Matthew Steger WIN Elizabethtown

Sump Pumps - What every home owner should know

Water is often the most troublesome and costly issue that occurs in homes.  Spring and summertime are generally the wettest due to spring and summertime thunderstorms so now is a good time to evaluate your exterior and interior drainage performance. There are many simple things that home owners can do to help prevent water from entering the home from the start, such as proper exterior grading, properly sloped clean gutters, and extending downspouts away from the home.

Most modern homes have a buried built-in system to help address water when it gets through the foundation.  Controlling this water can help prevent structural damage, mold, and/or damage to furniture or stored items within a basement or crawl space.  Most modern homes have a weeping tile that is laid around the exterior perimeter of the foundation’s footer (normally about 10-12’ below grade); the foundation walls rest on the footer.  Weeping tile is typically plastic pipe with holes in it that catches ground water before it accumulates in the basement or crawl space.  This tubing is also called a ‘weeper’ for short and sometimes has a fabric 'sock' installed over it to help prevent it by being clogged by dirt or gravel.  The tubing then normally runs through the footer and discharges into a sump pit.  The sump pit (sometimes called a 'sump crock') normally has a plastic liner.   A pump system is needed to remove the water that accumulates in the pit and discharge this water to the exterior far from the home’s foundation.

Preventing A Wet Basement is a related article that you may find useful in protecting your home by keeping your basement dry.

The two most common sump pump types are submersible and pedestal.  A submersible pump sits down within the pit and is covered with water.  A pedestal pump has a low intake with a center pole; the pump motor itself sits above the water level.  With either type of pump, an intake opening at the bottom draws in water and pumps it out once the float switch activates the pump based upon water level.  These pumps are normally powered by the home’s power (120 Volts AC).

Submerssible sump pump

This photos shows a submersible sump pump. The float mechanism (on the pump's right) turns the pump on and off once the water level within the sump pit reaches a set height (similar to a toilet's float mechanism).

Installed submerssible sump pump

Sump pump system (submersible pump) with a backup sump pump system installed.

A battery backup system (an independent DC powered sump pump) is a wise addition in case there is a power outage or the primary pump fails due to malfunction (age, blockage, etc.).  A power loss would mean that the main sump pump wouldn’t operate and the water could accumulate and overflow your sump pit and likely flood the basement.  If the basement is finished, a battery backup is a must.  Think of how much damage will occur to a finished basement if the primary sump pump fails and inches or feet of water accumulated in the basement.  Wall and floor coverings, furniture, and appliances could all be damaged and possibly warrant a total gut of the finished basement.  Also, if water comes in contact with the electrical receptacles, electrocution could occur.  Even if the basement is not finished, anything stored on the basement floor may get water damaged.

Battery backup systems have a deep cycle battery with a system that can maintain a charge over a period of years. Depending upon the system installed and how long the pump needs to run, the battery backup system may be able to run (on and off on occasion) for 4+ hours or even for a few days. Many of these have an alarm that monitors the condition of the battery and can alert the home owner if the battery is failing which would prevent the backup pump from running. The backup pump sits just above the level of the main pump; if the water continues to rise (due to the main pump not turning on), the still rising water should trigger the backup pump and pump out the water.

Sump pump backup system

This is a backup (DC powered) sump pump system that can work in conjunction to a regular (AC powered) sump pump system.

There are also sump pumps that exist that use no power but operate by the pressure of the public water system.  A supply pipe is connected to this type of pump and when the water level in the sump pit rises, suction is provided by the pressure of the water supply pipe to draw sump water out and discharge it from the building.  Of course, this will not work in a home on a well.

As part of a home inspection, the home inspector should provide some helpful guidance such as recommendations to help keep water out of their home.

Some of the basic things that every home owner should do to help prevent water in their basement or crawl space includes ensuring proper exterior grading away from the home's foundation, ensuring that gutters and downspouts are clean of debris, ensuring that the downspouts and sump pump pipes discharge at least 4' from the home's foundation, and installing covers on any basement window wells.

No matter what type of sump pump system you have in your home, it is wise to check the system on a regular basis (at least monthly is suggested). Here are some tips:

  1. Make sure that the pump is powered – an unplugged pump or unpowered receptacle spells trouble. If the sump pit is already sufficiently filled with water, manually test the pump. If there is no water in the sump pump, pour several gallons of water into the sump pit and make sure the pump operates normally. Also, make sure that the pump sits vertically within the sump pit; a crooked (non-plumb) pump may not work reliably.

  2. Ensure that the float is not obstructed – the float is a plastic ball that senses the water level and controls the ON/OFF operation of the pump. If the float can’t operate freely, the pump may not turn on when the water level rises. The float sits on the water's top and triggers the pump to turn on or off based upon the rising or lowering water level in the pit. Ensure that there is no debris in the sump pit preventing operation/movement of the float or blocking the pump's ability to suck water. Cleaning out the screen at the pump's base is often needed. If the screen is blocked, water can't get pumped out. A cover over the sump pit can prevent toys or other items from falling into the pit which could prevent pump operation.

  3. Is the discharge pipe secured and rigid or is it loose flex pipe? A rigid pipe (such as PVC) primed and glued and secured to the wall near the sump pump is the best option. On a few occasions, I’ve seen flexible, corrugated plastic pipe that simply hangs between the exterior discharge point and the pump. The force of water in the drain pipe when the pump turns on may cause the discharge pipe to become unstable and possibly come loose spraying water around the basement. I’ve seen it and it’s not pretty. A proper rigid secured drain pipe is much more reliable.

  4. Ensure that there is an in-line check valve installed – this is a one-way valve installed in the drain line between the pump and the location where the discharge pipe exits the home. It allows water to only go in one direction. Ensure the check valve is installed in the proper direction; there’s an arrow on it and it should face UP. This valve is important because when the pump stops each time, there is still water in the discharge pipe between the pump and the high point of the discharge pipe that doesn’t exit the system. A properly functioning check valve will stop the water inside the pipe from falling back down (by gravity) to the pump. Without a check valve, this water will re-enter the sump pit and repeated cycle the pump. This will make the pump continue to run unnecessarily and likely wear the pump out prematurely.

  5. Route the discharge pipe at least 4’ from the home (further is even better). If the sump pump discharge pipe simply passes through the foundation or siding and stops, this water drains along the foundation again. This could attract insects/rodents to the building plus this water will likely find its way right back into the sump pit where it will again need to be pumped out in a never ending cycle. The discharge point should not be under a deck or porch as this water could accumulate and allow for ground settlement (affecting the deck or porch), may attract insects, and/or lead to wood rot of the deck or porch structure.

  6. Ensure that the sump pump is plugged into a grounded receptacle. Modern sump pumps are grounded appliances (with a grounding pin on their plug) and should be connected to a grounded receptacle for safe operation. Modern electrical standards require that this receptacle to also be GFCI protected for safety reasons.

The life expectancy of a sump pump can vary widely depending upon the size (horse-power rating), whether its submersible or pedestal, how much dirt/gravel exists in the sump pit, and most importantly, how much use the pump gets. A pump that runs every 15 minutes due to a high water table around the home is going to have a much shorter life compared to one that only runs hourly on very rainy days. Also, check with your city/township/borough as many now forbid discharging sump pumps into the sewer system. Most areas require sump pumps discharge to grade outside the home.

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© 2014 Matthew Steger

Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer, an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI), an electrical engineer, and a US Dept. of Energy Home Energy Score Assessor. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or msteger@wini.com.

WIN Home Inspection has provided a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area since 2002. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.