Reasons Black & Grey RV Holding Tanks Clog
So you’ve taken your RV to the dump only to find that the black or grey tank will only empty a few gallons, or not at all.
This is a common problem for RV owners, especially those who are dumping a used RV or trailer for the first time.
Related Product: Dump your RV without moving by using a Camco Rhino Portable RV Waste Tank (click to view on Amazon)
Improper RV holding tank maintenance is one of the major causes for clogged black tanks, and the previous owner may not have taken proper care of their RV waste tanks.
There are three major causes of blocked or clogged RV waste tanks.
- Broken Gate Valve or T-Handle
- Inorganic Blockage (flushable wipes, foreign objects, things like that)
- Organic Blockage (valve was left open for a long time, causing things to dry and harden, creating a blockage)
In this article, I’ll go through some of the main things you can do to unclog a black or grey tank yourself.
I’ll start with things you can do with limited equipment in case you are standing at the RV dump station right now reading this article, trying to unclog a black tank.
How To Unclog An RV Black Tank
No matter what the reason is for a clogged black tank, there are a few things you can try right now to get things flowing again.
If none of these things work, you may need to resort to the more time-consuming methods outlined further on in this article.
Make Sure The Gate Valve Is Open
The first thing you need to check for is if the gate valve is open or not.
Unless you have a serious hard buildup and blockage right at the valve opening of your black tank, there should be at least some liquid that comes out.
If absolutely nothing comes out when you open your black tank, the problem may be the gate valve.
While it’s not a common problem, it’s worth checking out.
You should be able to see the gate pull out when you pull on the t-handle.
If you have a trailer like mine where you can’t see the gate move in or out the t-handle should have a bit of resistance when you pull open the gate valve.
If the t-handle can move in or out easily and seems like it’s not attached to anything, that means the gate valve isn’t opening.
If the t-handle is broken, you may have to take some pliers and open the gate valve yourself.
If the waste tank drains like normal, you have found your issue.
Back Flush It
The most common problem will be a clog of some sort right at the valve opening.
If you are lucky, it’s just a buildup of toilet paper and other organic stuff (aka number two).
You need to flush the tank out backward from the valve opening to displace the clog and hopefully break it apart.
If you have a black tank flush on your RV, travel trailer, or 5th-wheel this may not work because you need to attack the clog from the other end.
I suggest always having a sewer tank rinser like the Camco Rhino Blaster Pro W/Gate Valve (click to view on Amazon) for an emergency situation like this one.
Holding tank back flush products like these can be useful in holding tank maintenance and for breaking up or even snaking out clogs.
If you already have one of these, attach it and start shooting water into the clogged black tank.
It should either break up the clog or at least move it to allow the rest of the black tank to drain.
If you don’t have a black tank flush attachment like this, you can also try to flush water into the black tank by opening the grey tank all the way for a few seconds.
When both valves are open, some of the water from the grey tank should flow into the black tank and put pressure on the clog. If you are lucky, it will break it up.
Try opening the grey tank valve while the black tank valve is open a few times.
If the grey tank is empty, fill it up all the way so you can get a lot of pressure when you open it.
Hopefully, this method will get your black tank draining again.
As a last resort, you can always use a hose. This method isn’t always optimal because if the clog gets broken up and you don’t have the sewer hose attached, it’s going to be a mess.
Be ready to close the gate valve once the clog is broken so you can put the sewer hose back and get things diverted to where they’re supposed to go.
Check The Roof Vent
If back flushing didn’t work, there are still a few things you can check or try before getting into the more time-consuming methods for unblocking a clogged black tank.
If your black tank is slowly draining but not flowing out as fast as it should, you may have a clogged air vent.
This issue is more common than you think, especially if you are camping or storing your RV in an area with lots of wasps. They may have built a nest in your vent.
You can check this by having someone go into the RV or trailer and flush the toilet while the water pump is off.
If your black tank suddenly flows more and it seems like a vacuum seal was broken by allowing air into the tank, then you know the air vent is clogged.
Once you’ve emptied your black tank with the toilet open, you can try to unclog the air vent by removing the cap to it on the roof and sticking a hose down to break up whatever is clogging it.
If your roof cap was on properly, it shouldn’t be anything more than a wasps’ nest or some toilet paper that found its way into the vent.
Note there is both a grey and a black tank vent on the roof of an RV.
Normally, the smell indicates which one is which, but if you don’t know for sure, you can always flush out both of them.
Once you are done flushing out the vent, you will need to reseal the screws on the cap.
Self Leveling Lap Sealant by Dicor (click to view on Amazon) is the top choice of most RVers for sealing anything on a camper roof.
You can also use Eternabond Roof Tape (click to view on Amazon).
It’s easier to store than lap sealant, it can also seal pretty much anything on an RV roof, and there’s a lot less mess.
Dump Water Into The Toilet
If back flushing the tank sort of worked and there is at least some black water draining out of the black tank, another thing you can try is to dump a 5-gallon bucket of water into the toilet.
The high velocity of water flushing into the black tank all at one time should break up the clog even more or possibly force out any foreign objects that were blocking it.
Don’t start with this method as it could make the clog worse. Only do this if you are getting some black water to come out of your black tank after back flushing it.
The Drive Around Method
If you’ve tried these things and the clog still won’t loosen up, you are going to have to use water, chemicals, and motion to loosen up the blockage.
If you have recently bought a used trailer and haven’t taken it camping yet, do this to get rid of anything in the RV waste tanks the previous owner may have left you with.
You also should do this to get your black tank good and clean before winterizing it as well.
First, make sure the black tank valve is closed. Some people don’t realize they are open and have been using their black tank, which is a big reason clogs happen.
See Also: Best RV Sewer Hose Kits Reviewed & Rated
Next, you are going to need some chemicals.
You should always use some sort of black tank treatment like Camco RV Toilet Treatment (click to view on Amazon) or better yet Happy Campers Organic RV Holding Tank Treatment (click to view on Amazon).
You can find the Camco RV toilet treatment in almost any hardware or superstore, but if you have the chance to get the Happy Camper RV Tank Treatment, I recommend that one.
It may say organic on the packaging, but it’s one of the best RV toilet treatments out there and it can break down clogs like nothing else.
Get your 5-gallon bucket and fill it with hot water and about a half a cup of dish washing soap.
Cold water will work as well, but hot water is going to be more effective.
Take the RV holding tank treatment and dump about 2-3 times more than you normally would down the toilet.
Next, dump the 5 gallons of hot water + dish soap down the toilet as well.
If you have enough hot water to dump a few more 5 gallon buckets down the toilet, it’s a good idea to do that, especially if your waste tank is low on water.
If not, dump at least one more bucket of water down the toilet, even if it’s cold water.
It’s time to take your RV or trailer for a ride. You want to get the water sloshing around to break up anything and everything in your RV black tank.
You don’t have to go crazy and drive 50 mph down a washboard dirt road, but getting the trailer moving is going to be your best bet at breaking down the clog.
If you have the time, you can even let your trailer sit for a few days to let the chemical do the work.
If you don’t have the time for that, going for a good long drive may be all it takes.
Once you’ve driven around, try to dump the black tank again.
Hopefully, this has broken down any organic blockage or caused whatever was blocking the valve to come out.
You may need to implement some of the previous steps to get things going.
There is one more thing you can do before calling a plumber and possibly taking apart the entire RV black tank valve system. You can snake it.
Just as a warning, if you have never used a drain snake before, you need to be really careful to not cause the snake to get bunched up in the pipe because the snake could get stuck as well.
Everything should work fairly easily and never use excessive force.
The main issue with snaking your black tank from the gate valve end is if you break up the clog you are going to have a ton of nasty raw sewage pouring out quickly.
If you’re not prepared, you may end up with a giant mess on your hands.
There are a few things you can do to minimize the mess and contain the black water coming out.
The simplest thing people do is drill a hole on the top of their sewer hose near the bayonet coupling.
This will, of course, destroy your sewer hose and you are going to need a backup one handy.
You can get a cheap sewer hose for this so you don’t destroy your nice one.
Once you’ve drilled a hole in the top, you can slip the snake in and start working it into the black tank.
Most black tanks have little distance between the main opening and the gate valve, so a short snake like the General Pipe Cleaners 3-Foot Toilet Auger (click to view on Amazon) with a 1/2 inch snake should work.
Make sure the snake goes in the correct tank.
Once you’ve got the main part of the snake through the hole you’ve made, I suggest using a rubber glove or at least a rag to stop sewage from leaking out the sides.
Now you can start snaking.
Once the clog has been hit and broken up, sewage should start flowing out right away.
Even though it’s going to be a mess, let some of it drain out to make sure it released the clog.
You don’t need to dump your entire black tank with the compromised sewer hose.
Once the clog has drained out, close the gate valve and switch the bad sewer hose with a good one and finish dumping your black tank.
Another thing I’ve seen people do is use their RV black tank flush attachment to feed the drain snake through.
You may need to drill the part the hose attaches to make it big enough to allow the snake through.
This method works as well and you might not have to damage a sewer hose if you do this.
The drawback to this method is you may damage the RV black tank flush attachment if you are not careful and they can be more expensive than a new sewer hose.
Call The Professionals
The black tank on a family member’s 5th-wheel got clogged this summer.
We did what we could to fix it but the clog just wouldn’t break up. It ended up being a situation where we needed to call someone to help us.
The best option ended up being a porta potty company. Surprisingly enough, those kinds of companies actually dump RVs all the time.
They had a special attachment made specifically for RVs, and they could vacuum the clog out of the black tank and dump the rest of it at the same time.
There was no mess. We got the tank dumped, and the price was very reasonable.
If there’s no porta potty company around, your next option would be a plumber or RV repair shop.
Neither of those options sound great but if you’ve tried these things and nothing has worked, you may be out of options.
How To Unclog An RV Grey Tank
It’s less common for RV grey tanks to clog, but it happens. You can use any of these methods used to unclog an RV black tank.
The only thing I would change would be if you are going to use the water in the black tank to flush out a clog in the grey tank to make sure the black tank has been fully drained and cleaned as much as it can be.
You don’t want raw sewage going into your grey tank.
You can do this by emptying your black tank and flushing it out with a Camco Swivel Stick Black Tank Sprayer (click to view on Amazon).
Dumping a 5-gallon bucket full of water and dish soap down the toilet a few times will help clean it out as well.
Then fill the black tank with fresh water so you have something to flush into the clogged grey tank.
There is also no direct opening to the grey tank like there is to the black tank. It’s going to be harder to get a ton of water into the tank all at once.
First, put holding tank treatment into the kitchen sinks, bathroom sink, and bathtub and then try to dump as much water as you can down each drain all at the same time to get as much water flowing into the grey tank as possible.
Hopefully doing this will unclog your grey tank. If they don’t work, you can also use the snake method.
Final Thoughts On What To Do If The Black Or Grey Waste Tanks Won’t Drain
Things go wrong with RVs, travel trailers, and 5th-wheels all the time.
I’ve had to fix almost everything on my used travel trailer even after just a year of owning it. Having clogged holding/waste tanks is just another part of RV ownership.
Hopefully, being able to go camping or travel the world in an RV makes up for all the problems you experience along the way.
There are things you can do to properly maintain RV holding tanks so you never experience any clogs. You can read about that in this article here.
I hope at least one of these methods has worked for you and you haven’t given up on camping or RV life.
As a reminder, if you have bought a used RV, whether it was from a private seller or a dealer, make sure you fill the holding tanks with water and dump your RV before taking it camping.
You never know how someone else has treated their RV holding tanks and you can hopefully avoid any future clogs by cleaning your holding tanks really well before using them.
Have any more questions about RV black or grey tanks and fixing waste tank clogs? Leave a comment below.