The Sump Pump's Fault, or Yours?

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.

If you've done the basics -- grading your property properly, keeping gutters and drains clear, and directing downspouts away from the foundation -- yet still find water entering your basement, you are probably a candidate for a sump pump.

How Do Sump Pumps Work?

When water builds up around the foundation of your home, hydrostatic pressure pushes it through floors and walls. Sump pumps work in conjunction with a pit dug in the lowest part of your basement and drainage tiles installed under your foundation to redirect water away from the house before it causes damage.

The pump's key regulating part is a float switch that works in a way opposite to those in toilet tanks. Toilet floats cut off when water reaches a certain level; a sump pump's float switch cuts on the pump's motor at a prescribed water level in the pit.

Types of Pumps

A pedestal pump has the motor mounted on a pole about 30 inches above the floor. A hose or intake pipe extends to the bottom of the pit to suck out water as it accumulates. Pedestal pumps are easy to reach for maintenance.

Because a pedestal pump's motor is out in the open, it tends to be noisier than a submersible one. If your basement is purely utilitarian and unfinished, noise probably isn't a big concern. But if your family spends a lot of time downstairs, noise could be a factor.

Submersible pumps are enclosed in waterproof housing -- either cast iron or plastic -- and sit on the bottom of the pit. They have screening on the bottom to filter out debris before it can get into the mechanical parts. Submersible pumps tend to be quieter than pedestal ones but are usually more expensive.

The best choice depends on your needs blended with a bit of luck. As with any mechanical device, there are lemons in each group. Go with reliable companies that stand behind their products.

Considerations

Tony Jenkins of My Plumber in Manassas said a pump must be the right size. That means using one with sufficient horsepower. Even the best brands will not work properly if they are too small for your needs.

How many gallons of water per minute can your pump handle? (That measurement is usually expressed as GPM; sometimes, though, it's gallons per hour, or GPH.) You'll need sufficient capacity to handle occasional deluges.

Your pump's GPM or GPH is governed by its horsepower. The average residential pump uses one-third or one-half horsepower, depending on factors including the depth of the basement, the size of the drainage area and the distance water must be pumped.

Can your pump handle small solids or leaves should they get into the hole? Submersible pumps' screens help filter out such debris.

Be sure the water discharges away from the house to where it won't affect a neighbor's yard or drain into a septic field. Petrlik cautions that it is a code violation to discharge the water from a sump pump into a sewer line.

How Much Will You Pay?

Prices for sump pumps vary widely. Quality of materials, strength of pumping ability and labor costs are all variables. On the whole, it seems that the cheaper the pump, the weaker.

You can buy a submersible pump for as little as $89 at a do-it-yourself store. Contractors tend to charge in the range of $200 to $900, plus labor. Pedestal pumps run in the $100 to $600 range -- again, not counting labor. (They are cheaper because the motor doesn't need a waterproof housing.)

Backup systems usually run from $300 to more than $1,000, depending on the type.

All this assumes that you already have a sump pit in your house. Digging a pit and installing a primary pump can run $2,000 or more -- again, a lot of variables go into the cost.

How Long Will It Last?

"If I had the answer, I'd be playing the stock market," Cochran said. Installers usually estimate five to eight years, but Willie Banks of Cobra Plumbing in Alexandria said he has seen some last 20 years or more.

Unfortunately, when the pump is about to fail, you may not get much warning. Usually, the first sign is a flooded basement. Whether it's a failed float switch or a power outage, backup systems and regular maintenance will limit the risk.

Backup Systems

So you've spent hundreds of dollars for a primary sump pump. Why should you have to spend more for a back-up system?

Again, how much is your basement worth to you?

Richard Peabody, a local author and co-founder of Gargoyle magazine, has covered all bases. He had a sump pump in 2004 when his basement flooded after a major snowstorm followed by heavy rain. "The sump pump burned itself out," he said. The resulting two feet of water caused the loss of 1,000 record albums, ruined a substantial amount of work-related papers and prompted a $50,000 renovation.

Now he has a piggyback system -- two sump pumps on top of each other -- and an automatic gas-powered generator. He also has a portable sump pump. For Peabody, more than $5,000 for backups was a small price for peace of mind.

There are other options, each with its own risks. Whatever you choose, be sure it operates automatically so you don't have to be there to get it going.

Battery-powered backups usually rely on heavy-duty marine batteries and a battery charger. When the power goes out, they kick into action. It's hard to find a contractor who has much faith in these systems for long-term power outages or for rapid influxes of water. Depending on the battery, they can completely drain in a few hours, leaving you without protection.

They are helpful in some situations, though. Ellen Bernstein, a translator who lives in Columbia, installed a battery-powered backup with an alarm that should operate in the event of power failure. "We learned our lesson after being flooded from Hurricane Floyd and Hurricane Isabel," she said.

She's a fan of her new system. "It alerted us to a small seepage during five straight days of heavy rain last spring." The seepage was caused by a blocked drain outside the basement door.

There is an additional concern with backup battery systems. In March, 29,000 battery chargers used in Flotec and Sears backup systems were recalled because of fire hazards.

Another option is a water-powered backup system, which needs no battery or electricity and operates on the suction principle. Pressurized water flows over a small opening, pulling water up out of the pit. It does require sufficient water pressure (40 pounds per square inch) from a reliable municipal water service, so it would not be an option for homeowners with wells.

Be aware, though, that because a water-powered backup uses one gallon of public water for every two gallons removed from the sump, you could face a sizable increase in your water bill. And some communities, primarily those dependent on water towers, have banned such systems because of the increased load. Check with your jurisdiction before installing.

Of course, there's always the automatic generator that could power the sump pump and other appliances . . . but now you're back into major expense, even for small-capacity ones.

Maintenance

Annual inspection by a professional contractor may head off problems, but there are some steps you can take yourself to keep your pump working.

Make sure debris can't get into the pump area and clog the works or get tangled in the float. It's a good idea to keep a solid cover over the pit. Petrlik has found socks, balls and other things blocking pump mechanisms.

After water accumulated in Rich Daly's basement this spring, the Arlington resident found that some leaves had blown in through a walkout door, then fell through the cover of his sump pit via a hole designed for the power cord. It took only a few leaves to keep the float from rising.

"It was a very simple fix that I could have done myself," he said. "I just assumed our sump pump was broken, so I called the plumber. It took him two minutes to 'fix' our problem. 'That'll be $80, please.' "

Unplug your sump pump periodically and check the bottom for sludge or debris. Make sure the float assembly can move freely.

Pay attention to odd noises, Cochran said. They're one of the first clues that something is amiss.

Prevent air lock by making sure the vent hole in the discharge pipe is clear. Check to see that the float switch moves freely. Some that are tethered to the pump by a cable can get tangled.

Sump pumps are made to be used, so test the pump every few months, especially if there has been a long dry spell. Several contractors suggest using a hose or bucket to slowly pour five to 10 gallons of water into the pit. If the pump doesn't kick on, have it checked.

Check outside to see that water is actually being discharged. You might hear the pump running, but a blockage could prevent water from getting out.

Learn how to check the valves. Some keep the water pressure set properly and help save on wear and tear. Others are one-way valves on your pump that keep water from backing up.

Backup systems need maintenance, too. Cochran suggests checking the battery every three to four months to make sure it's charged. And, whether it has been used or not, the battery should be replaced every two or three years.

When All Systems Fail . . .

Never walk through standing water in your basement when the power goes out. It could come back on suddenly.

Know where your main power switch is, and be sure that it is off before venturing into standing water.

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