks on the road, give the driver an appreciative wave. He deserves it!