How they work

The word “sump” refers to the lowest point, which in a house is the watery pit in the basement where the pump is placed. The water level you see in the sump well represents the groundwater level around your house. When the level rises to the point set by the sensor, the pump is activated and works until the level drops below the sensor line.

There are two types of sump pumps – pedestal and submersible. A pedestal pump sits on a pedestal outside of the water collection well with a sensor dropped into the water. The submersible sump pump is self-contained and is designed to float in the water pit. A submersible pump can be expected to last anywhere from five to 15 years, while pedestal models may last twice as long.

Sump pump backups

Despite your sump pump's determination, it is still a mechanical device that will eventually break down. Even more likely, it is dependent on electricity, which could suddenly be unavailable during a storm.

There are several things you can to to protect your pump and your home in case of emergencies:

Get a battery-powered backup: If there is a power outage or your regular pump malfunctions, the backup sump pump would kick into action – assuming you have kept its batteries charged.

Have your pump checked: Plumbers recommend that sump pumps be inspected and serviced twice a year.

Check your insurance: Talk to your agent about your existing coverage for basement flood damage. Many policies will cover losses if the sump pump fails mechanically but not in the event of a power outage. If you're willing to pay a slightly higher premium, you can usually increase your coverage.

Where the water goes

Sump pump water is ground water, so it should not be routed into sanitary sewers. However, many homes built as recently as the 1970s do just that. Not only is this wasteful – because it puts more water than necessary into your town's wastewater treatment plant – but it increases your risk of raw sewage backup into your home.

As your main drain ages, encroaching tree roots and other blockages gradually reduce the volume of water that can travel through the pipe at any given time. You may not notice this just flushing toilets or even running the washing machine, but a sump pump produces a much higher volume of water that rushes into your sewer in a constant flow that lasts as long as the pump's cycle of activity.

If the sewer drain can't handle that volume, there's nowhere else for the excess water to go except up out of your toilets and floor drains – and now the sump water has been mixed in with sewage.

Re-routing discharge

Disconnecting the sump pump drain from the sanitary sewer drain is an easy task for a plumber, but the greater challenge may be in finding a new direction.

If your home is close to a drainage ditch or storm sewer drain, it's an easy decision. Don't assume you can just route the water outside like a downspout and let it soak into the ground. Environmentally, that's fine, but you'll be surprised just how much water your sump pump produces each time it kicks on. You could end up creating a swamp in your back yard and make your pump work harder, because the expelled water will just seep back in.

Just as collecting rain water can be an alternative source for garden and lawn water, so too can sump pump water. But at a rate of 30 to 50 gallons per minute, your sump pump could fill up several rain barrels in a very short amount of time. And as with rain barrels, the water is produced when you don't need it.

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