High-tech hygiene products have an Illinois company flushed with success

By Lorna Collier
(Rockford Magazine)



"Our motto is: 'As long as people keep eating, we're in business,' " says
Frank Eubank with a jolly laugh.
 
No, Eubank is not a restaurateur. Nor does he sell antacids.
 
Eubank is the president of Envirovac Inc., the nation's leading
manufacturer of vacuum toilet systems, located in Machesney Park, Ill. The
company has made a fast climb to the top of its field: Envirovac's sales
have soared from just $3 million six years ago to $25 million last year.
 
If you've been on a cruise ship, casino boat or new airplane anywhere in
the world, you've probably been intimately familiar with Envirovac's
products.
 
And soon you could be seeing even more of them: Envirovac toilets are
being installed in Amtrak Superliner II trains, set to hit the rails later
this year.
 
What exactly is a vacuum toilet?
 
Eubank, a rosy-cheeked, silver-haired man who resembles a clean-shaven
Santa Claus, is only too eager to demonstrate. He steps inside a toilet
showroom in his recently expanded corporate headquarters on Turret
Drive. "Come into my toy room," he says, laughing. Along one wall are four
models of toilets, which the company sells under the brand name EVAC.
Behind each toilet, glass pipes lead up the wall and circle the room,
exiting in a far corner.
 
Eubank drops a three-inch square yellow sponge into one of the toilets and
presses a silver button. Ga-WHOOOSH! Like a Slurpee being inhaled by a
thirsty giant, the sponge is sucked from the bowl, along with about a cup
of water, and shot 50 miles per hour through the pipes to a waste tank.
The process takes a fraction of a second, almost faster than the eye can
see.
 
Indeed, the vacuum system seem like it could have been invented by
television's Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor: It simply has "more power" (to
use the Home Improvement character's favorite phrase) than traditional
toilets, which rely on gravity and a few gallons of water to flush their
contents.
 
Vacuum toilets, by contrast, use vacuum generators to create so much
force that an amazing array of objects can be flushed: shirts, disposable
diapers, even bedsheets.
 
Vacuum systems have many other advantages, says Eubanks. The toilets
can flush upwards, if that's the piping configuration the customer needs.
When the waste is deposited into the waste tank, air is released through
an odor filter, so the tank doesn't become smelly. Vacuum toilets use
much less water than traditional toilets -- anywhere from six ounces to
three pints, versus three to five gallons.
 
Also, since the toilet's opening is narrower than the pipes that follow,
nothing can get stuck in the system. In a vacuum system, if something
were too large to pass through the bowl into the vacuum tubes, computer
sensors would shut down the affected toilet and alert a system operator
to the problem. This kind of feature can help defeat vandals in schools and
prisons, for instance.
 
Vacuum toilets' advantages make them particularly well suited to planes
and trains, where constant motion sometimes disrupts traditional gravity
toilets.
   
Envirovac's loftiest success in recent years has been in the air.
 
Within the past seven years, Envirovac has soared from zero aviation sales
to capturing 62 percent of the market. It is a growing market, too; new
planes increasingly are being built with vacuum toilet systems, according
to John Thom, spokesman for McDonnell Douglas Corp. in California.
 
"We are putting them on our newest plane, the MD-90, and will hae a keen
interest in using them on future planes," says Thom.
 
Before Envirovac began selling toilets to the aerospace industry in 1986,
the company primarily supplied the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels,
cruise ships and commercial buildings. But Eubank saw the writing in the
sky, so to speak.
 
Airplanes in the late 1980s mostly used recirculating toilet systems,
which treat and re-use watered down human waste. The systems have
some disadvantages, says Eubank. The most notable is the problem of "blue
ice," which is formed when waste that has been treated with chemicals
(resulting in a blue color) leaks from toilets, pipes or storage tanks, then
freezes upon exposure to the atmosphere. The blue ice can fall from a
plane, hurtling to the ground below, or lodging in the engine, sometimes
causing a problem as serious as knocking an engine from a plane.
 
Eubank says that vacuum systems eliminate this problem because they use
only one pressurized storage tank and much less water, resulting in little
chance for leaks.
 
Envirovac landed its first multi-million-dollar airplane contract in 1986,
an order to build toilets for the Boeing 747-400. Today, Envirovac's
toilets also are on board Boeing's 767s and the McDonnell Douglas MD-11.
Recently, the company signed a contract to provide systems for McDonnel
Douglas' MD-90.
 
The company's success with aerospace has been the leading factor behind
its eightfold increase in overall sales between 1987 and 1992 -- from $3
million to $25 million. The company also has expanded its headquarters
from 14,000 to 55,000 square feet and more than tripled its staff from 30
to 100. Not bad for a little company that few thought had a chance 20
years ago.
   
Growing up in Philadelphia, Frank Eubank never dreamed of a future in the
toilet business.
 
After earning an engineering degree and spending four years as an officer
on a Navy destroyer, Eubank had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
 
He worked for a few years for Westinghouse Electric Corp., then was hired
by Colt Industries' Fairbanks Morse Diesel Engine Division in Beloit, Wis.,
to head the firm's entry in the desalinization business, making drinking
water out of sea water.
 
That venture fell through and, in 1973, Eubank's bosses dropped a proposal
for a vacuum toilet system on his desk. Colt was considering buying a
license for vacuum toilets from Electrolux of Sweden, which had bought
the patent from the Swede who invented the process in the late 1950s.
 
Colt Industries acquired the license, but officials were lukewarm about
the business. Eubank, however, saw the potential. "They thought it was
just not a real substantial thing," he says. "They said, 'You'd never make
money, you'd never be successful.'"
 
In 1979, Colt sold the license back to Electrolux, which retained Eubank as
president of the toilet division. Electrolux then named the company
Envirovac. Eubank moved Envirovac to Machesney Park to be closer to the
Rockford area's professional work force.
 
The company has changed hands twice since then. First, Electrolux sold the
company to Wartsila of Finland, which merged with metra Corp., a Helsinki
conglomerate that today is Envirovac's parent. Among other products,
Metra makes vacuum toilets for trains, boats and buildings outside North
America.
 
"They are a great company to work for," says Eubank. "They really
believed in us and supported us."
 
After Eubank landed the company's first airline orders, he needed money to
hire staff and buy equipment. Metra funded Envirovac's entrance into the
aerospace field, says Eubank, and has continued to back the company's
climb to success.
 
While the past few years have been great for Envirovac, 1993 has been
more difficult. Aerospace makes up 50 percent of the company's business
and, like other aerospace suppliers in Rockford, Envirovac has been hurt by
that industry's slump. Sales for 1993 probably will fall to $22 million,
says Eubank.
 
He is confident, though, that aerospace will rebound by the mid-1990s.
And he believes that Envirovac's diversification into several other
markets -- from trains to commercial buildings -- will contribute to
growth.
 
Envirovac now is shipping toilets for Amtrak's new Superliner II trains,
which will begin running later this year. Up to now, Amtrak's method of
waste disposal has been to dump it directly on train tracks, Eubank says.
But a flurry of lawsuits has forced the rail carrier to install contained
waste systems by 1996. Eubank wants Envirovac to be the company
Amtrak hires to retrofit its existing trains.
 
Another new growth market for Envirovac is prison systems. Last year, in
a joint venture with California-based Acorn Engineering Co., Envirovac
installed the first prison vacuum system in the nation at Ventura County
Jail in Orange County, California. It is beginning work on a second prison,
in Ohio.
 
Prisons are an ideal market for Envirovac, says Eubank, because vacuum
systems are so hard to clog and so easy to control. Wardens running a
shakedown for drugs or weapons can use the computer-control network to
shut down toilets in specific prison cells or to shut down the entire
system, making it tough for prisoners to flush away contraband.
 
Prisons are considered part of the commercial building market. At
present, commercial building makes up 5 percent of Envirovac's business,
but Eubank is hoping to dramatically increase this share. After all, says
Eubank, vacuum toilet systems can solve a variety of dilemmas for
commercial buildings, particularly in areas where water conservation is a
priority or where sewer systems are difficult to install. Some shopping
centers, for instance, have seen sewage volume reduced by 90 percent
after installation of vacuum systems. And by using systems that rely on
stored rain and sink water, some resort complexes have been able to
operate for an entire year without having to buy fresh water.
 
"Long-term, commercial building -- offices, arenas, shopping centers,
resorts -- will be the biggest market we have," Eubank predicts.
 
First, however, he has to overcome the marketplace perception that
vacuum systems are too expensive and too complicated. To do that, he
says, he has to convince engineers and architects to design buildings to
accommodate the new kinds of systems. "It's so easy for them to say,
'Let's design it like we did the last building.' We have to convince them to
take a risk," says Eubank. "All we are is missionaries out to sell vacuum
toilet systems."
 
 
© Copyright Lorna Collier 1992