Your RV plumbing system is one of those things you probably don’t give much thought to. Unless, of course, there’s a problem. But when it comes right down to it, the plumbing system in your RV is pretty essential and one of many things that can make your RVing experience comfortable.
Think about it: Your RV’s plumbing is what allows you to do basic chores like preparing food and washing dishes. Plus, you can take a nice shower (or bath in some cases), use the toilet, and brush your teeth—all without needing to use a public restroom. When you consider it, the self-contained plumbing of an RV is likely one reason you decided to get into RVing, to begin with.
However, just because indoor plumbing is vital to your RVing adventures doesn’t mean maintaining it comes naturally to everyone. If you feel inadequate when it comes to your RVs plumbing, you’re not alone. For many owners, their rig’s water and septic components are a mystery. But they don’t have to be.
This post will walk you through the basics regarding the plumbing in your motorhome or camper and show you how you can keep everything running smoothly. A little maintenance and know-how can help you avoid costly repair bills and keep your system operating in tip-top shape for many adventures to come.
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How Does Plumbing Work in an RV?
The type of plumbing system you have can vary a little between makes, models, and sizes. Plus, some rigs come outfitted with entire plumbing systems, while others have stand-alone components. However, for this article, we will focus primarily on those RVs that have self-contained systems.
Self-contained systems typically include sinks, toilets, a shower or bath, a water heater, and three types of tanks: black water, greywater, and freshwater.
Black Water Tanks
The black water tank is located under the carriage of your RV and is intended to collect waste from your toilet. The waste stays in the tank until you hook it to a dedicated sewer hose and empty it at a dump station or attach it to your campsite’s sewer line.
Of all the plumbing components of your RV, the black water tank has the potential to cause the most problems. Emptying it is nobody’s idea of a fun chore, but if it’s not properly maintained, it can get pretty disgusting.
There are a few things to keep in mind that will not only make this unpleasant task a bit easier but will save you a pile of money on repairs.
- Nothing but waste and toilet paper should be flushed down your RV toilet—no diapers, sanitary pads, tampons, q-tips, or baby wipes. This will ensure you avoid any clogs that will be difficult and disgusting to deal with later on.
- Speaking of toilet paper, you will need to invest in a particular type of toilet paper made specifically for RVs. It is designed to disintegrate fast so it won’t clog your tank or sewer lines.
- To keep your tank in tip-top shape, you will want to use a sewer digester. These helpful products use friendly bacteria and enzymes to break down waste in your tank. They also keep foul odors under control.
Grey Water Tanks
The grey water tank is located next to the black water tank in your RV. However, this one holds wastewater that comes from showers and sinks. In other words, everything that does not go down the toilet. If you aren’t hooked up to a sewer line at an RV park or at home, you will need your grey water tank for your wastewater.
When it comes time to empty the tank, you will want to use a dump station, just as you would with the black water tank. It’s against the law in most places to dump it on the ground since it can leak into the earth and waterways and pose serious environmental issues. Here’s how to take care of the grey water tank:
- Clean the grey water tank of your RV with a diluted bleach solution or soapy water once or twice a year. Some campers like to add ice to the tank and go for a drive, which can help scrub out the inside of the tank. (You can do this with a black water tank too).
- If you notice any odors coming from your drains, you can add a digester or odor-eating enzyme to keep the unpleasant scents at bay.
Your freshwater tank holds the water you use to drink, cook with, shower, and wash dishes in. It’s easy to assume that your freshwater tank has safe, potable water, but it’s vital to realize that you are the one that needs to keep it that way.
For example, if you travel to many different places in your RV and hook up to various water sources across the country, you will end up with a mix of water from all different locations. The quality of some of that water may be questionable, and eventually, you may pour yourself a glass of contaminated water without even realizing it!
Another issue that RV owners can run into with their freshwater tanks is mold. Imagine what could be growing in a water tank with a few inches of water sitting at the bottom for weeks or months when you are not using your RV. For this reason, you’ll want to keep a close eye on your freshwater tank. Here are some tips on maintaining your freshwater tank:
- Always use the proper hose. Many people assume a regular garden hose is sufficient, but they would be mistaken. Run-of-the-mill garden hoses are not food-grade, and they can give off nasty tastes and smells, not to mention they can leak harmful chemicals which you would not want to ingest. Instead, purchase an RV drinking water hose designed for this purpose.
- The questionable quality of the water in some places necessitates the need for a filter, so be sure to install the best RV water filter you can afford. Don’t skimp on this all-important step. You don’t want to get sick during what is supposed to be a fun and relaxing vacation.
- At least twice a year, you will want to sanitize your fresh water system using a solution of one-quarter cup of household bleach for every 15 gallons of your tank’s capacity. You can find step-by-step directions in most RV owner’s manuals.
- A good quality RV water hose pressure regulator is a handy thing to have on board as well. Depending on where you visit, the water pressure may be insufficient for tasks like washing dishes or showering. Pressure regulators can fix this issue.
Where to Dump Your RV Waste Tanks
Once you have your RV set up with a clean water supply, any dirty water or waste that goes down the drains or toilet flows into the black or gray water tanks. For many people, the most unpleasant part of RVing is the chore of emptying these tanks.
Since you can’t just empty them onto the ground (which is also illegal in most places), you need to dump your tanks in a designated spot.
Dump stations are designated spots for the safe disposal of waste from campers and motorhomes. While you can dump your tanks at home, you will likely be on the road when the time comes to tackle this chore. Most campgrounds and RV parks have dump stations located on the property. Often, they are free for campers, and other times, you will need to pay a small fee.
There are also plenty of other designated spots for dumping your RV tanks. While you may need to pay a fee, safe off-loading of your black and grey water tanks might be accomplished at some of these destinations:
RV Dealerships: Many RC dealers have rigs they lease out to travelers, and some places have built-in dump stations you may be able to use for a fee.
Truck Stops: Some truck stops in the US and Canada have dumping facilities on site.
Marinas: Since boats have similar needs regarding dumping wastewater, many marinas are outfitted with dump stations.
City Wastewater Treatment Facilities: If all else fails, you can call local waste treatment facilities and ask them where to dump your tank. Most municipalities will be happy to help.
Campgrounds: Even if you are not staying at a particular campground, many places will still allow RVers to come in and use their dump stations for a fee.
If your tanks are full and you don’t know of any sources near you for dumping, you can always get on your smartphone and look up “dump stations near me.” Two websites—RVdumps.com and Sanidumps.com also maintain databases of places to dump, the latter hosting a lookup tool that supports campers in the United States, Canada, and ten other countries.
The Dirty Deed—Dumping the Tanks
When it comes down to the actual task of dumping your tanks, most newcomers are pretty intimidated. However, many people make it harder than it needs to be.
As long as you have the right equipment, dumping your tanks does not have to be a nightmare, and you can do it quickly and efficiently with minimal hassle. Whether you have a portable waste tank or standard RV tank setup, the following tips can help:
Plan Ahead: When one of your tanks is about two-thirds full, it’s time to start planning for your next dump. This is especially true if you are on a trip in a remote area where a dumping station may not be accessible. If you plan ahead, you can avoid having to camp with a full, smelly tank.
Level Your Rig: Uneven ground can make it difficult to empty the tanks fully, so you may need to use jacks to level out your rig.
Close the Windows and Vents: Dump stations are smelly places. You can avoid having your rig smell like a sewer by closing the windows and vents before you dump your tanks.
Use Gloves and Sanitizing Wipes: Make sure you tackle this dirty task safely by donning a pair of disposable gloves. Have some disinfecting spray and paper towels or sanitizing wipes available in case of unintended splatter.
Use High-Quality RV Sewer Hoses: A top-of-the-line sewer hose made especially for RVs is a must. Many hoses even include clear elbow attachments so you can see what is coming out of your tank. Make sure all the fittings are connected and secure to avoid any unwanted spills or accidents.
Dump Your Black Tank First: You should dump your black tank first. The reason for this is that when you do your gray tank second, the gray water can help flush any particles from your black tank away. After the black holding tank is completely empty, turn on the sprayer until the water runs clear. If your RV is not equipped with a sprayer, you can bring a hose inside (or use a large bucket of water) and spray it down the toilet.
Empty the Grey Tank Second: If you open the valve on your gray tank, you can now use it to clean out any residue left in the black tank. Allow all the waste to drain from your gray tank, spray it, and close the valve.
Clean the Sewer Hose: Don’t forget to clean the sewer hoses themselves, as these may be a little gross by now. Use your greywater hose to do this, being careful not to splash yourself. When you are finished, wipe the ends of the hoses with the disinfecting wipes and store them in a dedicated spot in your RV.
Using a Sewer Hose Support System
If you are on an extended stay at an RV park or campground, you will notice that many places have full hookups with sewer. If you plan to hook up to the sewer at a facility, you can purchase a sewer hose support system that keeps things running smoothly.
A Word for Those without Self-Contained Systems
Many campers—especially those just starting out—want to rig their pop-ups, truck campers, or vans with some plumbing components to make things a little more comfortable. Rest assured, there are plenty of products for newcomers as well, and the dumping tips above apply to those with portable camping toilets and portable wastewater tanks too.
One of the most compelling things about the RV lifestyle is the miracle of running water, hot showers, and flush toilets on board. Traveling, discovering new people and places, and spending time in the great outdoors is what camping is all about. If you are lucky enough to have a self-contained unit, a little knowledge about how it all works and what you can do to maintain it will go a long way toward protecting your investment for years to come.
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