Solved! How Long Do Sump Pumps Last?
Your basement sump pump works hard to keep the lower level dry, but it needs some pampering to hold up under constantly wet conditions.
Q: I have a sump pump in my basement that was there when I moved in. It’s pretty gritty looking, and it makes some odd noises when it runs—and it runs when I’m not sure it should run. I’ve never had a sump pump before, so I don’t know if this is normal. How long should a sump last? And what are the signs that my sump pump needs to be replaced?
A: For the uninitiated, sump pumps are mysterious machines tucked into the dark corner of the basement, working hard to prevent water from entering the basement. Some home buyers are surprised to find a sump pump in basement recesses, and many new (and old) homeowners don’t even look at their sump pump until there’s trouble, either in the form of standing water in the basement, loud vibrations, or the threat of a major flood. But a sump pump for basement or crawl space use is a straightforward machine. A float sensor is attached to a motor that triggers when the float gets too high, then the motor begins pumping water out of the basement and into the yard or a storm sewer through piping running out of the home. The pump is designed to get wet and handle water, and it’s usually connected to a power source that allows it to trigger automatically or manually. How much is a sump pump expected to push out? It depends on the strength of the motor: A smaller ⅓-horsepower pump will suffice for a space with low-to-moderate flooding, while a basement that regularly experiences significant water intrusion would be better served by a larger 1-horsepower motor that can move water more quickly. As with any appliance, a sump pump will work better and last longer if regular cleaning and maintenance is performed, but many people inherit their sump pump from the previous owner of the home and don’t know how or when to perform that maintenance. In homes with sump pump basement pits, they’re a critical appliance: The presence of a sump pump indicates that there have been drainage or flooding problems in the past, so homeowners who don’t know the age of their sump pump or how well it’s functioning should check it out and give it a listen. They may also want to call in a pro to assess, repair, or replace it.
Sump pumps will typically last around 7 to 10 years when well maintained.
Depending on the water table and flood status of the area in which a home is located, a sump pump may spend most of its life expectancy dormant, always ready to push water out of the home but not firing up particularly frequently. Other pumps may be in near-constant use during the wet season and in less-frequent use at other times. Whether the pump experiences heavy or infrequent use, it should still be serviced annually, as metal components that come into contact with water will eventually develop rust, and there are many small components that can be easily maintained or fixed to prevent the pump from failing at the worst possible moment. A regular maintenance inspection can catch those small problems and repair them to keep the pump in fine working order. A maintenance technician or savvy owner can check for rust, cracks, and leaks in the basin, drainpipes, valves, and body of the pump, along with the electrical supply and float arm mechanism. They’ll test the alarm and battery to make sure both function correctly. For those who are unsure about whether their sump pump is working properly, a “test flood” can be performed where a small amount of water is poured into the pump’s drain area to see if the pump automatically turns on.
If this maintenance is performed regularly, a sump pump can last on average between 7 and 10 years. Failure to maintain the pump can result in rust, corrosion, clogs, leaks, and power problems that shorten the lifespan and reduce the effectiveness of the pump. Pedestal sump pumps have a particularly long lifespan because the motor is held up on a pedestal above the water, while submersible sump pumps may last for less time because of the constant contact with water.
A sump pump that frequently cycles on and off, runs nonstop, or doesn’t turn on when it should may be on its last legs.
The worst time to need a sump pump replacement is during a storm or rainy season with significant water runoff. To avoid this, owners need to get to know their pump, its rhythms, and its sensitivity. That way, they’ll notice if the pump is suddenly running much more frequently than it had been previously, or if it’s running much less frequently. While a change in the pattern of sump pump engagement can sometimes be chalked up to a very wet or very dry season, it can also indicate a misalignment of the float arm that triggers the pump to engage: If the float is too low, the pump will start when there’s not enough water to pump out, and if it’s set too high it might not start at all until a flood has occurred. Unusual running patterns could also indicate a power problem, a sensor problem, or simply that the pump is not running as efficiently as it has in the past and is taking longer to pump out less water. Any of these issues likely indicates that the pump may need to be replaced—which should be done before the next storm brings additional water to the basement.
Other signs of a faulty sump pump include strange noises, clogging, excessive vibration, or visible rust.
Sump pumps suck up water from a pit, unless a large enough flood has accumulated that the pump is drawing water from the basement floor. Pits and basements have all kinds of debris that could be pulled into the pit, especially if the sump pump does not have a cap. Paper, bits of plastic, rocks, wrappers, and the other detritus that can collect on a basement floor can be drawn into the pit, causing clogs or malfunctions that leave water standing in the pit or causing clunking noises or vibration as the pump tries to force the water around obstructions and through the pipes. In addition to preventing the water from emptying easily and smoothly, clogs and debris place extra stress on the motor, which will eventually burn out. Loud sounds, vibrations that feel like a front-load washer on a spin cycle, or other unusual sounds mean that maintenance is immediately necessary, but by the time the sounds are audible, the pump may be nearing the end of its useful function.
Visible rust is also an indication that the pump may be failing. The rust may be from metal components that are failing, or it may actually be a type of bacteria that isn’t harmful but forms a gel-like material that clogs pipes and feeds on itself to make more. Either material is likely to damage the pump, so if it’s there, it’s time for service.
A back-up sump pump can provide extra protection if the primary one fails unexpectedly.
The main sump pumps in most homes are electric, because the electrical power is strong enough to draw up and force out more water for a longer time without the sump pump wearing out. Unfortunately, sump pumps are often called into service during major storms, which is also when power outages due to wind and rain or snow are likely. Any sump pump owner who has ever experienced a storm while listening to their pump pushing water out of the basement, then watched the power flash out and heard the hum of the pump fall silent, can attest to the gut-clenching realization that short of bailing water out of the basement with a bucket, there’s not much to be done until the power returns. Fortunately, the best battery-powered backup sump pumps can fill this gap if the main pump fails because of a power outage or other issue. Features to consider are the runtime of the battery as compared to the time that outages normally last in the area, the flow rate (the amount of water the pump can push in a given time, usually expressed in gallons per minute or gallons per hour), and the ease of installation. In flood-prone areas, a battery backup pump can make the difference between a dry basement and a massive insurance claim for water damage that may be rejected—homeowners insurance doesn’t usually cover flood damage. However, water backup coverage can often be added to a homeowners insurance policy as an endorsement and may help cover cleanup from a failed sump pump once the deductible has been met.
A home warranty may help cover the cost to repair or replace a sump pump if the old one fails.
Sump pumps aren’t an appliance that homeowners want to have fail; water can pile up when least expected, and if the pump isn’t ready to go then the homeowner may face a costly cleanup bill. Still, pump owners may balk at the cost of promptly replacing their pump if it’s been a little while since it’s been needed—in a dry spell it’s easy to think it’s a replacement cost that can wait. Handy people may be able to determine how to replace a sump pump on their own, and for some installations replacement can be a DIY project. In other situations, however, the tangle of electrical and water sources combined with small spaces make replacement a job for professionals. A home warranty can be useful both before and after a sump pump fails. Functioning as a service contract that makes repair bills predictable and easy to include in a budget, a home warranty covers maintenance and repair or replacement costs for home systems and appliances that are covered in the contract. What is included in the base contract varies depending on the company, but many include sump pumps and nearly all companies offer sump pump coverage as an add-on appliance if it’s not in the standard contract. The customer pays an annual premium to purchase the warranty, and in the contract, the covered appliances are specified, along with the service call charge and the policy maximums and conditions.