How to Get Rid of and Prevent Algae in Campers and RVs

One of your family members says, “There’s something wrong with the water. Does it taste right to you?”

If you’ve ever experienced this, you know you can feel your heart drop when hearing those words. Algae could be the problem. Maybe you noticed a small green area inside one of your tanks the last time you filled them with water. There are easy steps to take to rid your freshwater tanks of algae. You can also prevent algae from growing again in your clean water tanks.

Read below and avoid the algae problem that can affect clean water in a camper. If green patches have already started growing in your tanks, you don’t need to replace them. There are easy steps to kill the algae in your clean water tanks and be rid of it.

Why Is Algae a Problem in Clean Water Tanks?

Although lots of people think algae is a nuisance rather than a health concern, harmful algae blooms can make toxins which can affect human and pet health. Blue-green algae are actually a kind of bacteria, instead of a plant, known as cyanobacteria. I also read that algae is not harmful at times, but can be harmful at other stages.

Scientists even have a hard time knowing when algae will put off the harmful toxins. Algae can grow in fresh or seawater. It seems that they have also spotted an algae bloom the size of a city in the Baltic Ocean, which is likely to cause the loss of oxygen for sea life in the area. Since that feels overwhelming, I think I’ll worry about the camper for now.

What Causes Algae in the Clean Water Tanks of a Camper or RV?

Sunlight causes most algae growth, although tanks are kept away from sunlight in campers. Heat and allowing your clean water to sit in tanks for a couple weeks can make algae growth more likely. Algae can be in your water before you are able to see or taste any noticeable signs of it.

The best way to prevent algae is to have opaque tanks. However, lots of camper and RV models have white tanks where the water level can be seen. Even if the tanks are stored without access to sunlight, algae can still show up if the water is left stagnant in the clean water tanks between camping trips. This is true even of the opaque tanks.

What Are the Results of Algae in the Clean Water Tanks of a Camper?

My family learned about algae when we were in a hurry to be off on our next camping trip. I really wanted to wait until after we came back to clean the tanks, but I thought I’d look up whether somebody might get sick. The Center for Disease Control lists a lot of health problems that can happen to people and pets from continued exposure to water with algae: abdominal pain, headache, vomiting, gastrointestinal problems, neurological, liver, and kidney damage.

This list is not meant to scare anyone off from using the water in their camper or RV, but to let people know who might be tempted to wait, as I was, before cleaning the clean water tanks. I wondered if I could simply buy bottled water for cooking and drinking and then disinfect the tanks after our trip. Buying bottled water for drinking and cooking won’t solve the problem, I found, since inhaling water mist with algae can cause problems like when you take a shower, for example.

How to Remove Algae from Clean Water Tanks

It turns out that algae can live in water before it looks or tastes funny. My tanks were already past that point as a small patch of green was already starting to show in one corner of the tank. I had no choice but to clean the tanks before our trip we’d waited so eagerly for. Disinfecting is necessary to remove algae. Sanitizing will prevent algae from growing in the freshwater tanks in the future.

Steps to Getting Rid of Algae in Camper/RV Water Tanks

  1. If algae patches are visible on the inside surface of the tank, try to remove it before disinfecting by using a long-handled soft-bristled brush or soft sponge if needed. Do not use steel brushes as this may scratch the interior of the tank.
  2. Add three-quarters cup of bleach for every fifteen gallons of water. Always dilute the bleach first. Never add pure bleach into the tanks without water.
  3. Allow water to soak for at least two hours before flushing out through lines including both the shower and sinks.
  4. Fill with clean water and flush again to remove the bleach. Continue this until you can no longer smell bleach.
  5. Maintain a regular routine of sanitizing your tanks as shown below to prevent algae.

Prevent Algae from Growing in Your Clean Water Tanks, Hoses, and Lines

  • Drain your clean water tanks completely when returning from your camping trip. Since there will still be some moisture or a small amount of water inside the wet tank, sanitize the clean water tanks before using your camper for your next trip.
  • Sanitize your clean water tanks by adding one-quarter cup of household bleach for every fifteen gallons of water. Run the water through the clean water lines, including the shower until all the water is gone. Soak your hose in a bucket with a bleach solution.
  • Refill your freshwater tanks, and run through the lines again until empty to rinse out the bleach. Continue this until you no longer can smell bleach.
  • Refill your fresh water tanks with potable water and you’re ready for your next trip.
  • Upon returning home, empty your water tanks if it will be a few weeks before your next trip.

Is There a Way to Test for Algae in a Camper’s Clean Water Tank?

While there are products that you can buy to check for algae even before it begins to show up as the familiar green color, following these simple steps with household bleach will rid your clean water tanks of algae and will prevent algae from growing again in your water tanks, lines, and hoses.

If you feel more comfortable with testing your water, an easy, affordable way to test for algae is Walmart’s Insta Test 3 Plus for $8.95. This product has test strips which will indicate the presence of algae in the water.

While bleach is an inexpensive solution to the problem of algae in the clean water system of your camper or RV, there are also algaecides you can buy at camper supply shops. Algaecides are often used as an alternative to bleach.

Copper is a common ingredient in algaecides which works by penetrating the cells of algae and preventing it from being able to take nutrients in. As the algae become immobilized, it will no longer be able to grow and will die out. Copper algaecides are used in many drinking systems throughout the world because trace copper is a natural part of people’s diets. Some campers prefer the copper algaecides to bleach because copper is natural.

Follow the directions of the algaecide carefully. It usually takes drops to treat several gallons of water. Water can then be safe for drinking within 30 minutes to 24 hours after applying the drops, depending on the amount of water being treated. Copper algaecides are safe for water tanks, although they can be corrosive to clothing such as cotton if spilled.

Can Vinegar Or Red Cider Vinegar Be Used to Disinfect and Sanitize Clean Water Tanks from Algae?

I had been told by several people that vinegar is great for cleaning bacteria from water tanks. However, in looking this up online, I found that vinegar is primarily used for removing calcium deposits from hot water heaters rather than disinfecting and sanitizing clean water tanks from algae. Apple cider vinegar has recently gained a lot of publicity for losing weight, reducing diabetes, and lowering cholesterol, but it is not adequate for killing bacteria and algae in clean water tanks.

Do Hot Water Heaters Need to be Cleaned to Avoid Algae?

Algae have the ability to survive in temperatures up to 140 degrees. The hot water heater, although it has no sunlight, can still have algae in it. The problem is that to keep water hot enough to keep algae from thriving in hot water tanks, it would have to be scalding.

Although this article is about algae, I found also that Legionella bacteria also can grow in hot water heaters, which I wanted to pass on to fellow campers. Legionella bacteria which causes Legionnaire’s disease, (a form of pneumonia), can survive at 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 °C).

One solution to keep water hot enough in hot water heaters to kill bacteria yet avoid scalding is to have a plumber install an anti-scald device. Because hot water is high pressure and cold water is low pressure, the anti-scald device works by balancing the pressure between the two sources of water. Although there are articles about installing an anti-scald device yourself, I think I would choose a plumber to make sure it’s installed correctly.

Hot water heaters should be sanitized every spring before going camping for the season or if an odor is noticeable. To clean your hot water tank:

  1. First, locate the off switch (check the control panel for electric and propane). Never empty a hot water tank under pressure or while hot.
  2. Open the petcock, which is usually located outside on the bottom of the hot water heater. To promote draining, open the plug at the top.
  3. Once the water has drained, close the plug and the petcock.
  4. Add ¾ cup of bleach or algaecide as directed to the water in the clean water tank, and allow the hot water heater to refill.
  5. After soaking for a couple of hours, run the water out and refill, continuing the process until bleach is no longer smelled in the water at the faucet.
  6. Remember to turn the hot water heater back on at the control panel.

Water Lines and Hoses Need Disinfecting and Sanitizing from Algae

The water lines need to be cleaned as much as the water tanks. Luckily, flushing out the water lines will take place when you run the bleach water from the tanks through the sinks and shower/tub. I don’t use well water or water from the campgrounds which may come from a well. I soak my hoses in a bucket of bleach diluted with water for a couple hours and rinse them until no bleach odor can be smelled. Remember not to use pure bleach only, but always dilute with water.

I also have learned to keep the ends of the hoses from touching anything that may be dirty or contaminated. After cleaning the hoses, lots of campers are keeping their water hoses clean and free from insects and other debris by keeping the ends covered with caps, linking the ends together, or simply covering the ends with plastic wrap and rubber bands.

Algae Can Grow in Tap Water

Filling your tanks with tap water, already treated with chlorine, helps resist algae for only a limited time. The treatment in tap water doesn’t last forever, and algae will eventually grow. Distilled water is least likely to grow algae because nutrients for algae have already been removed. I think because the cost of filling my tanks with distilled water would be an added expense, I’m going to use household bleach.

Reducing Algae Growth with Opaque Tanks

I considered replacing my clean water tanks with opaque tanks but realized it isn’t necessary. I did see some companies offering winterization/de-winterization for campers and RVs. I realized that won’t actually prevent the algae that can grow from moisture in the tanks after emptying or if water has been left sitting in them without use for a few weeks between camping trips. I’ll still need to disinfect and sanitize them to prevent algae from growing.

Water Filters Can Reduce Algae and Other Bacteria

There are two types of water filters: inline water filters and canister filters. The canister filters are recommended for full-time RVers.

In looking into water filters to prevent algae, I found that inline water filters will reduce bacteria and algae, reduce being a key word. The product did not promise to remove all of the algae and bacteria. Even if the inline water filter could make such a promise, water left stagnant in the tanks would require the disinfecting and sanitizing of the tanks. However, even a reduction of bacteria and algae would be helpful. The one I looked at is priced for $16.95.

Campers need to pay attention to the product description since some did not specify if they filtered out calcium or bacteria. Inline units that combine carbon filtration and sediment removal are recommended as the best water filter system for RVs. They are portable and will fit onto your water hose. These are the filters part-time campers might use.

Canister filtration is for the full-time RVer. Depending on your needs, you can choose systems that include one, two, or three canisters that are fastened to your RV and go with you. Be sure that one of the canisters has a KDF included for bacteria to reduce algae.

Carbon filters can have a KDF, (Kinetic Degradation Fluxion), added to remove algae, bacteria, and other impurities such as lead, mercury, iron, and chlorine. These are a good choice for the part-time camper. Silver nitrate is also used to prevent bacteria growth in the filter itself.

Most filters will need replaced after a period of time. This will vary, so check the instructions for the recommended length of use. If the filter has a clear cover, it will show when the filter is getting dirty and will need replaced.

Pets and Algae

Since so many campers are pet lovers, now might also be a good time to share that algae are a health hazard for pets. Dogs running through algae-covered ponds will later ingest the algae when they clean their fur. As much fun as our dogs have in the ponds, it’s best to keep them out of the stagnant water. Algae can also be in ponds that aren’t a telltale green. Our pets will also breathe in the water mist with algae. Giving our dogs a bath afterward will make it likely both we and the dogs will ingest algae by breathing it in. Avoiding ponds is the best policy for health.

Enjoy the Next Trip

Now with these steps for disinfecting and sanitizing your clean water tanks, you can keep your clean water tanks fresh and drinkable. It’s safe to shower in, and your pets will be safe also. Algae-testing products are available if you are more comfortable with testing your water. There’ll be no surprises, causing you to put off leaving for your trip while you hurriedly try to clean your tanks. With those reassurances in mind, enjoy your next camping trip and your time with your family to the fullest.

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