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Motorhome & Campervan Toilets – All You Need to Know
It’s the thing about van life everyone wants to know! If you’re wondering how motorhome toilets work, how to empty your campervan toilet, or even how to use it, then you’re in the right place.
Motorhome Toilet Types
The chances are if you have a European or UK manufactured motorhome or caravan, you will have a Dometic or Thetford cassette toilet – these are the most popular motorhome and campervan toilet options in the UK.
These cassette toilets don’t look dissimilar to the loo at home and can be plastic or porcelain. Some even swivel to allow for clever wet room arrangements and to make the most of awkward shaped bathrooms and small spaces in van conversions.
These motorhome toilet systems are permanently installed over a cassette which acts as a small holding tank for your toilet waste until you are able to empty it. When you open the toilet blade (a flat plastic cover which separates bowl from cassette and slides back when you open it with a lever) and flush, the matter drops directly into the waste tank below.
When the cassette is full, it is taken out through a service door on the outside of the van and emptied at a waste disposal station (more of the emptying later!).
If you have bought a second-hand or used motorhome with a Thetford toilet, you may want to consider one of their fresh-up sets which consists of a new cassette and toilet seat. We have done this for every motorhome we’ve bought, …it’s just one of those things!
SOG Toilet System
A SOG toilet is not a toilet in itself, but a system you fit to a cassette toilet. Fitting a SOG system means you will not need chemicals and in fact, defeats the object if you do use them.
What is a SOG toilet system? It’s basically a 12v electric fan which creates a negative pressure and extracts any unwanted smells from the toilet cassette whenever you open the blade to flush. The vent either comes out the side or top of your van depending on cassette and layout although ideally not into your awning!
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Gravity Flush Toilet
When you have a gravity flush toilet, everything inside your motorhome looks the same as with a cassette toilet, although gravity flush toilets are often operated by a foot pedal.
The waste drops into a large holding tank which must be sited directly underneath the toilet and is emptied via a sewer hose. Some large motorhomes, overland vehicles and most RV’s have a single waste tank for both grey and black waste.
Some cassette and gravity flush toilets have a cistern, although its more common in modern motorhomes for the water to come directly from the onboard water tank.
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If you are in a camper van or small caravan you may have a Thetford Porta Potti or other type of portable camper toilet, where the lightweight plastic toilet bowl and small waste tank are separated for emptying.
This type of portable chemical toilet is also suitable for use in trailer tents and tent camping.
Composting or Compost Toilets
If you prefer to use a natural solution without chemicals, or don’t want to be dependent on finding dump stations regularly, then a composting toilet is the answer.
After using a composting toilet, you throw a handful of natural material into the compost chamber. The material covers the waste and helps it to break down, and prevents smells from rising.
Composting toilets are mostly odourless, other than a sort of peaty smell, and don’t need to be cleaned out as often as other types of campervan toilet. They use hardly any water, and don’t need to be plumbed in. You do need to rotate the compost chamber frequently to aerate it.
In a compost toilet, solids do not start the composting process but are compostable on disposal – you can find out more about compost toilets here.
Waste from these toilets can be disposed of easily. Urine can be tipped down a public toilet or out in the wilds (away from inhabited areas, public roads, drains and watercourses) while solids can be double bagged and placed in a compost bin or general waste.
This type of toilet is a good option if you’re touring or travelling where chemical toilet points are few and far between. Some models need 12v to run a small ventilation fan which is a sustainable option if you use solar power.
Macerator & Vacuum Flush Toilets
These types of toilets use flushing technology which means the toilet and waste holding tank can be some distance apart. This makes them suitable for very large motorhomes and RV’s.
Using Your Motorhome Toilet
There is an endless debate in the motorhome community about whether it’s ok to poo in your motorhome toilet. Of course it is!
After years of working in healthcare, I can confirm that urine smells way worse than poo when it starts to break down, but is bulkier and will fill up your cassette faster.
Some people don’t like pooing in their van toilet because they like to keep it fresh and don’t want to carry a toilet brush – I get that!
You can get biodegradable toilet bowl liners which help conserve water and cassette capacity. Just do the business, seal the bag and flush down a normal toilet.
Lots of people ask about the order of things – should you open the blade before or after performing? After three years of full-time motorhome life, I can tell you that it doesn’t matter! They key thing is not to open the blade whilst seated – weight on the plastic parts of your toilet can distort them as they move.
Portable and cassette toilets in motorhomes (sometimes known as a chemical toilet or Elsan toilet) will require chemicals to help manage the smell as your waste breaks down.
Gravity-flush toilets do not need chemicals as they are designed to have water in the bowl which prevents smells from rising.
Chemicals for your motorhome or caravan cassette toilet are widely available in most large supermarkets and all camping shops. These are the original Thetford colours but would will find that other brands have mirrored them for ease.
- Blue – for the toilet cassette, helps to mask the smell
- Green – as above but environmentally friendly and could be emptied down a normal loo
- Pink – for the flush-water tank or cistern if you have one, keeps the bowl clean and smells nice
What about toilet paper for campervan toilets? We generally use middle-of-the-road loo paper, not the cheapest but not quilted. We find that this breaks down without a problem.
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Disposing of Black Waste
For many motorhomers, this is, unsurprisignly their least favourite task. Whenever we stay on a site, we are woken early by canny fellow travellers trundling their toilet cassette off to the disposal point, in the knowledge that first thing in the morning is the most fragrant time for this notoriously smelly place!
In our experience, black waste points come in many forms and are not all equal. We’ve used everything from a shiny purpose built service area with automatic flushing, to literally an open sewer in the ground.
You can find out where to empty your motorhome toilet using Park4Night, which shows service points on its app.
Always wear protective gloves when emptying your motorhome or campervan toilet – we also know someone who has special shorts for the job!
Emptying Cassette & Portable Toilets
Some motorhome and caravan toilets will have a light by the flush button to let you know when they’re nearly full. Always empty when the light is amber – from bitter experience, we know not to leave it until the light is red! If you’re travelling as a couple and use your toilet for all your needs, this is likely to be every three days or so.
In some badly designed chemical toilet emptying points, if the hole or grating is particularly small and the poo has yet to break down, you may be faced with having to poke it or break it up in some way to get rid of it! If you suspect this is the case, make sure you have a stick handy for poking – don’t use the hose or you may well end up covered …you have been warned!
Emptying Gravity Flush Toilets
For those with a fixed black waste holding tank, how often you empty it depends on how large the tank is and whether it’s a combined black and grey waste tank.
The average person creates around two lites of bodily waste a day. Add a bit more for loo roll and you should be able to work it out,
Black waste tanks cannot be emptied into cassette toilet emptying points which are not designed to accept sewer waste from a hose.
Combined black and grey waste cannot be disposed of in the normal European and UK grey waste facilities, which are designed to cater for grey waste only.
Because of the faecal matter in your waste, you will need to find a specialist service point which has a drive over all in one waste disposal point. These can sometimes be found in marinas or boat yards, or you could find a manhole which goes directly into a sewer and empty into that – just make sure it’s not a storm drain.
Follow these tips for emptying;
- Drive your motorhome close to or over the grill or manhole.
- Place one end of your sewer hose over the grating or hole or fix to the outlet, depending on the type of dump station.
- Check that the valves to your black water tank (and your grey water tank, if you have one) are both closed.
- Unscrew the cap to your black or waste water tank.
- Attach the hose adapter and check it is secure.
- Open the valve to the black or waste water tank.
- The waste will rush down the hose and empty.
- Once empty, connect a garden hose to the rinse valve if you have one and flush through the last of the waste. Let it run for a few minutes.
- If you don’t have a dedicated rinse system, just flush your toilet a few times.
- Close the valves, then disconnect the hoses and rinse them through.
- Add some fresh water and chemicals to your holding tank before using your toilet again.
Motorhome Toilets & Wild Camping
If you’re planning on wild camping and your motorhome uses a cassette or portable toilet, follow these tips to manage your black waste;
- If you don’t use chemicals in your loo, you can empty your waste into any toilet, but you should make sure that you can keep the area properly clean after you have emptied which can be difficult, as public WC’s are not designed for toilet cassette disposal. This can also also be awkward as non-van lifers won’t understand what you’re doing.
- The flush system on most motorhome loos will not cover the whole bowl with water unless you run the flush for at least 30 seconds; not the best use of your limited water or cassette capacity. Keep a spray bottle of water and Thetford Pink Fluid in the loo and use to to cover the bowl after use. This will dilute any residual urine and stop it breaking down so quickly, which is when it starts to smell, keeping your toilet fresh with minimal water.
- Get a composting toilet. You won’t need water or chemicals as no flushing is required. Some portable campervan composting toilets even fold up when not in use!
- Take a fold-up shovel, dig a hole and do it the old-fashioned way. Poo responsibly and make sure you’re as far away from buildings, watercourses and wildlife as possible. Remember not to leave soiled loo paper for others to find or animals to dig up. Use a biodegradable nappy sack or dog waste bag until you can dispose of it properly.
- Carry a spare motorhome toilet cassette, this will give you twice as long out in the wilds!