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Peeeuuuw! What is that smell? Managing your RV Holding Tanks


As sure as death and taxes, when the weather heats up the recreational vehicle forums are filled with posts about the awful smell emanating from the RV holding tanks.

I am just starting my 4th year of full time living in my National Dolphin 32D. The last 2 years have been on mostly remote job sites all over Texas – you can read plenty about that in previous blog posts. I can tell you most definitely that I do not care for the smell of raw sewage inside the Old Girl. So what do I do about that smell when the outside temps are 100+ for days on end?

Lets’ dispel some myths, misinformation and wive’s tales about the black and gray tanks to start with.

A healthy septic system uses bacteria to digest the solids and then the ‘clear’ water is dispersed via field line or sprinklers to be absorbed by the soil. Your RV holding tanks are not a septic system. They are holding tanks — just like a chamber pot. There is no need to add any products that promote bacteria growth like Rid X.  The one exception is when I am dumping into a newly installed septic system, I will inoculate it with Rid X to jump start the bacteria.

Every holding tank deodorant/sanitizer I have ever seen does more harm than good. Many contain formaldehyde which will kill a septic system dead. Have you ever been in a Porta John during the heat of a summer? That smell of raw sewage and heavy chemicals just nauseates me. If you want that identical blue water type smell, add some of those RV holding tank chemicals.

Management of your RV holding tanks starts with the manner in which you dump and clean them. The black water tank needs to be dumped only when full. It will actually stay cleaner that way because no dried crud is allowed to form on the walls. You should also use a tank washer each time you dump the black tank to clean the walls of anything clinging to them.

Ok, so you say you do that and your tanks still smell to high heaven?   Do what I have been doing for years and use the safe GEO method introduced by Charles Bruni.  It uses water softener, detergent and bleach.  Each and every one of these safe household chemicals will not harm your septic tank and will eliminate the odors and keep your tank clean.  The GEO method is simply this:

This stuff is amazing and it works. Buy a couple of boxes of powdered water softener at the grocery store. You’ll find it located with or near the laundry detergent products. I prefer Calgon Water Softener because it dissolves quickly in water. Cheaper water softeners work just as well but dissolve more slowly. Dissolve two (2) cups of the water softener in a gallon of hot water. Then, pour the solution down the drain into the empty tank. Use two cups of softener for each wastewater tank in your RV. The tank’s drain valve should be closed otherwise the softened water will just drain out. Then use the tank(s) normally until it is full and drain it normally. Add a cup of laundry detergent to the black (commode) water tank at the same time you add water softener. This will help clean the tank. The gray water tanks should already contain soap through normal use.   Water softener makes the solid waste let go from the sides of the tanks. If you’ve ever taken a shower in softened water you know that after rinsing the soap from your body your skin will feel slick. That’s because all the soap rinses away with soft water. Softened water also prevents soap scum from sticking in the tub. Get the connection? With softened water gunk washes away instead of sticking. The same thing applies to your RV’s wastewater tanks.

I use a clear plastic elbow connector to attach my sewer drain line to the wastewater outlet on my RV. It allows me to see how well things are progressing during a wastewater dump. Before I began using water softener regularly the black water tank’s water was brown, the galley tank’s water was brownish, and the bathroom tank’s water was white. The first time I added water softener to the tanks the water coming from the black water tank was actually black (not brown) and the kitchen tank’s water was also black (not brownish). The bathroom tank’s water remained white. That told me that the water softener had actually done what I had intended for it to do and made solid waste, which had been stuck to the interior of the tanks, let go and drain away. I added water softener (and laundry detergent to the black tank) to all the wastewater tanks for the next few dumps to be certain all the solid waste possible had been cleaned away. The wastewater only appeared black on the initial treatment. I now add water softener and detergent to each tank once after every few dumps to maintain the system.

Too little water softener may not be of sufficient concentration to work effectively. Too much water softener will NOT hurt the tanks. So, if the amount you used didn’t quite do the job, then use more the next time. Don’t forget the laundry detergent.

Occasionally, I pour a half gallon of liquid bleach into each tank to deodorize, sanitize and disinfect them. I add the bleach when the tank is about half full, and then continue to use the tank normally until it is full and ready to dump. I no longer use the blue toilet chemical because it isn’t necessary. I have no odors coming from my black water tank. The chlorine bleach kills the bacteria, which is primarily responsible for waste water tank odor. Generic brand liquid bleach is cheap and very effective.

Let me add to what Mr. Bruni said. I use the Calgon Liguid water softener. It is expensive but it works. I also use Dawn dish washing detergent instead of laundry detergent –especially in the gray tank. It cuts the grease better. Many times I have a limited water supply like now where we have to bring all of my water in from off site in a 300 gallon tank. I am NOT rinsing my tank after dumping simply because I do not have the water to waste. Since I am not cleaning the tank properly after dumping sometimes I do get a little odor. A quart of bleach dumped into the tank will kill the odor immediately.

Recreational vehicle owners obsess and worry about plenty of different things. They aslo spend money on needless items. Follow these tips for managing your RV holding tanks and you will have less worry and keep more money in your pocket.

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8 comments to Peeeuuuw! What is that smell? Managing your RV Holding Tanks

  • gayle

    tryed the Geo minus the bleach really did a good job of cleaning. However sensors still reading 1/3 when we know we are empty. Does this method have to be done when ever we dump or can we alternate with “smelly green stuff”?

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    • Andrew

      Hi Gayle

      I gave up on my black tank sensors working years ago.

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  • TYRONE & VERLYN

    thanks, this is my first experience having a RV and you have BLESS me with some valuable knowledge

    Ty& VERL

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  • Jacob

    I have used bleach before to clear the smells from my tank before too and for a while it works. Then one day staying the night over at a my uncle’s house to work on a project I watched a show called “1001 ways to die!” (I think, or something like that) One thing I noted was how a couple that had just bought an old RV were having problems with the stench of the previous owner’s waste, so they added bleach (I’m guessing in large quantity) directly to the tank. As I have seen in my camper when I do this, a white “smoke” came out of the toilet upon application. This “smoke” is dangerous and can be potentially deadly. Without proper ventilation, the air becomes toxic and can kill, just as it did that poor couple in the story. Something about mixing bleach with the build up of old waste creates a noxious gas that is VERY dangerous. If you decide to use this method, please, even just for being careful’s sake, make sure there is plenty of air flowing out and into your camper! Turn the overhead vent on as every RV I have ever seen has one! Do NOT breath in directly the air emanating from the toilet after adding bleach. I would close the door after closing the toilet drain and simply allow the room to clear! Just trying to spread the word! If you found this helpful, please share it with others! Who knows, it could be a matter of life or death! In any case, happy RV-ing!

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  • tet

    Jacob or anyone else using bleach… Mix it with a gallon (5 is better) of water prior to pouring it in. This will dilute the bleach so the reaction won’t be major. Also best if you holding tanks have 1/3 to 2/3 level in them prior to adding. Do not add to an empty holding tank. Same with your other additives if you want them to be most effective. Level indicators are hard to keep working especially in a black tank. The cleaner you keep them from the start the better off you will be. Also in the winter pour a couple gallons of water in each tank with enough antifreeze to keep it from freezing. You will then have much better luck with your gauges.

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  • Judy Neumann

    If you use toilet occasionally in winter, can you mix chemicals I.e. antifreeze and deoderizer??

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  • DNash

    I want to point something out here. If you are dumping your black water tanks into a septic system, the LAST thing you want to do to the septic system is to add bleach.

    You will kill your septic system by using bleach. Do not do it, otherwise, you will be pumping a septic tank in no time.

    There has got to be a better way of doing this without the bleach!!

    You have to use common sense here. Bleach kills the bacteria in the black water tank. Bleach most definitely will kill the bacteria in your septic system.

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    • Andrew

      I have used 2 cups of bleach in a 45 gallon black tank exactly 3x this entire summer. That amount/frequency of use will pass through a normal septic system virtually unnoticed. As I prefer to speak from experience, 2 RVs on a very small 250 gallon septic system for ONE YEAR and no problems with bleach in the septic. A washing machine/ dishwasher is FAR more damaging to rural septic installations.

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