Toilet bowl cleaners: Good or bad?

Do you use Lysol or Clorox to clean the toilet bowl in your RV? If so, you should stop this practice and it is likely damaging your holding tank and waste system components. Find out the safe alternatives and why these types of chemicals do more harm than good.

One of the most common questions we get at our rally session seminars is what to do about cleaning toilet bowls: Can household chemical cleaners be used? What about disinfectant wipes? And do those long, snake-y hoses that spray water do anything? Let’s take these three questions one at a time, but first, let’s talk about how your RV’s waste system is different than your house’s.

Most mid- to upper-level RVs contain porcelain toilets. It’s only the entry-level and older RVs where we see the plastic, eco-toilets still being used. In fact, if you have one of these plastic pieces of junk, it’s actually pretty easy to remove them and install a porcelain one, such as the Dometic 320 Series RV toilet.

The differences between household toilets and those in RVs are pretty minimal. Both are designed to flush waste from their bowls down a disposal pipe. Most RV versions have a pedal that does the flushing using pressurized water (either via your RV’s pumping system or park water pressure), while household toilets have a reservoir that fills up and holds water, providing sufficient volume and pressure to wash waste away.

However, RV toilets flush water and waste down into your black water holding tank while household toilets quickly move it out of your home’s plumbing system to either the city sewer system or a septic system. Your RV’s holding tanks contain the water and waste until they are emptied. It’s important to note that your RV’s holding tanks are not a septic system — that’s why there is no need to add enzymes, chemicals, or biological agents that will break down waste. Doing so can be the cause of many common problems and frustrations.

Household cleaning chemicals.

Many RVers think they can use the same cleaning chemicals used in their home in their RVs. This is not the case. Cleaners such as Lysol and Clorox have high concentrations of bleach and other harsh chemicals. Exposing your RV’s plumbing systems — especially soft rubber and plastic seals — to these chemicals can accelerate their wear and degrade their composition. Degraded seals can result in tanks that leak waste into the pipe system — a frustration many RVers have experienced when they take off the cap of their RV’s sewer system pipe and they are met with a mess.

We do not recommend the use of harsh chemical cleaners to clean your RV’s toilet. A good alternative is Ecos Toilet Bowl Cleaner. It’s made of plant-derived ingredients and free of lye, phosphates, mineral acids, and chlorine, and does a good job of cleaning. The cedar oil and very mild citric acid eliminate water stains, wipe away mold and mildew, and leave behind a pleasant and fresh cedar scent.

Disinfectant wipes.

Usually, we say it’s okay to use disinfectant wipes if you are careful not to get too much cleaner into the holding tank. Using plenty of fresh water during cleaning is always a good idea and helps to dilute any chemicals that may be in the holding tank. It’s also a good idea to empty your black tank as soon as you have cleaned the toilet bowl and rinse it out with your onboard tank rinser.

A good plant derivative-based cleaning wipe to use are the ones from Green Works. Although they claim to be biodegradable we do not recommend that you allow them to go into your black holding tank and, instead, dispose of them — as you would any cleaning wipe — in the trash.

What about that long snake-y hose thingy?

Many RVers ask us about those long wands or hoses that go down through the toilet bowl and into (they hope) the holding tank. In some RVs — our Airstream travel trailer, for instance — the toilet is placed directly over the black holding tank and anything flushed down goes right into the tank. In most RVs, however, there’s a pipe — usually, one that has at least one bend in it — that conveys waste to the black tank.

These hoses or wands are designed to have a garden-type hose attached to them, then they are put down into the toilet. Water is turned on and holes in the wand or hose spray water out, supposedly cleaning the pipe and/or toilet.

Our opinion? They’re incredibly messy and usually ineffective. First, you have to bring a water hose from outside the RV into your bathroom. Next, you attach that to the hose or wand, which is down where human waste is (you know what we’re talking about). Reversing the whole process (bringing up the wand and carrying it out of the RV) means you could touch something or someone with a waste-covered wand. Extremely unsanitary, at best.

Other cleaning methods.

Cleaners that use hydrogen peroxide — common in many non-bleach cleaners — are probably not a good idea in the long term. At high concentrations, they can eat away at soft rubbers and even some plastics.

Vinegar, or acetic acid, is also mildly acidic and should be avoided as it can pit the surface of some synthetic rubber seals. Vinegar-based cleaners which, if combined with bleach, create toxic chlorine gas which, when combined with water, creates hydrochloric and hypochlorous acids. Not good stuff.

Baking soda — or bicarbonate of soda — is an alkaline substance, on the other end of the pH spectrum from acids such as vinegar. Although not nearly as caustic as vinegar and other similar acids, it could eat away at soft rubber seals just as acids can. It can be used as a cleaning agent, however, if you use sufficient clean water to dilute it and be sure to empty — and flush — your black water holding tank after cleaning the toilet bowl.

Rubbing alcohol or isopropanol can cause stiffening of plastics such as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride), making them more likely to crack or even break when stressed. It will also decrease the life of these plastics, especially if they are exposed to extreme cold and hot temperatures.

Jim Tome, Owner

Jim Tome, Owner

Hi, I'm Jim Tome and, along with my wife, Debbie, the owners of Kleen Tank LLC, the national leader in RV holding tank cleaning service. We've been RVers like you since 2004 and have traveled all over the U.S. in our Airstream travel trailer. We started the business about twelve years ago and have cleaned tens of thousands holding tanks in thousands of RVs. From tiny weekend travel trailers to monstrous fifth wheels to luxurious motorhomes, I've seen just about every situation there is with RV holding tanks and waste systems. I hope you enjoy our articles; I try to post at least one per week and we've got a great library of them to cover just about every problem. Enjoy!


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