As customer awareness and demand grows, luxury restroom trailers are a “must-have” inventory item for tent rental companies.
by Jeff Moravec
It may not be possible to determine exactly when the very first luxury restroom trailer was cobbled together, but based on conversations with manufacturers and the event companies that rent them out, it’s not hard to figure out why they were invented.
“I went to an event and needed to use the restroom,” says Meg Taaffe, secretary at AMS Global Inc., a longtime trailer manufacturer based in De Kalb, Texas. “There was nothing there but a plastic portalet. I wouldn’t use it, so we left. We went back to the office and started brainstorming—wouldn’t it be nice if we could offer something that was more upscale, where you could wash your hands?” The company introduced its first restroom trailer for sale in 2004.
About the same time, Brad Martin, president of Comforts of Home Services Inc., was building his company’s first restroom trailer in his driveway in Gurnee, Ill. Why? “My wife hates porta potties,” Martin says. “We’d left an event because she wouldn’t use a porta potty. I was an engineer, looking for something to do on the side, and saw the need for something better.”
Lang Specialty Trailers in Latrobe, Pa., grew out of its parent company, Windswept Entertainment and Event Rentals. Windswept acquired its first restroom trailer in 2007 and began manufacturing them two years later.
“In all my years, I’ve never met a bride who liked the idea of having an outdoor wedding and needing to go into a portajohn,” says Lang owner
Steve Ghrist. “That’s what led us as a rental company to get into restroom trailers. I felt like we were losing the business from people who were interested in doing a tented wedding, but the bathroom was a holdup. Once we got a restroom trailer, that wasn’t an issue any longer.”
No matter what name you ascribe to portable, plastic-sided chemical toilets, event attendees don’t like them, and the more upscale the event, the less appropriate they are. Fortunately, as with many innovations in the event rental sector, the need for “something better” spurred the development of luxury restroom trailers.
“The desire for it was always there, I think,” adds Ghrist. “But the product wasn’t necessarily there until the 2000s. Even to this day, there are many brides and grooms who have no idea there is something like a restroom trailer.”
An attractive alternative
Fortunately, customer awareness is changing, Ghrist says. “When you get one of those out at a wedding, 300 people see it. It just becomes more and more mainstream. A portajohn is not acceptable as people learn a restroom trailer is an option. It’s spacious, clean, climate-controlled and well-lit—everything a portajohn isn’t.”
In addition, manufacturers and event companies say restroom trailers are attractive simply because they offer running water and some form of flush toilet, eliminating the classic chemical toilet waste tank that so many find so unappealing.
“No one wants to look at waste in a hole,” Ghrist says.
Besides issues of sanitation, upscale restroom trailers enable homeowners to host tented events on their property without having to open up their residence to guests.
“If the wedding is outdoors at your house, you don’t want to be in your house policing it, checking to see who is taking an unguided tour,” says Kenny Puff, president of Party Line Rentals in Elmsford, N.Y., which offers luxury restroom trailers through a subcontractor. “You should be able to lock the door, give the caterer the garage if they need it, but [allow] no one in the house.”
“Right from the starting point, a lot of homeowners say, ‘I don’t want anybody in our house,’” adds David VanDenburgh, president of Adams Rental in Hamilton, N.J. “They’re okay with whatever gyrations are necessary so guests are handled without having to go into their residence.”
In addition, if a home uses a septic system instead of a sewer, a large number of guests using the bathrooms can cause problems. “It’s easy to flood your septic tank if there is overuse,” Puff says.
Even tented events at commercial locations with plenty of public toilets can benefit from restroom trailers, Puff adds, because they keep guests from having to walk long distances into a lobby of a building or hotel.
Logistics and numbers
But with all of their advantages, restroom trailers bring with them more logistical challenges than chemical toilets.
Water tanks need to be filled, either before the trailer is towed to the event site or after it has been set up—although a trailer with full tanks is much heavier to haul. Many trailers, but not all, have the option to use water from external sources such as garden hoses, which may be convenient when the wedding is in a backyard. Fresh water holding tanks can run up to 200 gallons for the largest models, and the waste tanks can also run hundreds of gallons.
“You need to have plans to dispose of the waste,” explains Sheldon Rheinheimer, owner of Rich Specialty Trailers in Topeka, Ind. “You either have to take it somewhere or have someone come and dump it for you.”
The trailers need electricity as well. While some restroom trailers will operate on 110-volt power provided by a house, others require multiple 20-amp circuits that may not be readily accessible at a residential property. In that case, power from generators needs to be available.
Besides the logistics, Taaffe recommends that anyone considering buying or renting a restroom trailer pay close attention to the quality of the trailer they’re considering.
“These trailers are moved a lot, so they have to be durable,” she says. “Also, have you ever walked into a recreational vehicle and everything shook when you walked up the steps? Think about what happens when there’s alcohol and everyone is rowdy and the event goes on for six hours. [The trailers] can’t be delicate.”
When investing in trailers for rental inventory, size matters—both the number of toilets per trailer and the physical size of the trailer itself. A trailer model that is neither too small nor too big for the most common sizes of events on a rental company’s books will generate the best return on investment, so it’s important to have a firm grasp on the local market. Which current and potential clients are likely to rent the trailers, and what are the typical sizes of their events? (The sanitation industry publishes rules of thumb for numbers of toilets per person at an event—see the sidebar below.)
A single- or double-stall trailer model may be only 10 feet in length, but the biggest trailers, with 10 stalls, can run close to 30 feet in length. Some larger trailers offer fewer stalls in favor of more amenities. (Some manufacturers, such as Rich Specialty, do a lot of custom work and can build trailers with up to 15 stalls.)
“A five-station trailer is probably the most popular; that’s what we sell most of,” Ghrist says. “It’s a 14½-foot box, which is easy to fit into almost any space—and in the special events world, space is always at a premium.”
That size works well for events with up to 300 guests, he adds, “but at a wedding for 100 it doesn’t look out of place. It’s not some giant trailer.”
While some tent rental companies invest in trailers, others find it easier to partner with a company that specializes in them. “Every time we talk about buying our own, I realize it would not be as profitable as using the subcontractor we’ve had for 25 years,” Puff says. “His equipment is amazing, his service is second to none, his pricing is competitive and I could call him right now and say I need bathrooms at 3 p.m. today and he would be there at 10 minutes to 3. I don’t think we could do it as well as he does. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses.”
Not surprisingly, as the restroom trailer market has grown, so has the temptation to make them fancier and offer them with more amenities. Taaffe calls it the “Baskin-Robbins approach.”
“You see so many different things, so much bling, and too many colors and choices, at the bridal shows,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that’s what the bride is looking for. Most of them choose to stay with simple and traditional, if for no other reason than it may not go with the venue and takes attention away from the wedding. I don’t think you usually need fireplaces or TVs in them.”
At the same time, says Ghrist, “it used to be acceptable to just have air conditioning and running water. Now people want high-end floors, decorative mirrors and fancy lighting.”
Accommodating the wedding party—especially the bride—can also be a selling point for some trailers. Rich Specialty Trailers recently began selling a trailer that has a changing room for the bride, Rheinheimer says.
With the growth in popularity of restroom trailers, “people have started to expect higher-end bathrooms at events,” Martin says. “It used to be you’d take one to an event and people would say, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen anything like that.’ They couldn’t believe this thing was even out there.
“Now,” he says, “once they’ve seen it, they want that at their wedding or event; then more people see it and the word spreads that these are out there.”
Martin says his first trailers were made for his own rental market, but he quickly began selling them instead, simply because “we ended up selling them faster than I was renting them.
“Back then,” he adds, “I had no competition. Now I probably have 12 competitors, but even with that competition, I’m growing every year.”
Proof positive, it seems, that as much as people love outdoor events, they love modern amenities even more.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.
Sidebar: How many toilets does this event need?
The Portable Sanitation Association International (PSAI) offers the following guide as the minimum number of units needed for special events. According to the PSAI, under normal conditions, most people will use the facilities once every four hours. Weather conditions and food and beverage consumption will increase usage. Alcoholic beverages may increase usage by 15–20 percent. Be sure to include event staff in the total number of attendees, as they will need to use the facilities as well. These estimates assume a 50/50 mix of men and women.