Humbled by a Frozen RV Sewer Hose
by Margaret Berardinelli
Do You Think It Is Cold Outside?
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After six months out of work, in late 2008, my husband took the only available job he could find in Post Falls, ID. Since we didn’t know if it would ultimately be a permanent move for us, we decided to buy our 4th RV. We’d done the “RV-Living” stint many times before during the prior 13 years in between cross-country moves and houses, but most long-term living was done in Southern California,
In August of 2008, not knowing where our future lay, we decided to buy a 5th wheel that could go off-road, and we also had it customized to accommodate all of our animals, including our 11-year-old, handicapped German Shepherd. By mid-December it was delivered to our driveway and we were told it was ready to move into, so we packed up and moved in. We considered ourselves, if not "experts," certainly experienced and “seasoned” RV’ers and not strangers to living like this for long stretches, along with our beloved pets.
Our model said it came with “heated tanks” (should we ever need them), and the label on the front door said “winterized”; we were ready for any time, any place, any where our future might someday lead us.
We arrived in Idaho on January 12, 2009, about 6 PM. The three-day trip took eight days due to torrential, record-setting rains & flooding, a malfunctioning transmission on our brand new truck, and bad directions to the nearest RV park that could accommodate a 40’ 5th wheel.
Post Falls, ID is above the 48th parallel, and several things are different living that far north; for one, the sun fully rises at 8 AM in the winter and begins to set around 3:30 PM, and the temperature hovers at a “high” of 18° on the most sunny of days, unless there’s a wind-chill factor, and of course there always is…
My husband decided, since he had to report to work in a suit and tie at 8AM the next day, he better dump the black water tank after eight days of travel and full-time use. When the RV was delivered, the driver told my husband the valves were all secured, and as we drove, there was no leakage, so all was looking good.
Unfortunately, the delivery man was mistaken. As soon as we got the 30-foot sewer hose built (after needing join two smaller sections together), my husband opened the external cap and was immediately showered with a flood of disgusting brown water. No valves closed here, and even though the brand new snow boots were a total loss, thanks to his quick maneuvering (from prior practice years before when the kids flushed paper towels in our 2nd RV and the same thing happened when he cleared the blockage from the outside), the sewer hose was attached and the mess was minimal, we hosed it down, and it quickly froze, so we felt we had dodged a bullet. We certainly knew what we were doing! Or did we? It was only then that my husband realized he didn’t know where the valve lever was to open and close the black water tank. Typically "it is" or "they are" on the bottom of the RV right near the sewer connection.
Over the course of the next several days we both read the RV Manual (a 3-inch thick notebook), called the manufacturer, and called the RV retailer where we bought the rig in California. NO ONE knew where the valve lever was on our particular model. One week later, he noticed the tank lights (which we no longer rely on, by the way) on this brand new RV was showing the black water tank as nearly full again. This seemed odd, because he just emptied it, and I was the only one using the facilities full-time since we were still looking for the valve levers. And I was flushing a TON of water to keep the waste moving out of the tank… or was I?
My husband decided he better check on the situation from the outside, and “giggle” the sewer line to “walk” the solids down (just listen to that “RV lingo” we were practically experts on this stuff!). He picked up the sewer line and it snapped like a 30-foot popsicle of frozen poop! After hauling all the frozen poop to the nearest dumpster (five, huge 55 gal, 3-mil contractor bags worth), he faced an even bigger challenge of “defrosting” the “Y” valve filled with 18 inches of solid ice, deodorizer and, yes, even more poop.
A foot stool, portable emergency propane heater, a blow torch, screwdriver, and seven hours later (during the early darkness and freezing wind), the ice/poop berg was melted… But we still didn’t know how to close the valves.
Finally we found an RV dealer in nearby Spokane, WA who carried a similar model and my husband found the lever “inside” the small storage area used for storing an extra sewer hose, visible only when you put your head inside the storage door!
We discovered “heated” tanks really meant, the tanks were near the heater, and winterized really meant, the RV dealer kept water in the fresh water tank during storage.
For the rest of that winter, we rigged a way for the external heater exhaust to be redirected under the RV (via some dryer exhaust vent tubing and a hand-truck) to help keep air under the tanks above freezing (the RV park kitty loved it!) and also kept the inside at a miserable 80° so the heater would blast day and night.
We were sorely humbled, but we also learned a few more things after our time in the frozen northwest…
If you plan to camp in temperatures below freezing:
1.) Keep a small amount of special RV antifreeze
, made specifically for RV black & gray water tanks to keep them flowing freely.
2.) Insulate your sewer hose and fresh water intake hose with a “heated wrap” to keep things moving.
3.) Keep a “skirt” or other wind-blocking structure (hay bales were used by our neighbors) all around the RV to keep the air under the RV from freezing.
4.) Keep extra gallons of water inside to flush with if your fresh water pipes freeze, which of course, ours did… but that’s a story for another day!