Apache Camper Blog

  • Published on Aug 24, 2015
    RV Toilet Training 101

    We all remember the movie “RV” and the image of Robin Williams holding a cobbled together sewer hose while trying to empty the tanks on a rental motorhome, with the geyser of waste flying all over.  While this was hilarious on the screen, it is not funny at all in real life. Probably one of the most foreign things on a camper for a new owner is the plumbing system – in particular the toilet and holding tanks. 

    When someone purchases a camper whether new or used, one of the most important items that we cover in their demonstration is the proper usage of the sewer and water system in the camper.  While some consider it to be a laughing matter or something to giggle about, once that toilet or sewer system is plugged up, the tears will start flowing, and people think that there is something wrong with the camper itself, when in reality it was poor practices on their part that caused the problem.

    There are 3 things that are critical in the usage of the sewer system – the proper toilet paper, the best chemical, and most important of all….WATER!!  We will cover all 3 of these items one by one to try to explain the importance of each and how they interact with each other. 


    First up is the chemical.  The word alone brings back flashbacks of chemistry class and mad scientists, but it is the “digester” that is necessary in maintaining not only the odor, but also liquefying the waste.  There are many different kinds of chemical available.  The most common is liquid style, which is my preference.  Each manufacturer has different measurements that they recommend according to the size of the tank.  This is poured through the toilet itself to “charge” the toilet.  After a while, you will be able to nearly “eyeball” the amount when you pour it into the toilet.  The most common chemical liquid or powder form is one that has formaldehyde as a main chemical.  While effective, this chemical is being banned in some states for ecological reasons.

    The next style of chemical is the enzyme/bacteria based.  This can come in either liquid or powder form, and will be non-toxic as well.  This chemical works very well and is one that we include in our starter pack for first time owners.  No worries about children or pets, and this particular type can be used in the grey tank as well as the black tank, and is accepted in all states.  It will also to work to keep the probes free of debris.

    The last type of chemical and one that we see more problems with than others is the powder, packet, or tablet style.  The key to using this style successfully is to use it with one of our other critical items – WATER.  Without enough water, the packet will not dissolve and therefore not work.  When owners use plenty of water with this product it is very effective. This actually applies to the liquid as well.

    There are a few diehards who swear that they can save loads of money by using a homemade concoction for the sewer system.  To this I say beware!  There are chemical reactions that can occur that can be extremely dangerous including flammability and toxic fumes.  Another problem that these budget crunchers have is that they are using a product that can be harmful to the probes in the tank not to mention the valves and seals by being corrosive.  Do yourself and your camper a favor – use recommended products.  The few dollars that you think you are saving will end up costing you tenfold in the long term.

    I actually ran across a forum the other day that had people suggesting septic tank treatments and one owner who swears that you do not need any chemical.  Please disregard these types of thoughts.  These people are using a product not recommended and can void their warranty or end up with thousands in repairs.  The septic product is designed for a completely different purpose, and is not necessary.  The RV chemical that is recommended is designed to control the odor and to liquefy the waste so that dumping is more complete.  The septic system is designed for a closed system, not one that you dump after each filling.  Using no chemical at all is asking for trouble with waste solidifying and lining not only the tank, but also the pipes.  If you can deal with the odor – no problem but you will be replacing that tank within a few years in most cases.  

    The style and brand of chemical you choose is completely up to you – there are new fragrances coming out, convenient one time use sizes, and economy sized containers.  I usually buy the economy size and refill a smaller size that I purchased which will fit in my camper bathroom cabinet more comfortably. 

    Some owners are concerned about the liquid due to the possibility of spilling or for leaking.  After using this product for many years, I have had a couple of drips of course being as graceful as I am, but I have never had a container develop a leak. 

    The key to being successful with any type of chemical is to make sure that there is water in the holding tank BEFORE you add the chemical, and that you add additional water after adding the chemical.  This insures that the liquid or packet doesn’t sit on the bottom of the dry tank – in the case of liquid-without water, the liquid will dry out on the bottom of the tank and be rendered completely useless.  Don’t worry about running out of holding tank space – as I usually tell people, it takes an awful lot of iced tea to fill one tank.

    If, after using the system a while you detect some aromas that remind you of an outhouse –add more.  It won’t hurt anything, and there is the added assurance that the waste is liquefying properly.

    After you have owned your camper long enough, you will have experimented with many different measurements or brands of chemicals.  Once you find the winning formula and product, stick with it.  You should never have that “outhouse” smell again.

    Toilet Paper

    The next topic would be toilet paper – this is probably the simplest thing to understand for anyone – but you would be amazed at how much misinformation there is out there.  Many customers come in and say that they were told that they could use regular toilet paper – the chemical would take care of it.  The other story is that one of their friends said that they use regular TP from home to get more comfort.  One other lady told me that they never flush the toilet paper – that she keeps a trash can by the toilet for tissue disposal.  Totally unnecessary, and kind of unsanitary in my book……

    RV toilet paper has progressed so far since the time when it felt like newspaper or from when it was so thin that you had to use tons of it to accomplish what was needed.  The new toilet papers come in 2-ply, quilted, and extra soft just to mention a few.  The trick to purchasing toilet paper is to pay attention to the number of sheets per roll to tell if the price of the 4 pack is a good deal.  There are some that have as few as 150 sheets per roll to as many as 500 sheets per roll.   You may want to try a few different brands to find one that is agreeable to you and your family. 

    RV toilet paper has the designation that it is bio-degradable.  If it doesn’t say that it is safe for RV/marine usage – don’t buy it. 

    To those people who think that they can cheat and use household toilet paper, I usually tell a cautionary tale of an experiment that we did many years ago that convinced me that I will never use anything other than RV toilet paper or RV chemical in the camper again.

    Our parts manager at that time worked out a formula according the chemical’s instructions to get the proper amount of water and chemical into pop bottles.  We put 1 sheet of RV toilet paper in one bottle, and a common household plush toilet paper in the other bottle with the proper amount of chemical and water.  We showed those pop bottles as an example for a while, and then they were put on the back shelf and forgotten.  About 3 years later, we found the 2 bottles, and the household toilet paper was still floating there.  The RV toilet paper bottle was clear with no residue. This stopped me in my tracks, and made me a true believer. 


    Finally – WATER!!  So far, you know that you need water to activate the chemical in the toilet – now for the proper usage of the toilet with water.  One of the biggest mistakes that owners make is that they “quickie” flush the toilet.  By doing this, you are simply dropping waste into the pipes and possibly the tank with nothing to interact with and no weight to get the waste completely into the tank.

    The simplest way that I can explain the best way to flush the toilet is to remind owners that the toilet in their house has a 2.5 gallon tank behind it which provides the weight needed to flush the waste into the sewer.  Since the RV toilet does not have this tank, you need to re-create that water weight by flushing at least twice the amount of water into the toilet as the amount of waste entered into the system. 

    Black Tank

    The sewer system is a gravity based system, but without the proper amount of water weight behind it, the waste has been known to hang up in the pipes and dry there creating a dry jam.  A dry jam in the plumbing is one of the most difficult to clear, and sometimes not possible to clear at all, requiring total replacement of the pipes and/or tank.

    The importance of all this becomes clear at the dump station.  The more you care for the sewer on the camper both during your stay and prior to your stay, the easier it will be to dump the tanks.  We generally try to use the remainder of our water at the campsite to fill or nearly fill the black tank prior to going to the dump station.  Once we get to the dump station, one of us will go outside to hook up the fittings and the other will be inside flushing the toilet during the dump to keep adding water weight to help with a complete emptying. 

    One other thing that is helpful is that some units are coming pre-equipped with a sewer flush fitting which when hooked up to a city water outlet will force a high stream of water into the tank to aid with clearing the waste. 

    Another system that works well but is a little more unwieldy is the power wand.  This is a stick with a hose fitting on one end which when turned on will force water through the wand and spin little pressure sprayers at the base.  This wand would need to be stuck through the toilet for the rinsing effect.

    If your unit does not have this feature, our service department actually prefers using a “back flush” system on campers that come in with dirty tanks or tanks that are plugged.  This is a simple elbow with a hose fitting that fits on the sewer pipe and is clear.  The benefit with this item is that you are pushing water up from the outside or bottom of the tank clearing any debris by the gate valve and rinsing the tank more completely.  Since it is clear, you can see when you have achieved your goal of cleaning the tank as well as possible.  We usually flush until the water runs clear or nearly clear.  Not the prettiest sight at first but a satisfying one once you see the clear water rushing through the fitting.

    Once we have emptied the tank, we close the valve and add more water to the tank and more chemical for the time that the camper is in storage.  That way the chemical continues to work with any remaining residue during the storage period.  When you are ready to start camping, simply add additional water along with more chemical, and you are ready to go! 

    Well, there you have it – it is a simplistic approach, but one that will work if you stop to think about it. 

    My next entry will be about dump station etiquette.  Should be fun!



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