In this article I’m going to discuss the proper methods for cleaning RV toilets, tips for preventing unpleasant odors in your camper’s bathroom, and how to keep your toilet in good working condition.
The importance of a clean RV toilet
For obvious reasons, most people can agree that keeping bathrooms and toilets clean is good to do. But when it comes to RVs, it’s more than just good to do, it’s crucial. Consider it not optional.
So, why is this? Why is it sooo important to keep RV toilets clean when normal house toilets can go months between cleanings with no issue?
It comes down to how RV plumbing systems are designed, and how several key features and parts within that system are susceptible to damage from disuse, overuse, lack of cleaning, or improper cleaning. RV toilets can be quite fickle!
Camper toilets and black tanks have several seals located in various parts of the sewage system. These rubber gaskets work to prevent unpleasant and potentially dangerous gasses from escaping the black tank and leaking into the main body of the RV. They also prevent toxic wastewater from leaking out of the RV black tank and into the environment.
A prime example of these important rubber seals is found at the bottom of a gravity-flush style RV toilet. A small rubber flap covers the main hole that leads from the toilet to the black tank. This flap holds up a small pool of water that acts as an air-seal against black tank gasses. Without the flap, and consequently, the pool of water, sewer gas can escape into an RV.
If cleaned with harsh, rubber-damaging chemicals, this flap can crack, or erode in such a way that compromises its ability to hold up the water. Similarly, if the RV goes through a period of disuse, gaskets can dry out and crack, leading to the same outcomes.
With that said, these are all problems that can occur with RV toilets, not problems that definitely will occur with your RV toilet. Some RVers face regular RV toilet issues, while some go years without a single problem.
Cleaning and maintaining an RV toilet
A majority of RV toilets are quite different, in form and function, than the toilets that most Americans are used to seeing and using. The most noticeable of these differences is the construction material of the toilet itself: Cheap and lightweight plastic.
When cleaning a plastic toilet bowl, it is imperative to use the proper cleaning supplies, so as not to damage the body of the toilet and the gaskets contained within. Soft silicone brushes are preferred to hard-bristled plastic or metal brushes. Hard-bristled brushes will scratch the original smooth surface of a toilet bowl, leading to quicker buildup of toilet gunk in the future. Mo’ scratches, mo’ problems.
Along with brushes, some RVers hold the opinion that over time, chemical cleaners will degrade the toilet flap seal, rendering it ineffective. Is this true? Possibly. I can’t say with any certainty if chemical cleaners will ruin RV plumbing seals. But if the thought of it concerns you, it’s probably best to stick with natural, chemical-free cleaners.
Many RVers attest that over time, bleach will damage the interior biome of an RV black tank. I trust my veteran RV friends and avoid all bleach cleaners.
Cleaning RV toilet bowl
As for the step-by-step process of cleaning an RV toilet, it doesn’t actually differ from cleaning a residential toilet:
- Gather cleaning supplies and personal protection equipment
- Flush any lingering human waste out of the toilet
- Apply toilet bowl cleaner to the uppermost, inner part of the toilet bowl rim
- Let cleaner soak for at least 20 minutes, more if desired (do not let cleaner dry)
- Scrub with soft-bristled toilet brush
- Flush all cleaner and residue into black tank
- Rinse brush and store in plastic bag for later use
- Wipe down with a disinfecting-wipe if sanitization is desired
Take care not to damage, or misalign the toilet bowl flap while cleaning. Filthy toilets might need two rounds of cleaning to get rid of all stains and smells.
Cleaning outside of toilet
Over time, grime and residue can build up on the exterior of the toilet bowl, potentially contributing to unpleasant RV toilet odor. Whenever you clean the inside of RV toilet bowls, give the exterior a good wipe down as well.
I prefer to use a natural, biodegradable, multi-surface spray cleaner for this purpose. I give the outside of the bowl several healthy sprays of cleaner and immediately wipe it down with a clean rag. In about 20 seconds my RV toilet is clean, shiny, and smells fresh.
Safety precautions to take while cleaning an RV toilet
Throughout the above sections, I sprinkled in several safety precautions to take while cleaning RV toilets. Here’s a quick recap so you don’t forget:
- Use soft bristle brushes
- Use chemical-free, biodegradable cleaners
- Be gentle while cleaning RV toilet seal
- Wear gloves and eye-protection
- Turn RV ventilation fans on to avoid buildup of chemical or sewage gasses
- Avoid bleach cleaners to protect the good bacteria in black tank
RVers that have upgraded to porcelain toilet bowls have much less to worry about when cleaning their toilet. Porcelain bowls can withstand hard-bristled plastic brushes and harsh chemicals.
Just don’t forget that even with porcelain toilets, the plastic and rubber seals in the plumbing system are still potentially susceptible to chemical damage.
How to dump an RV black tank
When an RV black tank is between two thirds and three quarters full, it must be dumped. Depending upon the size of an RV’s black tank and how many people are staying in the camper, RVers tend to dump their waste tank every 3 days to a couple of weeks.
Overfilling an RV waste tank leads to stubborn clogs, unpleasant sewer odor, and RV tank sensors misreading.
Albeit a bit gross, dumping a black tank is not that difficult with the proper equipment and knowledge:
- Position your RV near the dump station
- Connect wastewater hose to black tank dump valve
- Connect other end of wastewater hose to dump station port
- Release black tank valve, allowing black water and human waste to flow out
- After dumping, close valve and disconnect hose
- Add a gallon or two of clean water into black tank via toilet
Pro tip: Dumping your gray tank immediately after dumping your black tank will minimize manual rinsing and washing of the wastewater hose. The gray water rinses the wastewater hose of human waste as it flows.
Adding a gallon or two of water back into the RV black tank serves to bust up potential clogs and piles of solid waste in the collection tank. Without this liquid, waste tanks clog frequently and are a pain to empty.
Maintaining RV black tanks
A healthy black tank is a happy black tank. This statement begs the question: What is a healthy black tank?
A “healthy” black tank is a tank that has plenty of liquid in it to slosh around and loosen solid waste. All of the seams and seals are tight and leak-free, and no tank-level sensors are damaged from built-up debris. A healthy black tank is cleaned regularly to ensure proper function of all components.
Here are three ways to maintain a healthy black tank:
- Always have at least one gallon of water in the tank while in use.
- Never use normal, residential toilet paper. RV septic systems require the use of septic-safe toilet paper that can be found at most grocery stores.
- Clean regularly, making sure to perform a deep clean semi-regularly.
Septic-safe, dissolvable toilet paper is exactly what it sounds like. Once in a waste tank and exposed to liquid, it rapidly dissolves, decreasing the chances of clogging and piling of solid waste in a septic system.
Some RVers add tank treatment chemicals to their waste tank to promote rapid and thorough breakdown of solid waste. This is popular amongst older RVers, as it diminishes the amount of manual labor required to keep the system clean.
These treatment chemicals work similarly to stomach enzymes, breaking down human waste and toilet paper, and reducing overall tank odor.
An opposing camp of RVers do not add enzymatic treatment chemicals to their tank, for fear of harming the environment with strong, unnatural enzymes.
How to quick-clean an RV holding tank
The following process can be used to give an RV black or gray tank a quick cleaning. More thorough waste tank cleanings must still be performed, but a quick-clean serves to rinse easy-to-clear tank debris.
- Dump all liquid and waste from tank at dump station
- Fill tank half full of fresh water
- Add a quarter cup of biodegradable liquid soap such as Mrs. Meyers or Dr. Bronner’s into tank
- Drive around for 5 minutes, letting soap and water slosh around inside tank
- Return to dump station and dump tank again
- Fill the tank back to half full and drain
- Repeat this fill-and-drain process until water flowing out of tank runs clear
Preventing unpleasant RV toilet odor
Regularly perform these tasks and checks to prevent bathroom and toilet odors from filling your RV:
- Clean RV toilet bowl, inside and out
- Inspect seals and gaskets, replacing as needed
- Keep black tank vent pipe clear of clogs from natural debris
- Turn off all RV ventilation fans while flushing toilet
- Dump black and gray tanks before they are overfull
- Clean black tank
Frequently asked questions
Plumbing systems are intimidating, and people have questions!
How often should I clean an RV toilet?
While entirely up to the individual, I would say that an RV toilet should be cleaned after every trip, or, if occupied full-time, every 2 weeks.
Is there a unique RV toilet cleaner I can buy?
Yep! Several cleaning supply companies offer toilet cleaners designed to be safe for RV toilets and plumbing systems.
Can a spray bottle of multi-surface cleaner be used to clean an RV toilet?
Absolutely. To be honest, I rarely buy toilet-specific cleaners. I just clean often and use multi-purpose spray on pretty much every surface of my RV.
No one is a fan of cleaning toilets and dumping black tanks. It’s gross, tedious, and not what most people imagine when they dream of the care-free RV lifestyle. Regardless, it’s necessary to stay on top of these chores in order to maintain personal health, and the health of an RV.
Don’t skimp on quality cleaners, be smart with what tools you use to clean with, and don’t be afraid to get your (gloved) hands dirty!