The RV Dilemma:
"On the Road"
In recent years, tales about contaminated water supplies have
changed the way a lot of us think about water. Gone is that easy
confidence with which we once quenched our thirst from just about
any water source north of the Mexican border-even if it wasn't always
pleasing to the pallet. Today, we are more aware than ever that
even clear, sparkling water can be home for some very unwholesome
While water contamination is worrisome for the populace in general,
it creates a special dilemma for travelers, ravers in particular.
Not only must RV'ers draw water from unfamiliar sources, they must
deal with what can happen to the water once its inside their RVs
Media coverage has spurred many to become suspect of their city
tap water quality. This has created a boom for producers of bottled
water and filtration units. Remarkably though, when RV'ers leave
their homes and head out on the open road they most often let down
their guard towards water quality, even though their chances of
being hit by a water transmitted illness increases.
Our home front awareness must be extended to the road, but that
doesn't mean that a vacation has to be marred by worry over the
quality of the water or that each sip has to be a conscious act
of courage. All that is needed to reduce health risks and alleviate
concern is to adhere to a few common-sense precautions and put into
use some of the excellent purification equipment available.
The first rule of thumb is to connect your RV to a water supply
of known quality. The total degree of quality will obviously not
be known, but if it's being delivered as potable water, you can
have some comfort that it should be tested some time. Many campgrounds
operate from their own wells. These wells should be tested and labeled
as approved. Unfortunately it may be have been some time since the
water was last tested and given that contamination can show up at
any time, never throw caution to the wind.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Dipping from a cool, ripping mountain stream has its own hazards.
As much as we might think it enhances the outdoor experience, drinking
from any non-treated source is risky business. Although mountain
water rushes over rocks, gravel and sand, this does little to displace
most harmful contaminants. And it takes a pretty steep climb to
be sure you're not downstream from a recently relieved or dead animal.
Thus, the second rule applies: never drink directly from water that
flows where man or beast goes and never assume they haven't!
What are the agents of non potable water? Polluting our water resources
are combustion by products such as lead, aluminum, dangerous minerals
such as asbestos and a host of chemical contaminants including chlorine.
While these are cause for concern, the most formidable villains
while on the road are microbes and cysts.
Of all the contaminants, microbes are the least discreet about
their presence in the body. This group of vegetable and animal micro-organisms
includes bacteria, viruses, protozoa and fungi. Not all are harmful
to man, but those that are have left a wide path of destruction
in the past civilizations and continue to do so in many parts of
Standard sanitation methods that involve chlorination have all but
eliminated the threat of cholera and typhoid in this country. Still,
there are some organisms that escape our best efforts. chlorine
will kill most bacteria but is less effective against viruses and
only marginally effective against cysts. Among these are the viruses
that cause infectious hepatitis and the protozoans or amoebic cysts
that lead to giardiasis and amoebic dysentery, well known to visitors
of Mexico, but also quite real in Canada and the USA. All of these
contaminants can be present in any water supply that has been polluted
Although giardiasis (Beaver Fever) probably receives the least
amount of publicity, the organism that causes it, giardia lambia,
is one of the most insidious. According to an article in Opflow,
a publication of the American Water Works Association, "it
is the most common disease-causing intestinal parasite in the United
States." This strong-willed micro-bug can thrive in a wide
temperature range in nature and fend off typical chlorination and
filtration procedures. Giardiasis hits hardest those municipalities
that draw their water from mountain streams, hence the warning about
these. The parasite enters the supply through the feces of a host.
While many animals can serve as host, the main culprit is thought
to be the Beaver.
As with the amoeba that produces dysentery, giardia exists in two
forms: one is a cyst that represents a resting phases of the organism
and the other is an active flowing parasite. The latter emerges
from the system and infects the small intestines. It takes only
a swallow to bring on symptoms that may include severe diarrhea,
cramps, nausea, vomiting and fatigue.
The wide media coverage of chemical contamination cases over the
last 15 years has awakened most people to the fact that our water
quality is rapidly decaying. Acid rain is a household word and even
our major grocery store chains are getting into the environmental
business. The vast majority of chemical contaminants have no taste,
no smell and leave the water appearing clear and clean. Now little
bugs flowing from our home taps are one thing, but the prospect
of swigging a chemical cocktail is sending millions of us scurrying
to purchase bottled water.
Currently, the focus on regulations is on a large group of chemical
compounds called trihalomethanes. These suspected carcinogens are
formed when chlorine interacts with organic chemicals. Chloroform,
the predominant member of this toxic team, has been found at particularly
high levels in drinking water throughout the country. It does not
exist naturally in raw water, but is readily produced during the
treatment process when plant and animals humus make contact with
the chlorine used to disinfect the water. Many other toxic organic
chemicals infest our rivers, lakes and streams through industrial
discharge, municipal and agricultural runoff, plus of course acid
Even well water has not escaped the ravages of expansion and technology.
A common belief once was that if water came from the ground, it
had to be safe. The fantasy began to erode in recent years as wells
in North America were found to contain high doses of man-made chemicals.
Traced to leaking landfills, corroded surface impoundments and storage
tanks, as well as urban and rural runoff, these toxins slowly seep
downward through the Earth's crust to pollute vital aquifers. The
threat is particularly serious because ground water sources provide
drinking water for the majority of the industrial world's population.
Aquifers, once polluted, are far more difficult and costly to restore
than surface water.
Water contamination is now a serious and complex problem. As you
are reading this article, population and industry are continuing
to make a greater demands on our water resources. With each demand
the problem escalates. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
should not have to take a back seat while we search for clean water
in our daily lives. By taking a few precautionary measures, we can
travel and enjoy the outdoors without risking illness. As said in
the beginning, the simplest first line of defense is to use only
water you are reasonably certain is potable.
THE RV TANK
For RV'ers who consume water from their RV tanks, the most important
fact to remember is that potable water doesn't stay potable for
long. By the time city water reaches the tap, the chlorine level
is already reduced. An RV water tank is like a large petridish on
wheels. Air, heat and the sloshing of the water will quickly dissipated
the remaining residual chlorine and revitalize any micro-organisms
that the serve chlorine had inhibited but not killed. This hearty
new culture will render the water unpalatable and perhaps unpotable,
producing slime and algae in the tank and lines.
To prevent this problem, the RV owners must, in effect, take over
where the municipal water facility left off. Basically, this means
maintaining a safe system, treating the water that is stored in
your holding tank and installing a water purification system.
HOW TO MAINTAIN YOUR SYSTEM
How to Clean:
The first step is to clean the tank and line, as this will remove
clinging oil, slime and sediment. Add four teaspoons of liquid soap
for every ten gallons of water held in your system. Pump the solution
through all the outlets and into your holding tanks. If your RV
is mobile take it for a short drive. The "sloshing" will
be an added bonus in the cleaning process. Drain the soap/water
solution and refill with clear water. Continue to pump clear water
through the system until all evidence of soap has been elliminated.
If you have not been performing this act regularly, then a repeat
performance is recommended!
Once the system is clean it can be disinfect. Disinfecting does
not "clean" the tank, it only kills bacteria that has
gained a foot hold in your system. Fill the fresh water tank halfway
with water. Add 6 ounces of liquid chlorine beach for every ten
gallons of water the tank will hold and then fill your holding tank
to the top. Open all water outlets and pump the solution through
until you can smell the chlorine in the water coming out. Shut all
faucets off and let the system stand for at least one hour. Reopen
the faucets and pump the remaining solution into your holding tanks.
The system should then be thoroughly flushed with normal chlorinated
tap water until the smell of chlorine has diminished to the same
level as that of the water you are using to flush with. Cleaning
and disinfecting should be done at least once a year, or anytime
contamination is suspected. This is also especially important before
a new tank is used for the first time.
The tank is now ready to be filled for the trip. At this point,
the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advocates using a method
called "Super-chlorination / de- chlorination" to prevent
bacterial growth while traveling. By this method, chlorine is added
to the water in increased amounts to provide a minimum chlorine
residual of 3.0 ppm (parts per million) for a contact period of
five minutes. You now have a reservoir full of water with a high
concentration of chlorine. It's safe from a baby boom of bacteria,
but it's definitely not the means of a good cup of coffee. This
is where the need for a de-chlorination device comes in.
HOW TO SUPER-CHLORINATE
The chlorination method recommended is to add one teaspoonful of
chlorine-type liquid bleach (Clorox, Javex, etc.) for every ten
gallons of water your tank will hold.
E.G.30 gallon tank = 3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon
The most effective method of putting chlorine into your water system
is to first connect your hose to your RV and then pour the bleach
into the opposite end of the hose, prior to connecting it to the
filling source. Use chlorine every time you fill up. This will also
keeps the filler hose sanitary and protect it from becoming contaminated.
Use a chlorine test kit regularly to determine the residual chlorine
level (3.0 ppm recommended). Testing should not be done immediately
after filling, wait until the water has been "standing"
for at least 6 hours.
SO HOW DO YOU "FIX" THE WATER?
The following paragraphs briefly explain the differences between
technologies currently on the market and the terminology used to
describe them. Take the link for a more in depth review.
Of the many types of devices available to act as a de-chlorinator,
the most common is single element granular or block activated carbon
(GAC) filter. However, a filter is just that, a filter, it does
not disinfect. Furthermore any snared microbes that have not been
overcome by the chlorine will have everything they need to exist
and multiply inside the filter. Eventually, they can be washed through
the filter and into your glass, making the device a source of bacteria
problems instead of the solution to chlorine removal. They are not
These use activated carbon (GAC) again, but the carbon has been
infused with silver that releases metal ions into the water to suppress
the regrowth of bacteria inside the filter. Do not confuse bacteriostatic
with bacteriologically sterile. Bacteriostatic simply means that
bacteria should not "grow" inside the device it does not
mean that the device removes or kills any bacteria flowing through
the device. The EPA requires that any water treatment device that
uses a pesticide, such as silver, be registered as some of the silver
will be present in the output water. The manufacturer must show
proof that the amount of silver released does not exceed established
environmental guidelines. This EPA "registration" does
not mean that the filter is any good at removing contaminants from
water, only that the silver released by the filter will not harm
the environment. Extreme caution must be used in the selection of
any stand alone carbon device whether it uses silver or not.
Under EPA regulations, only certified devices (such as Doulton Ceramics)
that can reliably remove prescribed quantities of bacteria can technically
be called purifiers and be used to clean previously non treated
water. Some employ chemicals such as iodine and chlorine but most
are purely mechanical. Purifiers are devices that use a combination
of filtration technologies to produce proven high quality drinking
water. Filters are generally non tested devices simply designed
to work with only one or two contaminants. By using a purifier vice
a filter you will benefit from the known reduction of chemical contaminants,
chlorine, particulates, tastes and odors etc. But the main factor
is that as a "bacteriologically sterile" device a purifier
will be your final step in the protection against microbes. True
purifiers will always supply the specific test reports which back
up their removal efficiency claims. If they cannot... beware! We
will discuss some of the other common purification technologies
This technology is borrowed from nature. It occurs naturally when
plants absorb water from the ground through their cell walls. However,
as the name implies, the method is reversed. In ROs, water is forced
against a semi-permeable cellulose acetate membrane by the water
pressure supplied by the city or your RV pump. This action separates
contaminants from the water as the water is passed through the membrane.
Besides the need for continuous and adequate water pressure (most
units require greater than 40 psi for any level of efficiency),
other factors to consider are that bacteria can build up on the
membrane and block the flow, and a high concentration of particulate
impurities can over tax the unit's capability to clean itself. To
avoid the bacteria buildup, manufacturers advocate not using their
devices with severely contaminated water.
RO's take significant time to "manufacture" the water.
A small unit suitable for use in an RV will only produce 2-3 gallons
in 12 hours and cannot be operated while you are "on the road".
A storage medium is therefore always required and this can present
its own problems as space and weight considerations in RVs are critical.
Good quality RO's are equipped with GAC post-filters to reduce the
levels of chemical contaminants, tastes and odors not removed by
the RO membrane. Top quality ROs will also have low micron pre-filters.
These pre-filters will remove the bulk of particulates, thereby
protecting and lengthening the life of the membrane. Only ROs registered
as purifiers (as most are not) should be considered for use in RVs.
These systems employ ultraviolet lamps to simulate the bacteria
control measure used by Mother Nature. The water is bombarded with
ultraviolet light which in turn kills the bacteria. These systems
are generally considered non effective on cysts. Overall efficiency
of these units is determined by the quality of the pre and post-filters
employed. As the UV lamp is only effective on microbes, dirt or
sediment must not be allowed to pass with the bacteria through the
UV exposure chamber or the bacteria can basically "hide"
from the UV light. With insufficient exposure the bacteria lives
on! A high quality GAC post- filter must be used once again for
chemical, chlorine, taste and odor reduction.
These systems do require electrical power and they should employ
approximately a 5 micron pre filter (preferably cleanable for cost
efficiency). Annual operational cost is based primarily on the values
of the pre and post-filters as the energy requirements to operate
the UV lamp is minimal, but there will be a recommended replacement
interval and cost for the UV lamp. These systems to not require
a storage medium, the water is processed as it is demanded. Caution
again is required while shopping as there are very few UV systems
registered as purifiers.
Distillation works by converting the input water to vapor and then
converting the vapor back to water again. In the process most impurities
are left behind or driven off as gases. Also removed are minerals,
which is a feature that does not appeal to all. 115 VAC is required
for the heating element and units rated as purifiers are quite large.
Once again they cannot be operated while "on the road".
The major complaints about distillers however center on the time
and energy they use. The storage requirements of the water after
it has been "cooked" along with their high purchase cost.
Low cost distillers run the risk of producing higher levels of chemical
contamination in the "cooked" water (due to the decrease
in water volume collected after cooking) and they rarely use good
quality pre and post-filters. Without the use of pre filters cleaning
becomes excessive and is another added expense. Without a post-filter
the water will have a "taste" which comes from interaction
of this sterile water with the elements in the system and the storage
medium. Distillers are generally excellent purifiers so if this
is to be your choice buy only top quality and avoid plastic.
Once again we wish to remind you that regardless of the type of
purification device you choose, the water in an RV reservoir must
always be chlorinated. Omitting this step will result in a jungle
of slime and algae in the tank and lines, as well as a crowded community
of bacteria. Worst of all is the stress and frustration of having
a holiday ruined by illness while on the road, so install a Certified
BelKraft product and let us take care of you!