Here in the Midwest, we love our basements. Whether used as a family room, a theater room, a playroom or just a temporary boarding room for the brother-in-law, the basement is the ultimate addition to any home. But too often, depending on the weather, that subterranean paradise can transform into an unintentional in-ground pool as water seeps between foundation grout joints and even through the very walls and floors of your basement.
Frequently the cause of this water damage is hydrostatic pressure; the pressure exerted by soil pushing a layer of water through your concrete foundation as it expands either through heat or saturation. And although those eight inch foundation walls may appear to be impenetrable, when confronted by water, they often become nothing more than porous accomplices, soaking in the water like a sponge, only to deliver it directly into your basement.
For decades, a sump pump has been the last defense against water damage, stepping in to drain the basement of water either directly inside or outside of the foundation walls when other defenses fail. Simple in design, a basic sump pump installation relies on branches run either on the outside or inside of the foundation walls or under the basement floor to feed a basin installed at the lowest point in the basement. When this basin fills with water, a float activates a pump, thereby removing water from the basin and into a drainage pipe outside the house and lowering the pressure of water to each of the locations serviced by a branch of the sump pump.
When the sump pump works properly, often you’ll notice nothing other than the background noise of water being quietly removed from the basin. When it doesn’t work, though, the result can cost you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in reconstruction and mitigation costs. So what could go wrong? Below is a list of common avoidable sump pump woes and solutions:
• Power Outage The most common form of sump pump failure isn’t to the sump pump at all – instead, it is the symptom of a larger issue: a neighborhood power outage that leaves the sump pump without electricity to power the pump. When this happens the basin fills uncontrollably, eventually exceeding the capacity and flooding the basement. Often, this also coincides with a storm, thereby increasing the magnitude of the water damage, precisely when you needed the pump the most. Many times, plumbers and water damage companies will recommend a battery backup system for such situations. At an additional cost of around $150 to $300, these systems consist of an automotive or marine battery that delivers reliable power to the pump in the absence of electrical service. Frequently accompanied by a charger that keeps the battery with a full charge when you have electrical service, it offers some peace-of-mind. Still, just like anything else, it isn’t without its own failures. As with any other battery system, within 1-2 years, the battery will fail to take a charge, thus rendering any backup unreliable. For this reason, it is recommended that you check the battery annually by disconnecting the sump pump from the wall and checking to make sure the battery can supply the pump with enough power for at least an hour. Another problem can develop during extended power outages of four hours of more. In these cases, often time a battery of any size and condition will still be of limited application and the basement will flood. In anticipation of this, homes with reliable public water supply of 40 to preferably 100 p.s.i. might want to consider a water pressure pump system. Non-electric, this pump relies on the natural water pressure of your fresh water system to operate a vacuum that slowly removes water from the basin. Often $300 to $800, it is nearly 2 to 3 times the cost of a regular system, but may perform better over time. Still, with the complex plumbing installation necessary, this is a project best left for the plumber.
• Pump Failure Contaminants, shortages or even just time can all take their toll on your sump pump, resulting in failure and a wet basement. For this reason, many homeowners prefer to invest in redundancy, buying two pumps rather than one, with one placed at a lower height to handle the water in the basin and another at a higher height to respond if the lower one fails. Redundant pumps can cost $250 to $350 and may even require additional electrical systems. Water pressure pumps will cost another $300 to $800. Once again, though, this redundancy is only as reliable as the pump and depends on a certain level of awareness by the homeowner to identify when the first pump fails and replace as necessary.
• Poor Sump Pump Installation A final form of sump pump failure occurs even before you start. Often installed as an afterthought when the original water drainage plans fail, some sump pumps are incorrectly installed without any branch runs at all. When this happens, the basin only accumulates water from the immediate area, thus leaving other corners of the basement to continue to flood without any effect. Often in this situation, reinstallation is necessary, involving the sawing of the concrete floor to install a complex network of French drains drawing water back to the sump pump.
In short, a sump pump, while a good flood protectant, will never be a total solution. Just like any other form of home improvement, it relies on the homeowner for basic maintenance and care to be successful.