Tips for Eliminating RV Odors

October 25, 2010 by Mark Polk · 20 Comments  
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Odors in our RV come in many different forms and are caused by many different sources. Some odors are pleasant, like fresh coffee brewing in the morning, and some are not so pleasant. The “not so pleasant” category includes holding tank odors, pet odors, cooking, smoke, must and mildew odors, just to name a few. Some of these odors result from normal use of the motorhome and some from sitting in storage. Today I want to give you some tips on how to control and eliminate some of these unpleasant odors.



 Because RV’s are relatively small in size, when compared to a 2,000 SF home, odors tend to be more pronounced. Add to this the RV sits closed up for periods of time and these odor problems are compounded even more. This leads to one of the key factors for controlling odors, ventilation. Ventilation not only helps with odors, but can limit the amount of heat build-up in the RV too. A quick fix for this odor related problem is to install some aftermarket roof vent covers, like MaxxAir vent covers, over the existing roof vents. They are easy to install and a great feature about these ventilation products is that you can leave the roof vents open, even when it’s raining outside. These ventilation products will keep the air circulating throughout your motorhome and help prevent musty odors. Watch my installation video


 With the ventilation problem solved we can focus on other types of odors that linger in our RV. These odor molecules aren’t just in the air, they get in the fabrics, carpets, ceiling, window treatments and other areas of the RV. Pet, smoke, and musty odors can be extremely difficult to eliminate. During my days of selling RV’s I witnessed RV interiors that were professionally cleaned, but odors, like smoke, still remained afterwards. I also experimented with many different odor controlling products, but perhaps the best product I found for eliminating difficult odors is Fabreze. Lots of air fresheners just mask common odors, but in many cases masking an odor won’t eliminate it. You need something that can kill the odor causing bacteria in the air, which is what Fabreze does. After RV trips, or before storage, clean the RV thoroughly and spray Fabreze throughout. Don’t forget to spray the upholstery, carpet and fabrics too.


 To help prevent cooking odors from becoming permanent odors in your RV make sure you turn the range exhaust fan on whenever you are cooking, and it’s a good idea to open a window too. To maximize the efficiency of the range exhaust fan keep the filter clean. On some RV’s it is necessary to go outside and open the range exhaust fan door so the cooking odors actually vent outside. Check your RV owner’s manual for more details concerning maintenance and operation of your range exhaust fan.


When it’s time to put the RV in storage there are several steps you can take to assist with controlling and eliminating common household odors. First, thoroughly clean the interior of the RV. Remove all perishable food and leave cabinet doors and drawers open so air can circulate. Defrost the freezer and thoroughly clean the refrigerator. Leave the refrigerator and freezer doors cracked open. I put a small tin of charcoal in the refrigerator compartment to help absorb any odors, baking soda works well too.


If you decide to leave your clothes in the RV during periods of storage use some mothballs to help control musty odors and leave the wardrobe doors and clothing drawers open to promote air circulation.


 This brings us to the least favorite topic when discussing odors in our RV, RV holding tank odors. The good news is there are some very effective methods for controlling these odors too, and it doesn’t involve strong chemicals that can be dangerous to humans, pets and septic systems. First it would probably be helpful to explain why we sometimes get a bad odor from the RV black water holding tank, especially when you are traveling. Motorhome holding tanks are designed with a vent pipe going from the holding tanks to the roof. The holding tank odors accumulate in the tank and can’t really vent outside because there is no air pressure to force these gasses (odors) up and out of the vent pipe. The real problem occurs when wind blows across the vent cap on top of the RV roof, which escalates when you are traveling. This higher air pressure forces air down the vent pipe pushing the tank gasses (odors) to the only other way out of the system, the toilet. Whenever the air pressure is higher inside the holding tank, than it is inside the RV, the odor escapes into the RV by way of the toilet when it is flushed.

The good news is there are aftermarket RV products that will help solve holding tank odor problems caused by the design of the RV waste water system. These products are basically a redesigned breather system that attaches to the top of the vent pipe and actually draws the fumes out of the holding tank. These products work when the RV is stationary and when it’s moving.


Another problem associated with RV holding tank odors is the use of strong chemicals to help control these holding tank odors. Some of these formaldehyde based chemicals are dangerous to humans, pets, and the septic systems we empty our holding tanks in to. Because little water is used, in comparison to a domestic waste water system, RV holding tank wastewater is far more concentrated. The organic strength from the mixture in an RV holding tank can be fifteen to twenty times stronger than a typical wastewater system. This problem is compounded when the RVer gets some odors from the holding tank and dumps even more chemicals in the holding tank in an attempt to control the odors.

As many of you, who know my work know; I am a big advocate for saving our RV dump stations. I recommend using a holding tank treatment that is environmentally friendly and safe to use in septic systems. Enzyme based holding tank treatments, combined with a redesigned vent breather system, can effectively control holding tank odors. Don’t be afraid to put some holding tank treatment in the gray water holding tanks too. When the gray tank is empty add some water, and the holding tank treatment, to the sink drains to help keep the gray water tank free of odors. I add some dish washing liquid to the gray water tank periodically to assist with breaking down and grease and keep the holding tank clean.

So it’s safe to say with proper ventilation and a few good aftermarket RV products you can eliminate all of the tough odors commonly associated with enjoying our motorhomes.

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Mark J. Polk

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20 Responses to “Tips for Eliminating RV Odors”

  1. Gary Case on October 25th, 2010 4:52 pm

    Some really great and timely info. You should perhaps indicate which venting system you are referring to. Do you mean angled venting to extract odors when traveling? I hope some people will do so. This over use of chemicals is bad for all living things. Thanks, Gary

  2. Ron Howes on October 25th, 2010 4:53 pm

    I’ve been buying a gray water deodorant, about $6 for a quart, and mentioned this to the fellow camped next to me in Colorado this summer. He told me I should check the label and I’d probably find the main ingredients were ammonia and lemon scent. I did, and he was right? He said he buys “lemon scented ammonia by the half-gallon at the dollar stores for about $1.50, and it works great to kill gray water odor. The next day, I was driving by the Family Dollar Store in Leadville, Colorado, stopped in and bought a jug of the stuff. The guy was right.

  3. Noel Young on October 25th, 2010 5:09 pm

    Keeping the roof vents slightly open [with roof vent covers of course] for circulation while in storage seems very practical. What about when it is -25 deg. C in winter. Is this still a good idea?
    I would appreciate a commment on this. Thanks

  4. Jim G on October 25th, 2010 9:43 pm

    To Noel; In my opinion, if the outside temperature gets to -25C, (-13F) that is extreme cold so it really would not matter if you have a vent cracked open. The ambient temperatures will equalize with the interior anyway, assuming the RV is in storage. I would expect the only real hazard would be allowing snow/ice build-up around the vent.

  5. Mark Polk on October 26th, 2010 6:04 am

    Noel, I agree with Jim G. With temperatures at -13F it really wouldn’t matter if the vent was cracked open or not.

    One tip I failed to mention (regarding vent covers) is if you install a vent cover at both ends of the RV it will improve the cross-ventilation throughout the RV.

  6. Barry S on October 26th, 2010 8:08 am

    We noticed a faint septic odor coming from the back of our Safari Trek. It wasn’t the toilet or any of the tanks, and turned out to be the slinky used to empty the gray and black water tanks. The slinky is stored in a closed outside compartment at the rear of the motor home, and being newer owners, we had no idea that the faint smell might be associated with the slinky and that merely rinsing it after each emptying was not sufficient.

    After thoroughly disinfecting the inner and outer surfaces of the slinky and associated connections with a Clorox mixture, the odor was gone. We now disinfect after each use.

  7. Geoffrey Pruett on October 26th, 2010 9:38 am

    Our current A has not had the odor problem and seems to run negative pressure in the tanks when traveling as the sink traps need to be refilled after a long drive. Two previous C’s did have the problem and aftermarket vent add on units did solve the issue when moving, not always when parked. On one the vent pipe was too short and adding a PVC coupling to the top ran it above the roof line and stopped the odor. Have used the same mod on our units for 30 years, joined the black and gray tanks at the 80% point with a “range extender” kit. We dry camp a lot and it pushes our stay out to an easy 4 days with two people showering daily plus adds enough liquid to the black tank to prevent hang ups at dump time. The range extender mod should be studied before attempted as the fittings need a certain amount of clearance to glue together and not all assemblies will allow this. Both tanks must be treated is you do this mod.

  8. Rick on October 26th, 2010 4:52 pm

    I have found out what works well before you go to the dump station I pour Dawn liquid soap and ice into the toilet. This causes the waste to swish area on the way to the dump station and removes anything that may be stuck to the walls of the black water holding tank.

    Always learning about RVing.

    Thank you for your comments.

  9. Sid Morgan on October 27th, 2010 10:55 am

    Thanks for the info, most Rvers I’ve meet, are aware of most of these tips, but it always helps. My problem is with the stove’s vent fan. I now have owned 4 different types of campers (my current is a 32 ft class A motor home) and have not had one who vent fan is quiet. They all have made so much noise. Do you have any suggestions on how to make the vent fan less noisy or aftermarket replacement?

  10. Ellen J. Gray on October 27th, 2010 1:33 pm

    I would also like to know what aftermarket vent products you are refering to. As to using Dawn or any product that is antibacterial, I have heard you shoud NOT use them because they counteract the effects of the bacteria based holding tank treatments.

  11. Drew on November 1st, 2010 2:29 pm

    Sid and Ellen,

    I have removed all the small noisy bathroom fans that a lot of rv’s are equipped with from the factory. I replaced them with either Sure Flow or Fantastic brand vent fans. The Sure Flow has a variable speed knob that allows almost infinite adjustment of fan speed- so I set it very low and due to the size of the fan-it still moves a lot of air. The only problem was that when I got it- it had the wrong switch board installed and believe it or not took four shipments from them before I got the right one. So now I have two Fantastic vent fans, and if I leave both on the first notch of the 3-speed setting- they do fine…and not much noise either. Hope this helps- I have not installed any of the outside vent covers though- that allow you to leave the fans going in rain/snow.


  12. Alice Wildermuth on November 2nd, 2010 1:46 pm

    All good ideas but require so many different products. I keep Fresh Wave air freshener in our 5th wheel, both when in use and while in storage. It has very little odor of its own which is important to me. We travel with two cats and stay in southwest Texas, where it gets into the upper 90’s before we leave in the spring. Have never had an odor problem since using Fresh Wave. I use it at home, too.
    Check it out at

  13. Joann on November 11th, 2010 4:02 pm

    Those vent fans will eventually suck out the odors but you lose your heating or cooling, depending on the time of year. We got a TurboMaid all purpose odor eliminator for our RV and it filters the odors away so we don’t lose our heat. It is scentless and it actually works excellent for kitchen odors and cigarette smoke. It even works on the bathroom odors that usually linger behind for hours. We were lucky to be one of the first to test this new product for their consumer research studies. I’m not sure if it’s on the market yet, but when it does I’ll be getting 2 more for the home bath and our camping buddies who need one badly when we come to visit.

  14. Gary on December 2nd, 2010 12:22 pm

    Another excellent product for permanently removing odors form the fabrics is a product called Extreme BIODrive.

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  18. JJ Henry on October 13th, 2011 1:23 pm

    All the above tips are great and everyone should try them. The only problem I have is I did some of the things above all too late. The odors had already stuck to anything fabric, so the curtains, couches, an beds had absorbed the odor. If you are in the position I was, I would use an odor eliminator. The best one I have ever used is RV Shocker. It works wonders! You can find it here:

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