Camper and RV Toilet Systems — Know Before You Go

Camper And RV Toilet Systems

If you have ever used a toilet on a train or airplane, you have experienced something almost identical to a camper or RV toilet system.

What system, you may ask? If you have looked into the toilet as it flushes, what you see is a flap opening and everything being pushed out by swirls of water. You may think the contents is just going onto the railroad tracks or, God forbid, into the air at 5,000 feet (1.52 km), but this isn’t the case. And it’s not the case with your camper toilet either. 

The Camper/RV Toilet System

Actually, there are two types of toilets used in campers. 

  • Some travel trailers don’t have a toilet system at all. Instead, owners equip it with a porta potty, like those used by people with mobility issues. In this case, your waste is collected into a bowl at the bottom which you then have to empty by hand, usually after each use. 
  • Most good-sized campers and RV’s have a toilet system, in an actual bathroom (privacy is a good thing!). In this case, there is an attached holding tank that is emptied from the outside, as necessary, depending on the length of your trip.

To understand how all of this works, you need to know a bit about water tanks in your “home away from home.”

The Tanks

Campers that have running water have three tanks.

  1. A Clean Water Tank: This tank is filled with fresh water before you take off on your trip and is used for the kitchen, best rv shower head and the bathroom. You use this water for the sinks (e.g. washing dishes, hands, and showering if the camper is so equipped) and also for flushing out the toilet. Because it sits in a tank, it is not a good idea to drink this water — bottled water is far safer. The size of the tank depends a lot on the size of the camper. Of course, if you stay in a campground with water hookups, you can keep your clean water tank continually filled and have a longer getaway.
  2. A Gray Water Tank: This is the tank that holds the wastewater from the sinks. It is obviously no longer clean, but it is not holding human waste either.
  3. A Black Water Tank: This is the tank that is hooked up to your toilet. And it is called black for a reason. It cannot be emptied just anywhere, obviously.

The sizes of these tanks depend on the size of the camper or RV. If a camper is around 24 feet (7.32 m) long with rv rubber roof coating, the clean water tank will typically hold 48 gallons (0.22 cubic metres), and gray and black water tanks will hold about 32 gallons (0.15 cubic metres) of waste each. Larger RV’s can take on more weight, and there are some clean water tanks that will hold up to 90 or more gallons. Gray and black waste tanks will hold about 37-40 gallons (-0.18 cubic metres) each.

cleaning the toilet

Flushing That Toilet

Like the airplane and the train, there will be a pedal located at the base of the toilet bowl, instead of the handle on normal toilets. When the pedal is pressed, water from the fresh water tank flows into the toilet. At the same time, the flap at the bottom of the bowl opens, and the waste goes into the black water tank, situated under the camper. There are chemicals (many eco-friendly, by the way), that serve to break up the solid waste and neutralize odors. When the foot is taken off the pedal, it closes the flap, so that odors do not seep back into the bathroom. It’s important to use think toilet paper or tissue and never things such as paper towels that are too thick and may not flush easily.

RV holding tanks

Yes, That Tank Has to Be Emptied

Both gray and black water tanks should be emptied every few days, even more often if several people are using the toilet and there is a lot of use of the sinks. And they must always be emptied out at the end of a trip, for obvious reasons. That waste water, in an enclosed space for a long period of time, is really an environmental and smelly disaster. Chemicals can only do so much.

The great thing about campgrounds is that they have what are called dump or sanitation stations. Both gray and black water can be drained into these, and it’s a relatively easy process. Each tank has a valve as well as a connection piece for a hose. These hoses are wider than normal garden hoses, usually 3-4 inches (-10.16 cm) and long enough that you can stand 10-20 feet away from the dump site. Campsites do not provide these hoses — you buy your own, and they are usually stored with clamps or a separate container, to one of the tanks. The hose is hooked up first, then the valve opened so that the draining can take place. Just in case of a small spill, wearing gloves is certainly recommended — preferably the disposable ones.

Enclosed rv Bathroom

You’re Not Quite Finished Yet

You also want the tanks to be flushed out. This is done by leaving the hose hooked up to the black water tank the valve opened, and then going back inside and holding down the toilet flush pedal, so that clean water flushes through the tank and the hose. Cleaning and waste treatment products should be flushed through along with the water. This also serves to rinse out the hose. 

The last time you empty and flush out the black water tank, at the end of your vacation, should also end anyone’s use of it. From that point forward, passengers will all be using public restrooms until they arrive home. And just as a side note — the clean water tank should be emptied at the end of the trip too. 

RV Living And The Conveniences of Home

Here’s a few interesting facts. According to data from the RV industry and Statistical Surveys, over 1 million Americans live in RV’s, having given up traditional housing in favor of being nomads, and more than 10.5 million Americans own at least one camper or RV. One of the reasons behind this trend is the fact that RV toilet systems have become more efficient, cleaner, and easier to manage.

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