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Time to Flush out the Truth: Here's How RV Toilets Work

Time to Flush out the Truth: Here's How RV Toilets Work

As an enthusiastic RV owner, you’re sure to love the outdoors, but probably aren’t too keen on finding dense brush every time nature calls. Fortunately, most recreational vehicles have come equipped with a toilet for more than a century, but that wasn’t always the case.


Prior to 1910, “auto campers” provided Americans the opportunity to travel out yonder, but with considerably fewer comforts than we’ve become accustomed to. In 1911, the first camper van with a bathroom on-board (Pierce-Arrow “Touring Landau”) was revealed in Madison Square Garden; boasting a chamber pot system just a few mechanical upgrades away from the technology we use today.


Photo Credit: Town & Country Magazine


Although there are variations on modern-day RV toilets, they all lead to waste collection in a black water tank.


There are three standard holding tanks; the first is the fresh water tank inside the cabin, which holds clean water for drinking, washing, brushing teeth and flushing.


The second is the gray water tank, which holds everything that drains from the kitchen sink, bathroom sink and shower.


And the third is the black water tank, which holds what you flush down the toilet.


The gray and black tanks can store slightly more than the fresh tank, to account for the matter added to the dirty water. RV septic systems are durable; however, paper towel, feminine hygiene products, dental floss, and even thick, two-ply toilet paper can wreak absolute havoc. Keep it natural, folks!  


Photo Credit: Gear Junkie


Gravity plays a central role in toilet systems, but technology like motor-powered blades and vacuum pumps can enhance performance and efficiency.


The traditional gravity flush toilet drops the contents into a large holding tank, positioned directly over the black water tank. Macerating flush toilets use high-powered blades to turn waste in a viscous slurry — resulting in a fluid that flows easily during tank emptying. Vacuum flush toilets powerfully pull the bowl contents through a stored vacuum vessel and macerating pump, before being stored in the black water tank. Like macerating toilets, this technology allows the toilet and waste tank to be positioned apart from each other.


Septic emptying and sanitation of the black water tank are essential for gravity, macerating and vacuum flush toilets — learn more about the specific maintenance for your model in RV forums or in your owner’s manual.


Simpler systems, including cassette and portable toilets, are designed for small camper vans, where the bowl sits directly overtop a removable waste tank and requires frequent manual emptying into a standard toilet or at a disposal station.


Photo Credit: Gone With The Wynns


As a lover of the great outdoors, you can take your environmental responsibility one step further by using eco-safe tank treatment liquids, enzyme additives and dissolvable tabs when sanitizing your black water tank. Gravity flush, cassette and portable toilets don’t rely on electricity to function and all RV toilets use considerably less water than home-based facilities.


Owning an RV isn’t always a breath of fresh air, but knowledge and maintenance are key.


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