RVing 101: A Guide to RV Septic Systems

Travel trailer setup
••• Keeping your RV septic systems in working condition makes for enjoyable travels. redheadpictures/Cultura/Getty Images

We may not like to talk about it much, but it’s a known fact that an RV’s septic system is one of the most important aspects of the RV as a whole. Without a method of waste disposal, you couldn’t consider an RV a true traveling home. 

People may often refer to an RV’s plumbing and wastewater system as a sewer system, but the only thing an RV has to do with sewers is when it's connected to a sewer hookup that delivers waste straight into an actual sewer system. It’s best to think of an RV’s wastewater system as a septic system. The difference between sewer and septic being that sewers are a large waste management system operated by a local jurisdiction such as a county or city while septic systems are self-contained. Using this definition, an RV’s system is a septic system.​

Basic Components of the RV Septic System

Your particular RV septic system may be simple or more complex, depending on the RV. Let’s look at some of the components of a middle of the road RV septic system to give you an idea of what you have.

  • Black Water or Waste Water Tank: This is the primary component of an RV’s septic system. The black water tank contains all the wastewater that comes from your sink, toilet or shower and all the nasty components that come with it.
  • Gray Water Tank: Does not come on all RVs but are now more popular than ever. The gray water tank is a holding tank for all liquids whose quality is somewhere between your fresh and black water tanks. The gray water tank may receive its water from your sink or shower, i.e. water that doesn’t contain waste products like from your toilet or garbage disposal. Many people are now utilizing their gray water to take or of tasks that don’t need fresh water such as washing dishes or even the RV. Gray water is not potable.
  • Dumping System: Can differ from RV to RV but the idea is the same. You connect a sewer hose to your waste tanks to empty them out into a provided sewer connection or dump station. Some higher-end models may come with pumps to send that waste out but most use gravity.

Tips for Maintaining Your RV Septic System

Now that we know the basic components of the RV septic system, let’s look at some tips on maintaining a healthy RV septic system.

Enzymes and Waste Tank Solutions

Many RVers use enzymes or chemicals to help break down the waste in their RV tanks. These may be man-made or active cultures that will digest the solid wastes inside of a waste tank. Always ensure that whatever waste tank solution you choose is environmentally friendly.

Part of RVing is giving back to the land so don’t give it back loads of harsh chemicals and solvents. A good enzyme solution can help maintain a healthy and not so smelly RV septic system.

Clean Your Tanks

Unfortunately, the process of cleaning out your tanks is too lengthy for this one article. There are some great pointers I can give such as waiting until your waste tanks are at least three-quarters full before emptying, always using protective gear while cleaning out waste water tanks and always flush your black water tank first followed by the gray water tank. Regular flushing, cleaning and sanitizing your tanks is a great way to keep your RV septic system healthy and happy.

This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to your RV’s septic system. Use RV forums or speak with fellow RVers at the grounds to find other tips on learning about and maintaining your particular RV’s septic system. A happy septic system will mean a much happier you on and off the road. Learn the ins and outs of your RV’s septic system, learn how to maintain it, and you’ll get the most out of it for the lifetime of your recreational vehicle.