LIVING SMART: How to keep your sump pump running
Homeowners rarely give much thought to their sump pumps except when things go wrong. Often hidden away in a basement sump basin, these devices activate to pump water outside when water reaches a certain level in the pit. But when they fail, homeowners face the prospect of a flooded basement and an expensive cleanup.
Highly rated plumbers recommend a few simple steps to maintain your sump pump and keep it in optimal condition.
Brandon Counts, owner of highly rated Potomac Plumbing & Gas in Gainesville, Va., says homeowners can help ensure the longest life for their sump pump by hiring a licensed plumber to install it correctly. "I see a lot of mistakes on the front end," he says. "Lots of times, I'll see a pump where a check valve wasn't installed, and without one of those, the pump never gets a chance to rest."
Tyler Diciolla, owner of highly rated Lifeline Plumbing in Elgin, Ill., says installers should include materials that help protect the system. "You want a good, solid lid on the pit, and if there's a battery backup system, make sure it's protected from dust buildup," he says. "If there's debris in the pit or the electronics, it can damage the system."
Check for yourself
Mike Tarvin, owner of highly rated Tarvin Plumbing in Cincinnati, suggests homeowners occasionally inspect their system and verify proper operation. "If the lid is easily removable, it's easy to see if the pump is running or backed up," he says. "In either case, you can test the pump by turning on the manual switch or adding water to the pit with a hose or bucket to ensure the pump turns on and removes the water."
Diciolla suggests keeping an eye on the outdoor discharge line during cold periods, when frozen pipes can send water back into the pit and potentially overflow. "I've seen the pump turn on while the discharge line was still frozen with a block of ice sitting in the pipe," he says.
Listen and learn
A sump pump should only make a basic motor sound and operate quickly, Diciolla says. "When a pump turns on, it should empty that pit in about 10 seconds," he says. "If it runs for two or three minutes at a time, call somebody to take a look, because it's not pumping fast enough."
Counts also notes that unusual sounds, such as grinding or crunching, can indicate an obstruction, which can damage a pump or slow it down. He suggests hiring a professional to check for damage and perform maintenance in that case.
Call in the pros
At least once a year, plumbers recommend hiring a professional to perform an inspection and check the motor and electronics. Tarvin says this sort of inspection costs between $75 and $200, depending on whether maintenance needs to be performed.
Counts points out this can be part of standard home maintenance. "You should have someone check out your plumbing once a year in any event," he says.
Bet on a backup
Even the finest sump pump becomes an expensive piece of sculpture if a storm knocks out power. Plumbers recommend installing a battery-powered backup to take up the slack. "Your sump pump is useless if your power goes out, so that backup is very important," Counts says.