My life on the road: shit fountains and dump stations

It doesn't matter what tech you opt for – composting toilets, incinerator toilets or, as we have in our rig, a john connected to a holding tank – if you live in an RV, sooner or later you're going to wind up handling your own waste.

The first time we dumped out tanks, it didn't go so well.

We hadn't quite started living in our old 1991 Triple E Empress just yet. At the time, we were busy downsizing our lives to fit into the motorhome, and my wife was enrolled in a week-long wilderness first aid course, in Canmore, Alberta. Normally, she would've had to spring for a hotel. But screw that, we were RV owners! We opted to parking-lot-surf for five days instead. Outside of a few frustrations that came from getting to know the Empress' heating and electrical systems, it was a comfortable week that made us feel like we'd made a good choice in buying the rig as our new home.

The Empress was an early example of the large class A RVs that you see on the road today. It was five feet shorter than our current rig, and has no slide outs. Despite its 35-foot length, things were a little bit more cozy at times than we would have liked. The Empress came with basement storage compartments. It was one of the reasons we chose it. Between my wife's dive gear, extras from our apartment that we weren't sure of whether we'd need or not, and the hardware I need to do my job, there wasn't much storage space to spare. This was largely due to the fact that a good chunk of the rig's undercarriage was eaten up by its gray tank (used to hold gray water from our shower and sinks) and black tank (used to hold whatever horrors we flushed down the toilet) and our fresh water holding tank. The two tanks could hold around a week's worth of waste before they needed to be dumped. The RV's freshwater holding tank holds about a week's worth of water.

The gauges on the RV's control panel on our dashboard didn't work when we bought it, so we used to have to eye our tank levels. Knowing when to dump the black tank was easy. We'd just look down the toilet as we flushed. If we could see that the shit and toilet paper was resting high enough in the tank to find troubling, it was time to dump. The gray tank was something of an enigma. As our sinks and shower drained in such a way that you can't see inside of the tank, we had to rely on other signs that it was full: bubbling when we pulled the plug in the sink, slow drainage or, when it was really full, grey water would come up the shower drain. That's a feature, not a fault: the extra water's gotta go somewhere and the shower is the safest bet in the rig.

We noticed that the water was taking its sweet time to drain into the tank. It was time to head to a dump station. We didn't have to go far. Canmore's full of campers during the spring and summer. To make life easier on everyone, the city installed a dump station outside of their tourist information center. We got the rig ready to move and drove over, confident that, thanks to gravity and a few minutes, we'd be ready to poop and bathe again in no time.

If you've never used a dump station before, it's a simple process. Most dump stations consist of two components: a hole in the ground that empties into a holding tank or sewage system and a non-potable water hose for cleaning up any mess you may have made while you're dumping. Pull your motorhome or trailer up alongside the dump station, connect your sewer hose to the station's dump drain, and pull the release levers for your tanks.

Boom, done.

In a few minutes your tanks will be empty (with the exception of a few bits that may need to be rinsed out) and you're ready to get back on the road again. My wife, being the enthusiast that she is, elected to perform our first dump. She pulled our rig up to the dump station. She connected the sewer hose that came with the RV. She placed the other end in the dump station drain and pulled the levers for our gray and black tanks.

We were treated to the breathtaking site of a shit fountain.

Our sewage hose, which was likely as old as our RV, was full of wee pinholes. Shit sprayed from at least 50 different locations. It covered the ground, the inside of our tank compartment, the hose itself and my wife. There was no way she could have moved fast enough to avoid it. Thankfully, it was late in the fall and there was no one around to watch us bathing in our own brand. We washed down the area, washed ourselves down and then, before doing anything else, made a beeline for Canadian Tire to buy a new septic hose. So yeah: if you're to remember anything I tell you, I want it to be this: if you buy an RV, make damn sure that you also pick up a new sewage hose. I like these ones. They're tough and cheap.

A few months later, we accidentally filled the trunk of our tow vehicle with frozen shit. During the winter that we spent in British Columbia, we had the genius idea that, if we bought a honey wagon (the name says it all) to cart our crap to a dump station with, we wouldn't have to worry about driving the RV in icy conditions or, as we were dirt poor at the time, using up extra gas. The honey wagon we picked up could hold 50 gallons of liquid. The plan was to fill the honey wagon, have me heft its 250 weight into the trunk of our old Toyota Echo and then drive it out to be dumped.

On a particularly cold week, we heaved the full honey wagon into the back of the car and left it overnight. We needed to go out the next day to run a few errands and wanted to save on gas by doing everything in a single trip. As we planned out our day, it made sense to hit the dump station midway through our sortie. So, off we went to the university to return library books and have a shower, hit a coffee shop so that I could download some files and then a stop for groceries. When we opened the trunk, we discovered that the honey wagon's lid had come loose. There was a layer of frozen shit and piss covering the bottom of the trunk. We tried power washing it out, but in the cold, it was a half measure. In the end, we took turns chipping away at it. Bamboleo was playing on the CD player. We really haven't listened to the Gypsy Kings since. The experience left us wondering how much worse our winter could get.

It didn't take long to find an answer to that one: power washing the trunk fried our tail lights and turn signals – a problem that we were unable to fix for months.

Since then, things have gone a lot smoother in the poop department – a lot smoother across the board, in fact. Living in an RV full-time is just like owning a house. You learn to deal with its quirks, fix what you can, tolerate what you can't, and bring in professional help when necessary. There have been no more shit fountains. The honey wagon, on the rare occasion that it gets used, no longer goes in the back of our tow vehicle for any reason, ever. Our new rig's holding tanks are large enough to go for weeks between trips to dump. Awful experiences like these make us both grateful for how much better things are now.

Sometimes, you just have to be covered in shit to know what it's like to roll in clover.

Images: by Alexander Klink – Photo is my own work, taken using a Minolta D5D, CC BY 3.0, Link