Sump Pumps: Your Last Line of Defense Against Basement Water Damage
If you’ve ever had a flooded basement after a storm or burst pipe or washing machine leak, you know how devastating the damage can be. Even a few inches of flood water can ruin your household items, cause rust and rot in your basement and cripple your essential mechanical systems, including your hot water heater and furnace/boiler. By collecting and removing water to a home’s exterior, a sump pump can prevent some serious and costly damage.
Any home that regularly experiences even a little water penetration into the basement or crawlspace should be equipped with a sump pump—but all homeowners should consider installing one to help prevent sudden water damage from a flood or storm.
How a Sump Pump Helps Prevent Basement Flooding
A sump pump is an electric pump that sits in a hole, called the sump pit. The pit is located at the lowest corner of the basement or crawlspace so that when flooding occurs, water drains directly into the pit. When water in the pit reaches a predetermined level, the pump automatically kicks on and pumps the water outside the house through a PVC pipe.
Most basement water problems stem from exterior drainage problems. As you consider installing a sump pump, evaluate (in the rain, if you must) the drainage around your home. Are gutters clogged? Do downspout extensions move roof runoff at least 4 feet beyond the foundation? Does the soil within 3 feet of the foundation slope away from the house?
Even if these conditions have been met, water may still find its way into your basement. Perhaps a utility trench invisibly channels runoff back to the house or you have a seasonally high ground water table. These situations call for a sump pump.
And just because you’ve never had water in your basement, don’t think it can’t happen! Even if you don’t have a chronic water problem in your basement, a powerful storm, such as a hurricane, or a long-lasting or heavy rain storm can inundate your home. The driest basement can, under the wrong circumstances, become a flooded mess.
Installing a sump pump, even in the absence of an ongoing basement water problem, is still a wise and relatively low-cost investment.
How to Choose a Sump Pump
Consider these factors when selecting a pump:
- There are generally two types of sump pump: pedestal and submersible. Choose a submersible pump over a pedestal pump if your sump basin has the space. Submersible pumps allow the sump pit to be covered with a lid, reducing pump noise and keeping debris out of the pit.
- Choose a pump with at least 1/3 horsepower, which is sufficient for most homes.
- Buy a pump with a cast iron core, not a plastic one. Cast iron helps to dissipate heat to the surrounding water, lengthening the life of the pump.
- To minimize clogging, the pump should have a no-screen intake design and an impellor that can handle solids up to ½-inch in diameter.
- Choose a mechanical switch over a pressure switch. The float should be solid.
- Look for a pump with an alarm that tells you when the water reaches a preset level, detecting a water leak before it causes costly damage. Sump pumps can burn out, lose power, become clogged or misaligned, or malfunction in a variety of other ways, so an alarm can help you resolve flooding before damage occurs.
- Seriously consider installing a battery backup to keep the sump pump working in the event of a power outage, which is most likely to happen during heavy rains and floods—just when the pump is most needed. The backup power comes from a car battery—or even better, a deep cycle boat battery. Most of the systems charge the batteries while the power is on, so that the battery is fully charged in the event of a power outage.
Some Notes on Installation
Many homeowners will have a sump pump professionally installed, while those comfortable with plumbing and electricity should be able to install a sump pump system themselves in 2 to 4 hours (this does not include creating a sump pit). Here are a few installation tips to consider:
- The sump pit should be large enough for the pump to operate properly. For most homes, the pit should not be less than 24 inches deep and 18 inches wide. A float jammed between the pump and the pit is a common reason why sump pumps fail.
- Install a check valve to prevent water in the discharge pipe from flowing back into the sump pit after the pump turns off.
- Place the battery (if including backup) in a protective plastic case and set it on a wall-mounted shelf—not on the floor.
- The water discharge pipe should be 1 1/2-inch-diameter PVC pipe.
- An electrical outlet for plugging in the electric pump and the charger for the battery-backup pump should be near the sump pit. If necessary, hire a licensed electrician to install a new outlet. Don't use extension cords to power the system. Per code, a sump pump must be plugged in to a functioning ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet.
- When pumping the water outdoors, the water must be released onto a downhill slope and at least 20 feet away from the house so that it can't drain back into the basement or crawlspace. Another option is to pump the water into a drainpipe that leads away from the house. And while you don’t want your discharge pipe too close to your house, shed, garage or other structure, make sure it stays on your property, not your neighbor’s, and does not drain into a public sewer or residential septic system.
Keep Your Sump Pump Humming
A sump pump does you no good if it’s not working when a storm hits and water gushes into your basement. Ensure your peace of mind by performing routine maintenance.
Do a visual (and slightly hands-on) inspection of your sump pump at least three to four times a year. Some homeowners even hang a sign in their basements reminding them to check the sump pump frequently. Grab a flashlight and give your pump the once over:
- Is the pump plugged in? Is the power cord in good condition?
- Test the GFCI outlet that the pump is plugged into and reset if necessary.
- Is the drain hose connected properly? Is it unblocked and unfrozen?
- Is the pump totally upright and on a solid, even surface with no leaning?
- Is there any debris in the pit that could clog the pump and prevent it from working properly? Clean it out.
- Does the float move freely? Adjust it if necessary.
- Pour a bucket (about 5 gallons) of water into the sump pit. Does the pump start automatically and quickly clear the water?
In addition, do these tasks at least once a year (or hire a professional to do an inspection):
- Clean and lubricate the pump. The sucking action of the pump can pull small stones into the grate, blocking the inlet or damaging the pump over time. Unplug the pump, disconnect it from the discharge pipe and pull the pump out of the sump. Hose away any debris on the screen at the pump’s base and rinse off its housing. Lubricate the pump bearings, if required (check your owner’s manual).
- Inspect the check valve. If the internal flap doesn’t swing freely, flush it out, and if you see mineral deposits, soak it in vinegar. Make sure its arrow points up when reconnecting it to the discharge pipe.
- Test the float switch. A failed sump pump is usually the result of a switching problem. Sometimes the pump can shift inside the basin, causing the float that operates the switch to lodge against its side. Debris can also interfere with the action of the pump switch. Pour a few gallons of water into the sump. If it comes on and sucks out the water, the switch—and pump—are good to go. If not, repair or replace the switch.
- Press the GFCI outlet’s test and reset buttons.
- If you have a backup battery, unplug the pump to see if it functions properly on battery power alone. Then, top up the battery’s cells with distilled water.
- Ensure the outlet pipes are tightly joined together and draining out at least 20 feet away from your foundation. Make sure the vent hole in the discharge pipe is clear.
Signs of a Failing Sump Pump
Eventually, machines fail and even a well-maintained sump pump has an end date. Contact a professional if you encounter any of these signs:
- Aging. Experts recommend that you replace an average-use unit every 7–10 years or 5–7 years if your pump runs frequently.
- Odors. If you detect rotten, moldy smells in your basement, your sump pump may be malfunctioning.
- Rust. An older pump may not have been made with rust-resistant materials. A pump with rust that can't be scrubbed away needs to be replaced or the rusted part needs to be repaired.
- Noises. Sump pumps shouldn't generate loud noises. If your pump is making unusual noises, like humming, clanging or banging, it could be time for a replacement.
- Water. The most noticeable sign your sump pump needs repair or replacement is the presence of water in your basement.
To avoid the stress of trying to buy and install a new sump pump while flood water seeps closer and closer to your basement, have a backup sump pump handy—and be sure to test it regularly, too.
When All Else Fails
If a storm is pouring water into your basement and has knocked out the electricity and you don’t have battery backup, your sump pump won't do a thing, unfortunately. Instead of watching your basement fill with flood water, you can attempt this old-school, low-tech trick.
If you live on a slope, make a siphon. Fill a garden hose with water from the outside spigot, seal one end with your thumb and have a friend seal the other. Place one end through the cellar window and into the standing water. Then, have your friend carry the other end as far downhill as possible (the outlet has to be below the intake). Release your thumbs and gravity should begin pulling water out of your basement and away from your home.
Other options to pursue when the water is rising and your sump pump won’t kick in include using a manual bilge pump and setting up a bucket brigade. CAUTION: DO NOT ENTER a flooded basement until you CUT ALL POWER to your residence.
If Your Basement Floods
In spite of your best efforts, the water poured in and you’re looking at inches or even feet of water in your basement! That’s a disaster and you have to act fast to restore the water damage and prevent further damage, like mold growth.
For complete cleanup, you want to call on a reputable damage restoration company that will:
- Get there fast to inspect and assess the damage.
- Have a team of highly trained water damage specialists ready to go.
- Pack out, clean and store your possessions.
- Use the latest equipment and expert techniques for water removal and extraction, drying and dehumidification, followed by cleaning and sanitizing.
- Complete necessary repairs of your structure and restore your possessions.
There’s a Coverage for That
Many property casualty insurers offer coverage for water backup and sump pump discharge or overflow damage. This would include water damage from a sewer or drain within your home, but not from a flood or surface water backup. Contact your home insurer for details.
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