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Like a vicious snake waiting to snag you with poison-tipped fangs, the RV sewer system can prove challenging, educational, - and deadly. First time RVers should expect the worse, and prepare for a lesss troublesome experience.

So, you're a first time RV owner and sure, you've heard horror stories about dealing with unrelenting sewer tank problems. Afterall, dealing with such a "dirty" subject doesn't exactly fit the vision you had of spending grand vacations in the new buggy on the road across America, right?

But the truth is, self-contained living comes with a price tag, and more than just giving up a few thousand square feet of living space you're accustomed to in your home. If you ask around campgrounds and RV parks, in fact, you'll find most RV owners have a story or two to tell about those problems, most often associated with the RV's holding tank systems.

In most recreational vehicles you have some type of freshwater system, gray water and black water systems and holding tanks. While the term fresh water goes without explanation, gray water represents fresh water that has gone down the drain in the sinks and showers and into a holding tank. Black water, as you might have guessed, comes from the toilet after it is flushed.

While RV parts and appliances wear after years of service, proper care of your holding tanks and water systems can greatly reduce your problems in the long run. Learning what to do and what not to do, and when, is as important as any single aspect of the proper care you dedicate to your system. This is especially true with the black water system/tank.

There's a lot of rules you will learn to live by as a new RV owner, but rule #1 has to be, "remember proper black water tank/system care," and avoid the kinds of problems you don't want to inherit.

We've searched the blogs and articles across the Net for the best advise to get you started in the right direction. Here's some of the best advise we found:

Almost all travel trailers, fifth wheels and motor homes have holding tanks for the fresh, gray and black water. Pop-up tent trailers may only have a small fresh water holding tank and no holding tanks for gray or black water.

The “black” tank holds the waste and water from the toilet. This tank needs to be treated with chemicals to break down the solid waste and to control odors. Pop-up trailers usually use a “cassette” toilet that still needs some chemical treatment to combat odors and break down the waste.

There are special chemicals you should use, especially in the black tank, to reduce odors and the buildup of solids in the tank, which would cause you problems down the road. There are many brands and types on the market, from powder to liquid. Regardless of the type, it is usually recommended (or required by the campground) not to use chemicals that contain formaldehyde, which is a chemical that is harmful to some septic systems.

It is recommended to use the liquid type and and put a little in the gray tank via one of the sinks to help control odors that can come from there. Since the chemicals are also designed to help lubricate the dump valves, this is another reason for putting a little in the gray tank.

Most of the black tank chemicals advertise that 4 ounces will treat a 40-gallon tank, but there are times where you could use more or less than 4 ounces for that 40-gallon tank. Some brands require a “double dose” in hot climates (Arizona in the summer).

If you park your RV in a warm or hot location while not in use, you may want to add water to both black and gray holding tanks occasionally to keep the dump valves from drying out.

The most common additives found in newer holding tank products include tank cleaners, waste digesters, deodorizers, toilet tissue digesters, gauge sensor cleaners, and drain valve lubricants. When shopping for holding tank chemicals, look for products that contain as many of these additives as possible.

The primary function of tank chemicals is to break down waste and remove odors. Older products used formaldehyde to very successfully prevent odors. However, many septic systems can't break it down and it has a nasty habit of killing "good" bacteria. As a result, nearly all campgrounds and dump stations prohibit the draining of formaldehyde into their sewer systems.

A nice, modern alternative is enzyme-based toilet chemicals that use live bacteria to digest odor-causing agents and break down solid waste. They are designed to accelerate the digestion of organic material while maintaining a low environmental impact and low toxicity. They do lose effectiveness in temperature and water pH extremes, however, and for best results they should be introduced into a totally clean tank.

DOs and DON'Ts
Holding tanks don't rely on mechanical devices for their trouble free operation. The most common problem unpleasant one - clogging. You can minimize the chances of clogging by keeping the following considerations in mind:

Keep the black water tank knife valve tank to at least 3/4 full before draining. Be sure to cover the tank bottom with water after draining.
Use only toilet tissue formulated for tank or RV sanitation systems.
Keep both knife valves closed and locked, and the drain cap tightly in place when using the system on the road.
Use only cleaners that are approved for use in septic tank or RV sanitation systems.
Use a special holding tank deodorant chemical approved for septic tank systems in the black water holding tank. These chemicals aid the breakdown of solid wastes and make the system much more pleasant to use.
Do not put facial tissue, paper, ethylene glycol based or other automotive antifreeze, sanitary napkins or household toilet cleaners in the holding tanks.
Do not put anything solid in either tank that could scratch or puncture the tank.
If the drain system does get clogged:
Use a hand-operated probe to loosen stubborn accumulations. Seriously clogged P-traps may require disassembly. Be careful not to over tighten when reassembling.
Do not use harsh household drain cleaners.
Do not use motorized drain augers.

Sometimes the holding tank valve will get clogged. In this case, a hand-operated auger may be necessary. Be ready to close the valve quickly once the clog is cleared. If the seal gets damaged, it is easily replaced.

When you arrive at your destination, you can go ahead and hook up the sewer hose to the RV and to the dump hookup if you like (or you can wait and do it when you need to dump), but leave the dump valves closed until you need to dump the tanks. This will do a couple things. First, it will prevent odors from the campground sewer system from backing up into your RV. Second, it will give the chemicals in the tanks a chance to do their job.

Happy RVing.
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