Do you need a water filter? and other water questions

A reader asks: Are in line water filters necessary when camping in established camp grounds?

It’s a matter of personal choice. Campground water has to meet the same standards as any other public water system, so it should be safe. But you might not like the taste, or your body might be sensitive to different water than what you are accustomed to drinking at home. If so, a good filtration system is the solution.

Water treatment is a complex subject. Basic charcoal filters improve taste and remove chlorine, as well as large sediment, and they are inexpensive. From there, you can upgrade to filter out even finer sediment, bacteria, protozoa, chemicals and metals with other types of filters. You can also soften the water, de-ionize it, and even sterilize the water with a UV light.

Of course, every added element means more expense, more weight, more stuff to carry, an ongoing maintenance cost, and (in the case of external filtration systems) more setup time at the campground. So before you buy, consider carefully how far you are willing to go for extremely pure water.

Sometimes water filtration is necessary to prevent problems with the plumbing, as the next question demonstrates:

About three years ago I started having problem with the water valve in a Thetford commode. It was clogging, and holding it open, thus allowing my commode to overflow and flood my trailer. Unable to figure it out, I bought a Dometic toilet and then the water line started to clog up with what looked like calcium pellets. Since the Dometic toilet had a screen in the water valve, it would not let the pellets into the water valve, so I avoided the flooding problem.

Where are the calcium pellets coming from? I installed an inline water filter just prior to the water filter on the commode and now I can just open the water filter and clean the bowl out and everything is good for about two weeks. This problem is really noticeable after I move the trailer as I guess I am shaking trash loose as we travel. Any thoughts on how to solve this problem?

You’ve got hard water, and that’s probably the basic source of all the problems you are having. Mineral deposits from the water are accumulating and clogging the pipes, valves, water heater, and every other part of the plumbing system. Unfortunately, for those living in the southwest it’s a common issue.

The best solution is a water softener. You can buy portable units designed specifically for recreational vehicles, which work the same way as household units. When it’s time to recharge the softener, you can do it with ordinary table salt. There’s some maintenance and a little bit of setup hassle, but a softener would eliminate the mineral pellets and other problems you’ve been having. We’d also recommend a good filter to remove any sediment, installed at the outside of the Airstream.

Black Water: a Newbies Guide

With an Airstream hooked to the back of your car you’ll find that long trips are much nicer. One perk is having your own bathroom wherever you go. There’s only one small price to be paid for this convenience: dumping the waste tanks.

Black vs gray: Blackwater is sewer water from the toilet, which in most Airstreams is held in a separate tank from the gray water (used water from the sinks and shower).

Airstream bathroom

Be not afraid. If there’s one thing that keeps people away from RVing it’s the fear of dumping the holding tanks, but dumping the tanks is as easy as can be. You attach a simple hose, pull a handle, and—whoosh!—your troubles are flushed away. First the black tank, then the gray tank.

Wash your hands whenever you’ve touched the sewer hose. Some people like to wear disposable gloves, but you should wash your hands thoroughly afterward in any case.

Pay attention to your holding tanks, and to a certain extent what goes in them. The black tank should only contain things you’ve previously eaten, easily-dissolved toilet paper, water, and a bit of tank chemical to help things along. Nothing else.

Wear gloves as an option.

Tank chemicals (often called “sanitizers” or “digestants”) should be added to the black tank every time after it is dumped, along with a gallon or two of water. These chemicals help break down and liquefy the waste, which is what you want for trouble-free tank dumping.

Avoid formaldehyde. We recommend you choose tank chemicals that don’t use formaldehyde. Formaldehyde kills the beneficial bacteria that help break down the waste. Not only is that counter-productive for you, but it can prevent septic systems from working, which causes problems for campground owners. Formaldehyde is also a known carcinogen. Products labeled “bacterial digestant”, “enzyme based”, or “septic safe” are the best choice.

Add water. Don’t be too skimpy on flushing water from the toilet into the black tank. The tank needs a good ratio of water to solids in order to empty properly. Failure to add sufficient water will result in “buildup.” You won’t like that.

TP options: There is special “RV toilet paper” that is sold in RV stores. It’s much more expensive than the household variety. It works, but you will also do well with a single ply toilet paper, such as Scott’s, which is available in grocery stores across the country.


Sewer hoses don’t last forever. To avoid disasters of the worst possible sort, replace that hose at the very first sign of cracking, pinholes, or any sort of wear. People who wait for the hose to fail usually regret their choice.

Excerpted from Rich Luhr’s definitive book for all owners, “The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming”, available at the Airstream Life Store.

Conserving Water when Boondocking

These days about half of new Airstreams are sold to people who have never owned any type of travel trailer or motorhome before. That means there are a lot of people who are just now trying to learn all the tricks and skills needed to optimize their travel experience.


Camping away from hookups in remote places is an aspiration of many, but to be able to do it well you’ve got to adapt and adjust your expectations. In this occasional series on boondocking we’ll explore specific techniques, starting with certain aspects of water conservation. Showers and dishes are the two things that consume most of the water used in an Airstream.


Saving water on dishwashing is easy.

You can switch to paper plates when you are boondocking, or use campground dish-washing facilities if they are available. If you must wash dishes in the Airstream, you’ll have to learn to use tiny amounts of water to rise rather than just opening the faucet fully and letting it run, as many people do at home. For über-conservationists, a spray bottle is helpful for minimal rinsing.

The shower is a trickier problem.

At home your shower might have a cascade of water and hot stinging needles if you want them, perhaps even to the point of flooding the tub because the drain can’t keep up. That’s the sort of shower that many people like, not so much because they get cleaner but because it feels like a “spa” experience.

Low-flow shower head

You don’t get pummeled by hot water much in an RV; the shower heads are generally low-flow types designed to release only 2.5 gallons of water per minute. If you had a shower head that inundated you with water, you’d find that the gray water tank (the tank that holds used water from the shower and sinks) fills up too quickly.

Avoid using water.

That’s always the first approach. Some people extend their time between showers by using body (or baby) wipes for quick cleanups. This works well—just remember you can’t flush those wipes down the toilet because they won’t biodegrade in the holding tank, and they’ll clog macerator-type toilets. Put the used wipes in the trash instead.

In a campground with no hookups,

you may have access to a campground shower. Some people use the campground shower religiously, because they don’t fit in the travel trailer shower, or because they just prefer the “home style” shower when it is available. Personally, I like my Airstream shower and I hate using the campground showers, so I’ll go to some effort to be able to shower in the trailer.

Singing Sands Boondocking

The essential “Navy shower”

It’s a simple technique: turn on the water, get wet, turn off the water. Then soap up everything, and rinse off quickly. Don’t wash your hair unless it really needs it. Get really good at this technique, and you’ll find you can take a complete shower in less than three gallons, or about 60 to 90 seconds of running the water. That makes you an Admiral in the Navy Shower Fleet.

Get it down to a flat two minutes (five gallons) and you’re a Lieutenant, or about 90 seconds (four gallons) for the Commander’s rank. Even an Able Seaman should be able to do it in less than six gallons (just over two minutes). These calculations assume you have a typical RV shower head that delivers 2.5 gallons per minute.

The Airstream has a built-in warning sign if you blow it.

The hot water tank is usually six gallons. If you start feeling cold water, you’ve used all six gallons plus a bit more (because the tank is constantly re-heating) and you’ll soon be walking the plank when the rest of the family finds out. Even in a full hookup campground where you don’t have to worry about running out of water or filling the gray tank, the six-gallon limit applies.

Know the size of your gray water holding tank.

Boondocking Central OregonYou can estimate how long it will last. The tank monitors are often misleading. For example, with a 39-gallon tank, three Admirals can take showers in a total of less than 10 gallons, yielding three showers each plus some tooth brushing and dishes, before running out of holding capacity.

It’s really not hard to learn the Navy shower technique. Camping without a full hookup does require some small sacrifices, but you can still have a satisfying shower. The loss of standing under a spray of hot water for ten minutes is nothing when you realize that small sacrifice enabled you to walk out your door into the landscape or a quiet beautiful place far from crowds.