The right RV sanitation techniques and materials can make these humbling chores cleaner and easier
RVing gives us the freedom to see the world from the comfort of our living rooms. We enjoy a fully self-contained environment wherever we happen to be, but as anyone who has been an RVer for a while will tell you, probably the most unpleasant part of the experience, yet arguably one of the most important, is dealing with the sanitation system. Proper use and care will ensure that your travels will be footloose and fancy-free. On the flip side, without the right equipment and proper use of the system, you can be in for some very unpleasant surprises.
For the most part, RV sanitation systems are gravity-powered. They usually consist of two separate arrangements: the gray-water system, which collects wastewater from sinks, showers and clothes washers, and the black-water system, which handles body waste from toilets. It’s also possible that in some RVs, parts of these systems can be combined, like the sink and toilet in a second bathroom. And macerators, rather than gravity, can be used for toilets and dumping the holding tanks.
RV sanitation systems share a few similarities with the systems in stationary homes. These include the piping, and the requirement for the pipes to have a slope for drainage, ventilation and certain fixtures. Otherwise, they’re quite different. The biggest difference is that the gray and black water in an RV are held in separate tanks, instead of being discharged into a sewer system via a common pipe.
The gray-water system consists of sinks and showers, a 11⁄2-inch pipe, ventilation, a dedicated holding tank and a termination valve for dumping. Ventilation is the most complex part, and important to understand. For the water to drain from a fixture or the holding tank, ventilation, usually through the roof, is needed to prevent a vacuum.
In some RVs, the vent stack is too far away to reach. Instead of running an additional pipe through the roof, a vent check is installed, usually right under the fixture. A vent check, which in the RV industry is called an anti-siphon trap vent device, or ASTVD, is a combination of a vent and a check valve. It is installed on the 11⁄2-inch pipe under the fixture and has a small rubber flapper inside that opens to draw air into the drain system to prevent a vacuum, or chugging, at the sink or drain. This flapper reseals itself when no vacuum is present to prevent odor or gray-water overflow from entering the trailer.
The drain piping has a P-trap, just like at home, or a new waterless, self-sealing type of P-trap called a HepvO. By code, the drain plumbing must maintain a minimum slope to the tank or main drain of 1⁄8 inch per foot for proper drainage.
The black-water system consists of the toilet(s), 3-inch piping to a holding tank and a termination valve for dumping. Often, there will be a built-in black-water flushing system with a separate hose connection to assist with cleaning solids from the tank. Care must be taken when using the black flush to prevent accidental overfilling of the black tank with too much water, causing the RV to fill with effluent, often resulting in serious damage or a total loss.
RV termination valves, historically known as full-way valves, use a knife gate that slides in a plastic housing with a rubber grommet or seal. These valves are typically 11⁄2 inch or 3 inches in diameter, and there’s usually at least one of each, but there are exceptions. Some truck campers, for instance, have only one holding tank for everything, so they have one 3-inch connection. Many larger fifth-wheels have up to five separate valves, depending on the number of bathrooms. Fifth-wheels with plumbing in the upstairs (front) area may have two sets of holding tanks, and the largest trailers with a rear half-bath have another tank in the rear.
Termination valves are fairly simple devices. Held in place by four stainless-steel bolts that compress the valve between two flanges, the valves are easy to remove and service, if they become sticky or leaky. Kits are available with replacement seals and bolts. Simply remove the valves after the tanks have been emptied and flushed, remove the seals and thoroughly clean the valve. If you prefer, you can replace the entire valve. Occasionally, the valves are buried under the RV and controlled by a remote cable, which requires dropping the underbelly for service.
Once clean, the valves can be treated with a waterproof valve lubricant such as Dow Corning Molykote 111 and exercised. Make sure the valve is in good shape and not deformed or missing any chunks, and if it is, replace the valve. Make sure the new seals are installed correctly. A helper can make prying apart the pipe flanges and removing and reinserting the valve easier. Once the valve is seated, reinstall the bolts, test it, and you’re done. Don’t overtighten the bolts; snug plus a quarter turn is fine. Make sure the valve operates freely and smoothly.
Using the System
There are lots of opinions on how to use your RV’s wastewater system and insufficient space here to debunk all the myths. Instead, here are the procedures specified by the professionals.
The gray-water system is pretty simple and will seldom cause problems. You can occasionally use a gray-water deodorizer, if you feel the need. Enzymatic cleaners are available to help keep soap scum and grease from building up inside the tank with long-term extreme usage.
When it comes to the black-water system, many problems can be prevented by remembering this one phrase: Water is your friend. Take it from someone who has had to dig out and flush black-water holding tanks that were full of solids and no water. Leaving the black-tank termination valves open while at an RV park will allow the solids to collect in the bottom of the tank and eventually fill and block the flow of contents in the tank.
Keep the termination valves closed while in camp, monitor tank levels and dump as needed. This includes the gray water, unless you’re using a clothes washer, in which case, it’s best to leave the gray valve open to ensure that the tank doesn’t overflow. If you keep the valve closed, the gray water in the tank will flush the sewer hose after emptying the black tank. Once the black tank is emptied and flushed, close its valve and open the gray-water valve to flush the sewer hose, washing out remaining solids.
Once the dumping cycle is complete, be sure to add water and a holding-tank treatment to the black tank. Many prefer non-formaldehyde versions, which are required in some states. Add at least 2 gallons of water, and instruct everyone to use plenty of water when using the toilet. The combination of the water and chemicals will aid in breaking down solids and deodorizing the effluent, and some additives also help maintain the lubricity of the termination valve. Of course, make certain not to introduce any foreign objects into the toilet and holding tanks.
RV and marine toilet paper is formulated to break down more easily than commercially available papers. Using the wrong paper, along with too little water, will plug the system, and that’s a bad thing, as plumber’s snakes don’t work in RVs. Tank cleaning has to be done by hand and is messy. Scott toilet tissue is an old standby for some RVers, but if you want to be safe, use the stuff made for RV and marine use.
Holding-tank treatments come in a variety of formulations and forms, from small single-dose bottles to drop-in bags. Most work as directed. Ask fellow RVers for recommendations and try different ones to see what you like best. Contents left in the black tank for a long time in hot weather will put the chemicals to the test, and adding extra in those conditions is recommended.
Many folks are buying four-season RVs these days and venturing out into cold weather. If you’re braving freezing temperatures, tank heaters are a must, and a great investment. You can also use some potable antifreeze in the tanks to prevent freezing. Potable RV antifreeze is key; do not use automotive antifreeze, as it is poisonous and can sicken and kill pets and wildlife, and seep into the water table at parks with septic systems.
For some RVers, holding-tank sensors are the bane of their existence. Tank monitors are notoriously inaccurate. Ordinary tank sensors in most RVs consist of metal buttons attached through the side of the holding tank. These buttons connect to a resistor-pack wiring harness that allows the monitor panel to show the resistance between the sensors and illuminate the corresponding LEDs. The problem lies in introducing water contaminated with sewage, soap and fat into the tanks, and these can accumulate on the sides of the tank. Depending on the placement of the ground wire in relation to the sensor wires, the panel can be fooled into thinking those sensors are under water, giving a false reading.
Cleaning the tanks is one way to correct this issue, and most methods for doing this have been defended or debunked over the years. Holding-tank cleaners can aid in this task. Using an aforementioned black-tank flush system is a great way to clean the sides of the tank, especially if the sprayer is aimed at the side that has the sensors.
Another method for fixing a sensor problem is to upgrade the system with Horst Miracle Probes, which replace the original button probes. The probes use a pin that sticks out into the tank, rather than a button, so any growth inside the tank can’t create an electrical connection. The black-tank version has a shroud over the top of the pin to prevent paper or other material from hanging on and creating contact.
Alternatively, the entire system can be replaced with an electronic-sensor system like Garnet’s SeeLevel II montoring system. In this system, electronic strips are adhered to the sides of the tank and detect the dielectric differences between liquid and air through the tank wall. This means accurate readings, despite growth inside the tank. An additional benefit is that the sensor strips read the entire level of the tank, unlike typical probe systems that read the tank in thirds.
Sewage Handling Gear
There are a number of choices when it comes to purchasing waste-disposal gear, from upgraded toilets to sewer-connection rings. Two pieces of advice: Do your homework and don’t go cheap.
Sewer hoses and kits come in many forms, and it is tempting to make do with a $7 to $10 hose. Instead, invest in a good-quality sewer-hose kit with solid connections. High-quality hoses that are freeze-, crack- and even crush-resistant are available.
Start with a clear connector, as it’s the only way to see what is draining out of the black tank and, while flushing the tank, to make sure that the water coming out is clean. Second, use a kit with an end that will screw into the sewer connection at the campground. Not all dump stations have threaded fittings, but those that do offer an extra bit of security against spillage. Third, have a matching extension hose with the proper connector, and if your RV has more than one termination connection, get the matching Y connector and lengths of hose. It’s not uncommon for the sewer connection to be 25 feet or more away from the connection on your RV.
Some campgrounds have gray-water pits instead of full sewer connections, in states or communities where it is legal. This is where sewer caps with garden-hose connections on them come in. If a honey wagon comes around to pump your RV’s black tank and you dispose of the gray water into the pit, leaving the gray valve open into the pit is probably fine, as the honey wagon will effectively pump off the black tank. Once that’s done, follow the previously mentioned steps by adding water and chemicals back into the black tank.
Lastly, practice safe dumping. Always wear waterproof and preferably disposable gloves and some type of eye protection. The heavy-weight disposable gloves from Harbor Freight are inexpensive and work well. If you happen to get splashed with waste material, clean the area right away, and isolate and wash any affected clothing.
By following a few simple rules, having good equipment and remembering that water is your friend, you will have a more pleasant time dealing with the chore of dumping an RV tank and can get back to the real purpose of RVing — having fun and spending time with family and friends.
Simple plastic toilets are an old-time standard in the RV world and are functional at best. In the last decade or two, a good selection of porcelain and porcelain-plastic hybrid thrones have come to market from Dometic and Thetford to make just about anyone’s derriere feel like royalty. Selections include short and long bowl, foot pedal or hand flush, rinse sprayer/bidet, and manual or electric flush with integrated maceration, which often requires installation of special plumbing.
Swapping out an ordinary RV toilet is usually a simple job. Freshwater plumbing extensions are sometimes required, and on rare occasions, the flange will need to be rotated. Always use a new foam flange seal (not wax) when installing or reinstalling an RV toilet. Also, inspect the new toilet carefully, making sure all the bolts that connect the bowl to the base are tight and that the flush mechanism moves freely.
In the past few years, macerators have become more popular in RVs. Basically, a grinder and a pump for sanitary discharge, macerators have some definite benefits over regular sewer-hose systems. They connect directly to the tank discharge or are built-in, and the hose has only a 11⁄2-inch diameter and is very flexible. Multiple hoses can be used to discharge contents longer distances — some as far as 150 feet. The business end of the hose will usually twist into any sewer connection or cleanout, even at home, and the system can pump uphill. Once done, the handle on the business end is sealed, and there’s no spillage.
RV Sanitation Resources
Camco (TST) | www.camco.net
Century Chemical (Travel Jon) | www.centurychemical.com
Dometic | www.dometic.com/usa
Eco-Save | www.eco-save.com
Star brite (Instant Fresh) | www.starbrite.com
Thetford (Aqua-Kem, Campa-Chem, Eco-Smart) | www.thetford.com
Valterra (Odorlos, Potty Toddy, Pure Power) | www.valterra.com
Walex (Bio-Active, Bio-Pak, Commando, Elemonate, Porta-Pak) | www.walex.com
Worldwide Monochem (Dyna-Bact, T-5) | www.monochem.net
Camco (RhinoFlex) | www.camco.net
Lippert (Waste Master) | www.lci1.com
Prest-o-Fit (Blueline, DuraForm) | www.prestofit.com
Thetford (Titan) | www.thetford.com
Valterra (Dominator, EZ Flush, Quick Drain, Viper) | www.valterra.com
Chris Dougherty is technical editor of Trailer Life and MotorHome. Chris is an RVDA/RVIA certified technician and lifelong RVer, including 10 years as a full-timer. He and his wife make their home in Massachusetts and hit the road with their travel trailer every chance they get.