Your RV Water System Explained
(Camp Addict does NOT accept payment from any company to review or endorse their products.)
So you have an RV. You know there's some way that water runs to your sink, toilet and shower.
But how, exactly?
An RV water system can be confusing at first.
There's a difference between using a city water connection (hose connected to your camper) and using your camper water pump to circulate H2O stored in your fresh water tank.
If you aren't familiar with how an RV white (fresh) water system works, you've come to the right place.
Here you will learn how water gets into your RV, where to find water if you are not at a campsite with a water supply, and maybe even find out a thing or two about your fresh pump.
Need to replace your water pump? Use the button below to open up the reviews and find the right type for your rig.
How To Get Running Water In Your RV
Most RVs have two options to get water coming through your RV plumbing system:
- Attaching a hose to your RV from the outside ('city water connection')
- Using the RV pump to use water stored in your fresh water tank
City Water VS. Fresh Water Tank
Using City Water
One way to get water flowing through your faucets is to attach an RV water hose (different from a regular garden hose) from a spigot to the water inlet on the outside of your rig.
This is what is called using 'city water'.
With the city water method, you don't have to fill your holding tank or 'fresh tank'.
You also don't need to use your pump.
With the 'city water' method, the water goes from the hose directly into and through the pipes that lead to your RV toilet, faucet(s) and RV shower head.
City water bypasses the H2O holding tank completely.
When using city water, you can keep the outside water spigot on all the time.
This way, the water pressure from the spigot pushes the water through your RV water system.
So, no need to use your built-in water pump.
Turning the water off at the spigot (outside) when you aren't home is a good option to eliminate disaster if your RV plumbing system pipes spring a leak.
Of course, using city water only works if there's a nearby spigot you can use.
If you go to an RV park and pay for 'full hook-ups', you will have a dedicated spigot to use.
When using city water, it's a VERY good idea to get a water pressure regulator to attach to your RV water hose.
Some RV parks have pressure that is too high for RV plumbing systems.
In such cases, it can bust the water pipes inside your rig, or cause leaks at plumbing fittings.
Having an RV water pressure regulator will help prevent this disaster.
Obviously, you can't use city water if you are out in the woods (boondocking) or if you are camping without water hookups.
If that's where you are going, you need to fill your freshwater tank before you get there.
Water Pressure Regulator
A water pressure regulator is a must-have for RV camping when you are connected to any outside water supply.
Water pressures from town to city to town will vary.
Some have very high water pressure which can damage your existing water lines, causing a leak.
A leak will cause water damage, which is the #1 worst thing that can happen to your RV.
ALWAYS have one of these in place when connected to an external water supply.
Using Your RV White Water Holding Tank
Pretty much any RV with a sink, faucet or shower in it also has a freshwater holding tank.
This is how you get water when you are boondocking.
You may either fill your white water tank at home before you hit the road, or you can fill it just before you arrive at your campsite.
Also, some campgrounds will have a designated area where you can fill your tank before settling into your campsite.
If your rig is already close to its GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating), it's best to not drive with your clear water tank full the entire way, depending on how far you have to go.
Driving with your tank full also affects your gas mileage to a certain degree, depending on the capacity of your tank.
Keep in mind that each gallon of water weighs approximately 8.3 lbs.
You do the math for your water tank (capacity in gallons x 8.3).
Of course, driving with a full water tank also depends on where you can or cannot get water.
Sometimes the nearest water source is nowhere close to where you are camping.
In this case you have no choice but to fill your tank before arriving at your final destination.
To fill your tank, locate the outside potable water fill port.
Most of the time, it's pretty clearly marked.
Below is an example of what yours may look like.
Sometimes it's inside a locked compartment, sometimes it's not.
If you have an older RV, just keep looking around the outside compartments until you find a hole that looks like it can fit a hose.
It's NOT the same hole that you use to stay hooked up to water as we talked about above.
The opening for the water tank fill has a totally separate entry point.
NOTE: Some RVs (mainly motorhomes) do not have a potable water fill port. Instead, they have a valve that redirects water coming in from the city water inlet to the clear water tank.
One other way you can fill water holding tanks is with portable water containers or bladders.
You can also fill these to help your water supply go even farther.
You then empty them into your portable water fill point (assuming your RV has one).
Doing so means you don't have to move your rig again to top-off your water.
Please note- these bags are notorious for leaking around the threaded area over time, or otherwise developing a leak, and may need to be replaced periodically.
Other methods are to purchase a large bladder that you can fill at the drinking water station.
You then utilize a free-standing water pump OR the pump that came with your RV, to fill up your clear water tank.
Filling Your Water Tank Using Collapsible Water Containers
Your RV Water System Pump
You will need to turn your RV water pump on to use tank-stored water when you are not connected to city water.
Locate the on/off switch and flip it to the 'on' position.
Now you have a pressurized water system.
It may be in the 'on' position, but it won't necessarily be actively running.
It's designed not to activate until the pressure in your water lines drops.
The pump is set to keep the pressure in your RV plumbing lines at a certain pressure, usually about 40 PSI (pounds per square inch).
When it senses that the RV water system pressure drops below that (when you open a faucet, use the toilet, or take a shower) it turns on to maintain water system pressure.
Need to replace your water pump? Use the button below to open up the reviews and find the right type for your rig.
Most RV plumbing system pumps will pulsate when water is used.
So if you have water flowing for any duration, it will pulse on and off.
To lessen the pulsing, you can install an accumulator.
The video below is an example of a normal operation.
You can see that the RV plumbing system water pressure fluctuates when the faucet is being used.
If you listen closely, you can hear the pump turning on and off in the background.
Normal Water Faucet Pulsing
There are newer RV water pump models that also claim to lessen the above water system pulsation and noise.
Also, it's a good idea to keep your pump off until you need to use water.
This is just in case you get a leak in the water system.
Be aware that when you first turn your pump on after filling your tank with water, the plumbing lines probably aren't filled with water yet (assuming the tank was previously run dry or had been sitting a while).
Therefore, you might hear it come on for a couple of seconds to prime the water system lines.
Don't be alarmed, it's perfectly normal stuff.
After a short period of time it should turn off until you use on a water fixture (faucet, shower, or toilet).
Pump Pulsing When You Aren't Using It?
When turned on, if your pump runs constantly, or pulses every few minutes and you aren't using your RV plumbing system, this is not good.
You are losing pressure which indicates you have a leak somewhere in the plumbing.
Turn it off and start trying to locate the leak before you have water damage.
Also, your water faucet or shower might sputter and spit (sometimes with surprising force) the first time you go to use it after filling your tank.
This is normal.
It will happen until the RV plumbing lines are completely void of air.
The water might look weird, sort of whitish.
This is again normal. It's just air in the plumbing system mixing with the water.
Once the air is purged from the water system lines, the water runs normal and clear.
You should have your own dedicated water hose for filling your rig with fresh, potable water from a reputable water supply.
Fill your rig's freshwater tank until water starts to back out of the overflow hole.
Don't forget to put the cap back on after filling the tank.
Never fill your tank using the non-potable water hose at a dump station.
People use that hose to stick down their contaminated RV black tank hose to rinse it.
How To Find Water To Fill Your Water Tank
Unless you are filling your RV water system at a campground or from home, it's a challenge to find water for filling your tank.
There are a few online places that can help.
There's a website called SaniDumps that is a dump and water locator.
Also, where there's a dump station, there's USUALLY potable water as well.
There are also many dump station reviews on the website Campendium.
Be Smart - Call Ahead
If you are looking at getting water from a campground but you aren't staying there, always call ahead.
Ask them if they will allow it and how much they charge.
Be aware that a lot of campgrounds in more northern regions, or at higher elevations turn off their water supply for winter.
This is another good reason to call.
Sucks to arrive in an area only to find out that you don't have any place to fill up your tank.
Might ruin your camping trip.
Some gas stations, and the occasional camping store, have fresh or 'potable' water you can use for free.
Other times you can find a campground or RV park that will let you fill.
Usually they charge somewhere from $5 to $20, depending on how greedy they are, how large your white water tank is, and what part of the country you are in.
Also check fairgrounds for potable water.
Use the old-school 'telephone' part of your smartphone to call around to these places first.
How Does Your Water System Pump Get Power?
Your water pump needs power to run.
Where does it get power?
It's a 12-volt device, so it uses your RV batteries, which provide your motorhome or trailer with 12-volt (DC) power.
Even if you are connected to shore power (an outside electrical source) your pump still uses 12-volt power.
You can learn more about the mysteries of camper power systems by reading our guide on how RV electrical systems work.
Filtering Your Water
Should you use a water filter when filling your clear water tank?
You might think 'I don't drink the water from my faucets, so I don't need a filter'.
Well, that's only a partially correct statement.
Filtering the water that comes into your clear water tank also filters the H2O that goes through your pump.
Filtering water before it goes into your water holding tank keeps tiny particles out of the pump.
Those unfiltered particles might otherwise damage the diaphragm and eventually cause it to stop working. Boo.
You never know how good or bad the water quality is from the source.
It's best to use a filter whenever filling into your tank.
If your RV doesn't already come with a water filter installed (most don't), you will need to buy one that you attach to the end of your fresh hose.
Simply attach it in between your fresh hose and your camper and you're good to go to keep sediment from your RV water system.
Disinfecting Your Fresh Tank
Before you use your RV plumbing system for the first time, it's a good idea to disinfect the white water tank.
Do this ESPECIALLY if you plan to use it for drinking water.
It's also good practice to do this once or twice a year to keep it nice and clean.
How To Sanitize Your Fresh Tank
To eliminate the bleach smell and taste after sanitizing your white water tank, you can add a small amount of white vinegar to the tank when you fill it to drain it a second time.
You don't have to completely fill the tank, just enough to run sufficient water through the plumbing system so you get the vinegar solution through every fixture.
Run all your faucets, hot and cold, until you smell vinegar coming out.
Let it sit for a few hours.
Then empty your white water tank and lines completely and refill with fresh potable water.
What About Waste Holding Tanks?
So far we've only discussed the white water tank, but what about waste water?
Your RV plumbing system also has a black water tank and one (or more) gray water tank.
You can learn all about these RV waste holding tanks by reading our Ultimate Guide To RV Holding Tanks.
Your RV's clear water system isn't that complicated.
It consists of a water tank and RV plumbing to distribute water to any faucet, shower, or toilet inside camper.
There are two options to get fresh water flowing thru the system - using the pump or being hooked up to a city water supply via a hose.
Now that you understand how to safely use your RV water system you are ready for your next camping trip!
Authors: Kelly Beasley & Marshall Wendler
He-llllo. I'm the co-founder of Camp Addict, which my biz partner and I launched in 2017. I frigging love the RVing lifestyle but in December of 2020, I converted to part-time RV life. Heck, I lived in my travel trailer for over 5.5 years, STRICTLY boondocking for pretty much all of it. Boondocking is a GREAT way to live, but it's not easy. Anyway, I'm passionate about animals, can't stand campgrounds, I hardly ever cook, and I love a good dance party. Currently, I can be found plotting and scheming whether or not to start collecting farm animals (or plotting my next RV trip!) at my beautiful new 'ranch' named 'Hotel Kellyfornia', in Southern Arizona.
Camp Addict co-founder Marshall Wendler brings his technical expertise to help explain RV products in an easy to understand fashion. Full-time RVing from April 2014 - December 2020 (now RVing about 50% of the time), Marshall loves sharing his knowledge of the RV lifestyle. Marshall spends the majority of his RVing life boondocking. He is the part of Camp Addict that knows 'all the things'. He's good at sharing his technical knowledge so you can benefit.
I have two fresh water connections. Can i use either one?
Are you sure they are both inlets for connecting water? Or have you checked to see if one actually for filling?
I am wondering if any of the products on this website are made and manufactured in USA?
Off the top of my head, I don’t know. We simply show what the best products are that are available, in our opinion. Whether they are or are not made in the USA is not a top concern as to what is chosen.
Would be great if this country did more manufacturing though, instead of outsourcing so much, but that’s the way the world and the country is running at the moment.
Question: I only used the “city water” method. My fresh water tank was never used. Do I need to sanitize? If so how, same method?
Thanks for the comment and for checking out Camp Addict!
If you are only using a city water connection for fresh water, then your fresh water tank is probably OK. Keep in mind though that sanitizing the entire fresh water system will also ‘clean’ all the fresh water lines inside your rig. These lines are used regardless of the method of fresh water delivery you use (fresh water tanks or city water connection) so they should be cleaned on a regular basis.
Then again, people don’t clean the pipes in their sticks and bricks homes, do they? But sticks and bricks homes don’t see such a variety of water sources – some good, some bad.
I guess it’s up to you if you want to clean the fresh water lines in your RV. I don’t drink the water from my RV’s faucet without first filtering it (using a Berkey, but that’s probably overkill for most people), so I don’t stress too much about the cleanliness of the lines. I just do a fresh water system sanitization every now and again (no more frequently than once a year) and so far it’s worked well for me. But your mileage may vary.
I emptied my fresh water tank, hooked up to street water, now the monitor shows the fresh water tank is full. It appears the street water is not by-passing the fresh water tank????
Since I don’t have any idea about how your particular RV is plumbed, I can only go off my prior experience. Years ago I had a similar problem – I was hooked up to a city water supply and my freshwater tank was filled up (and actually overflowed). Turns out that the bypass valve built into the water pump had failed, causing the freshwater tank to fill up with water.
In my situation (and I suspect it is the common way to plumb an RV), the freshwater system is pressurized by an outside water supply (city water). The 12-volt water pump has a check valve of sorts to prevent water from backflowing through the pump into the freshwater tank. This check valve failed in my case, causing the city water supply to fill up my fresh water tank.
This might be what is happening in your case. Or there might be some other plumbing situation for your particular RV.
I’d suggest having a knowledgeable RV mechanic take a look at your rig to determine what is exactly going on with your particular situation. You can also use this service if you want help in diagnosing the problem.
New to the camping world, I have a 2004 komfort trailer. I am hooked to city water however I don’t get water without using the pump. I don’t understand why.
Unfortunately we aren’t RV mechanics so we can’t troubleshoot issues that we haven’t experienced ourselves.
As far as I understand it (and how it works on my travel trailer), you hook a hose to your trailer’s city water inlet and as long as that hose is pressurized (has water coming through it), you have water in your rig without needing to use the pump.
I don’t know what would be causing the city water inlet to not work.
If you have a user manual, I’d check there. Otherwise I’d have someone familiar with this brand of trailer help you out.
Are you able to ask the person/dealer you bought the trailer from?
New to RV’ing….. probably a simple question…..does my city water run thru the onboard water filter or just tank water…..our water pressure is getting bad, hose has good pressure.
Without knowing how your exact RV is plumbed, I don’t know the exact answer to this. But if it’s a factory installed onboard water filter, I wouldn’t be surprised if the city water runs thru it.
Do you have a manual with the RV that shows a plumbing diagram?
Where is the filter located? If it’s in a utility bay, you should be able to see the water lines and may be able to answer the question by looking there.
We are normally hooked up, but are boondocking for the first time this year. Full timing two years.
This time, when I run my water pump, it is pumping water out through the city water inlet.
What causes this, and how do I stop it?
Well, that’s a weird one. I don’t have any experience with that.
I did have a water pump once where the check valve failed. This caused water to flow past the pump, into the fresh water tank, when connected to city water.
But it’s like you have the opposite problem Very strange!
I honestly don’t have a clue what the problem might be.
Do you happen to have the rig’s manual? If so, it might have a schematic of the plumbing system which you can take a look at and see if it offers any clue as to what might have gone sideways. Assuming the schematic is accurate.
Otherwise, I’d try contacting an RV mechanic and seeing if they have any ideas.
Sorry I’m of no use here!
Same issue here! How did your situation revolve?
Am I correct that city water pressure will reach to the output of the 12V pump as that is a common line to both. If so, then I could connect the output of a 120V water heater, mounted inside the RV, to that 12V pump line, with city water going only to the elec water heater and the city water RV connection capped off.
Correct, in most RVs the city water and the RV water pump share common plumbing lines to faucets, shower, toilet, water heater, etc. The pump has a backflow valve so the water doesn’t pass through it into the fresh water tank.
I assume you are wanting to install a 120v water heater because the RV’s water heater (many have a 120-volt setting) doesn’t work?
Why would you want to only have the city water going to the water heater? This means the cold water side wouldn’t have any water pressure from the city connection.
Anyhow, yes I suppose it’s possible to plumb in another water heater if you have a place to install it and know how the plumbing on your particular RV ‘works’.
What if you try to use the pump and city water at the same time
Great question! This would depend on the pressure of the city water in the line. If it’s above the regulated pressure that the pump is set to, then the pump will not kick on. If the city water pressure is below the set pressure of the water pump, then it will kick on when needed to raise the pressure.
In all honesty, we have never tried this, as we are boondocking 99.5% of the time. Try it and see and let us know! It won’t hurt anything.
Once, while hooked up to low pressure CG water, was complaining of the trickle I was getting for a shower (usually it’s good with our Oxygenics shower head) hubby switched on water pump as well – was great pressure but when I tried to turn the water off it wouldn’t!! Yelled out to shut the pump off – I’ll assume this created too much pressure and luckily there wasn’t any damage. Our pump did not kick out on it’s own, but for 1 min I had the most amazing shower!! So I wouldn’t run pump even if the pressure is low – our rig is a 2020 Rockwood Signature.
Wowza, that would be something! Glad you had at least a good wonderful shower for a minute. Yeah, might have accumulated too much pressure! Thank you for sharing!
We have a tiny (10′) vintage camper that only has a city water hookup currently (we only have a sink that we’re plumbing, no bathroom). I don’t know much about adding a fresh water system to it, but have considered it for when we are not at a full hook up. Is there a portable system option I could consider (portable bladder or tank with an in-line portable pump perhaps)? Or is there a good resource you could point me to about installing a system? I’m not sure where we would really have room for tanks though.
Sounds like what you want to do (no permanent tanks) is something that is done a lot on the home build van community (you know, the #vanlife ones).
I’d take a look at what systems they put together and see if something will work for you.
Since we don’t do the #vanlife thing, I’m not up on which sites are the best. This is where Google will be your friend.
Is there a way to be hooked up to city water, but set up the system to use the tank water first, and only use city water when the tank is empty? Thought about getting a pressure tank and adding a gravity fill inlet to it… would that work or would the incoming water need to be pressurized to go into a tank like that? Is there a better option I am not considering?
Any particular reason why you would want to use the fresh water tank supply first when you are connected to city water?
Normal RV water systems are setup to bypass the water pump (which would supply water from the fresh tank) when attached to city water.
Am I missing a scenario where you’d want to use the fresh water tank first? Maybe I’m not completely understanding your question or what you are trying to do.
Also not really sure what you mean by adding a pressure tank with a gravity fill inlet? I’m familiar with a ‘normal’ fresh water tank with gravity fill. And the only pressure tank I’m familiar with is an accumulator tank that is on the output side of a water pump that allows a limited amount of water flow before the pump turns on.
Can you explain a bit more what you are looking to do so I can get a better understanding of the scenario you are looking at?
Hi! Thanks for your response! It’s a long story but the short version is, I want to experiment with some rainwater collection and use. So I would want collect that into a tank and use the tank first, but have the city supply on deck if there’s just not enough or the water tests are no good. I live in a cold area (zone 5) and am expecting limited precipitation collection in the winter.
Anyway, by the pressure tanks, I was referring to the ones for use with wells, where the pump detects the pressure in the tank and if it gets below a certain set point the pump draws water up from the well. I was thinking of inserting an inlet into the tank to connect to my downspout. But that would be a passive gravity fill and I’m not sure if those tanks require a certain water pressure to fill. Then if the tank was empty, and I was calling for water, the pump could kick on and draw from the city supply? I dont love the idea because those tanks are usually on the smaller side and because I think that the city supply has enough pressure to make the pump redundant. It was just the best idea I had so far for making the city supply secondary.
Thanks for your thoughts!
Thanks for the further explanation!
No, RV fresh water tanks aren’t designed to be pressurized. They have a vent to the outside to facilitate venting while using the gravity fill port. Plus I’m pretty sure they just aren’t designed to be pressurized.
I don’t think you can do an automatic fill like you are talking about. I mean, never say never, but it probably would be a total PITA to set up.
How about shutting off the city water supply until you need it (aka, fresh water tank fill is empty). Then turning it on at that point.
The gravity fill water ports are just that. Gravity fill. So they don’t need any specific pressure. I routinely pour water into mine (using gravity) via 6-gallon water containers.
So you should be able to set something up where you can fill, via gravity, from a water collection cistern. I just would have some way to control the flow. Not have the water constantly running into the fresh tank as this will cause overflow via the vent.
Hope that helps! Sounds like you are definitely trying to work the fresh water problem. I like!
Thanks for the tips!
New to game. So you fill your potable water tank (Fresh). Do you then run the pump to pressurize, or just leave it and it will turn on when needed?
You are correct. You fill, then you can keep your pump on all the time and it will activate when needed when working properly. If you hear it activate often when you aren’t opening any faucets, you likely have a leak.
I turn my pump off when I am not home, just to avoid any accidents happening while I am away and can’t hear the pump running when it shouldn’t be.
Thank you so much for featuring our Fresh Water System video on your page! Happy to help! 🙂
For sure- thanks for making the video!