Side Hustle #56: I Get Paid to Empty Septic Tanks

by J. Money - Last updated October 29, 2015

septic tank vacuum truck

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[This is an article by John C. as part of our Side Hustle Series. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like (and how much it pays) to clean out septic tanks and portable toilets, now’s your chance ;)]

For the last couple years I have noticed that most of my friends and co-workers have a side hustle, but I have had trouble committing to one.

Finding something I care about doing that I can make some decent money with AND balance with my nuclear career has been difficult to find. [Editor’s note: Yes, he just said NUCLEAR CAREER!] Starting a business would be especially difficult because sometimes I am gone for months at a time.

A good friend of mine, Ron, runs a portable toilet and septic tank business and recently I started helping him out. Although he first wanted me to help with some organizational issues, I have since started working in the field.

The key to this working for me is that the job is flexible. My main job is working refueling outages at nuclear power plants, which is a very seasonal job, with most projects being in the spring and the fall. During refueling outages I perform routine preventative maintenance on steam generators and ice condensers. Typically I work six 12 hour shifts per week and work about six months out of the year, with about half of that time traveling away from home. I try to work as much as possible at the two plants that are within driving distance of my house.

The really busy season for portable toilets and septic pumping is summer, which is a very slow season for nuclear plant outages. Because of this I am able to do this job in my down time from my main gig.

Doing Something Important

When you think about jobs that are crucial to modern society, waste removal is at the very top of the list. When I was a kid, my dream job was to be a garbage collector. I wanted to be the guy riding on the side of the truck throwing bags into the back.

I like physical work and I truly think that waste removal is the backbone of society. It’s not quite my childhood dream job of trash removal, but septic pumping is pretty darn close. Wait for your septic to backup and let me know what the most important job in the world is lol!

Properly servicing septic tanks is necessary to protect the environment as well.  Pumping a tank keeps the solids and scum in the septic tank from building up too much, which can cause damage to the drain field. A drain field that is clogged with solids will contaminate the soil and allow waste to enter the ground water.

Nationwide there are an estimated 26 million septic tanks in use. Of the roughly 1.3 million tanks in my home state of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality estimates that up to 25%, or up to 325,000 tanks are failing across Michigan.

In addition to believing in the mission, I also believe in the company. My friend who started this business has put a ton of effort into building this business and operates it with a passion. He is one of the hardest working people I have met, and being around people who have a solid drive does wonders for motivation and attitude.

How I Got Started

I knew that Ron ran this business and since I was truly interested in how the business worked, I asked if I could do a few ride alongs to learn about it. Ron also knew that I was a bit of a finance geek and he wanted some help from me in looking over his numbers and improving on the fiscal aspects of the business.

I spent several days over the course of a few months with Ron working on the numbers and learning how the business operates. I originally didn’t have any intent in actually working for him, but when he asked if I wanted to do some paid work for him when my most recent project at the nuclear plant was done, I jumped at the chance. An added bonus for me is that the shop is only 2 miles from my front door!

Most people have no desire to be in this line of work, but regardless of what the business is, if there is a business you are interested in being a part of, I would highly suggest asking the owner to teach you what it’s all about (on your own time of course); and then evaluate what you can do to be of service to the company.

Most business owners (especially ones who are already your friend) will be more than happy to find ways to gain a dedicated and hard working team member who actually cares about the business, especially on a temporary or part time basis.

What Is a Septic Tank?

A septic tank is a large container located in the ground to filter and manage waste products. Most residential septic tanks are between 500 and 1,500 gallons. In houses equipped with a septic tank all household drains lead to the septic tank, where solids sink to the bottom, water fills in the middle and scum floats on the top. A pipe carries the water in the middle to the leach field, where water is distributed into the yard and filtered through gravel and soil.

Periodically these tanks need to be pumped out to remove solids, scum and inorganic material that should not have been flushed to begin with.

Don’t know if you have a septic tank? Chances are if you live in a city, you are connected to a city sewer system. If you aren’t billed by the city for sewer usage (usually with a water bill), then you most likely have a septic tank.

The Job:

Locating the Tank:

The first thing we have to do when we get to a client’s home or business is find the septic tank(s). Very few septic tanks have a riser and lid installed so we have to find where the tank is located in order to open it up. The main tool for this job is a T bar with a length of about 4′.

We look at the house and where the vent stacks are to get a general idea for where the tank should be and then test the ground with the T bar. If we get multiple hits at about the same depth then chances are we are on the tank. We can then use the bar to figure out exactly where the tank is at, and then we dig to get to the service opening. When we dig we try to keep the turf together so that when we are finished the lawn can be restored to looking as close to new as possible.

Removing the Lid:

Most lids to septic tanks are large pieces of concrete with a metal loop for a handle. Although these lids are heavy the real difficulty is that they are often stuck. Sometimes we have to pry on them and tap the lid with a hammer to loosen it up.

We have come across a few tanks where there is no lid, just an open hole. This happens because in older tanks that have a full cement slab for a lid that can not be moved without a tractor, the first time they were serviced someone punched a hole through them and put a piece of metal over the hole when they finished. Give it a few decades and that metal completely rusts away.

When digging we have to be cautious because it is possible to dig right into the tank. In situations like this we will install a PVC riser and lid to the tank to keep the tank closed off and to provide for easier servicing in the future.

Pumping And Dumping

The septic truck has a strong vacuum system and we use a 3” vac line to pump out the tank. We keep over 100′ of vac line on the truck, but the longer the hose run is, the less power the vac system has. When pumping a septic tank the goal is to empty the top layer and the sludge layer before you run out of water because the water helps the vac hose function properly. It is often necessary to stir the tank with a shovel in order to break up large deposits of fats and solids.

For most families a tank should be pumped out about every 3 years. Tanks that have gone substantially longer are more likely to fail by allowing a large build up of solids to enter and clog the leach field.

When we have a full truck we go to the municipal dump station to empty the truck. The dump station has a large opening at ground level with a metal screen. The dump station also has a large capacity water hose to use to help with cleaning out the tank and keeping the sludge flowing. We empty the truck and through an opening at the top of the truck we flush the tank with water to clean out the tank. The metal grate fills up with everything that should not be flushed, clothing items, toys, latex items, etc. We use a rake to pull this stuff out and it goes into a dumpster.

The Downsides

septic pump truck smelly

Yes, this job does have some downsides. The smell is certainly not pleasant, but it generally is tolerable. You tend to get dirty from digging and from handling the hose. I think it goes without saying that this is not a job to wear nice clothes to! To be on the safe side I wash my clothes immediately after getting home.

Another issue is when someone hasn’t serviced their tank regularly, where instead of servicing every three years it has been 10, 15, or 20 years since the last service. In these situations we tend to have to do a lot more work to break up the solids on the top layer, which means more time working directly over the septic tank opening.

How Much it Pays

Currently I am earning $12 an hour, working as an assistant for septic pumping. I just got my chauffeurs license and will be able to drive the portable toilet service trucks in the summer, which will let me earn a few more bucks an hour. In order to drive the septic truck I would have to get a CDL as well.

It might not sound like much, but this can easily add up to an extra several thousand dollars a year. Since Mrs. C. and I are already saving 20%+ of our income, every dime I make doing this can go directly to long term savings. Septic tank pumping may be the least sexiest side hustle out there, but the job is flexible, it’s important, and it pays!

Now who wants to join me? :)

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John C. write about personal finance at Action Economics, a blog focused on taking immediate action to improve your finances. John C. lives in rural southwest Michigan with his wife and 2 boys.

Have an interesting side hustle of your own? Tell me about it.
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[Top photo by SuSanA Secretariat / Bottom smelly photo by bradleypjohnson]

Jay loves talking about money, experimenting, blasting hip-hop, and hanging out with his two beautiful boys. You can check out all of his online projects at jmoney.biz. Thanks for reading the blog!

{ 69 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Clarisse @ Make Money Your Way January 14, 2015 at 6:02 am

Hi John, $12 an hour is such a good pay! I know someone who cleans out septic tanks and he managed to finish his 4 kids to college!

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2 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 6:15 am

It sure is, and I get to work with a good friend all day, that’s winning in my book…That’s awesome he was able to put his kids through college! An owner who schedules his time well and groups services in similar areas each day can make a lot of money.

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3 Mrs. Frugalwoods January 14, 2015 at 7:38 am

That’s an awesome and unusual side hustle! I think it’s neat that it’s your friend’s business and that you believe in the work you’re doing. It’s definitely something that’s vital to living in a safe, modern society, so thank you! And, what a great system to have a side hustle that complements your primary job’s unique schedule so perfectly. Nicely done!

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4 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 7:53 am

Thank you Mrs. Frugalwoods! It’s been working out great for me so far.

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5 Dee @ Color Me Frugal January 14, 2015 at 7:54 am

What a unique side hustle! I think it’s great that you found a side hustle that you really like that fits in so well with you schedule! Hard to beat that!!

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6 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 5:08 pm

Yup, I am happy I found this opportunity.

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7 Amy January 14, 2015 at 8:21 am

Wow – the title of this post really grabbed me! :)

We have a spetic tank, and while I never look forward to spending money to have it pumped, it’s clearly better than the alternative! While I never thought about it that way, you’re right that waste removal is very important to society.

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8 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:33 pm

If you locate the tank yourself and dig it up before hand most septic companies will give you a discount. Having the replace a leach field can cost several thousand dollars, when a pumping is usually around $200 (depending on tank size and if it has to be dug up)

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9 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:58 pm

Yeah, I never thought about it in terms of being important for society but it sure is!

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10 [email protected] January 14, 2015 at 8:32 am

My cousin Mike made 20K last summer painting propane tanks! Everyone makes fun of him, but I think it’s ballin’!

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11 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:33 pm

$20K on a side job is amazing! He’s killin’ it!

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12 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:58 pm

haha….

that’s bad ass.

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13 John @ Frugal Rules January 14, 2015 at 8:38 am

Definitely a unique side hustle, but even better that you’re able to do it for your friend’s company and put it all towards savings! Sad to hear the number of tanks failing in Michigan, which only makes me wonder what it’s like across the rest of the nation and what sort of environmental impact that could have.

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14 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:35 pm

The vast majority of states have a decent percentage of failing systems. Michigan doesn’t have a strong program for inspections (hopefully that will change soon), but nationwide over 10% of tanks are suspected to be failing.

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15 Kim @ Money Under the Cushions January 14, 2015 at 8:45 am

I had wondered in the past how that all worked. Now I know. Thanks for the explanation. All in all it seems like a great side hustle.

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16 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:36 pm

Yeah, it’s not a bad way to make some money. The system is much simpler than I originally imaged.

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17 Bobby January 14, 2015 at 8:50 am

My aunt runs a septic pumping business and makes lots of money, especially since she has contracts with wineries and fast food restaurants. I believe she charges around 30 cents a gallon. A 1500 gallon septic gets her $450. Good money if you’re an owner.

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18 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:37 pm

Wow, different areas have very different rates. We would be around $300 for a 1500 gallon tank. Supply and demand make a big difference regionally, there is a lot of competition in our area.

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19 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:39 pm

A big factor is how much it costs to dump at the municipal site. I think we are charged around $60 for every 1000 gallons, but I can’t remember for sure. I’m sure this rate varies substantially by area.

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20 Bobby January 16, 2015 at 12:24 pm

I’m not sure on the specifics regarding dumping, but it can’t be too bad. Also, if it helps, my aunt lives in Sonoma, CA, where there’s a mix or rural and urban areas. Obviously the competition hasn’t quite caught up, but she’s making over 500k/yr. Not bad.

You should totally buy a truck and do work for yourself. The $12/hr is a very small fraction of what is being made. Obviously I’m not going to start my own and try to compete with her. This would only ruin family ties :(

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21 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:59 pm

Wowww $500k/year – she’s killing it!!

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22 Jon @ Money Smart Guides January 14, 2015 at 9:02 am

We had a septic tank growing up and I remember watching the guys come and clean it out. It was interesting to watch, but not something I would want to do to make money. .

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23 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:40 pm

Certainly not a job for everyone. You have to have a strong stomach for it.

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24 Brian @ Debt Discipline January 14, 2015 at 9:08 am

I like the fact that this side hustle fits nicely with your main gig. I’m sure you get some interesting reactions when you tell people what you do.

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25 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:41 pm

Yeah, most people are surprised that I do it, especially when they know I make a lot more at my main job. My sister was really surprised, not something she could ever consider doing. Filling in my off weeks that I would normally be earning $0 an hour with $12 an hour makes a big difference though.

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26 Chris @ Flipping A Dollar January 14, 2015 at 9:27 am

LOL this seems kind of like a shitty side hustle…

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27 Chris @ Flipping A Dollar January 14, 2015 at 9:33 am

Sorry man! I can’t help myself but link to this either https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSqb4e8mUd4. I’m cracking up here and getting weird stares…

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28 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:42 pm

We get that a lot when we pull up to someone’s house. The #1 joke is “You guys sure have a shitty job!”

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29 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Haha… love that.

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30 Michelle January 14, 2015 at 9:52 am

Sounds like an interesting side hustle. I never really realized how important of a job it is. It definitely is!

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31 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:45 pm

Yeah. waiting for a backup to happen can be a scary ordeal. That is actually how I got interested in the profession. I was working on the road and my wife called because we had a backup and she couldn’t get any one out there for two weeks. I called Ron because I knew he was starting up his own septic company. He came out that day and took care of the situation. Having a backup is something you never want to happen.

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32 Mrs. Maroon January 14, 2015 at 10:10 am

Waste removal is definitely a major necessity in our world. Several years back, Mr. Maroon was very unhappy at his job. He had a lead for a new job with an engineering company that designs, permits, and provides construction management for landfills. Initially he was completely opposed to the idea. One of his comments was that trash smells awful. Which is true. But, like many other things, trash may stink to some people, but it smells like money to others!

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33 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:48 pm

Very interesting! A lot of the newer landfills that are being built today are so much more advanced than the ones build 30, 40 50 years ago. It used to be just a hole in the ground. Now they are fully lined, many make power off of the gases released, and they don’t smell as bad because of it.

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34 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 5:00 pm

“trash may stink to some people, but it smells like money to others!”

great way to think about it!!

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35 Money Beagle January 14, 2015 at 10:22 am

That’s a unique one. Probably not for me. I have to regularly empty the holding tank on our RV, and that’s something I do but would probably not want to expand. One time there was a clog and trying to break things up was not fun…especially since I was running in and out of the camper in pouring rain.

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36 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:50 pm

We get clogs sometimes in the main hose when we are emptying a tank from objects that shouldn’t be in there. Sometimes it’s tree roots, but many times it is objects that shouldn’t have been flushed. This is why we have long rubber gloves. I haven’t serviced any RVs yet, but his company also pumps those out.

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37 Will January 14, 2015 at 11:26 am

“latex items”

ohhh

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38 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Yeah, you aren’t supposed to flush those because they won’t break down in the system. Throw that stuff in the trash!

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39 Dude on a Mission January 14, 2015 at 11:32 am

No one has said it, so I’ll be the jerk – $12/hr (pre-tax) is not that much. And the potentital for “a few bucks more per hour” doesn’t sound very enticing considering the drawbacks. I understand that you get to do something you like with a person you like, but still…

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40 Slackerjo January 14, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Where I live (Ontario) min wage is $11/hr so $12 is not very good. But the author lives in Michigan and minimum wage is $8.15, so I guess $12 is not great but better than minimum wage.

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41 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:56 pm

The big thing here is the flexibility of the job, which is worht a hefty discount. You aren’t going to make 30 bucks an hour pumping out a septic tank, that’s for sure (unless you own the company perhaps).

While the pay isn’t killer, it rounds out weeks that I have off, which vary throughout the year. It’s really difficult to find a gig where you can work for a few weeks, then leave for a month, then work for 2 months, etc. Instead of making $0 per hour I am making $12 per hour. For a full week, that works out to almost $500. Obviously I am not going to turn down higher paying gigs if they come along to fill in my schedule. I make high twenties to low thirties working my nuke jobs so I certainly try to work as many of those as possible, but in the summer I don’t have much going on.

I personally don’t have any issue with the “drawbacks” most people will, but the smell rarely bothers me.

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42 Dude on a Mission January 16, 2015 at 9:53 am

Okay, it seems I underestimated the flexibility component. You are correct that it works out very well for your situation. But, just questioning your math above – how are you earning $500/week while earning $12/hr? You’d have to be working 52 hours per week to clear that after taxes (($500 / ($12 * 80%)). That’s a lot of crap, haha!

Or assuming $500 is pre-tax money, that means you’re working 41.67 hours/week ($500 / 12). Less approx 20% in taxes due to your total income including your other job, means you’re netting $9.60/hr (($500 * 80%) / 41.67) for a total of $400, not $500 per week.

So either you’re working like a dog for 52 hours/week or coming home with $400/ week.

I’m honestly not trying to rain on your parade or be a hater…just looking at this from afar with no emotions involved. I applaud you for not sitting on your ass in your down-time and then complaining you’re not getting ahead.

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43 John C @ Action Economics January 17, 2015 at 9:53 am

I was just putting out a rough estimate on gross income; at 40 hours per week the gross ends up at $480. I rounded to $500 in the comment above. You get taxes taken out from any income you earn, so I didn’t throw taxes into that estimate. With having two kids, our income, and what we contribute to tax advantaged accounts we end up paying $0 in federal income tax for the year. (This may change soon as our income increases) If I subtract 10% for Payroll taxes and state income taxes that drops net to $432. Still much better than $0, but yes, closer to $400 take home than $500 take home.

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44 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 5:04 pm

You know who else is good at paying $0 in taxes??

My friend over at Go Curry Cracker… so many ways to take advantage!

http://www.gocurrycracker.com/never-pay-taxes-again/

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45 Kim January 14, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Wow, we really need to have our septic pumped! I’ve often said that the garbage man was the most useful person in the world. We would all suffer greatly if trash removal suddenly stopped. It’s even more true for what you’re doing. Otherwise, we’d be like third world countries who don’t have proper waste removal. Thanks for sharing.

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46 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 4:57 pm

Your welcome! Proper sewage removal is one of the greatest inventions in history to increase our standard of living. I put it right up there with artificial light.

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47 Christine @ The Pursuit of Green January 14, 2015 at 1:55 pm

I loved reading this today! Amazing side hustle and I’m really glad you like what you’re doing! It shows in your writing and it opened my eyes a bit to what is out there too. I still have yet to find my side hustle. I can easily do freelance on the side to bring in extra income but I’m pretty happy with my regular job and want to spend my personal time doing other stuff.

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48 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Finding the right balance between working more and having time is always a challenge. The best way to increase income is to find ways to get a raise at your main job, then you get to keep all your “extra” time.

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49 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 5:04 pm

Good idea :)

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50 Ben Luthi January 14, 2015 at 2:04 pm

Very unusual, but definitely a great source of extra income! I’m glad you like it too. Definitely not something the average person would be able to do.

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51 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 5:02 pm

I think the “gross out factor” is what would turn most people off. I think the average person could do it if they got over that. The smell isn’t as bad as changing most baby diapers. It’s not like we are climbing into the tanks.

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52 Kayla @ Everything Finance January 14, 2015 at 3:27 pm

I am not jealous of your side hustle at all. I understand it’s importance for sure. I lived in the country growning up and we’ve always had a septic system. I did back up once and boy it was bad, haha. Thanks for the review of your side hustle.

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53 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 5:03 pm

Yeah most people have no desire to be in this line of work, but earning an extra approx 10% of my yearly income is a great deal for me.

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54 Shannon @ Financially Blonde January 14, 2015 at 3:38 pm

I am a huge fan of side hustles, but have to admit that the thought of this freaks me out. It is certainly a much needed job, though, and I applaud you for it, John!

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55 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 5:04 pm

Thanks Shannon! It’s just the initial gross factor that turns people off of it. As I mentioned above I would rather pump out septic tanks all day than change baby diapers. I think daycare workers have a much more difficult job that this!

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56 connie kolita January 28, 2015 at 1:14 pm

AMEN, BROTHER– I, too, would choose the septic tank work over chilling with mass #s of kids at a daycare and changing diapers! Will take the big pass on that! Ew! I loved your article and you rock– get some! connieK., who has wanted to work in public relations at a local landfill for YEARS, because landfills are their own living breathing beings! SO COOL!

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57 J. Money January 28, 2015 at 3:14 pm

haha… you are too much, Connie :)

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58 dojo January 14, 2015 at 3:46 pm

It’s a really good way to earn money. Sure, it’s not always pleasant, but it does pay and it helps you achieve your goals. I always admired people who are so focused on their goals and are willing to make the sacrifices to get there.

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59 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 5:06 pm

Thanks Dojo! We are finally in a position where we can build some real wealth. We had a later start than ideal on retirement savings, so getting a jump on it by earning this extra income makes a huge difference for us.

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60 Steve Kobrin January 14, 2015 at 4:59 pm

I like the idea of a side hustle. It can keep you liquid and give you money to grow as you tend to your main occupation. I notice that John worked only part of the year so that created a a good opportunity to develop the side business. I wonder if any reader has had any luck developing a side business while working full-time year-round? Do you have any advice?

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61 John C @ Action Economics January 14, 2015 at 5:07 pm

I think with a full year round side hustle the scheduling becomes more important to ensure you at least get some time off. Finding something you only work on Saturday. or perhaps a few hours after work for three days a week.

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62 Steve Kobrin January 15, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Makes sense. So you basically put your family life and personal life on hold for the duration? :)

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63 Jack @ Enwealthen January 14, 2015 at 6:41 pm

Impressive that you’ve found a side gig that both fits your schedule and give you so much satisfaction.

Most people have to trade the money for the happiness but you’ve managed to do both.

Congratulations!

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64 Crystal January 16, 2015 at 3:58 am

Interesting side hustle and the important thing is you like doing it. I make between $10-$20 an hour pet sitting depending on the job and how much time I spend at each pets’ home. I’m a little surprised that dealing with septic tanks doesn’t pay even more, but when I’m picking up drippy poop, I’m surprised pet sitting doesn’t either, LOL.

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65 John C @ Action Economics January 16, 2015 at 6:09 am

It pays quite a bit more if you are a driver. I don’t have a CDL (which also means I don’t have the responsibility of driving the giant pump truck either).

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66 Martha @ Marty Thoughts on Life and Money January 18, 2015 at 2:29 am

Well that is a new one ! I never knew people could get paid to empty tiolets but it makes sense. The only thing I do for extra is teaching people to make money online . Also recently I have been teaching senior citizens how to use the computer and other modern tech.

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67 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 5:06 pm

That’s an interesting one!

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68 Emily @ The Work at Home Zone February 1, 2015 at 10:16 am

$12 an hour will really start to add up, especially since you’re saving so much. This proves that side jobs are out there, sometimes finding one just requires thinking outside the box.

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69 Charlie Watkins July 31, 2015 at 5:55 pm

John, your motivation to work is what made this country of ours strong. Of course septic cleaning isn’t a sexy job; if you were looking for one, then at the end of the day, who would be resolving the issue when something wrong happens? It definitely won’t be the other.

Also, $12/hr. is able to pay off tuition by working for a summer – of course, depending on the school you go to. Either way, that side money plus the 20% you and your significant other are saving will do you wonders in the future!

I respect that you do septic cleaning. It is something that many others may not have even heard of, but it is something so important when it comes to taking care of our “personal cares.” This is a solid line of work that benefits the lives of many others, they just won’t realize it until it is time to do it.

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