Sump Pumps Explained

One of the most overlooked components in residences today is below ground level and works well – until it doesn’t. I am speaking of the almighty sump pump.

First, the history of the sump pump:

French drains, as they are frequently called, have very little to do with the country in their name. In fact, French drains are an American invention. They were popularized by Henry Flag French (1813-1885) who was born and raised in Concord, MA. They were developed to respond to the homes built in the late 1700s and 1800s before foundations constructed out of reinforced concrete. The results were flooded rooms, mostly basements, of some of the more important people of Massachusetts.

At the top of this page is an early drawing of Mr. French’s French Drain

As you can see, the objective was rather simple. Create a route around the entire perimeter for excessive rainwater which had found its way into the home, another way out. In the beginning, a hand pump was used to reduce the water level in the home back which had been captured it in a tank designed to handle large amounts of water run-off. The holding tank would then be pumped out back outside the home, often some distance, to avoid a return creep.

How did I get a French Drain in my house?

Installing a French drain around the inside perimeter is most commonly done after the house has been built. Most commonly, this is done in response to a wet basement or right before performing a basement finishing. To install this kind of drain, the perimeter of the basement floor is jackhammered down to the footing and the concrete is removed. A layer of stone is laid down, and a perforated drain pipe is laid on top of it. Water is collected from the basement wall floor joint as it enters, and a pump is installed to remove water from the house and away from the foundation.

Except for recent “Storms of the Century” such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for many years, drainage of excess water was handled by pumps or more accurately sump pump(s). The typical sump pump often is attached to a battery back-up system to assist in a short time loss of power while rainwater or storms continued. I’ve known people who have kept up to 4 batteries ready for their sump pump, just in case the power was lost for a significant period.

Don’t ignore this important feature of keeping your basement dry, even in the most torrential storms. A sump pump will typically last 5-10 years or more. An easy way to check (assuming your pump was installed so it does NOT go into the sewer line, which is a statewide violation) is to simply wait for a string storm, and look for a piece of plastic (most often gray PVC) or pipe pumping water from the inside of your home to the outside. Battery boxes typically sit on a shelf (often home-made) and a quick check of the output of the battery will determine if the right amount of voltage is present to drive the floatation device to expel excess water.

Important Things to Consider when purchasing a sump pump or its replacement:

1) Get the right size to support your home. Don’t be fooled by low-cost, alternatives to the one recommended by your plumber

2) Proper Installation must be conducted by trained personnel. Not only is the right size pump important but the discharge pipe, as the name implies, is the tube designed to push the excessive water after from your home. In a phrase – size matters!

3) Float failure and/or switch failure. As the “pit” or tank begins to fill, a floatation device rises with the water to turn on a switch to begin the pumping action. It floats in the tank until such time as the water level exceeds the safety point, in which case the switch is lifted and it activates the pump. If you’ve one of the lucky one not to have to rely on your sump pump -GREAT! But do get fooled into complacency, at least once a year, preferably twice, using a hose or bucket, fill the “pit” so that the switch is lifted and you can feel confident you’re probably safe from a basement flood. But don’t forget, if you lose power for a significant period, you’ll need to rely on your battery backup, so make sure the battery is also fully charged and ready for service.

4) Be extra careful during the winter months, a frozen water removal tube is equally useless. If a freeze is coming, and there is water in tube, odds are it won’t freeze since it’s moving water is usually picking up some heat from the home as it travels and thus is unfrozen. But a sudden freeze overnight can make it useless. Check! – Don’t Guess.

Sump Pump Maintenance Tips:

White vinegar poured into the sump pump tank/pit and activated by manually pulling up the float switch until empty will remove any debris or potential clogs. Once or twice a year give your sump pump a nice salad dressing, sans the oil of course.

What do you do when you didn’t install it?

Call Muccia Plumbing at 201-243-1414. For a small fee, we will inspect the current status of your unit. Most, if not all pumps have a date stamp on the label to let our techs know the age it was installed. If it’s more than ten years old, it still may work fine. But following the manufacturers procedures, the Muccia Plumbing tech will carefully advise you of all your options, choices, and costs. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.