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How Do RVers Get Their Basic Utilities?

I am an RV enthusiast with more than 50 years of experience owning, driving, traveling and living in recreational vehicles.

RVers connect their campers, trailers and motorhomes to water, sewer and electric outlets that are available.

RVers connect their campers, trailers and motorhomes to water, sewer and electric outlets that are available.

People often ask me how RV travelers access basic utilities while they are on the road. This is a good question, because there are many times when these vehicles are not "hooked up," yet the people using them are still able to run the AC, bathe, cook and use the toilet facilities.

The reason they are able to do these things is that recreational vehicles are self-contained, which means that they have utilities and plumbing systems that can function on their own for short periods of time.

Although some units have more systems than others, all at least have holding tanks, propane tanks, batteries and basic plumbing systems that allow them to have access to water, certain levels of power, and the ability to use bathroom facilities.

Many coaches also have items such as generators, solar panels, and inverters that provide varying levels of electricity.

The greater the number of utilities, the more comfortable it is to travel in an RV!

RVs Are Like Small Apartments

Most recreational vehicles are like little apartments on wheels.

They have their own heating and air conditioning systems and most are self contained.

Size and design determine the number and type of utilities they provide, and because they are not always stationary, they contain several methods for accessing utilities.

They either can be connected to them at campgrounds with hoses and electrical wires, or they can use their own sources such as generators, inverters, batteries, solar panels and propane gas.

All recreational vehicle have their own, built in utilities and plumbing systems.

All recreational vehicle have their own, built in utilities and plumbing systems.

How RV Plumbing Systems Work

The plumbing systems are similar to those found in houses, but they are made of thinner materials, function a bit differently and require more care.

Gray and Black water tanks hold waste in enclosed areas that are built into the RV. Travelers fill their fresh water at home or in campgrounds, use it as needed and then empty it as gray water.

When a hose is attached to the built-in tank, you use it to release the liquids into a sewer outlet by pulling a handle. When an RV is not hooked up, the waste remains in the tanks until travelers find places where they can empty or "dump" them.

The Best Way to to Dump and Clean Your RV's Sewer Tank and How to Care for Your RV's Fresh Water Tank can tell you more about how people deal with holding tanks.

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How to Hook Up at an RV Park

Utilities Hookups

Campgrounds generally provide utilities that you connect to your RV. The term "dry camping" refers to situations where people have no hookups available, such as in many truck stops or BLM camping areas.

What Is Dry Camping and Why Do You Need to Know? gives more information about this very popular and inexpensive way of camping.

The attached video shows you how to connect to utilities or “hook up”.

Some places do not provide sewers, but do provide areas where you can empty your tanks which are called “dump stations”.

Many interstate rest areas and truck stops have them also. To use them, you simply pull your coach up beside one, attach your hose and empty the contents by pulling the tank‘s handle.

There generally is no charge for doing this if you have paid for a campsite, but if not, or if you have to use a public facility, and charges can go as high as $15.

RVs Are Self Contained

Earlier I used the term “self contained”. What this means is that recreational vehicles can function without hooking up to any utilities.

Their tanks hold fresh, gray and black water, propane runs refrigerators and stove tops, generators or inverters provide electricity and batteries provide 12 volt service.

Because of this, if you do not want to stay in a campground, you do not have to do so because on a short term basis, you can use your own utilities.

This is easier to do if your vehicle has a generator because this equipment makes its own electricity. However, even without one, you can still keep your food cold in your refrigerator, cook on your stove top, run your furnace, shower, sleep and have adequate lighting.

Even the smallest RVs are self contained.

Even the smallest RVs are self contained.

Utility Sources


If people dry camp a lot, they need to refill their propane tanks often because they use them regularly. Campgrounds, truck stops and gas companies are all good places for filling them. At today's prices, you will pay about $3 per gallon. A gallon of propane lasts about one hour.


There are two types of batteries: coach and engine. A travel unit uses them to run internal lighting and also energize motor home engines. Batteries require maintenance and have to be replaced from time to time, but without them, coaches cannot function.

Solar Panels

Some coaches have solar panels on their roofs that trickle a small amount of electricity into their units. These help to run inverters, which in turn, run TV sets and certain small appliances. This saves money because it helps people to eliminate the need for propane.


Generators run either on propane, gasoline or diesel fuel and provide electricity as you need it when you are not hooked up.


Inverters get their energy from batteries, generators, running engines and solar panels. They produce enough electricity to run low-level appliances like fans, heating pads and television sets. This helps people to save money on the cost of fuels that run generators.

Generators like this one create electricity for the coach using gas or diesel fuel for their energy source.

Generators like this one create electricity for the coach using gas or diesel fuel for their energy source.

This Primer Is Just the Beginning for You!

For those who have never been in a travel unit or who know very little about how the utilities and plumbing systems work, this primer should serve as a good basic introduction.

What I have provided here is an overview, but there is more to learn because all of these systems need to be maintained properly.

Continue to learn all you can about them, and you'll do fine.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Sondra Rochelle

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