Maintaining Your Sump Pump, What Happens When it Breaks?
If you own a home with a basement, you should consider the risk of basement flooding, and the benefit of using a sump pump. If you use the basement as a living area or store important items there, you may want to consider more protection. But even if you keep it unfinished and use the area only for appliances, there can still be corrosion, mold, and mildew issues because of flooding. Even without a basement, there is always a risk of water accumulating in the crawlspace under a house, leading to damage.
The most common solution to basement flooding is to have a sump basin, a small pit for water to flow into. A pump then drains the sump when it fills with water. If you live in an area where basement flooding is common, the house may already have a pump installed. When water begins to accumulate in the pit, a sensor is triggered and the pump activates, pumping the water through a pipe that discharges away from the house. Unfortunately, sump pumps are not devices you can just throw into the sump pit and forget about. They can fail for many reasons, often without warning. You may not realize anything is wrong until you are in the middle of a big storm and you find that your possessions are six inches deep in water.
How Do They Work?
Your basement should be set up so that the floor drains to a low spot, which then drains to a sump basin or pit. This pit is usually about 2 to 3 feet deep and holds 15 to 25 gallons. The pump is the device that drains the basin whenever it gets too full. They can either be submerged or sit above the water on a pedestal. The pump is activated by a float valve or a pressure switch that tells it when the water has reached a certain level.
The pump will push the water through a line to a location outside the home. In the past, sump pumps often discharged into the sewage system, but now this is generally frowned upon and, in many places, illegal.
What Can Go Wrong?
Like any device that exists primarily to be used in an emergency, they can fail at the worst possible moment. If something is wrong with your sump pump, how will you know? The moment you find out the pump has failed is the moment when you really need it to work. There are several things that can go wrong, and understanding them is the best way to be prepared.
Initial Setup Problems
Many failures go back to the initial installation. Any of the following can result in it not being ready when you need it most.
- Pumps that are the wrong size for the job will not drain enough water fast enough. Sump pumps are measured in horsepower, which is proportional to how much water they can pump and how far they can pump it. The length and relative height of the discharge line, along with the anticipated peak amount of water in gallons per minute are the factors that tell you how powerful the pump needs to be. In the United States, most are either ⅓ or ½ horsepower, but more powerful pumps are available.
- Discharge lines need to be laid out properly and unobstructed. If a discharge line is bent, obstructed, or if the outlet is at a higher point than expected, the load on the pump can cause failure.
- Improper installation can lead to a variety of problems. Installing a sump pump should be done according to manufacturer instructions. If the check valve is not properly placed or the discharge is not vented, the pump may seem to run normally but it will not pump water when needed.
- The pump will be either mounted underwater or expected to function in a very wet environment, so the wiring needs to be done properly. A breaker or fuse of the proper size should protect the pump.
Conditions That May Cause the Pump to Fail
Usually when something goes wrong, everything else goes wrong as well. Flooding can happen by itself, but it may also be part of some other disaster that includes power failures, frozen pipes, or lots of debris. All of these conditions can affect the performance of the pump.
- Power failures frequently accompany weather events that lead to flooding. The basic setup will not work in these conditions. Many homeowners choose to have a backup plan in place. This can include a secondary, battery powered pump or a backup pump that is driven by the pressurized municipal water system. Another option is to have a generator in place that can activate in a power failure and power the sump pump.
- Frozen discharge pipes can be an issue. The best prevention is to make sure the discharge line is drained completely when not in use.
- It is also important to keep the discharge line free of debris. A grated discharge can be used to protect it.
Routine Maintenance and Testing Can Ensure the Pump is Working
At regular intervals, the pump should be tested, along with the float valve or actuator. The pump should be cleaned along with all the vents and air holes. Many homeowners prefer to have a professional do a periodic check-up and cleaning of the sump pump and system.
The pumps wear out over time. The number often given for how long a sump pump should last is ten years, however, cheaper models or units working under heavier stress conditions may only last three. Some last as long as twenty.
Flooding and water damage affect over 60% of homes in the United States at some point. A properly installed and maintained sump pump can be an excellent investment. Many new homes now come with one installed, and in many places having one installed is a requirement. However, if your home is older, or if don’t think the installed set up is adequate protection for your valuable home and possessions, you may consider having us check your installation or upgrade the system as necessary.