Tuesday, February 03, 2015

RV LifeStyle: Mastering the Sewer Snake - Not Fearing your RV's Waste Tanks

© Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc. All rights reserved
Dump station scene from the movie "RV" Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc. All rights reserved
The RoadAbode Crew love learning about the RVing Lifestyle. For over ten years we've spent plenty of time reading books and researching online about how various people utilize their RVs. However, some of the most fun we've had, has been chatting with other RVers. Whether at an RV show, campground, or rest stop, it's great to swap stories of how we started RVing, places we've been, or tips while using our RVs. When we chat with new RVers or the "RV curious" we try to explain why we love the RVing lifesyle so much and some of the unique challenges of owning a recreation vehicle. Of all the topics discussed when talking with possible or wanna-be RVers, the conversation eventually turns to RoadAbode's "waste management". "Is it messy?" "How often do you have to do it?" How's the toilet work? I have to admit, even when I was researching about and first learning how to do these things with RoadAbode, I was a little nervous. Now that we have been RVing over ten years, it's just a part of the adventure ofowning a motorhome.
So you've seen the rain of poo on Robin Williams in the movie RV. You've heard terms like black tank, grey tank, and gate valve. You've maybe read about the various ways people clean their RV tanks. Sound scary? Sound like lots of work?
It's not. Let's take a look at the parts to the system, how the RoadAbode Crew deals with waste management, some tips to remember, and how others have tried to tackle using the "stinky slinky" sewer hose.

Typical RV System

In the typical RV plumbing system, three tanks can come into play. Fresh tank, holds the fresh (also called "potable") water that you travel with when not hooked up to "city water" at a campsite. Grey and black tanks hold used and waste water in an RV. For simplification  of this post, we will focus on the Black and Grey tanks.
Grey Tank - typically store water from the sinks and the shower of your RV. Though this water is not thought of as "messy", grey tanks can still hold and carry fat solids and small scraps that may go down the drain from the kitchen sink.
Black Tanks - Typically hold what is flushed down your toilet. Some RV manufacturers will also plumb the bathroom sink to the black tank, to add more water to help with breaking down it's contents.
Amazon Valterra Sewer Hose
Valterra Sewer Hose
Thankfully, my first dumping experience was not like something out of the movie RV .I had read enough online and in a few books that I had a pretty good handle on how to do it. That first time had some trepidation behind it. RoadAbode IS a previous rental, so what was possibly coming out of our black tank the first time dumping was not of our own making .  We were given a First RV Welcome Kit when we competed the purchase of RoadAbode. It consisted of a sewer hose, a rubber "donut", a white water hose, and a pack of "RV" toilet paper. I don't know what happened to that brown sewer hose, but we never used it. It was just an expandable, thin walled, accordion-like brown tube. With no ends.

What We First Bought

RoadAbode's Flush King
Our well used Flush King
Since we first bought RoadAbode in late fall over ten years ago, I had time over the winter to make some purchases and do reading so that I felt more comfortable with the business end(s) of our sewer hose. We bought a ValterraEZ Coupler 10' Drain Hose Kit and a second section of matching red 10' Extension Hose. This gave us twenty feet of sewer hose when connected together to reach either our on-site sewer connector, or when at a dump station. Ten feet is usually enough, but in the past ten years there have been quite a few occasions where we needed a longer hose because our connections were further forward or backward of RoadAbode on our campsite. We also purchased and regularly use a Flush King. The Flush King is a clear elbow joint sewer connector with an extra gate valve on it and a water hose connection. The Flush King connects between RoadAbode's sewer outlet and the sewer hose. This allows us to back-flush either black or grey tanks, and also rinse out real well the sewer hose without having to disconnect.. The last part of our sewer kit to dump is a grey water hose to back-flush the tank. It connects from the campground water connection to the Flush King. Since the Flush King is clear, it allows us to see if the the water is running clear, meaning the tank is empty of most solids.
Our "Sewer Kit"

What We Have Now

I guess our process and the equipment we use pretty much works. Sewer kit wise, I've only replaced two items. One - the rubber "doughnut" gasket that I lost one weekend. It's job is to seals odors when the Sewer connector is not a perfect fit to the Sewer intake pipe at a campground. I left it somewhere in Lancaster PA I think. The second item replaced was our main Valterra sewer hose, which was developing a few pin holes after several years of use. I replaced it with a newer heavy duty RhinoFLEX sewer hose. The RhinoFLEX is made of thicker material, and has a swivel end that's easier to connect. If I had not found the newer RhinoFLEX, I would have gone back to another Valterra "red" hose. I still have the Extension Valterra hose for when I need a longer length. It connects just fine to the RhinoFLEX
RhinoFLEX Hose connected to sewer at a campsite

How we "hookup" for a Weekend

My twenty-something daughter pointed out that "hookup" means a totally different thing to the "young'uns" which I am not getting into here.... for us old RVers it only means connecting to your utilities when pulling into a campsite.
Like many RVers, when we get to a campground, we have a a regular routine we follow. Depending on what hookups we have (and the weather) I usually will connect in this order after leveling RoadAbode:
  • Turn on propane
  • Get out from basement storage our Surge Guard, and plug into the power pedestal
  • Fish out our power plug from it's built in container  and connect to the Surge Guard
  • Make sure the breaker is on on the power pedestal
  • If we have a water connection, I first connect our pressure regulator and secondary faucet connector and hose to RoadAbode's water intake. 
  • If we have cable for TV I also connect that as well since I'm on the "utility side"
  • I DON'T connect the sewer hose. 
But isn't this blog post about sewer connections and waste tanks? Yes, but we'll look at why we don't keep the sewer hose connected while at our site.

Some Things to Remember

Water
Most important thing to put in your RV waste tanks - is water. An RV Sewer system tanks are "holding tanks", they are not a septic system. They are designed to hold the waste until you get to a place you can dump them into a proper septic system, or city treatment system. In our camping season, we always keep a few gallons of water in our tanks. This prevents any effluent from hardening and possibly becoming a blockage in our system.  Septic Systems rely on microbial activity to breakdown waste. If your RV is sitting with lots in the tanks for days in the heat, then maybe you'll need to add something to help with the odor, but use one of the organic based products available.
Why we don't leave the sewer hose connected
The reason we don't keep our sewer hose connected while at our site is twofold. One, it reduces the wear on the hose from sitting out in the sun. UV rays from sunlight will start to make the plastic the hose is made of brittle. Two, we keep the gate vales closed on our sewer connections to let liquids collect. The more "stuff" you dump all at once, the cleaner your tank will be from the suction force of effluent leaving the tank. We only connect the sewer hose when we are ready to dump our waste tanks. We don't usually dump tanks until we are ready to leave our site. In ten years doing week long and weekends in RoadAbode, I've only had to dump the grey tank earlier once.
What we DON'T put in
Don't throw things in the toilet. It's not hard to train your family that the only things that go into the toilet are "what you doo", and toilet paper. And when you do flush, do so with a full toilet bowl of water.
Some campers we talk to seem to put various additives or deodorants in their tanks to keep down smells. Some of these products include formaldehyde or other chemicals that can harm the natural organic processes in the systems they eventually dump into.
What we DO put in
We use two products to combat the smell issues. We do have a 360 Siphon RV Black Tank Vent Cap on our roof that helps keep odor out rather than in while driving down the road and using the toilet.The concept has to do with air pressure equalization between the inside of the tank and outside.  Our black vent cap is the older, 360 "bullet" type and has been on RoadAbode for probably 9 years. What we have on RoadAbode looks like the Camco Cyclone vent.  We do add Happy Campers RV Holding Tank Treatment to our black and grey tanks. The treatment is organic and helps breakdown solids, toilet paper, and kitchen grease. We use Happy Camper so solids won't stick to the tank walls as readily. Using these two products, the RoadAbode Crew has not had an issue with our sewer lines or system smells.
We've also read of families and RV travelers that do not flush their toilet paper, but put in a a bag they keep next to the toilet. That's not for us. Though we do try to use toilet paper conservatively, it's going down the toilet. There is no reason it should not in our opinion.
Freshwater and Waste-water don't mix
I was re-reading and thought that this needed to be addressed. We never allow hoses or tools that we use for Waste water to cross contaminate with our fresh water hoses. The only thing that possibly is used by both is our secondary water faucet that we connect to our water pressure regulator. The faucet we will clean with bleach or sanitizer along with fresh water. I've witnessed a guy take his fresh water hose, disconnect it from his RV, then shove it down inside his sewer hose to rinse it out! Then all his hoses for fresh water and sewer were chucked into the bed of his pickup truck. No way, not doing that. We seperate our fresh water gear and our sewer gear into their own, marked containers. And at least once or more a season we wash out both boxes and clean with bleach and water.
Wear Gloves
Some people don't wear gloves, others do. We always wear gloves when emptying the holding tanks. First, use hand sanitizer, then put on disposable vinyl (I don't like rubber) gloves. Then when everything is done, I dispose of the gloves, use hand sanatizer, and wash my hands. For some that may be overkill. But for me, I know I always nick, scuff up, or somehow slice my hands. So somewhere I always have an opening for an infection to take hold. Don't know what is growing on the hose. I'd rather try to perform my "do diligence".
Sewer and grey water hose ready to empty tanks!
Cleaning Level Indicators
One thing that never seems to work well are the level indicators on the waste tanks. For the RoadAbode Crew, Grey works relatively well, while black will read empty when done dumping, but by the time I hope back inside, the indicator may read a third full. This seems to be a universal problem. The reason is sludge buildup on the sides of the tank that allow the probes in the tank to "complete" a circuit. A way to combat this is simple. Before you leave for your destination, put a cup of dishwasher detergent down the sink or toilet, along with lots of warm water. When you get to your campsite, flush the tank. Fill the tank and flush again. Your indicators should work better. It may take a few times if you have not done before.

Other Ideas

Plenty of people have come up with ideas to "beat" RV sewer issues. Some are great ideas, some are questionable, and some you just have to scratch your head over. Here are some of the interesting and odd ideas in RV sewer use and maintenance:

Ice Cube Method
The Ice Cube Method is the idea that if you want to clean the inside of your black tank, empty in a few bags of ice cubes and drive around. The sloshing action of the ice cubes against the inside of the tanks will scour it clean, and help break up lingering solids. This YouTube Video by The Fit RV pretty much dispels the rumor. As the ice melts, it becomes slippery and diminishes the expected scouring action.

Geo Method
The Geo method found at this link and on many RVing forums is not a bad idea. I just think it's overkill. Perhaps if the RoadAbode Crew boondocked more often and could not flush our black tank with lots of water, the Geo Method of using water softener and bleach would be worth the expense and effort to the RoadAbode Crew. But one of the principles of using the Geo method is to flush full tanks - with lots of water. Having sparkling black tank insides just is not that important to us perhaps.
Sprayer Nozzle method


Inside the Tank Sprayer Method
Tank sprayers have been around for years, and if RoadAbode had come with them installed we would probable use this method to flush our tanks rather than our Flush King. This method of cleansing holding tanks is well grounded in industry for anything from 55 gallon drums to milk trucks. A nozzle with sprayer heads is installed in the side of the holding tank, sometimes more than one nozzle head per tank. The pressure of the water coming into the nozzle head causes it to rotate, rinsing the inside of the tank in the process. Various nozzle manufacturers use different spray patterns, but rely on the same basic idea. This system is great if already installed, but I would not be comfortable climbing under RoadAbode, cutting into my black tank, making sure everything seals watertight, and is connected correctly. For our use, the Flush King works great.

Macerator System
In our previous home, we had a macerator pump installed for our basement toilet. The principle idea works like this; the macerator "purees" what you flush, then pumps it up to the sewer soil pipe to go out of the house. The same applies for RV macerators. From my reading, this also come in handy for people that want to dump at home but don't have a convenient soil pipe opening or septic tank opening to connect their sewer hose to.  The macerator, since it liquefies everything, does not need a big sewer hose. it can pump the effluent through a regular garden hose. Again, for the RoadAbode Crew this seems like a lot of work Also, how do you keep the garden hose from flopping out of the toilet?

Composting Toilet
One of our favorite RV Lifestyle bloggers, The Wynns, swear by their composting toilet. It works great for their boondocking travels across the US. I've done the reading and the principle is sound. No black tank to dump, just a poo and peat-moss pail and the separate urine container. The composted material can go in a regular compost pile, or dumpster. The urine needs to be disposed of in a conventional toilet. I'm a gardener, and really, I do like peatmoss. I could see myself using a composting toilet and feeling good that I was being environmentally sound and conservationally minded. Only problem - it's been a hard sell to the ladies of the RoadAbode Crew. If you want to learn more about a composting toilet - Here's what the Wynns have to say

RV Toilet Paper
We've read plenty on the use of "special" RV toilet paper. Other than shrinking what currently is in your wallet we see no use for RV toilet paper. The RoadAbode Crew usually uses whatever single ply paper is on sale. We prefer single ply because it breaks down quicker in water. We've experienced no issues with our black tank or dumping using regular toilet paper in the past ten years.

Pump Out Service
Offered at some campgrounds and special venues like NASCAR or music festivals, Pump out service lets someone else take care of your emptying your holding tanks. Also called a "Honey Wagon" the pump out truck can come while you are away, hook up to your sewer connection, and will pump out your waste. The cost varies on the location or vendor servicing. Sometimes it can be included in the price of your site. The RoadAbode Crew has not used the service yet, and don't see a problem with it. However, I think I'd want to be there when the job is being done so as not to have any issues. Don't want to come back to a broken sewer pipe. I don't knowIi that happens, but not sure how rough someone else would be on RoadAbode's connections compared to myself.

Latest Innovations
A new idea from Lippert Components is called the Waste Master. The system features a cam lock which replaces the traditional bayonet fittings. Industrial grade cam locks have been used in the liquid transportation industry to transfer things like fuel, so the hose simply pushes in and locks down. According to Lippert the Waste Master system doesn't require twisting, which eventually weakens other hoses systems. Lippert features a adapter that connects a cam connector to the old bayonet connector and stays on your RV Sewer Connector
Lippert Components Waste  Master System
 Traditional septic hoses trap debris between the crevices of the hose, the Waste Master hose is smoother, limiting the ability to trap debris. The 5-foot uncompressed UV-protected hose folds out to 20 feet,  The nozzle features a built in  handle for easy grip, and a clear viewing port to make sure that the tank has been emptied.  Besides the handle, the nozzle features a shutoff valve, 90-degree discharge port, and donut that securely fits into most sewage outlets.
The cam lock sounds interesting. I'd like to see one in action. To learn more about this new system from Lippert Components, check their information here

You Can Do This!
There's no reason to fear the Stinky Slinky - The Sewer Snake - RVing Waste Wiggly Worm -  or whatever your kids call your sewer hose. With some planning and following some simple rules, you'll be worrying more about when s'mores time is then about emptying your holding tanks.
Have a tip, or a different way to take care of your holding tanks? Have a question or think we could explain something better? Let us know in the comment area below! Happy RVing!


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