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RV Holding Tanks and how to maintain your Sewage Tank - Best Shaken Not Stirred

Updated on October 2, 2016
Don Bobbitt profile image

Don has been an avid traveler and motorhome owner for most of his life and he shares his knowledge of motorhomes and other RVs.

The Storage Tanks in an RV or Camper

This article is designed to help the RV owner understand the proper methods for efficiently dumping and cleaning a Campers Holding Tanks.

In it I will describe the tanks themselves, how they are used in your RV, and how to manage them.

I will also give tips on draining the tanks properly, as well as useful information that I have picked up from other campers on how to make the use of your storage tanks easy and simple as well as how to minimize your contact with their contents.

If you find this article informative, you should like my book called DONS RV INFO.

In the book, I cover what is in this article as well as dozens of other issues that the typical RV owner might need help with.

I have been told by other campers, even the experienced ones that my book is a great reference book for a Camper to have with him when he travels.

A Typical RV Service Center

Most Motorhomes and even the larger 5th wheelers and tag-along campers have a specially designed Service Center to make Holding Tank dumping easier.
Most Motorhomes and even the larger 5th wheelers and tag-along campers have a specially designed Service Center to make Holding Tank dumping easier. | Source

Update Notice

This article was updated by the Author - March 19, 2016

RV Storage Tanks - Gray Water, Black Water and Fresh Water

As all experienced RV campers know, there are three main storage tanks in a camper or Motorhome.

These are commonly called the Fresh Water, Gray Water, and the Black Water tanks.

These holding tanks make the RV camping experience a lotmore civilized than say, a trip into the woods with your Backpack and Sleeping Bag which is your real and basic "back to nature" mode of camping.

You know what I mean; where you drink from a stream, Poop in the bushes and bury it, and wash yourself in a cold stream when even when you get to the point that even you can't stand your own smell.

But, along with the conveniences of having; clean, fresh drinking water, a clean (even hot) shower, and a sanitary place for you to Poop and urinate, there are certain things you need to know about RV Holding Tanks in order to keep your travels pleasant.

These holding tanks provide a higher level of personal convenience, but there are also inherent problems, as well as necessary preventive maintenance asks that you must perform to keep them functioning well.

Source

Fresh Water Tank

The first and generally the largest holding tank is the Fresh Water tank.

As it's name infers, it is designed to store and provide fresh water for the users of the camper. The size of this tank varies with the design and type of camper.

A Pop-up Camper or small tag-along might have a tank in the ten to twenty gallon range, and is generally designed to provide enough fresh water for a couple of people to cook with as well as drink and to wash dishes, and possibly even enough to take a military style shower.

At the same time, a large Class-A Motorhome or Coach type RV can have a fresh water tank with a capacity of 100 gallons or even more, depending on the design of the RV.


Typical RV Holding Tank System

This diagram illustrates a typical RV and Camper Holding Tank System.
This diagram illustrates a typical RV and Camper Holding Tank System. | Source

How to take a Military Shower

Military Shower

FYI: For the uninitiated, a Military type shower is a way to bathe and conserve your fresh water supply. Often, whether on a campaign, or on a ship, military personnel are ordered to take a "Military Shower" to conserve water supplies.

To take a Military Shower a person would;

  1. step into the shower,
  2. turn the water on and wet themselves down.
  3. Then they would turn the water off, and Soap up their body.
  4. Then they would step back into the shower,
  5. and quickly rinse the soap off of their body.
  6. If washing your hair, repeat the steps.

This tried and true procedure is the most efficient way to bathe using your fresh water. It minimizes wasted water and you get just as clean as with a long drawn-out shower.

For the Novice, there are certain things that you need to be aware of, as well as manage when using your Fresh Water tank.

Campground Water Quality

Water Quality:

Be aware that the quality of fresh water around the country, and specifically in the Water Quality in Campgrounds can vary greatly.

You want to take steps to assure that you have quality water in your fresh water tank is safe to use, at all times.

And, you need to keep your fresh water in clean, safe condition once you have stored it in your tank. The items listed below can be a big help for a camper to assure they have good water at all times.

Water Filter:

Always use a Water Filter in your water input line. Many campers and RVs have a basic water filter installed in the water input to the camper. These filters are generally there to block sediment particles and to provide a better "charcoal-filtered" taste.

Many campers will purchase yet another water filter and attach a short piece of water hose to it.

This assembly can then be placed in series with the water line to the camper, and provide some additional level of pre-filtering. If there is sediment, you end up clogging a cheap filter and not that more expensive one that you have built in to your RV or Camper

There are some filters available that provide filtering for certain specific chemicals, and some campers purchase these and install them either inside or outside their camper.

Also, if your level of concern over the water quality is high enough, you should investigate the purchase of a water treatment system for your RV. These are relatively cheap, and easy to operate. It costs a little, but you will have more peace of mind over your water quality.

Water Pressure Restrictor:

Many campers are not aware of the variations in the water pressure in a Campground. Oh yes, they notice it when they have to little pressure, because it is visibly obvious to the user. But the more dangerous problem is too much water pressure.

Most campers and RVs have either rigid or flexible water lines in them, and some campgrounds' water pressure can cause leaks in these lines and their connectors, when it gets high enough.

The good thing is; there is a fix for this, that only costs a few dollars, and that is the purchase of an inline Water Pressure Regulator. It is a simple device that you can screw it in series with your water hose, and it will restrict the water flow to an acceptable level for your campers water system.

Water Storage Bacteria and Winterization

Water Storage Bacteria:

Campers should always take the appropriate steps to avoid the generation and growth of Bacteria in their fresh water storage tanks. Remember, your tank is in a dark place and is usually warm and wet. This is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

The good thing is the camper can purchase chemicals in pill form that they can just drop into their fresh water tank regularly, and these will minimize if not totally eliminate the oportunity for bacteria growth.

And, finally, the camper needs to dump their fresh water tank regularly, to help avoid ending up with "old" water, or bacteria growth. All campers and RVs have a valve that allows them to dump their tank as desired, and most campgrounds allow the dumping of fresh water at the campsite.

Winterization:

Depending on how often you use your camper, as well as when and where you actually use your camper, you will need to "Winterize" your fresh water tank and water lines occasionally.

Why winterize? Well, first the name is popular because most people use their camper or RV in good weather conditions, and store it in the winter of bad weather conditions.

Today though, many people use their camper to travel to better climate areas in the South, in the winter and store their camper in the Summer, while still others use their camper throughout the year, on a weekly, monthly or seasonal basis.

Because of this, each camper must decide when it is appropriate for them to perform the necessary fresh water tank and water line storage procedures. And, of course, when you decide to winterize, it is important to follow the specific instructions for your camper or RV.

Gray Water Tank

Your Camper or RV also has a Gray Water Tank. This tank is designed to collect and store the water that goes down the Sink and Shower drains, as well as the Clothes Washer (if you have one), of your camper.

This water is obviously dirty, but does not include sewage, thus the name Gray Water.

The Gray Water tank is designed with a capacity that varies with the size of camper or RV. And generally speaking, it is designed to hold up to a weeks Gray water from the 'frugally normal' couple who use the camper.

By 'frugally normal" I mean that the campers are aware of their limited supply of fresh water , as well as their limited storage capacity, and that they do the following;

  1. take Military style showers as mentioned above,
  2. wash dishes in the sink and rinse them frugally with fresh water,
  3. shave with a small amount of water in the sink, and not with running water,
  4. and any other water conservation procedures they can think of.

Gray Water Tank Dumping:

Regardless of how frugal you are though, eventually your gray water tank will need to b dumped. Campgrounds do not allow the dumping of Gray Water onto the ground at a site. It must be dumped at the same Dump Stations as the Black Water tank.

To this end, the standard for Gray Water and Black Water tank dumping connections is the same for all campers and RVs.

When you look in the service compartment of an RV, or under a camper, you will recognize the same 3-inch connectors, and on most RVs the Black Water and Gray Water lines go to a T-type connection with one common 3-inch connector.

This is for ease of connecting and dumping of waste.

These connectors are ther for the camper to easily connect and lock on a 3-inch flexible hose that is designed to be run to the Dump Station and connected to it's inlet. This system is designed to minimize the opportunity for spillage, and minimize cleanup.

Proper Tank Draining Sequence

Black First - Gray Last:

There is one major trick that the camper quickly learns. You do not want to have to clean Black Water waste from a hose system. ..... UGH!.....

To minimize this problem, it is always recommended to dump your Back Water tank first, and then close the valve to this tank, and then dump your Gray Water tank.

Doing this will allow the Gray Water to flush out the waste that is left in the hoses by the dumping of the Black Water Tank, and helps clean the hose system, leaving only (or at least mostly) Gray Water waste in the hoses.

Trust me, this is definitely what you want.

Soaps and Detergents:

It is highly recommended that the camper utilize Green Detergents and Soaps in their camper, regardless. But, you really will have a lot less problems with clogged pipes and Gray Water tanks, if you will use the latest and most appropriate brands of these.

BLACK WATER Holding TANK

The Black Water Tank!

The POOP holder!

The Big Stinky!

Whatever you want call it, this is where your Poop and Urine is held and stored until you have to dump it. And, You will have to dump it ..... regularly!

The thing that a Camper or RVer learns very quickly is that this is not a Septic tank, but just a temporary holding device for some extremely nasty stuff!

Perform all of the right steps, and it will be minimally offensive to use the tank for storage. Ignore it, and a number of things can occur that will cost you in dollars and/or scents! Sic!

This tank just like the Fresh Water Tank and the Gray Water Tank has been designed to hold the excrement, urine and toilet paper of a typical couple for about a week. You and your spouse may fill it sooner or later, but that is usually the design criteria.

The following items are for the typical camper, that, if followed regularly, will ease the task of dumping and maintaining a Black Water Tank:

Toilet Paper:

The Toilet Paper you use in your camper must meet certain special standards. For instance, when purchasing, be sure the package states that the toilet paper is "Safe for Septic Tank or RV use" This means that it will break down (eventually) and meets certain basic standards.

You will probably need to go a little further than that though. I recommend that you only use single-ply paper. This means that it is thinner, and you though you might use a little more with a single "wipe" it will be thinner than other multiple-ply papers, and porous enough to break down easier.

To test your toilet paper, try this: Place a few sheet of your toilet paper in a cup of water. Wait an hour or so, then cover the cup and shake it for a minute. Remove the top and the paper sheets should be shredded into pieces. If not, it probably will not break down in your tank either.

Toilet Chemicals:

If you get odors from your tank, or when you flush your toilet, this can be minimized greatly by using the proper Chemicals in the Black Water Tank. I will not recommend which chemicals to use, but whenever you dump your tank, pour a couple of gallons of water into the tank along with a chemical that is designed to assist in the break down of the excrement faster. These come in Pellet, Powder and package form. Pick one that works for you.

Flushing the Toilet:

Here is a place where you do not want to be frugal with water. When you flush, make sure a decent amount of water is also flushed. This water will help keep the excrement soft and help the toilet paper break down.

My toilet has the typical foot pedal for flushing, but it has two positions. If you hold it halfway down, water enters the toilet but it does not flush. This allows you to manage the amount of water used with a flush. Once you have an adequate amount of water in the bowl, press the pedal the rest of the way down, and you get a clean flush and you use enough water.

Dumping the Tank:

As mentioned in the section about the Gray Water tank, when you dump your Black Water tank, dump it first, then close the valve to it, and then dump the Gray Water tank to help clean out the excrement, etc. from your sewage hoses.

Also, after dumping a Black Water Tank, always put a few gallons of water into the toilet just in case there is hardened residue. This water will help soften this residue for the next dumping.

Flushing the Tank:

Most campers and RVs now have a "Tank Flush" system built in to the Black Water Tank. It is usually a water connector that goes to a hose with a "shower-like head on it to spray the tank walls, meter sensors, and bottom.

It's purpose is to; 1-clean toilet paper remnants off of the meter sensors, 2- clean residue from the walls of the tank, and 3-help break down the excrement and paper remnants that may have hardened on the bottom of the tank. They work to a degree, but they are not perfect, so keep this in mind.

While on site:

When you pull in to a camp site, one of the first things you will do is hook up your sewage connector to the one at your site. Even though you hook up, DO NOT open the valve until the tank is full. You do not just let the sewage flow straight from the tank all of the time.

The waste will harden due to a lack of water in the tank, and you will end uf with a very expensive tank pressure cleaning job to get your tank cleaned out later. Leave the valve closed, and open only when full and ready to be dumped.

SHAKEN not STIRRED:

When many Campers are leaving a site, and will get to their next site that same day, they will dump the Black Water tank and fill it with water for the trip. This will allow the water to shake around during the bumps and turns of the trip, and can then be dumped again when you arrive at the next site. This agitation during the trip can really help clean the tank.

And again, when you are within a days drive of home, fill your Black Water tank with about a quarter tank of water to allow for a good agitation during the drive before you get home. Then dump the tank and you will have less potential problems with odors and buildup, when you store your camper or RV.

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Use the proper Toilet Paper

Toilet Paper:

The Toilet Paper you use in your camper must meet certain special standards. For instance, when purchasing, be sure the package states that the toilet paper is "Safe for Septic Tank or RV use" This means that it will break down (eventually) and meets certain basic standards.

You will probably need to go a little further than that though. I recommend that you only use single-ply paper. This means that it is thinner, and you though you might use a little more with a single "wipe" it will be thinner than other multiple-ply papers, and porous enough to break down easier.

To test your toilet paper, try this: Place a few sheet of your toilet paper in a cup of water. Wait an hour or so, then cover the cup and shake it for a minute. Remove the top and the paper sheets should be shredded into pieces. If not, it probably will not break down in your tank either.

Toilet Chemicals:

If you get odors from your tank, or when you flush your toilet, this can be minimized greatly by using the proper Chemicals in the Black Water Tank. I will not recommend which chemicals to use, but whenever you dump your tank, pour a couple of gallons of water into the tank along with a chemical that is designed to assist in the break down of the excrement faster. These come in Pellet, Powder and package form. Pick one that works for you.

Flushing the Toilet:

Here is a place where you do not want to be frugal with water. When you flush, make sure a decent amount of water is also flushed. This water will help keep the excrement soft and help the toilet paper break down.

My toilet has the typical foot pedal for flushing, but it has two positions. If you hold it halfway down, water enters the toilet but it does not flush. This allows you to manage the amount of water used with a flush. Once you have an adequate amount of water in the bowl, press the pedal the rest of the way down, and you get a clean flush and you use enough water.

Dumping the Tank:

As mentioned in the section about the Gray Water tank, when you dump your Black Water tank, dump it first, then close the valve to it, and then dump the Gray Water tank to help clean out the excrement, etc. from your sewage hoses.

Also, after dumping a Black Water Tank, always put a few gallons of water into the toilet just in case there is hardened residue. This water will help soften this residue for the next dumping.

Flushing the Tank:

Most campers and RVs now have a "Tank Flush" system built in to the Black Water Tank. It is usually a water connector that goes to a hose with a "shower-like head on it to spray the tank walls, meter sensors, and bottom.

It's purpose is to; 1-clean toilet paper remnants off of the meter sensors, 2- clean residue from the walls of the tank, and 3-help break down the excrement and paper remnants that may have hardened on the bottom of the tank. They work to a degree, but they are not perfect, so keep this in mind.

While on site:

When you pull in to a camp site, one of the first things you will do is hook up your sewage connector to the one at your site. Even though you hook up, DO NOT open the valve until the tank is full. You do not just let the sewage flow straight from the tank all of the time.

The waste will harden due to a lack of water in the tank, and you will end uf with a very expensive tank pressure cleaning job to get your tank cleaned out later. Leave the valve closed, and open only when full and ready to be dumped.

SHAKEN not STIRRED:

When many Campers are leaving a site, and will get to their next site that same day, they will dump the Black Water tank and fill it with water for the trip. This will allow the water to shake around during the bumps and turns of the trip, and can then be dumped again when you arrive at the next site. This agitation during the trip can really help clean the tank.

And again, when you are within a days drive of home, fill your Black Water tank with about a quarter tank of water to allow for a good agitation during the drive before you get home. Then dump the tank and you will have less potential problems with odors and buildup, when you store your camper or RV.

How to Dump your RV Holding Tanks

A fellow RVer told me about an interesting way to dump your Black and Gray water tanks, and clean the Black Water tank at the same time.

He had attended a class at one of the Campgrounds he had stayed at several months before, and he learned this method, and I am passing it on to you.

As you know, most RV;s have the outlets of both the Black and the Gray water tanks joined to a single 3-inch outlet that takes your standard 3-inch hoses for dumping.

As you may also know, many RV'er now use a mascerating sewage pumping system, similar to the popular Sani-Flo system.

These systems use a short 3-inch hose, connected to the Pump system, which uses a 1-inch outlet line for pumping the sewage to the dump site or sewage connector at your campsite.

When you have this type of connector on the outlet, that allows you to contain the sewage, it also allows you the opportunity to use your gray water, including the inherent detergents from your shower and sinks, to clean the Black Water tank.

Here is how it works.

  1. Make sure all of your hoses are connected properly and tightly.
  2. Open the outlet valve and dump your Black Water tank, as you normally would, until it is empty.
  3. Leave the Black water tank valve fully open, and open the Gray water tank valve.
  4. The Gray water will surge into the Black Water tank, and stir all of that hard mess, accumulated on the bottom of the Black Water tank, up, and rush up the walls of the tank.
  5. Close the gray water tank valve, and wait a few minutes for the detergents and soaps in the gray water to soak into the residue in the Black Water tank, and any paper hanging on the sensors on the walls.
  6. After ten minutes or so, drain the Black Water tank again, and you may be surprised how much foul water is drained, that did not drain before.
  7. Close the Black Water valve, and as you would normally do, drain the remainder of the gray water tank to clean your pump and exit lines of any residue.

Repeat this process, regularly, and you will keep your Back Water tank cleaner, and the detergents will help keep the level sensors clean for a longer period of time.

Another suggestion is to drain as much gray water into the Black Water tank just before you pull out, if you are going to another campground, or a place with a dump station.

By driving a few hours with the detergent laden gray water in the Black Water Tank, the shaking motion, will clean your Black Water tank walls and sensors much better.

You just wait until you get more gray water, and clean your tanks as you normally would.

I am pulling out in a few weeks, and I plan to start using this method regularly.

NOTE: If your Black Water tank and your Gray Water tanks are the same size, say approximately 50-gallons, you could, theoretically, perform this maneuver twice, once with 1/2 tank of gray fluid in each, and a second time with 1/4 tank of gray fluid, and still have a 1/4 tank of gray water to clean your outlet hoses.

On the other hand, do it once, and regularly, and be sure that your tank outlet lines are nice and clean, every time.

OH Yeah! And regardless of whether you do this or not, you still need to add your activator/cleanser to your freshly dumped Black Water tank, as always.


How to Dump an RV Black water Tank

© 2010 Don Bobbitt

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    • profile image

      Peter 12 months ago

      Thank you. Best advice and how to.

    • Don Bobbitt profile image
      Author

      Don Bobbitt 4 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      Gmunson- That is a good idea but do it with caution. I had a friend who put far too detergent into the tank and about anhour into his trip, his wife walked into their toilet and found a toilet with a nice head of suds on it.

      But, you are right, it is good to get that tank cleaned as best you can.

      Thanks for the Read and Comment,

      DON

    • profile image

      GMunson 4 years ago

      Also it helps to fill your Black Tank with 5 Gallons of Hot Detergent Water before hitting the road. The steam from the hot water will reach areas that water containment may never touch. Then drain your water after it's agitated road run.

    • Don Bobbitt profile image
      Author

      Don Bobbitt 5 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      Jim c- interesting proposal,and it would of course provide some good agitation in the tank as the Ice beats around in there, BUT! And the but is, after you take your RV, whether a Coach or a trailer, down the road for 5-6 or more hours,and finally pull into a campsite , and then hook up your electric, water, sewage and then have dumped your tanks, you really don't want to unhook everything and pull out of the campground, just to get a little extra residue out of your tank.

      there are a lot of great ways to camp, but I really think that you will find that most RVers want simple solutions that fit into their travel plans with the least disruption. But, thanks for the suggestion. PS, the Ice idea works well in coffee pots!

    • profile image

      jim c 5 years ago

      If traveling, best way to clean Black water tank is, after emptying tank dump 5 or so pounds of ice and small amount of detergent in tank through toilet.Immediately start driving, after a few miles the tank will be completely clean.All the gunk will flush out at next emptying

    • Don Bobbitt profile image
      Author

      Don Bobbitt 6 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      Funny! But you're right, thinking back, they do work well on kids! LOL!

    • profile image

      Arlene V. Poma 6 years ago

      Wow, Don. I have friends who are lifelong RVers, but never did ask them how they cleaned their tanks. I think I'll stick with a campground (tent and bathroom within walking distance), Holiday Inn or timeshare. I am a klutz when it comes to these things. Reading your Hub was an eye-opener for me.

    • Don Bobbitt profile image
      Author

      Don Bobbitt 6 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      Thanks RV Guy, I did a cleanup of the original document and decided to re-share it with l\my followers, so thanks for the comment.

    • The RV Guy profile image

      The RV Guy 6 years ago from Somewhere In America

      Lots of good, basic information for the new RVer and a good refresher for those who have been on the road for a while.

    • Don Bobbitt profile image
      Author

      Don Bobbitt 6 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      You have to watch as the process begins, and as the flow from the Gray to the Black, slows, you quickly close off the gray valve, thus eliminating the potential back-flow.

    • profile image

      Steve 6 years ago

      What keeps the Black water from back flowing into your grey water tank?