The glossy magazines and slick manufacturer brochures make the RV life look glamorous and easy. Push a button and voila! What was an 8 foot wide bus converts into a spacious 400-square foot condo complete with a jetted tub and a fireplace. It has a dishwasher! It has a 50-inch TV! It looks like an idyllic life away from the mundane sticks and bricks homes doesn’t it? When Salesman show off a new rv they typically gloss over one critical thing: the sewer system. “…and here’s your water and waste bay,” they say, as they drag you past the wet bay door on the way to the outdoor entertainment center (the exterior TV). The mundane fact of RV life that is buried in all the PR glamour is this—you are going to deal with your poop in a disturbingly intimate way that is unknown to modern humans. If you’re the sensitive type, choose another entry to read today. For the rest of you brave souls, read on!
An RV toilet functions just like your home toilet for the most part. Do your business, flush the toilet and go on your merry way. When you’re attached to a municipal sewer system, you are done after the flush. With your RV toilet you will have to dump your holding tank sooner or later. RVs have three tanks; household water, gray water and a black water tank. Household is the stuff you use for washing, drinking and so forth. Grey water means that which is left over from your more benign activities, like taking showers, washing dishes and brushing your teeth. Black water is— well, good old numbers 1 & 2. It’s the 1 & 2 from you, your loved ones and the occasional guest that you must elimiate a second time. The RV sanitary system is theoretically simple. A big tank with an in valve and an out valve. Fill it up and dump it out from time to time. Easy peasy, right?
If you do an internet search for terms like RV toilet, dump tank, or RV sewer you will hit on millions of You Tube channels, discussion forums, support groups and websites devoted to some version of how to manage an RV sanitary system. The thing is, poop likes to hang with its brethren and dislikes being broken up. The tank construction is wider than it is deep. Deposits drop straight into the flat tank. Obvious trouble spots are the narrow pipes leading into and out of the tank. There are dozens of recipes for concoctions you dump down your toilet that are guaranteed to bust up whatever big wad of goo is stuck in the bottom of the tank. There are all kinds of gadgets with sprayers and back flow valves you can get to dislodge stubborn clumps of whatever, including clear plastic connectors so that you can watch your poo clumps as they go by on the way to the sewer. I know all this because my husband Ben does battle with our sewer tank the same way the father from the movie A Christmas Story battles with his furnace. It’s a sure bet that on most trips at some point Ben will stalk up to me and growl “we have a big problem” before heading out to suit up with rubber gloves, a hose, Dawn dish detergent and Calgon water softener.
There is one problem that is the most dreaded of all though, and that is the Giant Poop Pyramid. Due to the way poop lands in the tank, there is a tendency for it to want to recreate its own little replica of a Mayan temple in the bottom of the tank, directly under the toilet pipe. This is prone to occur if you are stationary for a long period of time, since moving promotes sloshing, and not moving—doesn’t. Ignore this situation at your peril. Once such a temple has developed, it is exceedingly difficult to eradicate, unlike the real Mayans who seem to have disappeared quite easily.
We have survived most all poop catastrophes with only minor collateral damage, but many of our fellow travelers have not been so fortunate. People try to back flush their tanks and the resultant goo has shot out the top of the plumbing stack like a foul chocolate fountain over the roof of their RV. The toilet can back up and flood (that’s the Giant Poop Pyramid problem) and will occasionally back up into the sink. The bad stuff that happens inside the RV sounds epic, but outdoor mishaps are far more common. On the outside, hoses pop off or rupture mid-dump, requiring a lot of bravery on the part of the dumpee to leap in and deal with the ick. Since outside is the direction one wants the poo to go, the outer fittings are where the action is.
A couple days ago I was returning from a dog walk when I saw Ben and our friend Paul bent over our wet bay and peering at the various levers. and valves. Friends, that is never a good sign. Gumbo and I walked over to investigate. Sweaty and frustrated, Ben looked like a disheveled mad scientist in his black rubber gloves. “We have a big problem,” he growled. The tank wouldn’t drain, a sure sign that there was a clog. I’ve learned that in such situations it’s best to step away, so Gumbo and I went in the RV. On Ben’s computer was a page titled “Help! I opened the drain valve and nothing happened.” Minutes later Paul and Ben piled into the Subaru and took off. About 45 minutes later they returned, and I stepped out to watch—with my camera. It’s my job to be a supportive wife.
They had purchased an attachment with a hose connection that allowed you to pump water from the outside into the tank pipe, presumably to backflush any clogs. If you read the above paragraphs you already know this method is not without its risks. They hooked up the part and turned on the water. Nothing much happened at first, and then there was some gurgling that prompted me to take a few paces back. The next step was to take off the part, but there would be some leakage to deal with. A bucket was procured, and the part released with a minor amount of eww. Then, the moment of truth. Ben hooked up the sewer hose and opened the valve. Dear reader, the constipated tank burped and released a clog of monumental proportions. Success! There were no photo ops, but that wasn’t a bad thing at all.
Later that afternoon, Ben came in from cleaning up. The aftermath of theses scenes is a lot like the end of an episode of Wagon Train, where the hero comes in to see the little woman after a fierce ranch war, tired but victorious. “I was really worried about that clog,” he said, “It could have been expensive.” I put my arm around his waist. “It’s a good thing you knew what to do dear. Are you ready for supper?” Cue the sunset and closing music.
Epilogue: There may be some of you who are more interested in the actual mechanics of dumping your RV. Here’s an excellent blog entry about just that: The Winnebago life RV and Poop.