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Sump Pumps – Usage, Installation, and Troubleshooting

what is a sump pump
Homeowner February 7, 2020
Arthur Brodskiy
Arthur Brodskiy


If you live in a basement or crawlspace home, you probably have a sump pit somewhere in your basement with a sump pump in it. Under normal conditions, sump pumps will turn on and off automatically, clearing your sump pit of runoff water from around your home. But if things go wrong, you could end up with a sump pit that keeps filling up. Eventually, you could have a flooded basement or crawlspace to deal with. 


In this article, we’ll explain how sump pumps work and give you some basic maintenance tips to keep your pump running for years to come. We’ll also go over some common issues you might have and show you how to replace an old pump. 


What is a Sump Pump?


A sump pump is an electric powered pump that’s submerged in a sump pit. Sump pits are located in areas of the home that are below ground, like basements or crawlspaces. The purpose of a sump pump is to pump runoff water that collects in sump pits and send it away from the structure. 


If your home has a basement that sits below the surrounding water table, eventually that runoff water is going to seep into the foundation of your home and collect in your basement. Sump pumps work together with a system of drainage pipes installed around the perimeter of your home. These drain pipes collect runoff water and redirect it into your basement’s sump pit. 


How Sump Pumps Work


Sump pumps sit inside the sump pit and won’t turn on until activated. They are activated using a float valve, which rises with the water level in the sump pit. Once the water level is high enough, the float valve powers on the sump pump, which will then start pumping water out of the pit through a drain pipe. The drain pipe carries the water out of your home to a graded area of your property to ensure the water doesn’t return to your basement. When the water level in the sump pit goes back down to a certain level, the pump shuts off. 


Check Valves


Most sump pump systems include a check valve, which is installed on the drain pipe extending from your sump pump. The check valve ensures that water can only flow through the pipe in one direction — away from your home. Without a properly working check valve, as soon as your sump pump shuts off the water in the drain pipe would empty back into the pit, triggering the sump pump into a continuous on-off cycle. 


Sump Pump Troubleshooting – Common Problems


There’s a few things that can go wrong with your sump system, but that doesn’t always mean you have a bad pump. Here’s a few of the common problems you might run into. 


Sump Pump Constantly Running


If your sump pump is continually turning on and off again, the most likely culprit is a faulty check valve. When your sump’s check valve stops working, water that is pumped out just empties back into the sump pit when the pump turns off. It could also mean that your pump’s float valve is stuck at the top position. If the pump is constantly running and it’s submerged in water, you might have a model that’s not powerful enough to handle the volume of runoff. 


Sump Pump Not Pumping or Draining Water


Sometimes a sump pump will turn on but won’t appear to drain any water. Usually that means that the pump has been clogged and jammed up with debris or sediment. If that’s the case, you’re best option is to probably just buy a new pump, especially if your current pump is over 5 years old. New, reliable models start around $200. 


Sump Pump Not Getting Power


If your home is ever victim to a power outage, your sump pump is going to stop running. While outages might be rare (in some parts of the country), they often go hand in hand with heavy storms. Which means that during a time you really want that pump to be running, it’s dead and without power. 


Fortunately, they make battery-operated backup sump pumps specifically for this purpose. It gives your basement a little extra protection during powerful storms that might knock out your water and cause a surge in runoff water. 


Clogged Sump Pump


Debris and sediment will make its way into your sump pit no matter what, simply because there’s minerals in groundwater. But if your pit doesn’t have a tight lid on it, you’ll get even more debris, which can clog up your sump pump. If your sump pump is badly clogged, you’re probably better off just getting a brand new replacement. While you’re at it, look into installing or having a lid for your sump pit professionally installed. 


Clogged Discharge Pipe


Since your discharge pipe leads directly outside, it’s possible for it to get clogged up with debris. Dirt, rocks, grass and even dead animals can end up inside the pipe which will hinder drainage. And in the winter months, ice can build up and clog the discharge pipe. To prevent clogs from debris, you can attach a vent cap cover to the outside of your discharge pipe. 


No Water in Sump Pit


If you notice your sump pit is constantly dry, you might not have a problem with your sump pump. Instead, the problem might by with your runoff drainage system. For one reason or another, runoff water isn’t getting into the sump pit. Have your drainage system inspected. 


Maintaining Your Sump System


A new sump pump should last you anywhere from 5 to 10 years. But if you want your pump’s lifespan to be at the higher end of that range, you should plan on doing some regular maintenance on your sump system.


Test Your Sump Pump Regularly


Due to the fact that it lives all the way down in your basement or crawl space, it’s easy to forget your sump pump even exists. It’s a good idea to test your sump pump a few times per year, especially if you live in an area prone to floods or sporadic rainfall. 


Testing your sump pump is as simple as getting a bucket of water and slowly emptying it into your sump pit. Keep adding water to the pit until the float valve reaches the top position. Your sump pump should kick on if it’s in working order. Doing this also keeps the seals in the pump from drying up and cracking. 


Keep Your Sump Pit Clear


Over time your sump pit is going to collect debris and sediment. That debris can actually get sucked up into the sump pump and clog it up or wear it down prematurely. Cleaning your sump pit a couple times per year can extend the life of your sump pump.


To clean the pit, first unplug the sump pump, detach it from the discharge pipe and remove it from the pit. Go ahead and wipe down the exterior of your sump pump. Now, with a wet/dry vacuum, get rid of any excess water in your sump pit.


What you should be left with is a layer of sediment and sludge at the bottom of the pit. Scoop as much of it out of the pit as you can, and flush the sides of the pit with water. Give it another run with the wet/dry vacuum. 


How to Replace a Sump Pump


installing sump pumps


If you don’t already have a sump system in place, installing one is an advanced job. It requires digging a hole in the basement floor, creating a drainage and discharge pipe network, and working with concrete. It’s probably a task left to the pros. 


But if you’re just looking to replace an old sump pump, it’s a fairly straightforward DIY project. It involves just a few tools and supplies outside of the new pump. 


What You’ll Need:


  • A new sump pump
  • Threaded PVC coupling
  • PVC pipe
  • Piping Glue
  • Hacksaw
  • Pencil
  • Flathead screwdriver


Installing the New Pump:


  1. Unplug the sump pump’s power cord. 
  2. Disconnect the check valve by slowly loosening the top clamp and allowing the water in the discharge pipe to run into the sump pit. When all the water has discharged, loosen the bottom clamp on the check valve. 
  3. Remove the old pump from the sump pit.
  4. Try to unscrew the PVC from the old pump. If you manage to unscrew it, skip to step 10. If not, continue to step 5.
  5. Take a threaded PVC coupling and give the inside of the non-threaded half a good coating of piping glue.
  6. Insert a length of PVC into the glued half of the threaded coupling. Make sure this length of PVC is longer than the PVC on the old sump pump. Use a good amount of force to push the pipe all the way into the coupling.
  7. Use the threaded side of the coupling to thread the PVC pipe into the new sump pump. 
  8. Place the new and the old sump pump side by side, with the PVC pipes pointing up. You’re going to want to cut the pipe on the new pump to be the exact height as the old one. Put the pipes side by side and make a marking on the new pipe at the exact height as the old pipe.
  9. Using your hacksaw, slice through the new PVC where you marked it. 
  10. Attach the check valve to the pipe on the new sump pump. Make sure the arrows on the check valve are pointing upward, away from the pump. This is very important. Tighten the clamps on the check valve.
  11. Place the new pump into the sump pit. Attach the other end of the check valve to the discharge pipe along the basement wall. Tighten the clamps here just like you did in step 10.    
  12. Plug in the new sump pump.
  13. Test the new pump by pouring water into the sump pit until you trigger the float valve. If the pump turns on, congratulations! You’ve just successfully replaced a sump pump. Now observe around the check valve to make sure there aren’t any leaks. If there are, try tightening the clamps some more.


Getting Water Out of Your Basement Without a Sump Pump


sump pump not working diy


If you happen to get water in your basement or crawlspace and you don’t have a sump pump system or your current system isn’t working, there are a few steps you can take to clear that water out. 


If you’re dealing with just a small amount of water, you can use a simple mop or a wet/dry vacuum to remove the water. When dumping the mop bucket or vacuum, make sure you do it on a downgrade sloping away from your home and the municipal sewer drains. 


If you have too much water for a wet/dry vacuum to handle, you can pick up a submersible electric pump. These pumps have an attachment for a garden hose and run on an electric motor. The advantage of these pumps over using a wet/dry vacuum can’t be overstated. Instead of making constant trips back and forth to empty the bucket on your vacuum, the electric pump will simply keep on running until the job’s done. Just make sure the other end of the hose is a reasonable distance away from your home. 




Sump pump systems are critical to the health of your home if you have a basement or crawlspace below grade. Without a drainage system in place, groundwater can eventually seem into your basement walls or through the foundation. Having a sump pump system in place controls the drainage of ground water and redirects it away from your home. 


By now you should know how to troubleshoot and maintain your sump pump system. Maintaining and replacing sump pumps is part of being a homeowner. Sump pump replacement is a straightforward DIY job that you can likely tackle on your own with minimal tools. 

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