How Do RV Toilets Work?

We all have to go there - even when traveling. So here's everything you need to know about the RV's toilets.

If you are new to the RV lifestyle, you might be wondering just how an RV toilet works. Are they exactly like your home toilet or something altogether different? Even if you've never thought about these questions, now is a good time to learn! 

How Do RV Toilets Work?

So, how do RV toilets work? The waste goes from the toilet bowl into a large black tank. If you're connected to hook-ups, it then goes outside the RV, directly to the dumping point. When the RV is not connected to hook-ups, the waste gets stored in the black tank. You need to "dump" the contents of that tank once it fills up. There are special dumping stations where you can do that.

These toilets are built to be simple yet effective at handling waste while still working with your RV water system. You don't have to worry about the smell - mostly - because the passage to the black tank is usually closed when not in use.

There are multiple styles of toilets you can find in an RV. No matter what kind you have, however, know that only solid and liquid waste, as well as toilet paper, are recommended to go in.

Alright, let's discover everything there is to know about RV toilets. We will cover the three main types of toilets you are likely to find in an RV. After reading about each kind of toilet, you will know what to do when you encounter an RV toilet.

Types of RV Toilets

The three types of RV toilets are all intended to be used whether or not you're hooked up to the sewage system in a campground:

  1. Full RV Toilets
  2. Portable RV toilets
  3. Compost toilets

They vary by the type of RV but the most common type in the US is the first - full RV toilets.

Let's dive right into describing them.

1. Full RV Toilets

Full RV toilets are fitted inside of a dedicated RV bathroom. This is the most common type of RV toilet and you'll find them in most motorhomes, 5th wheels and larger travel trailers. Basically, if a rig has tanks, including a black tank, these are the toilets it's going to have.

So how do you actually use these kinds of toilets?

As you will see, the process is a little different than your home toilet. Looking at the toilet, you will most likely see that the drain is sealed any time you are not actively flushing. Also, the flushing handles look quite different than your home toilet. They are often located on the base of the toilet and you require your foot to operate it.

In larger, more expensive RVs, you will sometimes find electric toilets that use buttons instead of levers. Oh, and sometimes there will also be a kitchen sink-style sprayer next to the bowl.

As we mentioned earlier, the water from your fresh water tank goes into the toilet bowl. After flushing, however, the water empties straight into your black tank. This tank has to be properly emptied at an RV dump site when the tank is full or before making your drive home.

Alright, now that the basics of the toilet are out of the way, let's discuss how to actually use one of these things.

  1. First, you need to make sure you have filled your RV with fresh water. You definitely want to have that water ready to go before you do! If boondocking, make sure to turn on your water pump.
  2. Before using the toilet, check that there is water in the toilet bowl. This water will help expel the waste after you use the toilet. If there is no water, you will need to fill the bowl roughly 1/4 full. Just how to do this will vary with the type of toilet you are using. Some toilets use a smaller lever or button for this function, while some require you to pull up on the lever with your foot. RV toilets with just one lever will have you press it halfway down to fill the bowl.
  3. Use the toilet. Do your deed. Talk to a man about a horse. You get the idea.
  4. When ready, flush by pressing the larger lever/button or depressing the single lever all the way down. Water will run into the bowl and the drain seal will open, allowing the waste to flow into the black tank.
  5. Use the sprayer (if included) to assist the waste down the drain, if necessary.
  6. Make sure to fill the bowl 1/4 full again if you expect anyone else to use the toilet after you.
  7. Wash your hands!

And that's all there is to it. Pretty simple once you get the hang of it.

2. Portable RV Toilets

Used mainly in smaller, lighter trailers, these "porta potties" are fairly simple waste receptacles. Once they are full, they must be manually dumped out. These are great if you are not planning on using the toilet heavily and/or want a lightweight, portable unit.

Here are the basics of these toilets:

  • Freshwater is held in the upper portion of the toilet. It is recommended to add some tank deodorant as you fill it up.
  • After doing your deed, these toilets can be flushed just like a normal toilet.
  • When the toilet is full or after camping, simply dump the contents of the lower chamber into a toilet.
  • Because they are portable, they can be used anywhere, including outside of the RV.

Clearly, these work in setups where the rig doesn't have tanks. Most RVs do but if you're going for a very light trailer or a pop-up camper, you may encounter porta-potties, so they're good to know about.

3. Composting Toilets

The most eco-friendly option for your RV toilet is a composting unit. While expensive, these offer many benefits like not having to dump out and little to no smell involved. Like a porta potty, these types of toilets store the waste within the toilet unit rather than a holding tank under the RV.

Most composting toilets separate solid and liquid waste into different containers. Liquid waste (urine) can be dumped in normal RV dump sites or anywhere else that is appropriate.

The solid waste is where the composting toilet gets its name. Here is what the process looks like for most composting toilets:

  1. First, add a composting material like coconut coir or peat moss to the solid waste container.
  2. Next, you hydrate the additive with water. Surprisingly, this is all of the water you will need because most composting toilets are dry toilets that don't require flushing water.
  3. Now, add this mixture to the solid waste container and set the toilet up.
  4. At this point, you are ready to use the composting toilet.
  5. Solid waste that goes into the toilet will be composted into organic material thanks to the various microorganisms in the toilet.
  6. The final product might surprise you. It looks nothing like what went into the toilet. Instead, it looks like soil and is practically odor-free, depending on which additives are used. It can now be used a soil fertilizer (if allowed in your area).

Do You Have to Use Special Toilet Paper in an RV?

Yes, you need to use special RV toilet paper. There are many brands out there and it is not all that hard to find. Because this type of toilet paper breaks down easier than your standard paper, it will prevent your RV toilet from clogging up.

Even if your RV owner's manual says you can use household toilet paper, it is better to stick with dedicated RV paper. Take our word for it, it's not worth the risk of a clogged toilet! For more information, check out our in-depth discussion of RV toilet paper here.

How Do You Take Care of a Camper Toilet?

RV toilets have much more in common with household toilets when it comes times to clean them.

  1. Using a sponge (and gloves, if possible), wipe the outside and seat of the toilet. If water isn't up to the task, use a household cleaner to assist your efforts. Don't forget to clean the handle while you are at it.
  2. Now, take a toilet brush and give the toilet bowl a good scrub. Use your favorite brand of toilet cleaner. We will discuss the various cleaners to use further down.
  3. Flush the toilet to drain the cleaner into the black tank. Continue scrubbing as you flush so that the residue all empties out. This will also clean your toilet scrubber too.

What Can I Use to Clean my RV Toilet?

While there are some special RV toilet cleaners out there, most owners use regular household products. However, because RV toilets are usually made of plastic instead of porcelain or ceramic, opting for a gentler, eco-friendly cleaner is a good idea.

To prevent odor and keep the black tank clean, however, there is one highly-recommended product. Usually referred to as toilet drop-ins or something similar, these tablets are simply placed down the toilet drain into the black tank. Using special enzymes, these products help digest the solid waste and keep your black tank clean and odor-free.

RV Toilets - Worth the Effort!

RV toilets can take some getting used to, but they are really quite simple at the end of the day. Their convenience far outweighs the time it takes to learn how to use one. Now that you know all about them, go out and enjoy everything nature has to offer without having to use a public restroom!

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