Sump Pumps – Don’t Make These 3 Mistakes

I have provided several basement waterproofing tipsand have contended that by taking these steps, you can avoid water in your basement. However, there is an old adage about basements: “There are those that are wet, and those that are going to be wet.”

Most sump pumps use this basic design.

Most sump pumps use this basic design. They sit on a bed of gravel or rocks at the bottom of sump pump pit. The discharge pipe is hooked up to that circle-jobby on the left.

Translation: Your basement WILL get wet eventually. There is a difference between wet and under water though.

One way of preventing the latter is a sump pump. Depending on a variety of things: where you live, your area’s water table level, the age of your home, you may or may not have a sump pump. Here in the Chicago Burbs sump pumps are pretty standard operating procedure.

Your sump pump pit, if designed properly, collects all the excess water surrounding your house.

Some water will always sit in this pit, but when the water level gets to a designed threshold, your sump pump springs into action, and pumps the water out away from your house, keeping your basement dry!

Luckily, I don’t have a lot of first hand experience with sump pumps, as I’ve never had one fail on me (cross my fingers, knock on wood, open an umbrella indoors… wait, what?), but I want to outline how critical they can be with a sidebar story.

Sump Pumps Story Time

This past April, we recorded over 10” of rain. Now that might not seem like much to you readers in Seattle, but that’s about our entire Spring season average most years. There was one stretch in particular of about a week straight where, “it started raining, and it didn’t quit. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. Shoot, it even rained at night…” Yes boys and girls, we had a real Forest Gump situation on our hands.

forrest_cropStreets and basements were flooded, and sump pumps were sold out at every Home Depot, Ace, Lowe’s, and Farm & Fleet. I heard several stories about people waiting outside of home centers for sump pump delivery trucks and upon there arrival, people fighting – literally fist fighting – ala Black Friday specials. Only replace talking Elmo’s with sump pumps! Lots and lots of sump pumps!

Anyways – back on topic. This blog is not going to talk about how to install a sump pump. Our good friends at This Old House have a great video and instructions on installing a sump pump. Plus, 90% of you reading this already had one when you bought the house.

So why am I reading this? Good question! Because I want to share some of the pitfalls to sump pumps that can lead to water in the basement, and how to avoid/prevent them!

Sump Pumps Mistake #1 : Lost Power!

Sump pumps run on this fancy form of power called electricity! See Jason’s extensive section of the blog on unraveling this mysterious form of power and harnessing its capabilities.

Usually, when your sump pump needs to be running is during heavy rainfalls. Often that rainfall is accompanied by other weather phenomenon, namely lightning and wind.

Lightning and wind like to knock out power and when that power is the same power running your sump pump, what do you think happens?

Spoiler Alert – Your sump pump stops working when you need it to be working the most. How can you avoid this?

Sump Pumps Battery Backup

Battery backup pumps kick on when your primary source of power is killed. They typically run on a 12-volt deep cycle marine battery. An electric charger keeps the backup fully charged and ready to spring into action. They cost between $300-$500 and can be installed relatively easily, or so I’m told. A couple common sense tips…

- Don’t install the battery on the floor. Use a plastic case and/or build a stand or wall mount. It’d be a shame if power went out, your sump overflowed and the overflow fried your backup battery, wouldn’t it?

- Make sure the outlet for your primary system is mounted near your system and well above floor level. Don’t run extension cords from a sump pump motor to an outlet across the basement. Same rationale as common sense tip #1.

Sump Pumps Mistake #2: Not Testing Your System

I’d say there are 3 levels of need for sump pumps.

Level 1 – Homes where drainage is poor and sump pumps run constantly, even with little to no rain. In these homes, it is absolutely critical to keep your sump pumps well maintained. Testing is probably not needed because it’s going off every couple of days. You should keep a spare pump in your home for quick replacement in the event of a failure.

Level 2 is probably the ideally designed system in which more often than not, your sump pump isn’t “normally” running. Your sump pump will kick on during heavy rains for a brief period and right back off. These will require occasional testing to ensure proper performance.

Level 3 is thankfully where I reside – I’ve never heard my pump go off even during our week long Forest Gump rainfall marathon. I suppose I can thank the city of Oswego for excellent civil engineering (or dumb luck). If you are like me though, you’ll want to test your system at LEAST annually to make sure your pump is still working for the rare instance you really need it.

How to test your system

Simple! Pour water in! Get yourself a 5 gallon bucket of water, and slowly (about the rate rain water might enter) pour the water in until the float triggers your pump to activate. At this point you are hopefully watching the water level drop, and successfully shut back off when your float drops back below the shutoff level. If that’s not what happens, troubleshoot and repair/replace as needed.

Sump Pump Mistake #3 : Bad Discharge Pipe

One of those sad but funny because it didn’t happen to me stories here – During the aforementioned Forest Gump rain, All sump pumps have a discharge pipe, very similar to this one.my buddy at work walked into his basement to find his floating floor… floating.

The root cause – his discharge pipe.

It leaves his house, makes a right angle into the ground, then another right angle to travel away from his house. The right angle below ground had broken. He thinks this was due to tree roots and has now resolved the problem but it was a difficult one to diagnose as you can imagine.

His pump, meanwhile, is in quite a predicament, trying to combat both the natural water flow, plus the backflow of everything its already pumped. Ultimately it couldn’t keep up. Basement flooding ensued.

Luckily his basement wasn’t fully finished so casualties were minimal. On top of fixing the discharge pipe issue, he pulled his best Tim “The Toolman” Taylor, and installed a 3/4HP bad-mamma-jamma pump. More Power! Aarrghhh argh argh!  (they are usually a 1/2 or 1/4 HP).

Moral of the story – inspect your discharge pipes as well. Most people have a simple piece of PVC sticking out the side of their house. Some have additional tubes running away from their home. Others like my buddy, have underground lines. Whatever your design, ensure they are working properly.

Bonus Sump Pump Failures to Be Aware Of

This articles getting a bit long but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention 3 other ways a sump pump can fail.

  1. Stuck float valve.  Sometimes you can just stop on the top of your sump pump pit and it will dislodge it.
  2. Failed Check Valve. This is quite common actually.
  3. Someone unplugs your pump – Well… yes, this happens. Basements don’t have a lot of plugs. Someone runs an extension cord from your sump pump outlet and forgets to plug the pump back in where they’re done. Check it!

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Got any questions about sump pumps? Leave them in the comments section below!

- Adam

 

 

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  1. Rick Bruce says:

    Don’t even get me started about SUMP PUMPS! They are a nightmare. Long story short, new house, less than 1 year in the pump fails. We don’t notice until we go down stairs to get something out of the freezer…FLOOD! Home warranty covers 150 bucks for the pump cost, that’s it! Second flood the power was out for 6 hours in a heavy rain. Third flood the pump was just overwhelmed. So we spent 2800 bucks on a Super Sump System. 2 of the best pumps you can buy, plus a deep cycle back up pump. Now I can start to finish the basement! Cheers!

    • Yes, yes you can. That sucks about the pump failure(s). Sounds like you hit all of the major failure points. At least you rest easier now. Good luck with the new basement, I’ll drink one for you tonight! – Jason

  2. Our house is 30 years old. Poored concrete walls. Weve owned for 5years. Sit on a ridge with good natural drainage. There is a “sump crock” with no pump. As far as i know there has never been any water in the basement. Should i still install a pump, before finishing?

    • Hello Pat – I would say no, you’re probably fine without the pump. If the house is 30 years old and hasn’t had any water issues it’s unlikely to start anytime soon, especially if you’re on a ridge with good natural drainage. Good luck finishing your basement! – Jason

  3. Is it possible that a sump is not running because the water is not making its way into the sump did to a blockage or other problem. SnD if so, would that cause water to stay near the foundation and possibly enter the basement? We are getting some minor seepage on one wall and our sump rarely turns on even though we’ve tested it and replaced the valve and pump (plumber did it). Still rarely comes on.

    • Rick – A blockage is a possibility or perhaps a break in the pipe leading to your sump pump. It will only on when the sump pump pit has enough water in it to push up the float trigger. And water will only go into the pit if the drainage around your house is intake and unblocked. If it was working before and now isn’t, something is probably compromised. Sorry dude. – Jason

  4. Hey there,
    My basement flooded this past October, it was finished. Turns out the float was bad in the sump pump. We put in brand new, high powered sump pump. So contractor just finished re-finishing basement this week and now the sump pump isn’t even going on and the pit is full of water. Is it possible that rocks are getting stuck in the pump? Should it be on a grate of some sort?

    Thank You

    • Alicia – Uhhggg, I feel terrible for you, I know personally how frustrating sump pumps can be. First, check to see that the pump has power. Check that a breaker hasn’t been flipped – you can try plugging a radio or something into the sump pump power outlet. Second, make sure the new float is working it, if it has floated to the top then the pump should be going off. It’s possible that it’s clogged, but you should still hear the pump trying to work. Keep in mind that some water is fine, it will only come on if the float is pushed up to the top. See if you can manually trigger to pump to come on by manipulating the float. Did you get a Zoeller pump? These are the best on the market and the only kind I recommend.

  5. I have electricity but my sump pump keeps switching over to battery even after I reset it. I shook the float thinking it was caught on something and it still kicks over to back-up battery.
    We had a lot of rain on top of snow melting and the sump pump flushes about every 45 seconds.

    • Hi Nancy – Hmmmm…. the float or frequency of the flushing should have nothing to do with the battery backup coming on. The only reason that should come on is if the main power source is unavailable. Perhaps you have a loose connection somewhere?

      A sump pump going off every 45 seconds is too frequent over a long period of time, you will have a pump failure at some point. When you have the chance I would upgrade to something that can displace more water at once. Or better yet, make sure all of your downspouts are routed away from your house and your landscaping is graded away from the foundation. Good luck and stay dry! – Jason

  6. The handy girlfriend says:

    Hello,

    My boyfriends garbage disposal got a crack it 2days ago and it caused a leak down to the basement so I shut off all power down In the basement as safety measures. Well I unplugged the sump pump and it’s been off for two days as well as we haven’t ran the dishwasher or use the kitchen sink for two days due to the leak. Issue: we realized the sump pump had been unplugged and he plugged it back in. When he did the pump (zoehler) is making this air sucking sound and we don’t know what it is.The water levels are lower than usual and we don’t know what to do??

    • It sounds like your sump pump is kicking on (for some reason?) when it shouldn’t be. Because the water level isn’t at a level high enough to normally cause it to kick on, the sump pump has no water to suck and therefore is litterly sucking air. Many people report this same problem near the end of a normal cycle. Check to see if your float is stuck or needs to be adjusted to prevent it from kicking on when the water level doesn’t call for it. Good luck! – Adam

  7. I recently bought a new home and was looking around the house this past Sunday and for some reason I went to check on the sump pump. I noticed that the pump is bone dry and it looks like it has never had any water in it. Upon further inspection I noticed there are no drain lines running into the sump pump. So my question is for a sump pump to work properly wouldn’t you need foundation drain lines running to the sump pump? If not how would water find its way to the pump pit? Should I be worried about water intrusion down the road?

    • Lance – Thanks for the comment. Not all houses have sump pumps and not all sump pumps have foundation drainage systems leading to them. Your sump pump can still help to releive any water pressure that would otherwise build up under your foundation slab (if you have one). Also, if you ever get active water in your basement (for whatever reason) it will help pump it out. An IDEAL sump pump system would collect drainage water from around your foundation like you are alluding to, but some, like yours, do not. My guess is your sump pump is not going to see a lot of action most of the year because of that. Make sure you take precautions with your gutters and grading around your house. Check out my exterior waterproofing article if you haven’t already! – Adam

  8. First time with a sump pump in a home, and first winter dealing with the noise it makes knowing that at some point it may stop working and we’ll have a problem.

    Not knowing anything but what I can find online – my main question is this: outside the discharge comes out of the house and then directly into the ground underneath landscaping rock. There is also a few feet of loose piping that’s just sitting there, unattached.

    So, with this major thaw in Minnesota after a record snowfall, combined with going from above freezing to below daily now, do I need to attached the loose pipe to the discharge? Or is it safe to assume (can’t even believe I’m writing that) that the discharge goes directly down into another piping system that moves water away from the house, underground?

    • Hey Josh – I feel your anxiety man, I felt it many times myself. I hate that noise for what it might represent. Do NOT assume it’s attached. If you don’t see water flowing out the end after the pump goes off then you can assume it’s going straight back down to the foundation of your house.

      Now, depending on the grading of your lot that may not be an issue, for a lot of homes it doesn’t matter if the discharge just pumps a few feet away. But, for a good “chunk” of homes (including mine at one point) that was not the case. I had my discharge pipe extended to 25 feet away and into the woods.

      My advice is this. 1. Make sure you have a backup sump pump and a water alarm 2. Extend your discharge pipe at least 10 feet from your house and make sure the water is flowing down grade. 3. For a long term solution that MAY keep your pump from ever going off, extend all of your gutter down spouts at least 5 feet from your foundation. AND, have an experienced landscaper come over and make sure your land is graded properly, away from your house.

      Good luck!

      Jason

    • Josh – I agree with Jason, and not to scare you, but your situation is the exact same setup my buddy had. His discharge came out of the house, down underground and while underground traveled away from his house. Problem is, his underground 90 failed and the discharge water was leaking out of it right back towards his house. The sump pump couldn’t keep up. I think many people burry these pipes because it can be a bit of an eyesore having them visable in your back yard. I recommend following the steps Jason recommended and you will be just fine!

      • Thanks guys! I went out earlier today when I heard the pump working and felt water coming through the pipe back into the underground system – so at least it’s not freezing and water is flowing out of the sump pump bin. But I’m just going to be safe and pull the discharge so it’s heading out away from the house.

  9. We have a crawl space with a sump pump. It’s been going off very often (every 2 minutes) the past couple of days with a loud noise. We’re assuming it’s due to the great amount of snow we’ve had this winter and it’s starting to melt. When I went to check, there isn’t much water, but when it rises a little (only to 1/3 of the sump pump), the sump pump goes off sucking out water very quickly, then stays on making a loud noise (sucking out air?). There’s no floater of any type. Do we need a new sump pump?

    • After the water is sucked out, the sump pump stays on for another 2 minutes sucking out air and making a loud noise doing it. What’s making the sump pump kick in when there’s not much water and why doesn’t it shut off after the water is sucked out?

      • Either the float is stuck or the switch that the float is attached to is broken. Either way, it’s a sign the other components may not be far behind. Replace ASAP. – Jason

    • Ahoy Anxious – Yes, you probably need a new sump. At the very least a new float, it sounds like yours is broken. I highly recommend Zoeller pumps, they are fantastic! I like this 1/2 HP one, seems to have the right amount of power and can handle a lot of volume. – Jason

  10. Hi Jason,
    We live in an area of Virginia with bad drainage. My sump pump comes on every ten to fifteen seconds after a rain and will pump that way for five to seven days. My house sits low, and I have raised the sump pump about a foot in the pit. I am considering raising it even more to the bottom of the discharge pipes where the water is coming in. Would this help to alleviate some of the work of the pump turning on so often? Any advice on how to deal with the amount of times the pump kicks on? My neighbors pumps don’t run hardly at all. Thanks. Any advice is appreciated.

    • I would not recommend doing that. Raising it to the inflow pipe will put added strain on your weeping tile, especially during heavy rains, which can lead to weeping seepage. You can adjust your float to a longer run time if you are concerned about the pump wear.

    • Tom – I agree with Eric 100%. While raising it may keep it from going off as often you are causing damage to your other structures by not letting it do it’s job of removing the standing water under your house.

      You have 2 options – 1. Buy a bigger pump and piping so you can clear out more volume per pump. (not recommended) 2. Find and fix the reason you have so much standing water under your basement.Your sump pump should not be going off that much. Definitely not days after a storm.

      Make 100% sure ALL of your downspouts are extended away from your house. Read my post here on downspouts. Your issue seems really similar to mine. I also live in Virginia and that red clay dirt is a bitch! You may also want to look at your neighbors house – is his/her roof run-off heading straight for your basement? If so, combined with yours – you are talking about over 1,000 gallons of water for every inch of rain. You just won’t be able to pump that much water out fast enough. You’ve got to redirect it away from your house.

      Good luck – let me know how it works out. Feel free to post more questions here. – Jason

  11. We moved into a newer home in MI last August and the sump pump did not run at all. We probably went through our worst rain event in a very long time (receiving 5 inches of rain in about 3 hrs) and still, the pump did not need to run. It wasn’t until December when the snow started falling that the sump pump started running. By January it was running about every 15 – 20 mins, and by the end of February through currently it is running every 3 mins. The previous home owners built the house in 2005, so it is about 9 years old. I called a plumber to see if they could replace the sump pump (for piece of mind) and also check the city water back up sump pump (for additional piece of mind). I was amazed to find out that the previous owners had re-routed the sump pump to drain into the sewer line (illegal). The plumber couldn’t put in a new sump pump but quoted me on re-routing to the exterior of the house. My property is on solid clay with very poor drainage. I am questioning where to direct the discharge pipe after it exits my house. I do have a low swail area towards the back of my property, but it is probably 150 – 200 ft away. Is that my best option? I have a wood lot on the side of my house with the discharge pipe, but i do not know how well it would support that qty of water being pumped to it. I am also concerned about the discharge pipe freezing up in the winter. I would like to run it underground, but do not have enough slope to run below the freeze line of about 3 – 4 ft. Should I try to run it with rigid 4″ pvc through my back yard and into the swail area?

    • Hi Brett – There are several questions here, I’ll do my best to answer. I’m more of a basement expert than a sump pump – but I’ve personally dealt with these same issues – so I’ll try to contribute.

      First, I feel like something must have changed in either your house or a neighborhoods house for you sump pump to suddenly start going off like that. Make sure all of you gutter and downspouts are hooked up and haven’t come loose. Take a walk to your neighbors house – make sure his are good to go as well. If it was no going off with 5″ of rain, it shouldn’t go off because of some snow melt.

      Second, that sucks about the discharge pipe being illegally routed. You officially have my sympathy on that one.

      Third – You’ll want your discharge pipe to be at least 6 feet away and preferably sloping down hill. With a heavy clay soil it will not absorb water very well and could easily run back towards your house if it isn’t sloping down and far enough away – I had to have mine extended a good 30 feet to reach the rear of the yard.

      Given the expensive proposition of dealing with a flooded basement if your sump pump fails – I would recommend paying for a super reputable landscaping company to come out and install the discharge pipe and any downspout extensions. They’ll know how to handle your frost line issues – that’s above my pay grade.

      Good Luck!

      Jason

  12. Our home is 9 years old and we do not have a sump pump. This week we received 1.5 inches of rain one night and 5.5 inches of rain the next night. This is the first time that we have had any issues with any water in our basement. It actually came up where the drain pipe is elbowed in a gravel pit (about a foot by a foot) under the bathtub. We are considering putting in a sump pump. Here are my concerns: 1. We have never had issues, is this really necessary? Literally, almost everyone I know had issues this time around because of the amount of rain in such a small time frame. 2. I am unclear on how putting in a sump pump at this point will be of any help…without digging around the entire foundation to put in drainage pipes. 3. Our basement is mostly finished with the exception of the furnace room and a storage area. The storage area is a walk out area…this is where the sump pump would be installed (this is about 30 feet from where the water actually came in). This is not necessarily the lowest point in our basement that water will run to. Does that matter? 4. Because we have now had issues and water has traveled under our home…does that now mean that we are at higher odds for having more water issues in the future?
    I honestly know very little about sump pumps and probably know just enough to be dangerous. I just don’t want to jump into installing a sump pump because we have had one issue with water.
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    • Ranae – Sorry to here about your basement flood. I’m not a sump pump expert myself – but here is my two cents. It sounds to me like you got close to having a flooded basement – but did not actually take on any water. Am I reading that correct?

      If this has never happened before and it also happened to many neighbors (meaning it’s more than likely directly due to amount of rain received in such a short period of time) then I (personally) would do nothing. Wait it out.

      Your odds of a flood are NOT increased now because of this.

      Installing a sump pump is a fairly big job and may be quite expensive depending on your basement setup.

      I’m totally answering this based just on this comment so take it for what it is, but it sounds like you have great drainage but in this case it just couldn’t keep up. If the water went away fairly soon after the rain stopped, I would just wait and see.

      If it’s really worrying you – have a firm come out and get an estimate and maybe their opinion on whether or not it’s worth the effort.

      Good luck – Jason

  13. Dilip Nag says:

    Hi,

    I bought 50 year old house that has a sump pump. It kind of rained all day long here. I see the pit is wet, but no accumulated water. Should I be concerned? Thanks.
    Dilip

    • Dilip – No concern, you should be fine. The pit may get some water in it but if it’s not high enough to trigger the float switch then pump doesn’t need to come on. You would have to have close to 6 to 8″ of water in the pit, in most cases, before your sump pump should kick on. – Jason

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