No one really enjoys thinking about the sewage holding tanks in RVs, but everyone is aware of them when they are not acting properly. A lot has been written on the proper day-to-day maintenance and options for RV black tanks, but have you given much thought as to what happens after you dump those tanks?
Many dump stations, particularly in rural areas where connections to municipal sewer systems are not available, are effective septic systems. These systems contain a septic tank and an absorption field or leach field. The septic tank separates solids from liquids and begins the breakdown of material through bacteria and microbes naturally present in the wastewater. The leach field continues to treat the liquid wastes through physical, and biological processes before absorbing into the surrounding soil.
What you may not realize is that adding chemicals to your RV tank system can affect the ability for the dump stations to effectively treat the waste in them. Many cleaners and odor control products on the market contain chemicals like formaldehyde (or formalin) or para-dichlorobenzene (commonly found in urinal cakes and bowl fresheners) that are not only known carcinogens but can inhibit proper decomposition, produce toxic fumes, corrode pipelines, and pollute the soil and groundwater. These chemicals cause the bacteria in the septic treatment system to die, so the system cannot breakdown the waste.
An easy way to prevent chemical damage to dump stations is to know what is in the products you use by carefully reading the labels.
- Avoid products containing formalin or formaldehyde, para-dichlorobenzene, heavy metals (such as zinc), benzene, toluene, xylene, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), methylene chloride, 1,1,1-trichloroethane (TCA), perchloroethylene (PCE), sulfuric acid, and caustic soda.
- Never dispose of household chemicals, gasoline, motor oil, pesticides, paint, or antifreeze at dump stations.
- Clogging items such as cat litter (even the ones claiming to be flushable), coffee grounds, diapers, and grease should also not be disposed of at dumping stations.
There are a number of great alternative products on the market that do not use harsh chemicals to treat black tanks and control odor. Look for products that are biodegradable and septic-safe.
You might also want to investigate alternatives to having a black tank at all. Composting toilets do not require water (save it for another use) or a holding tank (so long dump stations!). It may seem initially weird to let your waste sit around composting rather than flushing it away, but since they separate liquids from solids, it produces fewer odors.
Incinerating toilets are another waterless option. They use a special chamber to incinerate waste. They are a very low-maintenance system producing a small amount of ash and almost no odor. It takes about 10 minutes to incinerate urine, and about half an hour to reduce solid waste to ash. As you might imagine, incinerating toilets require electricity and/or propane to do their magic.
Considering that the reason we all enjoy getting out in our RVs is to enjoy the beauty of the natural world, taking some time to consider how we can keep the beauty of our natural resources safe for future enjoyment is a small price to pay.