Thomas Jefferson called it “the necessary.” The British call it the loo.
Most of us were taught not to discuss or talk about what you actually do in it at the dinner table. But using one is something none of us can avoid doing on a daily basis.
I’m talking, of course, about the toilet.
Recently, I’ve been fascinated to learn that not every Airstreamer uses theirs. In the last few months, two newbie couples shared that they only use campground bathrooms–not their Airstream toilet. They just aren’t sure about the whole thing. And they haven’t yet purchased a sewer hose.
We’ve also received a number of recent poo-related questions by email. One of them—“how do you lube the black tank valves?”—had us conjuring a wide variety of nightmare scenarios. Thankfully, the answer to this question is: you don’t need to lube the black tank valves.
Finally, last week I was reading some online posts and found this one (identification details removed):
“...Today at the service center we ran into a couple having warranty work done on their 1 year old Airstream. They told us that during the entire year they’ve owned it, they have never once used the toilet, and it still has plastic on it. And they camp every other weekend!”
Well, that did it. Time to take the fear out of pooping in an Airstream toilet, I decided, and set the record straight on toilet maintenance and dumping. Follow these guidelines and you’ll keep things fresh and flowing.
What’s ok / not ok to flush down the toilet?
It’s simple: Only put toilet paper and anything you’ve previously eaten or drunk into the toilet.
That means none of these things are ok to flush, so do not put them in your toilet.
- Paper towels
- Pre-moistened wipes–even if the package says they are flushable, don’t
- Feminine hygiene products–this should be obvious but…
- Anything made of cloth–that means no rags or undies; you’d be surprised what Rich has witnessed being pulled out of clogged black tanks
- Any product that contains petroleum distillates–Airstream’s Owner's Manual explains that products with this ingredient will attack the rubber seals of your toilet and dump valves
- Dish detergent or abrasive cleaners
Can I use "regular" toilet paper?
By all means, yes! Single-ply brands of toilet paper will not clog the system, as long as you don't use copious amounts, and you use enough water when you flush.
The need for special RV toilet paper is a myth and it’s more expensive than regular brands. We don’t use it, and we don’t recommend it.
How much water should I use when I flush?
It’s commendable that many Airstreamers try to conserve water when they travel, but the pooper is not the place to skimp. If you don't use sufficient water when you flush, solid waste can build up and ultimately create a thick or semi-solid pyramid down there.
Trust us, you don’t want to risk building your own personal poomoji in your potty. Getting rid of it is messy and expensive.
Here are our tips for a proper flush:
- Little potty–After you go, flush all liquid and toilet paper, and hold the foot pedal down for maybe another few seconds to wash the bowl.
- Big potty–Before you sit, fill the toilet bowl about ⅓ to ½ with water (hold the foot pedal down just a bit so water flows but the toilet doesn’t flush). After finishing your business, flush it all down and hold the foot pedal another few seconds for good measure.
Must we wear gloves when hooking up the sewer hose and dumping the tanks?
No, but you must wash your hands thoroughly after you are through.
Rich and I don’t wear gloves for hooking up or dumping. We promptly wash our hands with soap and water after hook up is complete.
If you are icked out by touching the sewer hose or the residual liquid that sometimes drips out of the black tank outlet, by all means wear gloves. Especially if it will make you more comfortable or get you to use your Airstream toilet instead of the campground’s.
Use disposable vinyl or latex gloves and toss them after one use. Keep the sewer hose in a "dirty" compartment or bin away from other items like the fresh water hose. We keep our sewer hose in the back bumper compartment of our 23 foot Globetrotter.
What’s the best way to dump the tanks?
Whether you have hookups at the campsite or you are using the dump station, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3:
- Pull open the black tank valve and keep it open until you can tell hear that all of the nastiness has shot through (this will be quite obvious)
- Close the black tank valve
- Pull open the gray tank valve and keep it open until you can hear that liquid in the gray tank. The gray tank water will flush out the black tank goo left in the hose.
What’s the deal with the sewer hose that has a clear plastic elbow at one end? Do we need one?
If you enjoy watching your raw sewage flow into the septic system, sure. But know that the plastic window is only for show; it has no practical or technical purpose.
Our sewer hose does not have a clear plastic elbow. (Yet ironically, the elbow is yellow.)
Is there something I should do to maintain the toilet/sewer system?
Yes. Use RV toilet treatment chemicals each time you dump the tanks.
The enzymes reduce smell, minimize chunks in the black tank, and generally keep things flowing.
Here’s how to use them:
- Dump the gray and black tanks
- Turn on the pump and fill the toilet bowl about half with water
- Pour in the recommended amount of RV chemicals (read the label)
- Flush the toilet and all of the chemicals down
There are dozens of brands of RV toilet treatment chemicals. They are inexpensive and you can get them at Wal-Mart, Camping World, or other RV stores. We don’t have a recommended brand, but here is one we’ve used.
How often should we perform a “black tank flush?”
The “black tank flush” is a feature installed in all modern Airstreams. Essentially, it’s a little shower head in the black tank that lets you rinse down the tank periodically. You hook up a freshwater hose to the fitting marked “Black Tank Flush” on your Airstream, and turn the water on full. Check your Owner's Manual for details.
There is no specific, factory recommendation about the frequency of a black tank flush. The Airstream Owner's Manual only recommends that the tank flush be used "on a regular basis or the holes on the spray head may become closed.”
If you follow proper dumping procedures, use RV toilet treatment chemicals after each dump, and don’t put the wrong stuff down your toilet, you shouldn't need to perform a black tank flush because the tank won’t get gunked up or clogged. Certainly you can perform the task for peace of mind or personal preference, but we have traveled for years without needing it.
Should the black valve remain open when at a full hookup site?
No. It’s ok to open the gray valve and empty the gray tank if you need to during your stay, but not the black valve. The goal is to keep the contents of the black tank in the black tank, until it’s time to dump it before you leave.
How do I know when it’s time to dump the gray tank?
The tank monitor (SeeLevel II in late model trailers) will show "100%" and/or water will stop going down into your sinks, toilet, and shower. It’s a real treat when the gray tank fills up when you are taking a shower. If you're not fond of that, you can dump it every 2-3 days of typical use.
Should I clean the gray and black tank with bleach?
No. Your tanks are simply storing the yucky stuff until you dump at the campsite or dumping station. Where do you think it goes after that? Into someone’s septic system, that’s where.
Bleach kills the natural bacteria that makes those systems work. So, be kind to other people’s septic systems—do not put bleach into your tanks. And do not use bleach to clean the shower or sinks either.
So why is it ok to use bleach to sanitize the freshwater tank, then? Because such a minute amount is used in the disinfection process. The dilution calculation is in this blog we recently posted on how to sanitize the freshwater tanks.
I’ve read that ice cubes can clean the black tank. Is that true?
No. This is an urban myth. The only benefit is that once melted, the water will keep things properly sloshy.
Does the toilet need to be winterized?
Definitely yes! If you don’t winterize, you’ll run into the same issue one of our campsite neighbors had last year: They bought a brand new Airstream then ended up unexpectedly having to store it for six months over the winter before ever traveling in it. They weren’t told about how to winterize it, so they didn’t.
On the Airstream’s maiden voyage out of storage, the toilet plumbing had, unbeknownst to them until they got to the campground, cracked. Unfortunately, they hooked up their trailer and left for the day only to come back to flood from the freshwater tank inside.
You’ll find the winterizing procedure in your Owner’s Manual, by Googling it, or in Rich’s book, The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance.
Nothing about maintaining an Airstream toilet is rocket science. If you’ve been a bit perplexed about maintaining (or using) yours, I hope this blog has clarified a few things. After all, just the fact that modern Airstreams have a sewer system is a luxury.
In Wally Byam’s day, an Airstream had a built-in toilet, but it wasn’t connected to a tank. Airstreamers would dig a hole in the ground directly underneath the potty, and just let nature flow. The Airstreamers of old called it the “gopher hole” and often had decorating contests during caravans and rallies to see who could make theirs the prettiest.
Sit with that image for a while and you’ll see your modern Airstream toilet in a whole new light.
We were told the ice cube trick by an Airstream Dealer, that is to put ice cubes down the toilet on travel day to help break up any remaining contents in the black tank. Also recommended adding a “cheap” can of beer. It did seem to work, especially when the black tank still read say 25-30% after dumping.
Another tip I was told from a fellow Airstreamer, was to bring the black tank flush hose into the airstream and spray down into the toilet to do a more thorough cleaning. I haven’t tried this yet, and am curious what you all think about this additional step.
Lastly, doing a thorough cleaning of the sewer hoses has always been a bit tricky with a garden hose sprayer, until I found the Rhino Sewer Hose Rinse Kit. Helpful tool.
This post had me laughing, thanks for the chuckle!
I’m curious why dish detergent is on the list of things to avoid flushing.
Anne, the dish detergent recommendation comes from the Airstream Owner’s Manual, in the section: Black and Gray Water Tank Draining. “Do not use any dish detergent or abrasive cleaners.”
Steve, it’s not surprising that someone at the Airstream dealership mentioned the old ice cube story—that myth has been going around a long time. (Although I have to say the “can of beer” twist is a new one!)
Ice actually inhibits the process you want. The best practice is to use a tank chemical that encourages the waste to liquify, in plenty of water. You can read more about this in The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming, 4th Edition, pages 43-44.
If you maintain the black tank properly (use plenty of water, dump after every trip, use appropriate tank chemical every time) build-up won’t occur and you won’t need to make any special efforts.
Thanks for sharing the tip on the Rhino Sewer Hose Rinse Kit— and happy dumping! ;-)
Just curious. What is the rationale for keeping the black tank valve closed when at a full hookup site?
Jill, if you leave the black tank valve open, the water will drain out and the solids will settle on the bottom of the tank. Eventually they’ll form a buildup inside the tank that will be very difficult to remove.
You want the tank to have a good ratio of water and tank chemical at all times so that solids partially liquify and WHOOSH out when you pull the dump valve.
So always let the black tank fill up at least halfway before you dump. If you can’t do that, add water to the tank by filling the toilet bowl and flushing a few times, before you dump the tank.