Tech Topic: Sump Pumps
Checklist for Ensuring Happy Sump Pump Customers
Selecting a sump pump system is often a choice delegated by the homeowner to the contractor, and in fact, until a problem occurs, most homeowners would forget they have a pump in their basement floor altogether. When something fails, however, the effects are immediate and the ramifications of the problem can take months for your customer to recover. Therefore, it pays to devote some time on the front end to consider the tradeoffs affecting sump pump system design. I offer the following key areas for consideration by contractors.
Most contractors choose to install pumps certified by the SSPMA (Sump and Sewage Pump Manufacturers Association), a North American trade organization representing over 90 percent of sump, effluent and sewage pump manufacturers. The pumps produced by certified manufacturers must meet a set of performance, quality and safety standards before they are stamped with the SSPMA label.
It has become normal practice over the years for contractors in general to choose a pump with a certain rate of horsepower without considering how much performance is actually required by the application or can be supplied by a particular pump. Often with pumps it might be safe to assume that higher horsepower equals higher output, but the choice of the correct sump pump to use shouldn’t be based on horsepower alone. For example, some 1/3 HP pumps with efficient permanent split capacitor (PSC) motors can pump as much in some installations as a pump with an inefficient motor that is rated at a higher horsepower (See Figure 1).
Also, beware of split-phase motors that draw significant current upon start up, and avoid simply installing a large pump motor under the assumption that it will do the job. Larger pumps in smaller pits tend to turn on and shut off quickly, but if the pump cycles too quick it cuts down on the life of the pump motor. The choice of the right pump should be based on how high the water needs to be pumped, how far away from the building the water must be deposited, and the pump’s capacity. Contractors should review manufacturers’ specs carefully.
Alarms and networking
Most quality sump pump systems are equipped with alarms. An alarm system is provided as protection against pump failures that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Standard alarm systems provide a light indicator and an audible alarm, alerting the homeowner the pump has failed. A step up from this is to add the capability of sending a signal to a home security monitoring system, allowing the homeowner to get the alert while away from the property.
Some alarms are separate from the pump and some are incorporated into the control panel of the pump itself. Other models have the alarm built into the power cord.
Redundancy and backups
Battery backup pumping systems offer some protection should the power go down in a big storm. Some battery systems are auxiliary power supplies with inverters that operate the primary pump. These systems protect against power outages, but if the problem is failure of the pump mechanism, that doesn’t help. To protect against this type of failure, a backup pumping mechanism is required, and some systems incorporate a separate battery operated backup pump (See Figure 2).
Water-powered backup systems run off of water pressure from the home’s municipal supply line and do not depend on power from the grid or a backup battery in order to operate. However, these typically don’t have the flow capability to remove much water, and if the home site depends on a well, the water supply stops when the power goes off, thereby negating the advantage of using a water pressure system.
More elaborate duplex systems incorporate redundant pumping units with controls that alternate the pumps being used in order to balance pump life. If one pump fails or cannot keep up with the incoming water, an alarm will sound and the standby pump will activate. Homeowners and their insurance providers sleep most soundly when such a system is in place.
How the sump pump is installed can also be a factor influencing customer satisfaction. In almost every situation, a check valve is required to be installed on the discharge line. This prevents the pump from continually cycling due to water flowing back into the pit when the pump shuts off.
With the check valve in place, pump discharge pipes need to be ventilated with a small 3/16” diameter hole between the pump discharge and the check valve in order to allow air to escape when the pump starts up. Otherwise, air will be trapped in the pump and pipe the first time water comes up into the system, preventing the pump from discharging any water. This is commonly known as “air-lock."
The discharge pipe needs to be of adequate size to handle the flow. Typically, this is specified in the pump owner’s manual, but can also be calculated based on the capacity, length of pipe and the quantity of fittings, such as elbows and valves in the system.
The pump should be installed on its own electrical circuit in order to ensure that the motor start-up current, which can be as much as 10-15 Amps for a short period of time, doesn’t combine with other current draws such as the water heater or washing machine, overloading the circuit. And the pump’s power connection should be grounded. Lastly, the installer should make sure the sump pit is free of debris, loose dirt or gravel which can get drawn into the pump’s impeller. This can cause the pump to jam in many cases, depending on the solid handling capability of the pump.
Regular maintenance is key to long term satisfaction with most pumping systems. Even when the proper system is installed adequate maintenance is required. The system may fail over time and the failure will be apparent just when a functioning system is needed the most. Every three to four months or so, home owners should check to make sure that each pump is clean and free of debris. Additionally, they should operate their unit(s) manually. This includes checking the functionality of any backup pumps. It’s not sufficient just to verify the pump motor runs. It’s possible that the motor may run but the discharge pipe may be clogged. Therefore, it is preferred the homeowner tests the pump with water in the sump and physically observe that the pump is operating correctly.
If there’s a battery-powered backup pump, the battery should be replaced every two or three years according to the manufacturer’s instructions in order to ensure that it will have adequate power when it is needed.
Happy customers mean repeat business for contractors. Practicing care in specifying and installing a quality pumping system and training customers in both the use and maintenance of the equipment will pay off in the future when the ground water rises.
The SSPMA website has informative tutorials and FAQ information for interested parties to review (see www.sspma.org). For more information on Franklin Electric’s sump pump products visit: http://www.franklin-electric.com/little-giant-wastewater/sump.aspx