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.”
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.
Streets 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
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.
- Stuck float valve. Sometimes you can just stop on the top of your sump pump pit and it will dislodge it.
- Failed Check Valve. This is quite common actually.
- 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!
Got any questions about sump pumps? Leave them in the comments section below!