How Porta-Potties Work

By: Dave Roos

Servicing Porta-Potties

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!

Author's Note: How Porta-Potties Work

You get to spend a lot of quality time in portable bathrooms when you start potty-training your children. Kids have an uncanny ability to wait until you are the furthest distance from a clean, comfortable bathroom before alerting you that they have to "make poopy." During the past 10 years of potty training three kids, I guarantee that I've visited every porta-potty in my tri-county area. In most cases, they have been perfectly clean, or at least as clean as such a structure can reasonably get. But you never get over the smell. And as thankful as I am for the complimentary hand sanitizer dispenser found in most porta-potties, there are some experiences — like when your toddler tells you a little too late, for example — that no amount of hand sanitizer can wash away.

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More Great Links


  • California Environmental Protection Agency. "Formaldehyde" (July 26, 2015)
  • Chicago Park District. "Grant Park" (July 26, 2015)
  • Cutter, Chip. "Port-a-potty cleaning not such a foul job after all." Indianapolis Business Journal. July 14, 2008 (July 26, 2015)
  • Dageforde, Betty. "Service Sanitation Provides Restrooms for Taste of Chicago's Feeding Frenzy." Portable Restroom Operator. June 2015 (July 26, 2015)
  • Kneiszel, Jim. "He Called it the Strongbox." Portable Restroom Operator. March 2010 (July 26, 2015)
  • Mannen, Amand; and Anonymous. "We Find Corpses: 5 Weird Truths of Cleaning Porta Johns." Cracked. June 24, 2015 (July 26, 2015)
  • Portable Restroom Operator. "Avoid Ice Cube Holding Tanks." Feb. 2009 (July 26, 2015)
  • Portable Sanitation Association International. "PSAI Global Sanitation Education Initiative" (July 26, 2015)
  • Portable Sanitation Association International. "PSAI's 40-year history is rich with innovation and tradition" (July 26, 2015)
  • United Site Services. "Bronze Heavy-Duty Restroom Trailers" (July 26, 2015)
  • United Site Services. "Bronze Heavy-Duty Restroom Trailers" (July 26, 2015) United Site Services. "Roll-Around Toilet" (July 26, 2015)