It’s no headline that clean, fresh, potable water is critical to maintaining a safe and healthy lifestyle — and that sourcing it can sometimes prove problematic for travelers. (Ever heard of Montezuma’s revenge?)
Fortunately for RV campers, clean water is part of the deal. Most mid-sized or larger campers include fresh- and wastewater tanks, which allow travelers to carry around an entire plumbing system along for the ride, no matter where they’re headed.
But your RV water system is only as good as your commitment to sanitation. After all, if you’ve got algae or fungus growing on your tank walls, you might as well be taking your chances with the nearby stream. (Well, maybe not quite… but you catch my drift!)
That’s why in this post, we’re going to walk you through some basics: how does your RV plumbing system work, what are its major components, and how do you ensure it stays clean and in good, working operation?
Here’s what you need to know.
How Do RV Water Systems Work?
An RV’s water system basically revolves around three separate holding tanks: potable water, black water, and gray water.
Your potable water tank is just that. It holds fresh, clean, drinkable water that is pumped through your RV’s faucets, shower, and toilet.
Gray water is wastewater that’s drained from the kitchen and bathroom sinks as well as the shower. In other words, it’s relatively clean wastewater that usually includes little more than some soap and maybe dietary grease. (It’s even legal to drain directly onto the ground in some states — although we don’t recommend that!)
Finally, there’s black water, which does live up to its somewhat scary name. In short, it’s whatever you flush down the toilet, and must always be drained into a sewer system at an RV-compatible dump site.
These three tanks are maintained through ports on the outside of your rig, generally nearby to your electrical hookup. Filling the fresh water tank is simple, although you’ll want to ensure you use a white, food-grade hose in order to avoid imparting any funky smells or flavors into your water supply. Draining the wastewater tanks isn’t too difficult, either, and involves attaching a sewer hose and pulling a drain lever before using a spray attachment to clean out the hoses for storage.
Best RV Water Filter System
Some rigs come with a whole RV water filter system already in place, but it’s also possible to add one a la carte after purchase. There are many different brands and types to choose from, which use everything from charcoal as a physical filtration substrate to reverse osmosis and deionization to make sure your water supply is squeaky clean, no matter where you get it from.
If you’re installing an RV water filter system on your own, be sure to check your RV’s plumbing schematic to see where along the water lines it should be inserted. While RV water system designs are generally similar, different rigs do have slightly different setups that require different approaches when adding in extra filters or performing any repair work or replacements.
Cleaning RV Water System
Perhaps the most important part of your RV water system maintenance regimen is cleaning and disinfecting the tanks. Cleaning out the wastewater tanks is important for ensuring you get an accurate read on your water level meters — here’s our quick guide on how to do it.
In this post, we’ll focus on how to clean your RV’s fresh water tank, because this is one of the most vital parts of the system. If you let your tank go too long without a sanitation treatment, you may notice a foul odor or taste in the fresh water coming through your faucets.
Fortunately, it couldn’t be simpler to disinfect your RV’s potable water tank — which is all the more reason you should do so regularly. All you need is a little bit of household bleach!
Here’s how to do it.
1. Drain any water in your freshwater holding tanks completely.
Be sure to remember your hot water tank if you have one, which may require separate draining. However, be sure not to attempt to drain it while it’s hot or under pressure, which might result in injury!
You can turn the water pump on to force any remaining water out, but turn it off as soon as water stops draining in order to avoid damage to the system.
2. Create the bleach mixture.
To sanitize your water tank, we’ll be using a simple mixture of bleach and regular fresh water. Simply mix a quarter cup of bleach for every 15 gallons of your RV’s fresh water tank capacity into regular tap water in a one-gallon bucket. For instance, if you have a 45-gallon fresh water tank, you would simply place 3/4 cup of bleach into the bucket and then top the rest with city water. A little goes a long way!
3. Introduce the bleach mixture into your water system and fill the tanks.
Next, you’ll need to introduce the bleach into the water system. This part’s easy: simply pour the mixture into the tank! Warning: never put straight bleach directly into your RV’s fresh water tank. Doing so could cause damage since bleach is so powerful.
4. Ensure the bleach mixture has thoroughly treated the tank and plumbing lines.
Once you’ve poured the mixture into the tank, continue to fill the tank to capacity with regular, fresh water. After it’s filled, turn on your water pump and run all your interior taps, including your shower, just until you smell the bleach in the water. This ensures that the sanitation will include those inbound pipes.
Now, turn off the taps and the water pump and allow the bleach mixture to sit in your water tank for at least twelve hours. It may also be helpful to drive around to help distribute the mixture evenly around the holding tank walls.
5. Drain the bleachy water.
After you’ve given the system time to get clean and disinfected, drain the tank completely to get rid of the sanitation liquid.
6. Refill the tanks with fresh water.
Next, put in another batch of totally new clean water, filling your tank completely once again.
7. Drain the second batch of water — and now your tanks are clean and ready to go!
Drain the second batch of water, ensuring that you can no longer smell bleach in the drainage liquid. You may need to repeat this step a few times to ensure all the bleach is out of the system — which is very important, since you’ll soon be using this tank to hold water you’ll drink!
After you’re sure the bleach is 100% evacuated, your tank is ready to be filled with potable water for you to use on your next camping trip!
RV Water System Winterization
As a final note, keep in mind that you may need to winterize your water system if you plan on camping in extremely cold temperatures. Otherwise, just as with your regular home’s plumbing system, your pipes may freeze.
There are many ways go to about this, from heating your plumbing system to using special, RV- and marine-safe antifreeze. Since every rig is different, we recommend simply asking your dealer, “How do I winterize my RV water system?” — as taking the wrong approach might necessitate later troubleshooting and repair work.
Stay hydrated, campers!