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6 Common Sump Pump Problems and What to Do About Them

Why sump pumps fail and what you can do to make sure yours doesn't.

TripleSafe sump pump system in a basement

A high-quality sump pump with a lid is a basement's best friend.

A good sump pump is a homeowner’s first line of defense against a basement flood, whether caused by a storm or plumbing leak. But when a sump pump fails on you, it can make a problem worse or cause flooding itself.

Why do sump pumps fail?

They are mechanical devices and therefore prone to malfunction, especially over time. They need a power source and when that fails, the pump fails. And among the many types, brands, and models of sump pump on the market, some are poorly designed and cheaply built. Finally, an improper installation can cause a sump pump to under-perform or function ineffectively.

How do sump pumps fail?

These are the six most common ways a sump pump will fail on you.

1. Overwhelmed Sump Pump

Sometimes a single sump pump just isn’t enough to handle a wet basement "event." The pump might not be reliable enough or powerful enough to handle the volume of water pouring in, especially during heavy rains. When it comes to keeping your basement dry, the quality of your sump pump matters, too: a cheap, plastic model is more likely to burn out or fail to keep up when it matters most.

Quality and capacity matter. Basement Systems has developed a line of sump pumps built around the high-capacity, cast iron Zoeller brand pump. We’ve tested many other pumps over the decades and Zoeller consistently proves itself to be both reliable and powerful.

What to Do: Upgrade your sump pump and add a battery backup sump pump. In rare cases, you might need more than one sump pump, installed in different corners of the basement. 

2. Sump Pump Appears to Work But No Water in Sump Pit

No water in the sump pump is a classic sign of an improperly installed pump or a pump that is not linked to a drainage system.

Sumps and Drainage Go Hand-in-Hand. A sump pump works best if there is a drain tile installed internally along the internal perimeter of the basement, or externally. A basement drainage system should be designed to collect water and channel it via gravity toward the sump pump and discharge it into the pit. If the drain tile is clogged, collapsed, not installed with the proper pitch or non-existent, it will not be able to divert the water correctly. The best sump pump in the world will not keep your basement dry in these circumstances.

What to Do: Get your drainage system inspected and fixed. If there is no drainage system, have one installed.

3. Clogged Sump Pumps and Switches

Open dirty sump pump

An open sump pump is not just a sad sight, it's also more likely to clog up.

If your sump doesn't have a lid - something we see every day in basements across the nation - it will get clogged and dirty over time and either slow down or stop entirely.

A sump pump can clog up in many ways:

  • The sump pit (the hole in which the sump pump sits) gets clogged with dirt and debris
  • The pump's mechanical parts become clogged and dirty over time, especially if the sump sits straight against the bottom of a dirty sump pit where silt typically accumulates.
  • The "float switch," which turns the pump on and off as the water level changes, can clog or jam. 
  • In the case of cheaper sump pump models, switches can become jammed or tangled in the system and will either stop working or be stuck in the "on" position (you don't want your sump running nonstop!).

What to Do: Have your sump inspected to see if it's time to repair or replace. And make sure your next one is covered with an airtight sealed lid that prevents debris, is child and pet-safe AND ensures water doesn't evaporate right back into the basement. Needless to say, this describes our sump pump systems. Our pumps also include a pedestal that keeps the sump from coming in contact with the bottom of the container.

4. Frozen or Clogged Discharge Lines

Sump pumps typically expel any water collected via discharge lines. When discharge lines become frozen or clogged, the system fails.

Discharge lines should be clear and covered. Your goal is to make sure your discharge lines can transport water out of the basement and far away from your foundation even during the winter.

What to Do: Ensure your sump's discharge line can't freeze up and stays clear. Basement Systems offers an attachment called IceGuard, installed at the beginning of the line to keep water flowing out of the basement even when the line is frozen. And at the end of the line, we recommend our LawnScape Outlet, which prevents debris, mice, and other small critters from getting in and clogging up the system.

5. Power Lost to the Sump Pump

anatomy of a sump pump with battery backup

Three-pumps-in-one for ultimate security! Our TripleSafe incorporates two backup pumps: a conventional sump and a battery-operated sump.

If you're away from home and your sump pump loses power, your basement is vulnerable. The same storm that causes your basement to flood can also knock down power lines. Additionally, if the circuit breaker trips or the pump is accidentally unplugged, your sump pump is a no-show.

Any sump in a storm will do... or will it? Power outages happen. You don't want your sump pump to fail when you need it the most.

What to Do: Back up! We recommend a high-capacity, battery-operated backup sump pump. That's why we offer a reliable, redundant sump pump that incorporates a battery backup and an alarm. 

6. Sump Pump Running Non-Stop

When a sump pump runs continuously or too often, regardless of the weather conditions or season, it's a sign of a problem that needs to be addressed immediately, before the overworked pump burns out. Here are the most common causes of a sump pump on overdrive:

Stuck sump pump switches - Especially in cheaper models, the float switch can become clogged or tangled (see #3 above). In some cases, the vibrations of a running sump pump can cause it to lean on the edge of the pit or liner, disabling the sump pump switch.

Sump pump and/or liner is too small or too big - The sump pump may just not be big enough to handle the job, so it runs continuously to keep up (see #1 above). Or the pump is powerful enough but the sump pit may be too small, causing it to fill up too fast and triggering the sump pump to work overtime. In the industry, we call this a short-cycling sump pump.

The check valve is missing or broken. - Because the sump pump is installed below grade, the discharge line is initially pitched at an upward angle so it can channel water up and away until it reaches an exit point; it is then pitched downward, using gravity to discharge water outside the home. The check valve in the line plays a crucial role, preventing water from coming back into the pit before it reaches the apex. A broken or missing check valve can result in one-third to two-thirds of the water to flow right back into the pit! And that will overwork the pump.

Continually flooding sump pit. - In rare cases, there is a continuous flow of water into the sump pit due to a high water table or an underground spring. If the water table is too high, raising the sump pit a bit may help. Upgrading the system or installing an extra sump pump in another corner of the basement can also help. Individual inspection of the basement is usually needed to diagnose and develop an effective drainage solution.

What to Do: A sump pump that is running non-stop under normal conditions may fail when you need it most. Get a technician to look at it before bad weather strikes.

If your sump pump is not running properly or needs an upgrade, check out our Comparison of Different Types of Sump Pumps (with video content) or contact us for a free Sump Pump evaluation from your local Basement Systems contractor.

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