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Bleach in the Black Water Tank and a Bullseye on my Back

I have been catching some flak from a rather vocal group that firmly believes bleach should never be added to the black water waste tank on a recreational vehicle which I advocated in this post.  I still stand by this post and will try to explain my reasoning further.

To start off,  what you put in your RV wastewater tanks is your business but judging from the number of visits I get from people Googling,  many people must not be satisfied with the current state of their holding tanks.

I use bleach in 3 different ways around the RV Basecamp.

  1. I use it as an algaecide in my portable 300 gallon water tank.
  2. I use it to sanitize my  onboard freshwater tank and lines 2x per year.
  3. I put bleach in my RV black water tank to get rid of odors.

Number 3 is the action causing all the hubbub.   People seem to believe that bleach will devastate a septic system.  Simply not true when used in moderation.  And how do I know this?   Regular readers know I refrain from writing about things I have not experienced or dealt with directly.  I detest Internet Commandos!  (An Internet Commando is a person who feels like they are an expert on any subject because they have read about it on the Internet.  ) So when I am talking about adding bleach to my wastewater tanks, I am speaking from experience.  I did it this year and years previous with no ill effects to the septic system.  I might add – septic systems I usually installed with my own 2 hands.

Lets’ get logical for a minute.   An RV wastewater tank – black or gray- is NOT a septic system.  It is a holding tank.  Here is the best description of an RV wastewater system I have ever read and it was posted on an internet forum.  Go figure :)

What happens in your tank when left natural is the very early stage of the same action that would happen in a septic system. Based upon a discussion with an environmental chemist & a septic system design engineer that I know, it is absolutely true that the waste is not in the tank nearly long enough to complete the process, which is the reason that you don’t want to use the effluent of that tank to water your flowers!

In the septic action, 80% of the solid matter will be fluid within 48 hours(60% in 24), but far from that amount is truly liquid but rather it is mostly small particles that are suspended in water. That is the reason that it still carries odor & color, and the remaining 20% is why you want the tank well filled before dumping. If you were to test the liquid from a natural black tank, you would find that much of that matter could be strained from the water with a very simple filter because it is particulate, but suspended. Compare that to the effluent of a properly working septic system, where it takes about two weeks to complete and septic system is putting out clean (not yet potable) water. The effluent of a good septic system is clear, or nearly so and is 100% liquid with no particulate.

Remember that the drain field of a septic system works for years with no attention at all because the complete process puts out water that is at a quality level that would be usable to water fields and crops. The newest septic systems don’t use a drain field but are called “aeration” systems and the effluent is applied to a lawn or such via sprinklers. If you see one, notice that the water from it is clear and has no odor. That is what a septic system does when working properly. When such systems fail and destroy the drain field or aeration system, it is usually because there is particulate matter getting into it.

Were the septic system to put out the same thing as comes from a black tank, it would plug the drain field or the aeration system very quickly. Those who question the use of water only have long insisted that a black tank is not a septic system, and they are correct, but that does not prevent the very early stage of septic action from taking place there. The only part that we are concerned with is liquefaction. What happens in the natural black tank is very much like the earliest process in the first chamber of a multi-chamber septic system.

As long as it is liquid enough for things to flush out, that is all that we really care, but it is also the reason that no black tank should ever be emptied into a storm drain. If the septic action was complete, then it would be OK to use the storm drain, or anywhere that non-potable water can be safely emptied. As mentioned in a previous post, it is far from complete, but it is the septic action.

So the purpose of an RV holding tank is to hold the waste and liquefy it so it will conveniently run out the disposal hose.  Simple enough!  It is not intended to break down the solids via aerobic action like the septic tank.  Use plenty, plenty of water when you flush and a septic safe toilet paper that dissolves well and you should be good to go!

I would guess most people who have never spent a summer in sweltering heat

The dreaded murderer of septic tanks nation wide

The dreaded murderer of septic tanks nation wide

understand what effect that has on your black water tank. The heat kicks the septic action (decay of waste products) into high gear and it starts to smell. The only thing I have found to thwart this odor is a quart of bleach mixed in a couple gallons of water and flushed in to the black water tank. it will stop the odor immediately by killing the bacteria. Will it kill the bacteria in your septic system as well? I wouldn’t doubt it is going to kill off a few thousand or million bacteria but it is certainly not going to render your septic system inoperable. Consider this from the Clorox website:

It’s wrong to call household bleach chlorine bleach because it has an entirely different chemistry. Household bleach is derived from sodium chloride – common table salt. Clorox purchases chlorine and makes household bleach by bubbling the chlorine into a solution of water and sodium hydroxide. During this process, all of the chlorine is converted to a sodium hypochlorite solution

Household bleach begins and ends as salt water in a fully sustainable cycle. There’s a significant difference between “bleaching”– the name often associated with the manufacturing of paper products — and household bleach.

During consumer use and disposal, about 95 percent to 98 percent of household bleach quickly breaks down. The remaining two percent to five percent is effectively treated by sewer or septic systems.

Bleach does not contaminate ground water because it does not survive sewage treatment – either in municipal sewage treatment plants or in septic systems. Thus, there are no harmful effects of bleach in the environment.

This past summer I had to use the bleach in the black water tank twice. Bleach used in moderation.

I have also researched the assertion that bleach tends to degrade certain plastics and make them “brittle”. Again, from the Clorox website:

The majority of Clorox® bleach products contain anticorrosion agents and, when used as directed, are safe for use on a variety of hard, nonporous surfaces, including stainless steel, plastics, glazed ceramics, glass, porcelain and other materials. Use bleach with confidence to clean and disinfect countertops, floors, toilets, sinks, trash cans, keyboards, phones, light switches and desks.

In closing, let me reiterate that the bleach use I am advocating is based on personal experiences over the years. I am not a chemist or an engineer. Each of us has the freedom of choice and action to add whatever (or nothing) to their RV wastewater systems.

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18 comments to Bleach in the Black Water Tank and a Bullseye on my Back

  • Very informative post, and a well-thought out explanation. Thanks for making some great points that I will file away in my brain for the next onslaught of those Internet Commandos! LOL P.S. we have a septic at home and use bleach all the time in laundry and cleaning with no ill effects in 12 years.

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  • Don

    Interesting. I wonder if some people were confusing bleach with formaldehyde. A huge amount of bleach would probably biologically kill a home septic system, but it would bounce back fairly quickly. The frequency that chlorine needs to be added to a pool demonstrates its instability in the environment.
    I’m not a chemist, but I don’t find clorox’s differentiation of its product particularly important. I do find it important that water and sewage treatment saves far more lives than modern medicine. So maybe it’s good people think about it, even if they sometimes get confused.

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  • rich

    I have used your method after using all of the APPROVED methods which in my opinion don’t work in hot temperature. I finally got tired of the $#!% smell and used the bleach method and instantly got rid of the odors. I am not concerned with the impact on the plastic parts, but am unsure of Bleachs effects on rubber seals etc. My guess is if mixed with a lot of water it should be fine.

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  • John Duncan

    I used to be an environmental chemist myself! I completely concur with the statements made in this blog! Bleach will NOT harm plastic parts of your RV. To say otherwise is assuming the ingredients in household bleach are MUCH more concentrated than they are!

    For instance, Sodium would have to be so pure that it would react explosively with water before it would harm your plastic…but then it would not be Sodium Chloride. I would be more concerned with bleach reacting in a corrosive nature with metal, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a metal black tank.

    Also, the black tank of an RV is IN NO WAY comparable to a septic system!! To be “septic” in nature, there can be no D.O. (dissolved oxygen) content in the wastewater…this ensures the treatment bacteria are anaerobic in nature. Anaerobic bacteria do not require D.O. as they produce their own.

    Aerobic bacteria MIGHT be found in a black tank of an RV in small quantities, as these tanks will have more D.O. present…however, they likely will not have enough aerobic bacteria to even start a treatment process unless an RV owner were to “seed” the tank with aerobic bacteria…which would be cost prohibitive to properly maintain, and is actually quite pointless as the remaining steps to effective wastewater treatment are not present.

    An RV’s black tank is indeed a simple storage tank…to think it is anything else is silliness!! Therefore, to treat the system with household bleach is a very sense-able thing to do!!

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  • Miss K

    And that’s why he’s my Husband!

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  • Nina

    Hi,
    We are having a first ever problem with little black gnatty looking flies..This is the first time that we have had a sewer hookup for our rv…so hence the first ever problem..How can we get rid of them ..they are nasty little critters and I am SURE they have bacteria on their little bodies..Anyone please advise what to do??
    TIA
    Nina
    Texas

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    • admin

      Fungus gnats or sewer flies — bad business. You can get them f you are at a FHU site and leave the gray water connection open. They will migrate through a p-trap filled with water. I had them once and think I remember some fairly severe bleach treatments to get rid of them.

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      • Chickenhawk

        Could you try and reach back in the portals of your bleach memory and provide the instructions to what you did to evacuate the sewer fly issue, sir? Thanks for your time.

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        • Andrew

          Bleach. The gas given off seems to kill them

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  • Lisa

    We have a lot at a lake community. We have a 30′ Fifth Wheel camper. We have electricity on the lot, but no water. We acquired a 300 gallon water tank (the white plastic kind w/the metal cage around it). Our neighbor does have water on his property and he has told us to feel free to use it. We are getting ready to hook this new water tank up to our camper – NOT for drinking – but for showers and running water. I have seen others cover theirs with tarps to keep the sunlight off it to prevent algae, but is there some additive we should be putting in the tank as well? If so, what, and in what ratio, and how often? Thanks in advance for any advice.

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    • Andrew

      I use 1/3 cup of unscented household bleach per 250 gallons of fresh water. It is replenished weekly so it does not get ‘old’. If I see evidence of algae.I double the dose. We run the water through a sediment filter and a charcoal filter and there is no chlorine smell when used.

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  • windtalkers

    I bought a larger used RV in May and initially had troubles with the black water tank being clogged and the sensors were not working. I searched the web over and found a forum saying to use Calgon and laundry detergent to unstick the sensors. I did this for two months and it worked. Now that the weather is warmer there was a terrible odor coming from the holding tank. I am stationary and have a septic service come out and pump out my tank every 3-4 weeks. It is only me living in the RV so this is suitable. I’ve tried using several of the chemicals meant to deodorize and break down the solids but the foul smell was still a problem so low and behold back up to the web I went and found this article. At this point what did I have to lose? Nothing but the foul smell so I tried your bleach method. It does work and it works immediately. What a relief. Thank you so much for this information. It’s invaluable, especially during the summer months when the heat is a problem in creating a foul smelling black water holding tank.

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  • Richard

    Ain’t no chemist here but bleach comes in a plastic bottle so…..I’ve been bleaching the black water tank for a few years now and believe you me, it works 98% better than any commercial “smell abatement” application. The nose knows.

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  • Pat

    I am stationary and am hooked up to septic. I just drain my tank when full…usually once a week or so. So do I understand this correctly…..I do not need to buy those black water tank treatment products all the time? I can just use a shot of bleach after every drain?

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    • Andrew

      I haven’t used any of those products in years. I put bleach in the tank maybe once a month in the summer, maybe. Never in the winter. Make sure you are using PLENTY of water when you flush. Lots of water.

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      • Pat

        I always use plenty of water, and the TP always goes in the garbage, never in the toilet. I am absolutely paranoid about possibly clogging the system, so you can see why I’m finding this a little hard to comprehend….lol…You’re saying I don’t even have to put bleach in every time I drain the tank, as long as I don’t completely drain it? THANK YOU for this info!!!

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        • Andrew

          Not exactly. Pay attention. I holding tank is not a septic tank. Its’ only function is to hold waste until it can be dumped. Dumping a tank is best accomplished when it is as liquid as possible. That way the contents empty completely. Maximum liquidity is accomplished by adding as mush water as fits your situation. Were I hooked to a permanent septic. I would probably near fill the bowl with every flush. I ALWAYS dump the tank completely.

          BTW, I put my TP right down the pipe with the rest of the goods. Anything else is not hygienic IMHO.

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          • Pat

            So the bleach is simply for odor control? How come I’ve read it’s SO important for all those blackwater tank enzyme breakdown products to be in the tank then? Another money grubbing operation is it? So the simple secret is, LOTS of water with each use, and a shot of bleach if any odor occurs?
            I like it :)
            I was able to nicely clean my toilet last night using a little bleach and soap. Both products I have previously been afraid of getting in my holding tank (didn’t want to wreck the workings of the enzymes you know).
            So again, I thank you kind sir! You have made my day :D

            (Sometimes it’s the little things in life eh……)

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