Acton, Mass. man smells success with septic tanks

Acton, Mass. man smells success with septic tanks

Dick Dolan's truck fleet once bore the slogan "Defecate and We Shall Prosper." He removed it after some customers got offended.

Sparked by an innocuous childhood experience, Dick Dolan has risen to the top of an occupation that's pooh-poohed by many people - septic tank pumping. That's right. Your family's business is Dolan's family business. "When I was 5, a friend gave me a ride in his old GMC stake-body truck, and I just fell in love," Dolan says. When he graduated from high school in 1961 - armed with a backhoe, dump truck and limited knowledge of both - he turned his lifelong interest into his own excavating business in Acton. "I got a backhoe and didn't even know where to put the key in," Dolan says.

He expanded his services to pumping and installing septic tanks - and ABC Cesspool Co. Inc. was born. Today, ABC includes Dolan's wife, Anita, and three of his children. But the idea of a family-operated septic business isn't unique to the Dolans. The majority of septic companies are run by families, he says. "My children all were born into it," Dolan says. "Before I started, the companies in existence were hand-me-downs from father to son. This business is more geared to a mom-and-pop situation than a corporate structure, because when somebody's toilets are overflowing, they want to talk to somebody who knows something that can get them out of trouble."

Emptying a tank entails digging up the cover, attaching the hose from his truck to the tank and waiting while a sea of sludge - the solid waste at the tank's bottom - and scum - the greasy film at the top - are pumped into his 4,000-gallon truck. "The smell is one of those things you get used to," he says. "It smells like money." Dolan says it's not a job for the average John. "I've had people work for me and only last a day or two," he says. "The first time they get that smell, I've had people upchuck their lunch and leave."

Dolan offers one nugget of advice to homeowners to reduce some of the unpleasantness: Pump your septic tank every two to three years. Not only will this help maintain it, Dolan says, but it also extends the life of the leaching field - where impurities from the liquid in the septic tank are absorbed into the soil and broken down. As Dolan says, the alternative to regular maintenance isn't pretty. "Leaching fields can overflow, leading to stinky, black puddles full of bacteria and mosquitoes in your yard," he says.

Despite spending the better part of a half-century in the septic business, the 66-year-old Dolan hasn't quite washed his hands of it yet. The would-be retiree still empties a septic tank here or there "whenever I need to." And he lends this perspective to anyone with preconceived notions about him based on his career: "It isn't like I'm dripping sewage when I walk down the street," he says. "We only pump it. We don't have to look like it."