Is Your Sump Pump in Danger of Failing?

Written by Angie's List Staff
Updated January 9, 2014
Sump pump
Maintaining basement sump pumps keeps them in working order. (Photo courtesy of Angie’s List member James L., Haddon Township N.J.)

Routine maintenance and inspection of your sump pump to detect potential problems and failure could save you from costly flooding damage to your home.

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For homeowners with basements, the soggy conditions resulting from rain and snow underscore the importance of having a good working sump pump and a backup system in the event of a power failure.

Sump pumps are dutiful mechanical devices that fit into a sump pit in the basement or crawlspace – where ground water collects – and pump out the water once it rises to a level in the pit that sets off a sensor on the pump. Unfortunately, says Russell Graves with Pipe Dream Plumbing, LLC in Indianapolis, too many homeowners don’t check the condition of their sump pump until they notice it’s not working. That, of course, doesn’t happen until water begins backing up out of the pit. Left unchecked, it can quickly spread and cause thousands of dollars of damage, especially in finished basements equipped with expensive furniture and electronics.

“Generally, they fail because they’re just out of sight, out of mind,” Graves said. “Typically, we see they’ve failed because they’ve gotten old and people just don’t pay attention to them until their feet get wet. It happens all the time.”

Graves and Danny Phillips, of A Danny Phillips Plumbing in Indianapolis both recommend homeowners check their sump pumps often to ensure they’re working, and to replace them every five to seven years.

“They have a shelf life like anything else,” Phillips said. “They wear out.”

Though home insurance policies typically cover water damage if the pump suffers a mechanical failure, they often will not cover damage should an electrically powered pump stop working because of a power failure, which often occurs during heavy storms. Both plumbers recommend investing in a battery-powered or water-powered sump pump.

"If you don’t have a good sump pump that will keep up with the water and the power goes out and you don’t have a battery backup, you’re going to have a flood,” Phillips said.

Homeowners with sump pumps should check their sump pits and the groundwater drains entering those pits regularly for debris – rocks, mud and sticks – which can cause the pump to not work properly or the water to not discharge as it should. They can also test their primary electrical pump by removing the cover and slowly pouring water into the sump pit. Once the water reaches the pump sensor level, the sump pump float should rise and trigger the pump to begin extracting the water. A backup system can be tested the same way by first unplugging the primary electrical unit.

“Make sure whatever battery backup system you use will pump the same amount of gallons as your standard pump,” Graves cautioned. “Some of them are substantially smaller, so sometimes they don’t pump enough water or don’t pump it quick enough.”

Phillips recommends checking the pump’s operation every month or two. If you’re not sure if your pump is operating as it should, find a qualified plumber to come out to test it.

“If they’re there to fix the water heater, have them look at your sump pump,” Phillips said. “It probably won’t cost you anything. A lot of times, if I’m on a job and they have a sump pump, I’ll just offer to take a look at it. It may save a potential problem.”

If your sump pump does fail and your basement or crawlspace is flooded, use caution. Never enter a flooded area without first ensuring the electricity to that area is completely shut off. Contact a licensed plumber or reputable water remediation specialist to help control the damage and prevent it from spreading.

“A sump pump is just a mechanical device,” Graves said. “It’s not a matter of if it will fail. It’s just a matter of when.”

Editor's note: This article was originally published in January of 2013.

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