If you have a basement in Indiana, then you know all about sump pumps. The problem is that these things fail all the time. While it’s not to say that we have a fool-proof method for preventing 100% of failures, there are certainly some tips you can follow to better your chances of a properly working sump pump.
For years, sump pumps have been a pretty common fixture in homes, especially in lower-level areas of the country or in places where the rapid melting of heavy snow can cause flooded basements. The popularity of sump pumps have grown exponentially in the past couple decades, largely in part to a legal amendment to the US Federal Clean Water Act in 1987 that requires certain homes to have a sump pump, even if they are not necessarily high-risk for floods.
The American Society of Home Inspectors actually did a study that showed more than 60% of American homes suffer from underground wetness or water damage. And there’s a liklihood that an ever large percentage will deal with a flooded basement at some point. Something we often talk about with roofing in terms of moisture also applies here. It doesn’t always take a large amount of water to create a large amount of issues. In roofing, we talk about roof leaks going into the home which aren’t uncommon for a faulty roof after a big rain storm. But just as problematic – or sometimes even worse – are the small leaks that get into the attic and aren’t noticed until well after a huge mold problem has been created. Same goes for moisture in the lower levels of your home. It doesn’t take a huge flood to cause thousands of dollars in damage. It takes very little standing water and very little time for mold and mildew to take over and create problems.
Proper maintenance is the key. Ugh, more maintenance! Here we are telling you to maintenance your roof, now we’re telling you about your sump pump. Really, though, maintenance is a great thing. It’s much cheaper than a huge repair and it drastically increases the life of your equipment.
There is no definitive “lifetime” of a sump pump. Most last anywhere from 3-20 years. That’s a pretty big window. The US Department of Housing and Development estimates the average life expectancy at 10 years. In my opinion, 10-15 years is pretty reasonable for a pump that goes through regular maintenance.
First, let’s talk about how a sump pump works.
The basics are pretty simple. A hole is dug in the lowest part of your basement or crawlspace where a sump pump sits and filters out water. As the pit fills up, the pump turns on and moves the liquid out of the pit through pipes that run away from the foundation of your home into an area where it can drain, such as a municipal storm drain or a dry well. A one-way valve (check valve) keeps water from entering back into the home.
The pump is generally powered with no special wiring; just your main household current. But being near water, or in water (in case of a failure), it’s a good idea to have some type of circuit interrupter to prevent electrocution.
The majority of residential sump pumps will turn on automatically from a pressure sensor or float activator. The pressure sensor activates as water builds up and creates more pressure than air which prompts the pump to turn on. The float activator has a ball that floats on top of the water, moving the arm as the water level rises – similar to the one in your toilet tank.
When the motor activates, the impeller (a fan-like device) will turn. Using centrifugal force, the spinning impeller will force the water towards the sides of the pipe, creating a low-pressure center where water from the pit rushes to while the spinning action pushes it through the pipe.
All of these things work together to keep your home dry. And for the most part, everything tends to go smoothly. But there’s a lot of parts working together and if one thing quits working, or some type of outside force comes in and causes disruption, things can get back quickly.
7 Things that Cause Sump Pump Failure
1. Power Failure
The most common cause for sump pump failure is an electrical power outage. To prevent this, have a backup generator that can be manually activated. In the case that your primary pump mechanically fails, though, a generator cannot help in this situation. But in the event of a storm where the power is knocked out for any length of time, a backup generator can be a lifesaver.
On the same topic of power, some components of the sump pump may be vulnerable to damage from power surges. To prevent this, protect the entire electrical system from power surges with a service entrance surge protection device.
2. The Sump Pump is the Wrong Size
If you have an incorrectly sized pump, or if the pump is not installed properly, there will most likely be a problem. A small sump pump is often just as effective as a big one. When a sump pump is too big, the pump is forced to work harder, resulting in a shorter product lifespan. But if it’s too small, it may not be able to adequately pump out the water – again resulting in a shorter lifespan.
3. Improper Installation
Installing a sump pump must be done exactly right. Manufacturer’s instructions must be followed carefully for the installation in order to avoid severe water damage down the road. Most manufacturers recommend or require a check valve to be installed on the discharge line. If not installed, the back-flow of water can cause the pump impeller to rotate backwards and unscrew off the motor shaft. In this scenario, you will still hear the pump motor running, but it would not be pumping any water.
Most manufacturers require the drilling of a small air relief hole in the discharge line between the pump and the check valve which is intended to prevent the pump from having to overcome the air pressure in the discharge pipe. The discharge pipe must be of the required diameter.
Lastly, the sump pump pit should not be set in dirt or gravel. This causes debris to enter into your pump and can result in interference with the pump’s on/off switch or float arm.
4. Switch Problems
The leading mechanical cause of sump pump problems is a switch problem. This occurs when the pump shifts from its position inside the basin, rendering the float ineffective. Float is responsible for the smooth operation of the on/off switch. Your sump pump relies on both the switch and the float arm mechanisms to operate effectively.
5. Lack of Maintenance
Some pump manufacturers recommend the pump to be run every 2-3 months. Some recommend a yearly program completed just before the rainy season hits.
Here are some additional manufacturer recommendations:
- If there is a back-up pump, unplug the primary pump and run the back-up pump to make sure it works properly
- When testing your sump pump, go outside to make sure it is discharging water
- Sometimes the pump can run but not pump any water. This means the impeller has disengaged from the pump shaft or the check valve is installed backwards.
- Check the operation of the float to make sure it is not restricted
- Clean out the air hole in the discharge line
- Listen for any unusual noises when the motor is running
- Replace the battery on the back-up sump pump every 2 or 3 years
6. Frozen or Clogged Discharge Lines
If water cannot exit your home through the discharge line, your system will not work. It is important to keep the discharge pipe protected from freezing and free of sticks, dirt, rocks and other debris. Protecting the water’s exit point of the discharge pipe will keep debris and animals out of the system, making it optimal for your sump pump.
Grated covering will not stop the lines from freezing or becoming blocked by ice and snow. A special grated discharge line attachment should help; it is placed near your home on the discharge line. It includes openings that give water a way to flow out of the pipe if the line is blocked further down.
7. Product Defect
Though rare, product defect is always a possibility and does happen. It is wise to test the pump when it is initially installed to make sure the pump operates properly.
It’s All About the Maintenance
Don’t get me wrong, you cannot avoid all of these problems with maintenance. Let’s be honest – it’s a mechanical piece of equipment and mechanical pieces of equipment fail. It happens. But there’s no doubt that you can avoid many of these issues, and give a longer lifespan to the equipment by performing regular maintenance.
At the very least, follow these maintenance tips once per year. Some experts will even recommend that you do this every 2 months. Quarterly maintenance is probably the norm. It takes just a few minutes and can avoid some serious pains in the future.
- A vinegar solution can be run through the sump pump in order to clean it
- The pump will become free from tiny particles and debris which will allow the pump to run much cleaner
- This can be done by the homeowner and unless there is a serious problem, then you may need to call a professional.
- Make sure the sump pump’s float switch is not restricted in any way. If it is, it will cause the sump pump to not automatically kick on in case of a flood
- Lastly, clean all vents and air holes for maximum effectiveness
That’s it. Maintenance is super easy and keeps your home protected from water damage. Make this a part of your regular home improvement plan and you’ll surely save some money in your pocket by either putting off the purchase of a replacement sump pump for several years, or by avoiding a costly water damage project.