Home buyers rarely pay attention to the condition of a house’s sump pump. Actually, it’s rare for a buyer to check to see if one is even present in the basement. But, home inspectors in Western New York know very well the importance of them. Most homes in Amherst, Williamsville, Hamburg and the town of Aurora have them, although Buffalo houses were almost all built without them.
What is a sump pump?
Sump pumps are designed to push water out of a collection pit in the basement or crawlspace of a home. Most homes that were built after the 1970’s were built to require them. In these houses, drain lines are embedded in the soil around the inside of the foundation or crawl space. The lines then dump water that they collect into the sump. If a sump is not installed in the sump, or if it for any reason stops removing water, then the basement is at risk of flooding.
Do all homes have sump pumps?
The simple answer is “no”. Older American homes in cities and villages (i.e. Buffalo, Lancaster, Tonawanda, etc.) were built somewhat differently from modern houses:
- They did not include drain tile or a french drain to redirect water to a sump pit
- So – they were not built with sump pits
- They typically had a drainage grate installed on the basement floor.
This basement drain is an interesting beast, because they were plumbed so that any water that they collect is sent outside of the house into the “sanitary sewer”. This is the fancy name for the septic system.
At this point in time, these basement drains are ancient and many times cannot adequately drain water because their lines are clogged.
What happens if a sump pump fails?
Failing sump pumps can be bad news. Some sump pits fill up at an astonishing rate, and if the pump goes out of service for even a short time, water will overflow the pit and will begin to flood the floor.
Over the course of a few to several hours, you may find a foot or more of water in the basement
Wet basements are super bad news. If the basement has finished walls, you may have a disaster on your hands.
It is critical that homeowners quickly dry out flooded basements. Any porous building materials such as drywall, insulation and wood will need to be professionally removed in a way that doesn’t damage the structure of the home.
Exercise caution when entering a flooded basement. Electrical wires may be live and may electrocute you.
Open any windows and doors that lead to the basement, and bring in powerful fans.
How can you protect yourself from sump pump failure?
Preventing your basement from flooding is protecting your home as an investment. There are options available that can protect you.
- Buy and install a sump pump alarm
- Install quick-change plumbing so that you can easily swap out a failed pump
- Have a backup sump pump in the house, and test it monthly
- If your house has public water service, install a back-up sump pump that uses the flow of water
- If your home uses well water, install a back-up sump pump that uses electricity
- Consider digging a second sump pit, with a second pump that uses its own electrical circuit
- Have a generator available to ensure that power to your pump can be restored quickly
There are Serious Electrical Safety Concerns with Sump Pumps
Sump pumps don’t sound as if they are dangerous, but there are a few very serious concerns with them.
Families have been electrocuted, meaning death, from electrical defects with certain sump pumps. Thinking about this, there isn’t much room for error when it comes to electricity and these pumps. If anything allows wiring to become exposed to water, you may have a situation where a large area of water is electrically charged.
The best and only way to protect against this is to make sure to use Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlets where sump pumps connect to the house’s wiring.
This is a serious point of contention among some home inspectors, with many asserting that a sump pump should never be connected to a GFCI outlet because the outlet will eventually wear out, and when it does there will be a flooded basement.
I completely agree that GFCI outlets will wear out over time. But there are ways to avoid a floor in the aftermath:
- Install a backup sump pump
- Install an alarm so that you know when the pump stops working or when water levels rise
- Replace the GFCI every several years
My home inspection reports include a recommendation to always use a GFCI outlet for a sump pump, but also to use some type of alarm so that you know if you have a problem.
What are the most common problems we find with sump pumps?
- The sump pump isn’t connected to a GFCI outlet. This is a major safety concern.
- The vertical portion of the discharge pipe from the pump doesn’t have a check valve.
- The discharge pipe lets water simply spill into the yard within a few feet of the house.
- There is no cover over the sump pit. You don’t want anyone falling into it.
- Make sure your sump pump is installed properly.