Clearing The Clog

 Posted by at 1:33 am  Nick's Blog
Feb 222015

Warning, this blog contains content that may not be comfortable for the squeamish.

We have been dealing with a nasty problem, and while we still don’t know what caused it, after a lot of trial and error, and even more frustration, we seem to have solved it. At least for now.

We are very careful about avoiding waste tank clogs, always waiting until our black tank is at least ¾ full before dumping. I also power flush our black tank on a regular basis to avoid any buildup.

Saturday a week ago, while we were at Pleasant Valley RV Resort in Mission, Texas, I dumped and flushed the black tank and everything was good. The next day we drove to Lone Star Corral in Hondo and spent five days, and when we were getting ready to leave Thursday morning I pulled the handle to dump the black tank, and nothing. Not one drop. Nada. Hmmm… that’s not right.

I was still dealing with my cold and we needed to get on the road, so I decided to close the valve and deal with it at our next stop. We drove over 400 miles that day, which should have shaken anything in the tank up pretty good. But when I tried to dump again the next morning the same thing. I use a clear elbow when I dump so I can tell when things are running clear. Or, in this case, when things weren’t running at all.

Instead of the standard T-handle dump valves a lot of RVs have, our Winnebago Ultimate Advantage uses a cable valve system and I suspected the cable had come loose, which happened once before. Once we got to Deming Friday afternoon, I stopped at the local RV repair shop, which was highly recommended, and talked to the owner, who suggested a couple of things that might be causing the problem, including a clog. But it was the end of the day and he is closed on the weekends, so the best he could do was try to fit us in Monday morning (tomorrow).

In the meantime, out tank was now full and we resigned ourselves to using the bathrooms here at Dream Catcher RV Park, which are nice and clean. But we’ve reached an age where late night trips to the bathroom are common, and it’s quite a walk to the bathroom, especially at 2 a.m. on a chilly, windy night!

I posted a query on a couple of RV internet bulletin boards Friday night, and called a few people for advice yesterday morning. We took the panel off that separates our pass through bay from where the tanks are, and the cable was attached to the rod of the valve. Pulling the handle in and out moved the rod back and forth. Hmmm… did the rod come off the blade that slides back and forth inside the valve?

Phil Botnick, one of the best RV techs in the business, suggested drilling a small hole in the plastic housing of the valve on the opposite side from the direction the blade moves and using a pick or metal probe to push the valve open. That way we could at least empty the tank. We tried that and discovered that the blade was working properly and was opening and closing as it should when the handle was pushed. And the probe came out of the hole dry. Curiousier and curiousier. That means there was a blockage. But in just five days after I had power flushed? And a blockage so solid that not one drop of liquid would get through after over 600 miles of bumping down the highway? Even Phil thought that was odd.

The next step was to get a plumbers snake and see if I could go in from the dump tube and try to dislodge whatever was in there. But the plumbing system is laid out in such a way that I couldn’t get the snake in. Somebody had suggested that maybe there was a clog in the vent tube that goes through the roof, so Terry climbed up on top and ran the snake down the vent tube. About 2/3 of the way down she felt resistance, so she kept spinning the cable and suddenly it let go and went all the way down. I was at the sewer bay watching for anything to come through the elbow. Nope, still nothing. And when Terry pulled the snake back out of the vent pipe there wasn’t anything on it.

A couple of neighbors had come by to observe all the fun. By then it was late in the day and I had stopped having fun hours ago. One of the neighbors suggest trying to flush the tank again, but it was so full we’d have had an overflow out of the toilet. Then the suggestion was made to leave the black valve open and try to force water in through the sewer drain and see if that would do anything.

What did I have to lose at that point? I had a sewer cap with a hose connection on it and, with Terry in the bathroom watching in case the level rose any higher and the neighbor standing by to turn the water off in a hurry, we gingerly gave it a try. I filled it up until it was backing up in the clear elbow, took the cap off and attached the sewer hose, and Terry said that ever so slowly the level was dropping. But the strange thing was that all we were seeing was clear water coming out. Eventually it stopped flowing and we repeated the process, and again all I was seeing was pretty much clear water, but the level inside went down. Okay, let’s try again.

Sewer cap

Eventually Terry could look down through the toilet and see that the tank seemed empty. (I told you this post wasn’t for the squeamish. But if you’re an RVer, it’s information that might save you an expensive trip to the shop.) We repeated this procedure several more times, and suddenly as the water was going in I heard an audible “pop” and suddenly a deluge came out so fast that it actually blew the clear elbow apart! And unfortunately, it was sludge, not just the clear water I had been seeing. I managed to get the black valve closed and cleaned things up, but by then it was dark and time to stop for the day.

Today I plan to power flush the tank a few more times, just to be sure. And I still don’t know what caused the clog in the first place. I never saw any big wads of toilet paper coming through or anything that would indicate a problem. I probably should get a Sewer Insepction but I haven’t got round to it yet. And again, we’ve been fulltiming well over 15 years so we know and follow all the rules to maintain a healthy sewer system. I called Phil Botnick back and gave him an update, and he said it over 30 years of working on RVs he has seen a lot of amazing things in RV tanks, including toys and eyeglasses. He said it’s possible that something was dropped down into the toilet long before we bought the rig and lay down there all this time waiting to move around and cause a problem. I’ve also heard that sometimes in the manufacturing process, when cutting holes into the tank, the round plastic disk from the hole falls into the tank and is left, and can later come back to haunt the RV’s owner. Who knows? At least we don’t have to walk across the campground in the dark to go potty, and we’ve saved ourselves a trip to the RV shop, and hopefully some money.

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  21 Responses to “Clearing The Clog”

  1. Haha…another very interesting blog…..Not for the squeamish, but teaches us all a lesson……Always expect the unexpected…..Always lessons to learn and surprises to deal with….Thanks for the story….loved it…..Always need to keep our THINKING CAP handy…..

  2. Thanks for the update. We always try to learn from the misfortune of others and how to avoid the same thing. At least you don’t have to go far in the middle of the night.

  3. Something similar happened to us and indeed it was the cutout portion from the hole in the trailer… someone at the manufacturer when the whole was cut out did not bother to retrieve the portion and it went down inside the plumbing. It was not quite a circle but a fat crescent shape. A trickle of fluid would come out. We just could not figure out why our brand new tank was not draining. Until fortunately the crescent shape popped out and then there was no problem. Manufacturers should really be watching this better… take some pride in their work.

  4. Another last resort effort may have been to try a plunger. Glad it’s resolved.

  5. Kept waiting for a dead body part to appear or at least the proverbial explosion where soiled toilet paper litters trees etc., but no. Anti-climax in this tale.
    Come on, Nick. You write better than that. You could have at least given an imaginary version first. 🙂

  6. Gee Nick that sure sounds like you had a crappy job!! LOL sorry couldnt resist!

  7. I think this is my newest “worst nightmare”!!!

  8. My oh my, you sure know how to have fun!

    Steve thought it might be a cutout debris disk in the tank too, we have heard of so many people having that. I think every new RV should come with a video shot of a camera going down in the tank showing there is NO construction debris left in the tank!!!

  9. Yikes! We never put toilet paper in our tank. Like in Mexico, a small wastebasket by the toilet works great. Glad you fixed it!

  10. glad it got fixed, sorry about the spill a bit but now it is working.

  11. Try a little more fiber in your diet?

    Rich O.

  12. Our friend has experienced intermittent issues with his black tank for several years … sometimes all is great and suddenly the thing empties like it is filled with molasses. He purchased a tiny “scope” with a lighted camera and explored the interior of the tank. Sure enough, the plastic disc that was cut during the manufacturing process is the culprit. Now … all you have to do is find someone who has one of these cameras! Many plumbers use them now. then … a creative method for getting it OUT of there!!

  13. Nick – sympathize with your troubles. My thought, similar to Carol in #9, get one of the services to do a HP cleaning and a borescope look around in the tanks. Not sure where your at, but something similar should be available , they are in San Antonio, and I’ve heard of other places in the country.

    Never used it myself (lucky at this point).

    Sorry that we missed you folks the other day and glad your feeling a little better. Lunch would have been nice. Brad and Jacoly said to say Hi back at you.

  14. Harbor Freight sells a “Digital Inspection Camera” for $90. Could be a handy gadget to have around the RV.

  15. Nick, did you realize you were those people next store providing the comic relief for your lucky neighbors. All through the blog I was thinking that you blew a great opportunity. If your friends from Geeks on Tour were in the area, they could have filmed the entire event including aerial footage. You guys could have been movie stars. With the proper editing you could have produced an educational video along with a comic version. Can you imagine how many people would love to watch those videos at RV rallies for the next 50 years. Glad it worked out in the end!

  16. I use our Tank Flusher to refill the black tank after dumping. The SECOND dump usually has more solid debris than the first dump (I have a clear extension and clear elbow for my Toilet “TV” episode once a week). If time permits, I will refill and dump several more times, one dump after cleaning the toilet and putting GEO method (Laundry Detergent and Water Softener). Then a rinse dump and finally a minutes worth of tank filling and “Happy Campers Organic” treatment. That lasts at least a week and my “full Tank light” is extinguished, usually until my next weekly dump.

    Works for me!

  17. Nick so glad we have a Bus that we built and can see the tanks. I put a 3 inch fitting right on the edge that has a screw in ABS cap that I can peak in if needed and use to power flush when needed. Make things easy. Glad you got it done.


  18. Like Wendy, we never put toilet paper in the toilet. I keep a small brown paper bag, lined with a plastic bag nearby. It’s easy to dispose of the liner (with all the t. paper inside) and re-line it with a fresh plastic bag – always neat and clean – no clogging.

  19. Glad the camera was not rolling…. We have seen black tank hoses explode as neighbors fought with uncooperative release values, cracked hoses, poor fittings. Thanks for the update!

  20. We had a similar issue last weekend :). We are new to the RV scene (purchased our first one in January), and were camping at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL. We have two children, ages 9 and 13, and have forbidden them from putting toilet paper in the tank (we thought they clogged it). After the boiling water trick didn’t work, we resulted to using our car antenna (it was the only thing we had long enough) and our extra water hose to unclog our tank. We didn’t realize that when hooked to city sewer, you still have to close the black water valve or all of the liquid goes out leaving a ton of poop that can’t go anywhere. They don’t tell you this stuff when you walk out of the dealership. Lesson learned. Our friends also taught us to pour a bag of ice in the tank when we hook up to leave. It sloshes around and dislodges the debris. Thanks for your post!

  21. Glad you got it fixed, We use Scott Tissue (Rapid-Dissolving) made for RVs & Boats. Plus we will dump are dish water with Dawn dish detergent down the toilet and we only let the black water go to 1/3 full then we will empty out. We are only part-time RVs 6 month a year. 1997 Newmar Mountain aire (Diesel Pusher) 35′

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