When Trailer Life Magazine asked me to write a 2,000 word feature article about RV sanitation systems, including step-by-step RV dumping procedures, overall RV dump station etiquette and tips for emptying the RV holding tanks, all I could think of were two words:
“Don’t Spill !!“
Once Mark and I put our heads together, though, our article quickly filled up with tips, procedures, hints, photos and ideas, and grew to cover seven pages of the May 2014 issue of Trailer Life!!
Holy cow!! I had no idea we’d learned so much about this topic and that we had so many ideas to share with the RVing community. Motorhome Magazine liked the article so much they ran it in their July, 2014 issue!
Dumping is a subject that is near and dear to every RVer’s heart (smile). So here is a synopsis of what we think are the most important things to do when visiting an the RV dump station or when you have sewer hookups at an RV park.
Over the years, we’ve received lots of queries about our thoughts on composting toilets and whether we use one or would recommend installing one if you are going to do a lot of boondocking. So there’s a section on that too.
For easy navigation within this post, use the links below:
A FEW LITTLE TIPS FOR DUMPING THE TANKS
(1) The most important thing at the RV dump station is to protect yourself from any pathogens that may be lurking, and to leave the place clean for the next guy.
Before starting, put on some rubber gloves. We use disposable nitrile gloves.
As you do your work at the dump station, be aware of what you touch, because even though you are wearing rubber gloves, your gloves will still spread bacteria from one item to another.
At the end, when you take the first glove off, peel it back from the wrist to your fingertips so it turns inside out. Then peel the second glove off the same way while holding the fingertips so the second one rolls inside out into the first one in one unit. This keeps your hands from touching the exterior of the gloves. Then dispose of them properly.
(2) We connect a clear plastic elbow to our sewer hose so we can see what is coming out of the tanks. It’s not the prettiest picture, but this way we know the status as we go through the dump process.
(3) Before connecting our fresh water hose to the potable water spigot, we spray the nozzle of the water spigot with Clorox bleach spray.
(4) At the RV park, keep the black and grey tank valves closed. This keeps the liquids in the black tank and prevents the solids from drying out and getting stuck to the bottom and sides of the tank. It also prevents odors from the sewer to creep up into the rig via the sink.
(5) When flushing the black tank (about every 4-6 days or so at the RV park, or when at the RV dump), flush it first and flush the grey tank afterwards to clear the sewer pipes and hose of any black tank solids.
(6) At the RV dump, after the black tank is completely empty, we use a five gallon bucket to pour a pail of water directly down the toilet into the holding tank below. This removes any solids that are stuck to the bottom of the tank under the toilet. Usually two buckets is all that’s necessary for the water to run clear, although occasionally we need to dump in a third bucket. If you have a window in your toilet room, you can run a hose through the window rather than lugging buckets of water around.
(7) Once you are finished, hose down the whole area so the dump station is clean for the next RVer that comes along.
(8) In general, be courteous to your RVing friends at the RV dump. We find that popular dump stations often have a line of RVs waiting, especially at the end of a weekend. Try not to dawdle. We’ve heard of people taking showers while at the dump station because there is unlimited water and sewer capacity, but lordy, I would not be happy if I rolled up to a dump station and had to wait around for someone ahead of me to finish their shower!!
And where can you find an RV dump station? They are far more common than you might expect: national, state and municipal/regional parks, interstate rest areas, truck stops and RV parks all have them! The best resources for locating an RV dump station are:
Many RV parks and campgrounds allow RVers to dump their tanks in a site for free, usually about 25% to 50% of the cost of staying for a full night. Many of these places are listed in the above links. Of course, most folks figure that if you’re going to pay $10 to dump the tanks, why not spend $30 and spend the night at the RV park or campground as well!
TIPS FOR REMOVING DISPOSABLE RUBBER GLOVES
Thin rubber gloves fit fairly tightly on your hands and they can’t easily be pulled off by the fingers the way ordinary gardening or cold weather gloves can. Also, to be totally sanitary about things, it is best not to touch the outside of the gloves with bare hands after the dirty deed at the dump station is done.
Here’s an easy way to pull the gloves off by peeling one glove most of the way off one hand and then peeling the other off and over the first glove, leaving you with a neat little bundle where all the yucky stuff is on the inside:
WHERE TO DISPOSE OF DISPOSABLE RUBBER GLOVES
When we first started RVing, we saw tons of folks at RV dump stations using their bare hands. Fortunately, this article and others have encouraged people to protect themselves against lurking pathogens by using disposable rubber gloves.
However, we’ve begun to notice used disposable gloves lying around dump stations on the ground, in the grate and in the nearby bushes because folks just drop them after taking them off instead of throwing them in an appropriate trash container.
I’m not kidding!
After removing the gloves, please dispose of them properly. There may be a trash can at the RV dump station. If there isn’t, please put them in your own trash rather than throwing them on the ground or in the grate of the dump station!!
HOLDING TANK TREATMENT PRODUCTS
There are a ton of RV and boat holding tank treatment products on the market, and some of them are extremely damaging to the environment. Many are made with various forms of formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals.
If you remember high school biology class and those gruesome dissections of fetal pigs, dogfish and other critters, you might remember that formaldehyde was the putrid smelling chemical that was used to preserve the carcasses. Formaldehyde isn’t the only toxic chemical used in RV holding tank treatment products. Some products are made with different types of embalming fluids.
The idea behind using preservative and embalming chemicals on dead organic matter is to remove the stinky odor.
But do you really want the contents of your holding tank to be preserved?
It might be okay to preserve that stuff a long long time if it didn’t go anywhere, but what about the sewer system or septic tank that the holding tank’s contents are being transferred into when you dump them?
We have come across RV dump stations that were closed due to poisoning of the septic field and damage to the ground water supply caused by toxic RV holding tank chemicals.
The states of California and Arizona as well as the EPA have issued warnings about the use of those chemicals in RV holding tanks. California has considered banning their use all together.
For reference, here are a few links with more info about the environmental impact of toxic RV and boat holding tank chemicals:
- University of Arizona evaluation of RV holding tank products
- EPA warning regarding toxic RV/boat holding tank products
- A comparison of RV holding tank products by RVPro.com
As responsible RVers, I think it is in all of our best interests if we use chemicals that won’t pollute our ground water supply.
The demo was pretty convincing. Two identical glass jars were filled with dog food, balled up toilet paper and water. One was beautifully preserved by a formaldehyde-based holding tank treatment product. The other was reduced to mush by RV Digest-It.
How did that happen?
RV Digest-It is an enzyme and bacteria based solution. The enzymes break down the solids in the tank, and the bacteria eat them up. What’s very cool is that, over time, the bacteria colonize in the holding tanks, and they continue working away, munching on the goodies in the tank and digesting them. They climb the walls and nibble on what’s there, keeping the walls of the tank clean and helping the tank level monitoring system perform better.
Another excellent environmentally friendly product that we use is Happy Campers Toilet Treatment. This is a powder product rather than a liquid. We have had equal success with both products.
This difference between these two products are the following:
- Nothing on label about danger if ingested
- Does not work well in very hot or very cold temps
Happy Campers Toilet Treatment
- Harmful if ingested
- Works well in all temperatures
RV Digest-It and Happy Campers are not the only enzyme-bacteria based holding tank product on the market. They’re just the ones we’ve used in both our trailer and our boat.
These may be just as good, we just don’t have personal experience with them.
Unfortunately, RV Digest-It and Happy Campers are not carried at many RV or boating supply stores, or Camping World, West Marine or Walmart. When we find one or the other, we stock up. Fortunately, they are available at Amazon.
HOLDING TANK CLOGS
Almost all black tank clogs are due to wadded up toilet paper. Most enzyme-bacteria based holding tank products claim to be able to break down even the thickest toilet papers. If you aren’t sure whether you can trust that claim, one way to avoid toilet paper clogs is to buy special RV (or marine) toilet paper.
We like the plush stuff, and we don’t want to test whether the bacteria like to dine on Quilted Northern, so we have opted, in our little household of two people, not to put our toilet paper down the toilet and into the holding tank. It sounds disgusting, I know. But it would be a lot more disgusting to have to fix a clogged black tank!
In our trailer, we find we have an overabundance of plastic supermarket shopping bags. Rather than toss them out, we put our soiled TP in a bag, sometimes doubled up, and dispose of the bags daily. Every shopping bag gets used, and there is nothing smelly about it.
Obviously, this is a very personal decision, and not one that’s worth debating if you don’t like the idea. However, I put it out there as something to consider. For us, having lived with holding tanks and funky RV and marine toilets for 7 years, it has worked just fine.
When it comes to freeing an RV holding tank clog, many people swear by Happy Campers Extreme Cleaner. We haven’t used it because we haven’t had a clog that bad, but if your tank is clogged up, give it a try!
Over time, the grey and black tank gate valves may begin to leak a little bit from debris getting caught and preventing the valves from closing completely. When this happens, you get a nasty little surprise at the RV dump when you first take the cap off the sewer line — a small bit black or grey water dribbles out. Having a bucket ready to catch that stuff is helpful, but it’s still messy.
One easy way to deal with this is to install an inexpensive Valterra T-58 twist-on gate valve. This screws onto the sewer opening the same way the sewer hose does and provides a final opening and closing valve to catch the dribble.
Screw on the twist-on valve and keep the valve closed until you are ready to dump the tanks. At the RV dump, start by removing the cap off the twist-on gate valve to attach the sewer hose, then open the gate valve to let the dribble out, and then open the grey or black tank valve to begin the dumping process.
IS A COMPOSTING TOILET A GOOD IDEA IN AN RV?
Updated September 30, 2021
There is a growing interest in using composting toilets in RVs and boats instead of conventionally plumbed flushable RV toilets and marine heads, and we have received lots of inquiries from people who want to live an off-the-grid boondocking lifestyle, like we did, asking us if they should install a compost toilet in their RV.
We lived primarily OFF THE GRID in our RV and sailboat for thirteen years
During those years we spent 4,308 night either boondocking or at anchor in our sailboat.
We were very happy using CONVENTIONALLY PLUMBED RV toilets and periodically visiting RV DUMP STATIONS
In our minds, the expense and hassle of replacing a conventional RV toilet with a composting toilet is NOT REQUIRED AT ALL if you wish to live in an RV off grid. So, if you’re on the fence about whether to jump into this project, save your money and avoid the complications of installation until you have lived off the grid in your RV for a while. At that point you will probably have met several fellow RVers who showed you how theirs worked and you will be able to make an informed hands-on decision rather than relying on internet research.
I used to have a long rant here about the questionable practice of dumping the waste from composting toilets into the trash or out in America’s beautiful public lands. The composting toilets I was familiar with at the time did not compost the feces completely by the time the toilet needed to be emptied. It was gloppy and smelly. Also, the frequent dumping of large quantities of urine on public land seemed like a poor way to treat a National Treasure. Running into public bathrooms every few days to dump containers of pee also seemed like an awkward hassle.
Composting toilets have come a long way since then, and a seasoned RVing friend who has lived off the grid for decades recently showed me how her newly installed composting toilet works. I was astonished to see that the feces were fully composted into soil when it was time to empty the toilet. The urine dumping is still an issue, but if you are kind to the land and don’t repeatedly pour it all in one place, future users of your campsite will appreciate it. I’m still not sure about carrying a bucket of pee into a public bathroom stall on a regular basis…
I took step-by-step photos of my friend showing me how she and her hubby care for their composting toilet, and I noted which products they use for effective composting as well as for the avoidance of bug infestations. I will share those photos and their excellent tips and tricks in this space soon.
For us, we still find that dumping our holding tanks at an RV dump station is effortless and painless, and these days we have a conventional RV toilet in our seasonal-use truck camper.
For more information about living in an RV off the grid, see these links:
If you’re a gal and your significant other does the dirty deed at the RV dump station, here are a few ideas for how you can help out.
If you ever experience a failure with your conventional RV toilet, here’s what’s involved in replacing it (an hour’s job).
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