Q. In 2005, after many years without water problems, I had to have a French drain and two sump pumps installed in the basement of my house. Now I worry about having power go out when the groundwater is high.

I contacted the firm that put in the French drain, and they recommended a “Cadillac” system with a marine cell battery that starts at $2,500, with the next best at $1,600. I found systems on the Internet for as low as $100 at Lowe’s, as well as some for $800-$900. So now I am in a quandary. How do I properly research this subject without being railroaded into an overly expensive system or one that just doesn’t do the job? I do not want an outside generator because I’m uncomfortable about running and maintaining it, and it would cause problems with my homeowners’ association. 


A. Matt Souri, owner of Novapro Restoration in Annandale (703-966-
5004; www.novaprorestoration.com), which has been providing basement waterproofing services since 1992, had a simple answer to the “what’s the difference” part of your query. “Part of it is markup,” he said.

Backup pumps do have differences that translate into legitimate price differences. These features include how much water the pump can lift, how long the battery will last, whether the battery will recharge automatically through your house’s electrical system, and whether there is a warning sound if something malfunctions. But these factors  should translate into price differences of hundreds of dollars, not thousands, Souri said.

He recommends replacing your existing pump with a new setup that includes both a plug-in pump and a backup that operates on battery power. The combo products are set up to work well with each other, so the backup pump automatically goes on when the main pump can’t keep up with the flow or shuts off because power is out. Souri typically charges $500-$600 to swap out an existing pump and put in a new combo, assuming he doesn’t need to upgrade the electrical connections or deal with other complications.

Before you commit to battery backup, there’s another alternative to consider: a water-powered backup pump. Instead of sitting in the sump pump hole in your basement floor, this type is plumbed into a water pipe. When water in the sump rises too high (because the main pump is either overwhelmed or shut off because of a power failure), a float in the backup pump lifts and activates a valve that allows the municipal water to flow through the pump. Similar to what happens when you suck on a straw, the water pressure then lifts water that’s collected in the sump pit and sends it out through the drain line. Basepump (www.basepump.com) is one manufacturer; the Web site lists installers, though most plumbers could probably figure it out. Al Lepinsky, a Basepump installer in Fredericksburg (540-898-1199; www.Homeprofiled.com), estimates the cost to install a water-powered sump pump typically runs around $600 to $750.

A water-powered pump is an option only if you have municipal water with an incoming pressure of at least 40 psi (pounds per square inch). Well water doesn’t work because the water pressure drops to zero when power is out. Every option has pros and cons. A water-powered pump does waste water, because the pump ejects water that provides the lift along with water from the sump. But this waste occurs only when the pump runs, which shouldn’t be very often. The big advantage is that the pump keeps going as long as you need it. With battery backup, it’s always a gamble: Will the battery last until power switches back on?

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com . Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

The Checklist

gRead Jeanne Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks you should tackle in October, such as winterizing your sprinkler system at washingtonpost.com/home.