Most RVs have three types of water tanks: fresh, gray, and black. Smaller travel trailers like the Airstream Basecamp 16 and the 16RB Bambi and Caravel have a combination black/gray tank and a fresh water tank. But no matter which setup your Airstream has, understanding how each tank functions, how to fill and empty tanks, and how to maintain the tanks for the best performance is key to a successful camping trip. And when boondocking off the grid without the typical campground fresh water and sewer hookups, proper maintenance, monitoring, and conservation are essential.
Holding Tanks 101
The Fresh Tank
Your fresh water tank is just as it sounds. It holds all your fresh water – for cleaning up dishes, for the shower, and for drinking. Typically, the fresh water tank holds more water than either the gray or the black water tank. When you're boondocking, monitoring tank levels is an easy, essential practice to ensure you have enough fresh water to drink, and enough space left in your waste tanks that you aren't in danger of overflowing either. When you're hooked up to fresh water at the campsite, water and waste worries are lessened. Still, keeping an eye on your water and waste system, no matter the situation, is always a great idea.
The Grey Tank
Your gray water tank holds waste water from every source other than that is not the toilet. Soapy water, toothpaste, food waste, dust and dirt from your afternoon hike, and anything else you rinse down the drain ends up in the gray tank.
The Black Tank
When it comes to the black tank, there’s no avoiding the obvious: It can be pretty gross. The black tank holds all the human waste you flush down the toilet, and it requires a little more attention and maintenance than the gray water tank due to the substance of what it holds. But don’t be put off by the icky factor: With practice – and a few insider tips – dealing with your black tank is easy.
Taking care of your gray and black water tanks isn’t too hard, but there are some things that will make your life as a new Airstream owner a little easier.
Emptying the Tanks
There is a large black pipe labeled “Sewage Holding Tank” (or a similar label) on the roadside of your Airstream. At a campsite or at the campground’s dump station, one end of a long, accordion sewer hose is attached to that pipe and the other end is attached to the dump station – usually a pipe with a cap that runs into an underground septic system or city sewer system. (Fun fact: Many campers refer to this accordion hose as the “stinky slinky.”) Both the gray and black water tanks are evacuated through this hookup pipe. It’s a good idea to wear gloves while emptying your tanks. Many Airstreamers carry a pair of vinyl kitchen gloves or a supply of latex gloves to wear while tackling this task. Some Airstream travel trailers also have a long, black, storage tube next to or near the black tank connection where you can store your sewer hose. Another pro-tip: Get a Slunky to ensure your sewer hose is at the right angle for the waste to run downhill.
A Sewage Step by Step:
- Connect the sewage hose to the pipe on your RV and to the sewage hookup at your campsite or the sewage hookup at the dump station.
- Open the black water tank valve. Allow the black water tank to empty completely.
- Most Airstreams come with a black water flush system. Locate the external hookup – usually near the fresh water hookup. Attach a hose and turn on the water – this will start to fill your black tank (be careful to not overfill – although most Airstream black tank flush systems have a backfill preventer, it's better safe than sorry). While you can use your fresh water hose to do this, many Airstreamers carry a second water hose specifically for the purpose of flushing their black tank. Many campsites have a fresh water hose at the dump station for this purpose, as well. You can either flush the system with the black water valve closed or open, but you will get a more thorough flush with the valve closed. Be sure to only leave the water running for a couple of minutes if the black water valve is closed. You don’t want to overfill your tank and have the water overflowing into your camper.
- If your RV doesn’t have a flush system, you can flush the black water tank by spraying or pouring water in the tank through the toilet.
- After flushing the black water tank, ensure you open the valve and completely empty the tank once more. Then, close the valve.
- Open the gray water tank valve if you have one. By draining the gray water tank last, it can help to flush out the hose.
- Close the gray water tank valve, remove the hose, and stow it until your next trip.
How often you empty your tanks depends on many factors, including the number of people using the tanks, how much water and waste you use and create, and the size of your tanks. Monitor your tanks regularly to know when you are due to dump them. Finally, it’s best to leave your black tank valve closed at a campsite and only empty the black tank before you leave – this prevents buildup in the black tank and makes it much easier to completely flush out the black tank.
Treating the Tanks
You will likely want to use some kind of tank treatment in your black water tank. This ensures waste is broken down properly and helps reduce odors. There are a variety of products to aid in this process, from holding tank deodorant to tissue digesters and grey water odor control products.. These products include enzymes that break down to consume waste material and reduce bacteria. They are safe for all waste water systems and environmentally safe if used correctly. Always follow the directions on the bottle of any tank treatment you use.
Dealing with Waste at a Campground
Waste disposal is easier and more straightforward at a campground. The campground will either have sewage hookups available at your campsite, or they will have a dump station where you can empty your tanks.
If you rent a campsite with sewage hookups, make sure to leave the valve closed on your black water tank. Black water tends to have more solids including clumps of toilet paper. This can get caught in the hose leading to the sewage hookup. Always wait until your tank is full or mostly full before emptying.
You can leave it your gray water valve (if you have one) open while you are hooked up to sewage at a campground. This is especially helpful if you are taking showers in your RV. This way you are not having to constantly empty your tank. (Make sure to close the valve when you are ready to empty your black water tank.)
If your campsite doesn’t have sewage hookups, make sure to keep an eye on the level of your tanks. You will need to empty them at the dump station when they are full. Most people choose to conserve their resources as necessary, so they only have to use the dump station on their way out of the campground.
Dealing with Waste While Boondocking
Whatever you call it – boondocking, camping off the grid, or wild camping – getting off the grid can be a fun experience. Oftentimes, there are fewer people around, and the views can be stunning. When boondocking, it is especially important to conserve your resources. Remember that taking showers uses A LOT of water and will fill your gray water tank quickly. If a shower is necessary, use common sense and do as much showering as you can without the water running.
Use your tank monitor to keep an eye on the levels in your tank. You don’t want to have to leave your beautiful site just because your tanks are full.
After you leave your boondocking site, you’ll need to find a dump station along your route. Big chain truck stops like Love’s and Pilot usually have dump stations you can use. The app Sanidumps is a great resource for finding RV dump stations. Apps like Allstays and Campendium also list places you can stop to empty your tanks.
- Add a clear plastic, 45-degree hose adapter to your toolbox. One of the most useful accessories you can add to your arsenal, a clear plastic hose adapter allows you to monitor the flow of waste. Don't be caught off guard again.
- Use RV-approved toilet paper. It breaks down faster in the tank and is less likely to clog the system.
- Always dump a full black water tank. When hooked up to sewage, don’t leave your black water tank valve open. The hose can get clogged and cause a backup into your trailer. Instead, wait until the tank is full before emptying. This ensures there is enough water to push everything through.
- Empty tanks in order from dirtiest to cleanest. When emptying your tanks, start with black water. That way the cleaner water tanks can help clean the hose after.
- Don’t skimp on the water when flushing solid waste. If you don’t use enough water when flushing solid waste, it might not disperse evenly in the tank. A pyramid of waste and toilet paper may form preventing you from being able to flush your toilet even though the tank isn’t full.
- Use a tank conditioners. This ensures that waste and gunk don’t get stuck to the walls of the tanks and flush out better.
- Always empty your gray water tank at a proper dump station. Emptying your gray water tank on the ground at a campsite is often illegal, and just plain rude for other campers that may come after you. Grey water also may contain food particles and soap that take time to breakdown and may attract critters.
- Don’t wash food down the drain. This will keep your gray water tank from getting smelly. If you have issues with smells, you can treat your gray water tank with tank conditioners.
If you’re nervous about dealing with your waste while using your RV, hang in there. It is not as complicated or as difficult as it may feel at first, and it will become easier with time. And the Airstreamer community is a great resource. If you’re feeling uneasy about emptying your tanks, find another Airstream in your campground and don’t be afraid to ask for help. One of the best things about being an Airstreamer is that the overwhelming majority of Airstreamers are ready and willing to help others find their way in this incredible travel lifestyle.
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