RV plumbing for dummies – parts, cleaning and winterizing

If you’re new to RVs and are looking to educate yourself about how water and waste is handled on board, than this RV plumbing guide for dummies is for you. RV plumbing is very different than the plumbing you have at home, because it is designed to conserve as much water as possible. In this guide, we will go through the basic components that make up your RV’s plumbing system, how and when to clean each component and how to set up your RV for winter in cold climates otherwise known as “winterizing” you RV.

The Components


The Fresh water tank

The Fresh water tank, like the name implies is where you keep water intended for use. You can use this water to drink, wash things and wash yourself. There is however a limited amount of it (don’t forget you’re transporting all this in a vehicle) so use the water wisely. Once you open a faucet somewhere in the vehicle and the water goes down the drain it will end up in a separate tank called a holding tank (we’ll get to those in a minute).

Filling the fresh water tank

There are two inputs to fill the fresh water tank. One for city water hookups and another for filling up manually with a regular hose. Remember that some RVs aren’t equipped with filtration systems, so if you want to filter the water before it gets into your RV, you’ll need an external filter that connects to the hose prior to filling up.

If you’re filling up from a city water source, you’ll need to have a certified potable water hose. These are made out of a special polymer, so you won’t have any plastic residue in your water and your water will taste fresh, which is generally a good thing.

More importantly you’ll need a pressure regulator on the other side of the hose (the side that connects to the city), to keep the pressure down and not cause damage to your hose or your fresh water tank.

If you’re camping in extremely low temperatures, you might need to weatherproof your certified potable water hose or else it could potentially freeze along with the water inside. You can do so by wrapping the hose with heat tape that will repel the cold and keep the contents of the hose safe from extreme temperature changes.

If you don’t plan on boondocking for a long period you need not fill the tank all the way. The weight will slow you down and make you consume more fuel.

On the other hand if you’re looking to top off your water to the maximum, then open the hot water faucet while filling up, this will help fill up the tank that holds the hot water in your RV.

Cleaning your fresh water tank

Depending on how much you use it, you should clean out the fresh water tank every so often. Unless you’re full-timing, then you can probably clean the tank less because it’s in constant use. I clean my fresh water tank every six months. You might also need to clean the tank, if it gets contaminated by mistake.

I use a mixture of bleach and baking soda. I keep the mixture idle in the tank for about 7 minutes. Here are the ratios:

  • 5 gallons of water
  • 3 cups of bleach
  • 200g of baking soda

After you pour the mixture into your fresh water tanks and wait a while, drain the tank by opening all the faucets (hot water included). Doing it this way rather than just opening the fresh water drain will allow you to run the mixture in black and gray water tanks as well, which is always a good thing. However this means you’ll also need to drain them as well. The good news is that this will clean your holding tanks at the same time. I typically add a little more baking soda and water down the toilet to clean out the black water tank.

After you’ve drained all the tanks. You’ll need to repeat the process with just water a couple of times, to make sure to clear any excess residue in your tanks and pipes.

Tips to consume less water

  • Learn how to take navy showers. First, wet yourself and hair with water. Then turn off the water and slather yourself with soap and shampoo. Then rinse yourself off. You’ll probably save 80% of the water you use showering this way.
  • Use the restaurant method to wash your dishes. Fill two large container one with soapy water and one with clean water. Soap all your dishes then rinse them, bringing them from one container to the other.
  • Only flush down stool

  • The Gray Water tank

    the hoding tanks - part 2

    The gray water tank is one of two holding tanks in your RV. It’s the tank that holds the water that goes down the drain of the sink and the shower. This water is obviously not drinkable and will likely contain soap from your dishes and shower so think of it more as waste – the cleaner waste if you will.

    Emptying the gray water tank

    It is acceptable to empty your gray water tank in the nature as it does not contain anything toxic or that’s a biohazard. You can also empty this tank at a dump station. Remember to never use the same hose you use to fill your fresh water tank. I use a different color hose so that i never risk contaminating my drinking water. I also have a special drain cap on the tank that allows me to empty it out by plugging a normal gardening hose right to it. The black water tank is the more complicated and riskier component to empty in your RV plumbing.

    The Black water tank

    the hoding tanks - part 1

    The black water tank holds all the fesses that you and the other campers produce. The one thing you should know about this tank is that if you accidentally clog it or mess up its draining you’ll have a pretty nasty project on your list, so be absolutely positive on the correct way of handling the tank and its contents.

    Moisture in this tank is good because it helps break down the solids and makes for a cleaner draining process. So it’s ok to flush with a lot of water.

    Another thing to keep in mind is toilet paper. Unless you are using a type of toilet paper that breaks down super fast or that is specifically designed for RVs, it’s a good idea to use as little toilet paper as possible. This will make it easier for your RV’s plumbing to handle the waste.

    Empty your holding tanks (gray + black) on a schedule. Many people use the sensors on their RVs and complain that the readings are inaccurate. This is because these sensors are cheap and aren’t really reliable in most cases. By emptying your tanks on a schedule, you’ll make sure that you never run into problems on the road. Depending on how many people are in your RV, you’ll need to empty the tanks more or less often.

    Emptying the black water tank

    There is no getting around emptying your black water tank except at official dump stations. It’s absolutely unacceptable to dump in the outside world and it can and will cause other people and the environment harm if you decide to do so.

    Come up with a method to handle the waste hose and store it, to keep the process as efficient and quick as possible. I like using thick heavy duty gloves but i’ve seen other people using gardening gloves or latex disposable ones.

    Connect your dump hose to the RV and secure it with an odor tight clamp. This makes the process a little cleaner and insures that no waste seeps out while you empty the worst component of your RV plumbing.

    For extra measure, pour some water down the toilet while this process is taking place, this will ensure that all the broken down matter in the tank gets sucked down the sewer and outside your RV’s plumbing.

    Cleaning your black water tank

    Clean your black water tank periodically to avoid any nasty build up. As mentioned, I clean mine every six month when I also clean my fresh water tank.

    If you just want to clean your black water tank, you can do this by pouring a mixture of bleach, baking soda and water directly into your toilet.
    Here are my ratios for the black water tank.

    • 6 gallons of water
    • 4 cups of bleach
    • 400g of baking soda

    You can drive around a little to slosh the mixture up and make sure it get to every crevice in your black water tank. Make sure the mixture doesn’t spend more than 30 minutes in the tank.

    You can also do another round with just baking soda and water. Afterwards refill the black water tank with just water to make sure that there is no more bleach left in the black water tank.

    Other components

    • The Water Heater: It consists of a heating element and a storing element. It typically stores 6-10 gallons of hot water and runs on propane or electrical. I found that propane heating systems are typically more efficient, plus I like to keep more electricity available for my other appliances and heating can kill a lot of electricity especially in winter.
      Don’t forget that you can choose to bypass the heating system when driving in hot climate (you have to be willing to give up hot water of course). This will also save you a lot of water weight.
    • The Water pump: The water pump is responsible for bringing water from the fresh water tank into the different faucets. It is the heart responsible for making sure water gets to where it needs to go. It’s also a key component when winterizing your RV, we’ll get into that shortly. You should only hear you pump working when a faucet is open, otherwise it is very likely that you have a leak in your RV’s plumbing.

    Winterizing your RV plumbing for the cold winter

    Winterizing refers to the process of coating your plumbing with antifreeze so that the water doesn’t freeze inside it, cracking the pipes and causing you costly repairs. Many people do this themselves, however you can also get it done professionally at any service centre, it is a rather quick and cheap process. Click here for a directory of RV service stations

    Before starting any winterizing process you need access to the following

    • 2-3 gallons of antifreeze
    • An air compressor and a 50 psi regulator
    • A hose that is the same shape and size as the inline hose connecting your pump to the rest of the plumbing.

    Here is how to winterize you RV step by step

    • Drain the holding tanks
    • Drain the freshwater tank
    • Drain the water heater tank (Don’t forget to release the pressure valve carefully first if you’re RV is equipped with one – refer to user’s manual if unsure)
    • Hook up the air compressor to your fresh water tank valve (make sure to have your pressure regulator on there – we’re looking for pressure between 40 and 50 psi to not damage anything). you’re gonna keep that hooked up, until all water has evacuated the vehicle
    • Toggle your heater bypass switch so that you do not fill your hot water tank with antifreeze later.
    • Open all faucets to drain all the water in the pipes until you hear the sound from the air compressor
    • Remove compressor
    • Locate the pump, and detach the inline hose that connects the pump to the fresh water tank
    • Connect your external hose to the pump and put the other side your antifreeze container
    • Open then close all – one at a time – faucets when you see a steady stream of antifreeze coming out. Don’t forget to do this with both cold and hot knobs
    • Pour more antifreeze down each drain
    • flush out your holding tanks now filled with antifreeze
    • Rinse out your RV plumbing system with water a couple of times by loading it and unloading it with water and then draining
    • Your RV’ plumbing is now winterized
    • We hope our RV plumbing for dummies guide was helpful to you. If you have any questions or different ways of winterizing or cleaning, share them with us below in the comment section. We’ll get back to you within a day!

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