When the Levee Breaks
April 3, 2012
OK, you're thinking, "Why do I need to know anything about sump pumps? There aren't any basements around here."
Here's the deal. There may not be many basements around here in the golden West, but we've got more than our share of swimming pools and spas and whatnot and all that makes our little slice of heaven a pretty sizeable market, basements under every home or not. And when you consider the winter rains, spring thaws, floods and mudslides that could affect your clients, you begin to see you may need a little more sump pump knowledge than you currently have stored away up there in those mental filing cabinets.
Here, for our benefit, are a trio of industry figures who can set us all straight on all things sump pumpy. They are Randy Waldron, vice president of sales and marketing at Liberty Pumps, Charlie Utley, product engineer trainer for Little Giant, and Mark Huntebrinker, director of marketing for Zoeller.
RJ: Let's talk about basement flooding for a minute. What are a couple of the most common causes?
Utley: Basement flooding can be a result of ground water leaking in, broken water pipes, and, if a sump pump is present, failure due to a malfunction or a power outage.
Waldron: Several factors could impact a pumps performance and cause it to fail. Jamming on foreign debris that enters the sump pit is one possibility. This is where we strongly recommend the pump is raised off the bottom of the pit with a platform. Liberty Pumps and other manufacturers offer molded pump platforms which provide protection from this. Another possible cause is switch failure. Since the switch is doing much of the work-cycling the motor on and off, it is important that the user selects a high-quality manufacturer that incorporates a durable switch design. Power outages are another significant cause of basement flooding. If the power goes out-the sump pump will not operate. This is where we strongly recommend the use of a back-up pump. Two types of back-up pumps are battery powered and water powered. Either type will take over in the event of a power failure and protect the basement.
Huntebrinker: Any major rain event has the potential to send unwanted water into your basement. Depending on the water table in your area, the frequency of rain, how close your home is to a body of water, the elevation of your property, etc. you may be more likely to collect standing water in your basement.
RJ: Aside from the obvious structural damage to drywall, studs, electrical, etc., what kind of plumbing damage could a flooded basement cause?
Utley: Depending on how the basement is used, damage could occur to the water heater, the heating unit or items stored in the basement. Some basements are utilized as bedrooms, game rooms or entertainment rooms. Damages in these situations could cost thousands.
Waldron: Since plumbing is typically a sealed-contained system - plumbing damage is not necessarily significant if a basement floods. Most damage is to structure and electrical equipment located in the basement level.
Huntebrinker: In addition to damage to property, interior finishes, and stored items, water in the basement can create a number of issues. Standing water can cause cracking in the floors and walls, which can be costly to correct. In cases of extreme water situations, or during power outages resulting from storms, sump systems sized for normal circumstances can be overwhelmed and unable to keep up with the influx of water causing sump flooding. In these cases a battery powered backup system would be recommended to provide protection in emergency situations.
RJ: How does one check a sump pump for proper operation?
Utley: The easiest way to check a sump pump is to use a hose to fill the sump pit and watch it to be sure it pumps the water down.
Waldron: If your sump pump works on a regular basis, not a lot of maintenance or checking is needed; however, if your pump runs only occasionally and may sit for a few months without operating, it is recommended that the homeowner cycle the pump by adding water to the pit and check for any possible debris that may have accumulated in the bottom of the pit.
Huntebrinker: To ensure your pump is operating correctly, regular inspection of the pump/sump pit is recommended. It is fairly easy to determine whether or not your pump is operating normally. In a 'normal pump cycle', the sump pit fills with water, the float rises to trigger the pump on, the pump turns on, and the water level drops. To simulate this, fill your sump pit with water. If you do not witness a 'normal pump cycle' for any reason, you may have spotted an issue that needs further attention.
RJ: Many sump pump failures have been float related. How is your company addressing this challenge?
Utley: Float switch and other switch problems are, for the most part, due to improper use or installation. We and other companies work to educate our customers (contractors) and the end users as to the proper installation and limitations of the variety of switches available.
Waldron: Liberty Pumps uses a switch design called Vertical Magnetic Float. This is a very durable, high amperage switch with large points that can handle hundreds of thousands of cycles. It is made by a reputable U.S. manufacturer and has proven itself over many years of production. The switch is triggered by a magnet and eliminates the need to additional mechanical parts which may fail.
Huntebrinker: Often times a sump pump failure can be related to float obstruction, i.e. buildup on the float or debris in the sump pit inhibiting the float from triggering the pump on. Most commonly, a simple repositioning of the pump or clearing of the pit can resolve the problem. Occasionally a float may need to be replaced, which can be an easy fix for any licensed plumber with the right part.
RJ: What types of sump pumps are there and of what are they typically constructed? (i.e., plastic vs. metal, pedestal pumps, submersible pumps, "floor suckers," etc.)
Utley: The basic types of sump pumps include the pedestal and the submersible type. Submersibles are usually less noisy and tend to last longer. Construction of plastic or cast iron is typical but aluminum and zinc are also used. Cast iron construction is widely viewed as the highest quality by plumbers. Sump pumps are definitely not limited to basement sumps. Other uses include: transformer vaults, loading docks, elevator pits, excavations, grain elevators and emptying hot tubs
Waldron: Most pumps sold today are of the submersible design. These pumps are quieter and more compact. They also are sealed against moisture damage. Older pedestal style pumps use an exposed motor which may be susceptible to moisture damage. The most popular material of construction is cast iron; however, plastic and other materials have become popular also and can provide a more cost competitive pump.
Huntebrinker: Many kinds of sump pumps are available. At the most basic level, there are two types of sump pumps: pedestal and submersbile. A pedestal variety of sump pump has a motor mounted on the shaft of the pump system (and outside of the sump pit). These are ideal for smaller sump pits where the motor cannot come in contact with water. A submersible variety of sump pump-the most common type-has a motor contained inside the pump housing and the whole unit is installed below water level. A typical submersible sump pump is quieter and less obtrusive than a pedestal type, ideal for finished basements, and typically lasts longer than its pedestal counterpart.
Any sump pump should be made of noncorrosive materials as contact with water over time can cause damage to the pump, and eventually failure. Depending on the application, a range of materials of construction are be available for varying degrees of durability, from plastic to cast iron.
RJ: What is the most common misperception about sump pumps among plumbers? Let's clear it up.
Utley: The biggest misperception I have seen is specifying the sump pump to be used for an application by horsepower instead of performance. Sometimes a 1/3 HP pump has all the performance required when a 1/2 HP is used.
Waldron: One misconception would be that cast iron pumps are the best. While they are robust and heavy, they can also rust or corrode-especially in harsher water environments. Many of today's newer high-tech materials provide corrosion resistance and are extremely durable under water.
Huntebrinker: The most common misconception people have about sump pumps is that the bigger the pump, the better. There is no substitute for the right pump in the right application.