RV Toilets: Everything You Need to Know
Written by Carolyn Jackson
Bathroom stuff. The stuff no one likes to talk about. But when you are living life on the road, it’s a critical question! RV toilets offer convenience, comfort, and privacy when traveling. And when you own or rent your RV, you need to know a few things about how RV toilets work and what to do when they don’t.
Don’t worry, we’ve put together a guide for RV toilets and everything you need to know. A few of the key things we’ll discuss are some of the most frequently asked questions about RV toilets, like: How do they work? How to unclog an RV toilet, What type of toilet paper to use, plus more!
Are you looking for other helpful guides? Check out our Tips for First Time RV Buyers guide. Planning to hit the road with the family for a summer road trip? We’ve got the Top 10 RV Games to Play on the Road with Your Family!
- There are six types of RV toilets available, each with its pros and cons.
- The process for unclogging an RV toilet is different from unclogging a conventional toilet you’d find in a home or business.
- RV-specific toilet paper is necessary for RV toilets
Table of Contents
How RV Toilets Work
It’s best to start at the beginning. How does an RV toilet work anyway? Is it the same as a regular old ‘house’ toilet? The answer is yes and no. RV toilets are an efficient and smart way to bring a touch of luxury to a typically more humble situation.
There are six types of RV toilets currently on the market:
1. Traditional Gravity Flush
This toilet is the most familiar on the list. It functions much like a toilet you’d find in an American home, business, or hotel. The main difference is that it does not have a water holding tank (the back part of traditional toilets where the lid comes off). Because there is no water reservoir connected to the toilet, gravity flush toilets can only be used when connected to an external water supply or when the RV holding tank’s water pump is on.
2. Macerating Flush
Have you ever heard of macerated fruit? If not, it means pulverized. A macerating flush toilet has motor-powered blades that break up the waste and paper before its sent to the holding tank (black water tank). This process decreases the likelihood of clogs and maintenance for both the toilet and the black water tank.
A vacuum flush is an added feature, usually to a macerating toilet, that adds suction to help remove the bowl’s contents. The suction from the vacuum feature helps to liquefy any solid waste or paper.
Most notably, composting toilets do not require any water. They also separate solids and liquids. You will need to change the bowl of a composting toilet reasonably frequently. They do not smell when appropriately maintained, and many RVers who use composting toilets add a fan that blows air to the outside of the RV.
5. Portable Toilet
A portable toilet produces raw sewage as it does not pump the waste to a tank. Portable toilets are great because they are, well, portable and super easy to install. However, you do have to dump the waste manually frequently, and they tend to smell.
6. Cassette Toilet
Cassette toilets are permanent toilets with a detached, portable black tank. The removable black tank is the main benefit of a cassette toilet as you can easily transport it to a safe dumping site. These toilets work well in smaller RVs like a Class B.
RV Water Tanks
RV toilets and RV water tanks go hand in hand. Most toilets listed above require some water source. And if you expect your RV’s toilet to look and function like a “regular” toilet, it will need some water.
Most RVs have three separate water tanks:
- Freshwater Tank — supplies water to your sinks, shower, and toilet
- Gray Water Tank — holds wastewater from the kitchen and bathroom sinks/shower
- Black Water Tank — holds wastewater from the toilet
The size of these tanks varies based on the size and capacity of the RV. The tank sizes are usually listed in the details when you search for an RV on a dealer or manufacturer’s website.
Flushing an RV Toilet
Unlike the traditional handle on the back of the toilet (the water reservoir that doesn’t exist on an RV toilet) or the button on the top of the toilet’s back (again, it doesn’t exist!), RV toilets are usually flushed with a foot pedal. Pressing this pedal tells the fresh water tank to provide water to the toilet bowl and open the flap at the bow’s bottom. The waste and water are flushed into the black water tank, usually found under the RV. When you release the pedal with your foot, the opening to the black water tank will close, eliminating any odors.
Now that we’ve covered some of the RV toilet basics let dig into some more practical questions about them.
How to Unclog an RV Toilet?
It happens to the best of us. The dreaded double flush, triple flush, even quadruple flush still doesn’t get the job done. You’ve got yourself a clogged toilet.
Clogged toilets are a reality of life on the road. Whether you are renting, taking weekend trips in your RV, or live in one full-time, the odds that you will encounter a clogged RV toilet is pretty good. So learning how to unclog an RV toilet before it happens will make everyone a happier camper when the inevitable finally happens.
Here are some basic steps to unclog an RV toilet:
Method 1: Long, Flexible Toilet Wand
Using a long and flexible toilet wand, you can try to break up the clog and move on with your day. Some wands even come with a water connection, so you can spray water directly into the pipe with high pressure to break up the clog. We recommend every RVer with a toilet has one of these wands on hand!
Method 2: Boiling Water
A second method is to open the toilet valve and pour several pots of boiling water down the toilet and into the tank. The hot water should sit overnight or at least for a few hours. You can even drive around to let the water mix in. The theory is that the hot water will break up any toilet paper or unmentionables stuck in the pipes and have caused the clog. After waiting a decent amount of time, add more water and continue flushing to move the clog out of the pipes. If this method doesn’t work the first time, try it a few more times before moving on to another option.
Method 3: Chemicals
A third popular unclogging method is to utilize store-bought chemicals to break up the clog. If you choose this route, make sure the chemical de-clogger you choose is septic safe. Thetford Tissue Digester is a popular option, but most chemicals designed to de-clog and are septic safe will work fine. The best way to apply the chemical to the tank is to fill the toilet half full with water. Add the chemicals and let them sit in the toilet. Flush the toilet after a few hours. Let it sit in the tank. Drive around to mix it up.
Avoid Clogging Your RV Toilet
A better solution to fixing a clogged toilet might be actively trying not to clog it. Although there are no guarantees, there are a few proactive steps you can take to lessen the risk of encountering a clog:
- Use the right toilet paper
- Septic safe toilet paper is a must
- Flush more often
- Use less paper and more water
- Water is key to ensuring unclogged pipes
- Use chemicals to de-clog the pipes regularly
- Tissue digester, probe cleaner, or blue max drop-in packets can keep your tank smelling fresh and flushing with ease.
- Do not leave your black tank valve open except when dumping.
- Leaving the valve open means there will not be enough water in the tank to soften the waste, increasing the chances of a clog.
How to Clean an RV Toilet
Toilets are inherently gross, but they still need a good cleaning every so often. Cleaning your RV toilet is pretty much like cleaning a regular toilet, with a few minor differences. First, RV toilets are usually made of a different material than your at-home toilet. Therefore, you should be extra cautious about what materials you use to clean with. We recommend avoiding any harsh chemicals like bleach or chlorine. These chemicals can break down the soft plastic or porcelain many RV toilets are made from. Instead, opt for a natural cleanser, or even better, one made specifically for RV toilets such as this one.
The best advice for how to clean an RV toilet is to wear gloves. The only way to get a toilet bowl looking sparkly and new is a little elbow grease. Just take a cleaner, a silicone brush, and go to town.
How to Empty the Black Water Tank
Besides cleaning your RV toilet, you will likely need to regularly empty the black water tank to ensure it does not overflow or back up. This could be disastrous! No one wants raw sewage backed up into their bathroom. Fortunately, emptying your black water tank (where sewage is stored) isn’t as bad as you might think and only takes a few steps.
Step 1: Find a dump site and connect your hose from the black water tank to the dump site’s hookup
- Use a designated hose for dumping your black water tank. E.g., do not use the same hose for gray or freshwater transfer.
- Make a habit of dumping your black water tank when it’s ⅔ full. It can be fuller, but not less. There needs to be enough water in the tank to suspend the solid matter to drain out.
- Keep the valve closed when the hose is hooked up at an RV site.
- If you keep it open, the water will flow out, and the solid matter will get stuck and dry up, causing problems.
Step 2: Help move the waste along
As much as we’d like it to, the waste doesn’t always easily flow to the tank, and there can be build-up in the pipes and tank itself that you need to help flush into the dumpsite. There are a few tools available for this process:
- A macerator: sometimes built-in to RV toilets, a macerator is a system that shoots high-pressure water into the pipe and black water tank to clear build-up and pulverize any solids, helping everything have a similar liquid consistency, so it flows easily when dumping.
- A flush valve: this handy gadget allows you to “backflush” your RV toilet and black water tank to remove build-up and help break down any solids. Essentially, you hook up a garden hose to this tool, and it blasts water from the outside hose hookup for the black water tank into the toilet bowl, breaking anything up.
- A tank rinser: another option is a tank rinser wand. The linked option is a stand-alone wand you would bring out and use when you clean the tank and toilet, but there are some options for built-in rinsers, too. Essentially, this is a long wand that shoots high-pressure water down from your toilet down into the pipes and black water tank to dislodge any clogs, debris and to break up solids.
Step 3: Add water back into the black water tank
Water is your friend. After you’ve successfully cleaned and drained the black water tank, you need to add water back into it so that no waste sits on the bottom and creates clogs. All you need to do to refill the tank is flush your toilet 4 or 5 times until the bottom of the black water tank is fully covered with water. Easy!
Step 4: Treat the black water tank after dumping, rinsing, and refilling
Now you can treat the tank. Treating your black water tank helps decrease odors and minimize the risk of clogs by breaking up solids and waste. RV black water tank treatments are usually in liquid form, powder form, or drop-in tablet form. Either works fine! Some RVers prefer the tablets because they are spill-proof and pre-measured.
Can You Use Regular Toilet Paper in an RV Toilet
Is it really necessary to use RV-specific toilet paper? Well, yes — if you want to flush the toilet paper. If you don’t mind throwing the toilet paper in the garbage and disposing of it this way, then you can use whatever paper you want. However, we highly recommend using RV-specific toilet paper if you’re going to flush it into the toilet. RV toilet systems have to work hard to break down any solid waste. Toilet paper can easily cause blockages and clogs, which can be time-consuming and costly to fix. No one likes cleaning a clogged toilet.
RV-specific toilet paper is designed to disintegrate quickly so it will not cause clogs or backups. All RV-specific toilet paper is designed with this in mind, so any brand should be a safe option for any RV toilet.
You can find RV toilet paper at most camping and outdoor stores, but you can also buy it online. Some common RV toilet paper brands include:
- Scott Rapid Dissolve Bath Tissue Made for RVs and Boats
- Freedom Living RV Toilet Paper
- Firebelly Outfitters RV Toilet Paper
- Thetford AquaSoft Toilet Tissue — Specifically for RV and Marine Sanitation Systems
- StarBrite Toilet Tissue — Marine/RV Grade Fast Dissolving
- Camper’s Choice Toilet Tissue
RV toilets are one of the most underrated parts of an RV. A portable toilet that goes almost anywhere with you? That’s awesome! Although we tend to turn up our nose (literally and figuratively) at bathroom stuff, sometimes we need to talk about it. A significant takeaway from talking toilets is that you need to understand how your RV toilets work and keep them working via maintenance and minor fixes. Hopefully, this article provided some helpful insight on how to do just that.
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