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Battling odors: The scoop on poop

One of the very first things I learned within a week of starting to RV full-time was that odors are a problem in RVs. When you’re cooped up inside, you may get used to the smell. But, after being outside for a while, opening that door can yield an unpleasant surprise.

There are dozens of products that people can buy to curb or mask odors, but when you’re carrying what’s basically an outhouse onboard your RV, there are bound to be challenges.

Here are some recommendations I have learned through trial and error:

1. Take out the garbage regularly

Not all odors are bathroom related. Remember those fresh chicken breasts you grilled a few days ago? If the container is still in your wastebasket, chances are its a leading culprit to household odors. For some reason, fruit seems to rot faster in an RV than it did at home — and that means dealing with fruit flies.

2. Don’t leave tanks open

One of the biggest misconceptions that RVers have is that when they get to a campsite that offers full hook-ups, they must attach the hose and open the valves — and leave them open. That’s a big mistake! People who do that cause the water to rush out of the RV leaving solid wastes behind in the black tank and in the crevices of the expandable hose. That’s a leading contributor to smelly RVs.

Don’t forget, when the hose is attached to the campground’s septic drain — and your RV’s holding tanks are open — the sewer smell can find its way from the campground’s septic system into your RV.  Always keep the tank valves closed until you dump the tanks. One full-time family I know, who often stay at the same campground for weeks at a time, have established a routine in which they dump tanks on Wednesdays. They remember the schedule by reminding themselves that “hump day” is dump day.

I have found that it is best to dump the tanks before I move the RV. That way the “crap” isn’t sloshing around while driving down the highway. And, the side benefit is you’re not carrying all that weight, which improves fuel economy.

After dumping the tanks, be sure to add a few gallons of water to prevent gook from drying up on the bottom of the tank while you’re traveling. Don’t forget, when dumping tanks, always dump the black water first followed by the gray water so they gray water works to rinse any leftover residue from the hose.

3. Use a deodorizer

Many companies provide septic deodorizers that people dump directly into their toilets. It comes in crystal form, liquid and powders. Some come in biodegradable “pods” that dissolve when it comes in contact with water.

I have tried them all and found they are all relatively similar in their ability to mask odors. The side benefit is that some of them have added chemicals or natural compounds that are designed to help break down solid waste.

If the menu called for chili last night, it’s best to drop in some deodorizer before the fun starts.

4.  Use lots of water

Be sure to use plenty of water when flushing. The error many RVers make is that they flush long enough for the material to disappear, forgetting that lots of water is needed to break down toilet tissue and solid wastes, or even to activate the deodorizer.  The more water the better.

It’s recommended that when you drop deodorizer into the tank, add at least a gallon of water. And, when flushing toilets, add more water than you think you need. Of course, when boondocking, you’ll need to be more cautious regarding water use. But, as a general rule, the more water the better.

Before leaving an RV in storage, run water into the sinks and shower to ensure there is water in the P-traps, which create a vapor barrier and prevent odors from coming back into the RV.

5. Don’t forget the gray water tanks!

If I am going to forget something, this is it. Everyone focuses on maintaining odors in the black water tank, but the gray water tank can be the source of odor, too. Why? Some people, well, pee in the shower, and that goes into the gray water tank. All the old dishwater, complete with grease and old food particles, make its way into the tank, too.

I keep a bottle of Camco Gray Water Odor Control formula under the sink and once a month I pour four ounces down the kitchen sink a day or two before I am going to dump the tanks. It works to neutralize the odors seeping back up into the sinks.

6. Add a Siphon 360

This was perhaps the best item I even acquired for my RV.  I had odor issues for the first month or two I was on the road, until some recommended that I acquire a Siphon 360, from 360 Products. This is a replacement vent for any RV. Why manufacturers don’t include this item as standard on all RVs they make is a mystery because it is that effective.

It’s super easy to install, by people inclined to do it themselves. I had a dealer do it and it took less than 15 minutes for the technician to whack off the original vent, slop on some sealer and place the device right over the vent tube.

Regardless of the direction the wind blows, it creates a vacuum that pulls odors out of the tank — even in a light breeze. Traveling down the highway, odors don’t have a chance. It will extract them from the tanks and expel them into the atmosphere.

Once I installed a Siphon 360, RV odors were virtually eliminated within a few days. The only time I really smell anything is immediately after the tanks are dumped thanks to all the churning that takes place in the process.

7. Clean tanks with ice

One of the biggest fallacies in the RV industry is the idea that a tank level measuring system is even remotely accurate. Since I have owned my RV, the black water tank has always registered as “full.” That’ because the lack of water in the tanks allows tissue and other stuff to dry onto the probes.

Once or twice a year it is recommended that RV owners fill their tanks to the three-quarter level with water, add a hefty dose of chemical designed to breakdown waste, dump in two 10-pound bags of ice, and hit the road. The sloshing and churning of the ice in the tanks, combined with the chemical solution, will work to dissolve any dried on residue along the sides of the tank and on the measuring probes.

After sloshing around for an hour or two, be sure to dump the tanks right away so nothing can get stuck on the tank or probes.

8. Use the campground bathrooms

Many RVers I know like to use their own showers, but they have implemented a rule that people who need to dump must run, or walk quickly, to the nearest campground restroom. This is probably more important for smaller trailers because only God knows why many RV manufacturers install doors to the bathrooms with gaping spaces at the top or bottom of the doors.

The result is an unpleasant condition that may leave Fido running for cover, too. With several people sharing an RV, this common courtesy may reduce arguments or the need for neckerchiefs and gas masks when sitting around the dining room table.

With these few simple suggestions, it really is possible to enjoy an odor-free RVing experience, whether for a weekend or during full-time travel.


About Greg Gerber

Greg Gerber is the editor of Let's RV and the editor of RV Daily Report. A Wisconsin native and father of three grown daughters, he is now based out of Arizona and travels the country in his Winnebago Adventurer motorhome interviewing industry professionals and interesting RVers alike. He can be reached at

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