The Sump Pump's Fault, or Yours?

Test the pump after a long period of inactivity by pouring five to 10 gallons of water into the pit.
Test the pump after a long period of inactivity by pouring five to 10 gallons of water into the pit. (By Ann Cameron Siegal For The Washington Post)
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By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 9, 2008

Rob Traister of Front Royal, Va., recently renovated and moved into his childhood home, a 1940s Cape Cod with an underground basement and a sump pit.

"That hole terrified me when I was a kid," he said. "My grandmother always warned us to stay away from it because it could break our legs. I wasn't sure how, but I wasn't taking chances."

Now, having lived with sump pumps and their pits in other houses for 40 years, Traister has a good working knowledge of the pros and cons of these basement-savers. Even so, he said, "after many years of living with a wet basement, I don't keep anything on the floor or within two feet of the floor that can't get wet."

For many homeowners, sump pumps are mysterious, not-so-reliable appliances. They are out of sight and out of mind until heavy rain and power outages converge. The resulting floods send folks scrambling to phones and squawking to plumbers.

Ask around. It won't take long to find a failed-sump-pump story. Are they really so unreliable, or is something else at play?

Dan Cochran of Dwyer Plumbing in Northern Virginia said lack of maintenance causes the most sump pump failures. "It's a mechanical item," he said. "It needs to be checked."

Bob Petrlik of Petrlik Plumbing in Riverdale said, "Sump pumps wear out, dry out, overheat, lose lubrication or blow a circuit if put on the same one as another major appliance."

Do You Need A Sump Pump?

Petrlik answers by asking: "How nice is your basement? What is six inches of water going to do to you?"

Even if your basement is unfinished, furnaces, water heaters, washers and dryers are at risk of shorting out if there's flooding. Water in the basement also damages foundations, rots wood, and fosters mold and mildew.

How high is the water table in your community? In parts of Alexandria, you only have to dig 20 inches to hit water. However, Petrlik lives on a hill in Riverdale. Years ago, just three weeks after moving in, he returned from a trip to find 15 inches of water in his basement. The culprit was an underground spring.

"Water can be found anywhere," he said.

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