The Importance of a Basement Sump Pump

In sub-divisions each lot should be graded to keep rainfall away from your house and flowing into storm drains. There are often problems with grading on new home lots due to ground settling or it just not being done right in the first place. If you live in a sub-division, take a look at how the water flows. You’ll notice that the lots are stair stepped so that water flows “down stairs” to a storm drain either at the back of a nearby lot or at the curb along the street. After moving into my new home a few years ago I noticed that the storm drain for the surrounding lots was in my backyard. That puts me in what is called the “swallow.” Water from other lots flows toward mine to be collected by the drain in my yard. Surrounding my foundation is water proofing to keep the problem to a minimum and like most new houses water is collected around the basement concrete and sent to a sump pump. Since I am in the swallow, my sump pump becomes very critical. If it fails, my basement will flood in short order if there is a heavy rain. Many people may not even be aware of what a sump pump is or does. They just file an insurance claim when their basement floods. A little maintenance and education would prevent the problem from occurring in the first place.

In my basement as in most any newer home is a pit cut out of the concrete floor. In the pit there is a water pump and a switch that determines when the pit is filling with water. A pipe from outside dumps water into the pit as it is collected. When the switch determines that the water level is rising, it switches on the pump and pumps the water out. Water then goes via underground piping to the street where it runs into a nearby storm drain. My sump pump was originally installed with what is called a “diaphragm” switch. As the water rises, pressure is put on a tiny diaphragm. When the pressure gets to a certain point the pump is supposed to turn on and pump the water out. I feel these switches are inferior to more tried and true “float” switches. I had two diaphragm switches fail in two years and finally replaced mine with a float switch I bough at a home store. I determined that the pump was fine and that the switch was really a separate component. Its cord comes up and out and simply interrupts the electrical cord of the pump to turn it on and off.

The problem with diaphragm switches is they become clogged with muck and debris and get stuck either off or on. If they stick off you have no pumping and your basement floods. If they get stuck on the pump runs continuously and burns out. A float switch is simpler. It’s a device that simply uses air inside a sealed chamber to float on the water. When it gets to a certain height it turns the pump on. When I got the float switch home I wanted to understand how it worked so I plugged a lamp into it. Held upright the lamp comes on. When I let it drop, the lamp went off. Very simple. You then just attach it to the drain pipe with either cable ties or pipe clamps and let it float by its cord and it does its job. I was able to unscrew the old switch off the pump and discard it to get it out of the way. As with most sump pumps the switch is really a separate device. If you call a plumber, he’ll most likely replace both the pump and switch and charge you $200. It happened to me the first time I had a failure. When my pump failed the second time I did a little more investigation and found that it was really just a simple switch that was needed for about $30.

Another huge consideration with sump pumps is that they need electricity to run. When the weather is bad and your pump is needed the most, your power is more likely to fail. Though I can’t afford it yet, you can buy elaborate battery backup sump pump systems to keep them going in this situation. One of the big companies in this business is Basement Watchdog at A few winters ago we had a huge ice storm in Central Ohio and our power was out for 21 hours. As the ice started to melt the sump pit was filling fast. Since I had no power it was sure to flood the basement. To keep it dry I took a kitchen pot down every hour or so and bailed it out. It was tedious but it saved my basement from flooding. My insurance man told me that I was the kind of customer he liked because he had many claims from the storm for ruined belongings and equipment in basements when people just let it go and do nothing.

One more component is vital to the operation of your sump pump. In the drain pipe that comes out of the top of the pump is what is called a “check valve.” It is merely a one way door so that water can flow out but not fall back in when the pump stops… This too can become a problem if it sticks either way from muck in the water. It is an inexpensive part as well and easy to replace.

The next time you are in your basement, look for your sump pump if you have one. Get to know it. It could save you time, money and trouble if you know how it works.

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