Sump Pump 101: Operation and Inspection Guide

based on original content by Nick Gromicko and Kenton Shepard

Sump pumps are self-activating electrical pumps that protect homes from moisture intrusion. They are usually installed below basement or crawlspace floors to remove rising groundwater and surface runoff before it has a chance to seep into the home. Accumulated water can cause interior damage and encourage the growth of mold, mildew, and fungus. Pumps should be maintained and equipped with all necessary components in order to ensure their reliability.

How a Sump Pump Works

A pit, known as a sump pit or sump trench, can be dug at the lowest part of the basement floor to capture and contain any flowing water. A sump pump sits at the bottom of this trench (or beside it) and expels excess water through a series of interconnected pipes to a suitable discharge location. The pump can sense water levels through a float that rises and falls with fluctuating water levels in the trench. The sump pump becomes activated and deactivated based on the height of the float, providing a simple, automated way to monitor and deal with variable water levels.

Types of Sump Pumps

• Pedestal sump pumps sit above the water line beside the sump trench and are not designed to get wet. Since they are not contained within the sump pit, they can be accessed easily but are also very noisy. They cost roughly $60 to $200, which is significantly less than other varieties.
• Submersible sump pumps rest underwater at the bottom of the sump pit, and are much quieter than pedestal pumps. Their oil-cooled motors and tight seals protect against water and dust and afford them a long lifespan. They can cost up to $600.
• Water-powered sump pumps are normally used as backups and kick in when the main pump experiences an electrical or mechanical failure.


• The pump must be kept clean and free of debris. The inlet screen prevents the passage of dirt and other solid material from entering the pump, but it can become overwhelmed. Cleanings should occur often for pumps that run constantly.
• Make sure that the float is not tangled or jammed in one position. A sump pump with a jammed float is useless because it will not sense when it should turn on and shut off.
• The pump can be tested by pouring water into the pit to make sure it becomes activated and expels the water. The homeowner should seek professional assistance if the pump does not activate.
• Maintenance should take place annually, and when the home is sold.
• When testing the pump, no one should ever reach into the pit. The float can be reached and manipulated with a household item such as a golf club (with a rubber handle) or anything else non-conductive that happens to be lying around.

Typical installations could include the following:

• A GFCI duplex outlet. There is considerable debate among inspectors concerning whether or not a sump pump should be connected to a GFCI. It is possible that a GFCI can prevent electrocution, but it is extremely unlikely that a sump pump will energize water in the first place. It is much more likely that a GFCI will trip during safe conditions and deactivate the sump pump when it is needed. A sump pump is among the most critical of all household appliances, and its deactivation, especially if the tenants are not home, could allow catastrophic building damage. Codes recommend that appliances in basements and crawlspaces be connected to GFCIs to reduce the chance of electrical shock, but this advice is often ignored due to these concerns over nuisance tripping.
• An alarm. Sump pumps can burn out, lose power, become clogged or misaligned, or malfunction in a variety of other ways. It is valuable to have a warning device installed that will signal water build-up. These alarms can alert homeowners or neighbors of flooding so that it can be resolved before water damage occurs. Alarms are especially important in residences that are not occupied for long periods of time.
• A check valve. This device is the same diameter as the discharge pipe into which it fits and is usually a different color. A check valve should be installed in order to prevent pumped water in the discharge line from re-entering the sump pit when the device is turned off. Without this valve, the pump will have to work twice as hard to remove the same column of water, which causes unnecessary strain to the pump components. A check valve can also prevent the rare yet disturbing possibility that a discharge line connected to a stream or pond will back-siphon into the sump pit.
• A backup power source. Power outages are most likely to happen during heavy rains and floods, which are situations when the sump pump is most needed. For this reason, combined with the nuisance-tripping from GFCIs, sump pumps should have a backup power source to rely on. A pump powered by a battery or the home’s water pressure can also be installed as a backup. Installation of a backup power source or backup pump is not a requirement, but can be a recommendation for homes at higher risk.
• Properly sized pit or crock. The sump pit does not need to be constructed from any particular material, as long as it is solid and provides permanent support for the pump. It must, however, be large enough to allow the pump room to work properly. Some homeowners use a 5-gallon bucket as a sump pit, but this is insufficient. For most homes, the sump pit should not be less than 24 inches deep and 18 inches wide. One of the most common reasons why sump pumps fail is that the float gets jammed between the pump and the pit because the pit is too small.
• An attached cover. The sump pit should be covered to prevent water from evaporating into the home, and to prevent items from falling into it.
• Properly routed discharge line. The discharge line (typically PVC pipe) should route the shortest distance from the pit to the outside wall, properly supported by pipe hangers, and should be properly sealed at the wall connection to prevent insect infiltration, moisture intrusion, or energy losses.

Discharge Location:

• Water must be discharged at least 20 feet from the building.
• Water should not drain back into the house! Cycling water will place unnecessary strain on the pump and can weaken the structure’s foundation.
• Water should not drain onto a neighbor’s property without their approval.
• Many jurisdictions do not permit pumped water into public sewer systems.
• Pumped water should never drain into a residence’s septic system. Especially during heavy rain, a septic drain field will become saturated and will struggle to handle the normal flow of water from the house. Additional water from the sump pump can damage the septic system.

In summary, sump pumps are used to remove excess water from homes that would otherwise cause property damage. There are multiple types, but they all monitor water levels and ensure that they do not rise higher than predetermined levels. Proper maintenance and inspection will ensure pump efficiency and prolong their lifespan.

Beat Summer’s Heat with a Radiant Barrier You Install Yourself!

Based on original content from Elizabeth Spencer; US Department of Energy

Radiant barriers are installed in attics—primarily to reduce summer heat gain and reduce cooling costs. The barriers consist of a highly reflective material that reflects radiant heat rather than absorbing it.

How They Work
Heat travels from a warm area to a cool area by a combination of conduction, convection, and radiation. Radiant heat travels in a straight line away from any surface and heats anything solid that absorbs its energy. When the sun heats a roof, it's primarily the sun's radiant energy that makes the roof hot. Much of this heat travels by conduction through the roofing materials to the attic side of the roof. The hot roof material then radiates its gained heat energy onto the cooler attic surfaces, including the air ducts and the attic floor. A radiant barrier reduces the radiant heat transfer from the underside of the roof to the other surfaces in the attic. To be effective, the reflective surface must face an air space. Dust accumulation on the reflective surface will reduce its reflective capability. A radiant barrier works best when it is perpendicular to the radiant energy striking it. Also, the greater the temperature difference between the sides of the radiant barrier material, the greater the benefits a radiant barrier can offer.

Radiant barriers are more effective in hot climates than in cool climates, especially when cooling air ducts are located in the attic. Some studies show that radiant barriers can reduce cooling costs 5% to 10% when used in a warm, sunny climate. In cool climates, however, it's usually more cost-effective to install more thermal insulation than to add a radiant barrier. In the DELMARVA, the radiant barrier installation pays you back at least half the year, during hot and humid days when your air conditioning loads are greatest. It doesn’t do much for your home energy savings during the really cold months but may assist in melting ice and snow accumulations in some cases. Installed in the attic of Tokori’s global headquarters, it shaves about 10-20 percent off the BGE bills from April through October.

If you choose to do the installation yourself, carefully study and follow the manufacturer’s instructions and safety precautions and check your local building and fire codes. The reflective insulation trade association also offers installation tips. It's easier to incorporate radiant barriers into a new home, but you can also install them in an existing home, especially if it has an open attic. In a new house, an installer typically drapes a rolled-foil radiant barrier foil-face down between the roof rafters to minimize dust accumulation on the reflective faces (double-faced radiant barriers are available). This is generally done just before the roof sheathing goes on, but can be done afterwards from inside the attic by stapling the material to the bottom of the rafters. Ideally, leaving a mid-span run of the material removable (Velcro or fasteners), will enable periodic inspection of the roof decking to check for leaks or signs of deterioration (it will be unobservable otherwise). When installing a foil-type barrier, it's important to allow the material to "droop" between the attachment points to make at least a 1.0 inch (2.5 cm) air space between it and the bottom of the roof. Foil-faced plywood or oriented strand board sheathing is also available. Note that reflective foil will conduct electricity, so workers and homeowners must avoid making contact with bare electrical wiring. If installed on top of attic floor insulation, the foil will be susceptible to dust accumulation and may trap moisture in fiber insulation, so it is strongly recommended that you NOT apply radiant barriers directly on top of the attic floor insulation.

Beauty & the Beast--A Newly Remodeled House Often Has Ugly Secrets!

Amateur Wiring Causes Smoke Detector to Malfunction in Flip House

Thanks to a significant rise in area real estate “flipping,” the serious and oft-times hazardous problems associated with non-professional, unpermitted work are increasing as well. This is particularly a problem for first-time home buyers who thought they were getting a “turnkey” remodeled home. It’s hard for them to believe that something that looks so nice actually has so many hidden defects. For lurking inside this beauty is actually a deceptive beast that wrecks budgets and threatens your family’s health and safety!

“Whenever there’s big money involved, there’s always dishonesty…”

Two Dozen Warning Signs of Serious Defects in a Shoddily Remodeled Home

1. Lack of permits or well/septic system certifications (check public records).
2. Seller is an LLC or is hard to identify as an individual. Past litigation history (check public records!)
3. Improperly closing doors or windows that were recently installed.
4. Extensive evidence of debris (paint chips, glass, etc.) in the yard.
5. Mismatched roof coverings and rusted flashing on replaced roofs.
6. Improperly installed HVAC equipment or new mixed with old components.
7. Standing water or staining in the basement or inside the crawl space.
8. Rotten or deteriorated joists, rafters, or other structural members.
9. 4x4 posts supporting a deck. Improper mounting and railings.
10. Stairs without handrails or handrails made of 2x4s or closet poles.
11. Unrepaired sidewalks, steps, or other walking surfaces.
12. Missing utility connections (such as washer and dryer connections).
13. Loose, newly installed electrical and plumbing fixtures.
14. Uneven floors or cabinetry. Soft spots in carpeted or vinyl covered floors.
15. PVC and ABS mixed with cast iron wastewater lines. Lots of abandoned lines.
16. Lack of proper roof penetrations for exhaust fan and plumbing vents.
17. Uncleaned or “scary” crawl space with no lighting, venting, or vapor barrier.
18. Tightly installed vinyl siding lacking proper channeling and clearances.
19. Gutter downspouts discharging directly on roof surfaces or at foundation wall.
20. Open junction boxes with heavily taped connections or exposed wiring.
21. Makeshift supports placed underneath home.
22. Excessive glue on PVC plumbing joints. Improper or missing traps/vents.
23. Original drain with new diverter/fixtures in tub, shower, or sink.
24. Heavily painted over or textured surfaces, or unusual colors on ceilings or walls.

Nobody looks out for you like you do, so avoid being swindled and invest in a professional home inspection!

Real Estate 101: The Seller ALWAYS Pays More for the Buyer's Home Inspection!

Most Agents will tell you that the home inspection is usually a required contingency of most purchasing agreements, it is at the buyer's option and they are the ones paying for it.


Most buyers will opt for a home inspection—typically investing $300-$400 to get a comprehensive report of the home’s condition. Note that they are investing, not spending, this extremely small fraction of the cost of the home they have agreed to buy.

Why is the buyer's home inspection a low-risk investment and not the cost that I was told?

Every home has deferred maintenance issues, which the buyer's inspector is obliged to point out in their report. This means that their report will always include a list of defects that, if they deem significant enough, can potentially put the terms of the sale, or the entire agreement, at risk and ultimately force the relisting of the house. The seller, now presented with a repair or replacement "punch list" is forced into unpleasant renegotiation with the buyers and one or both Agents--ultimately having to do one of three things at this point: 1) agree to an offset or discount of the purchase price to cover the oft-times inflated costs of repairs; 2) agree to have negotiated items repaired or replaced at the seller's cost; or 3) do nothing and hope the deal doesn't fall through and force the relisting of the house. So, to recap, the buyer's small investment in a report has forced the seller to come back to the table and has provided the leverage needed to compel crisis concessions in their favor, or if the deal is cancelled, to back out--demanding the required return of their earnest money and moving on without penalties. In some cases involving buyer's remorse, this amounts to their "get out of deal free card."

Why is the seller paying and risking so much more than the buyer?

The terms of the agreement are time-bound--forcing any repairs or replacement to be done yesterday and usually by overqualified senior-level tradesmen when a general handyman or even the seller could effect the repairs. All repairs have to be "satisfactorily" repaired in order to stay on the closing timetable—typically, the combined costs of these repairs and replacements average $2,000!!! Not to mention the extra drama and stress of going through the whole rigmarole in the first place…Remember sellers, it is YOU, not your Agent, representing the material condition of your home. Failure to properly disclose defects is not only wrong, it’s a liability that could end up in an expensive lawsuit following closing, and “as is” is an extremely weak position to take in these cases—most wind up settling out of court. What better way to make a new start--searching and paying for an attorney to represent you in the city you just left…

The first one to get the home inspection wins!

So, the buyer invests $400 to get the seller to to spend thousands for the house they're getting. That's quite an ROI, and they haven't even gotten the keys yet! Of course, the seller could have avoided the extra hassle and expense by investing in their own prelisting home inspection, shopping around for the best value in making the repairs, and then enabling their Agent to use the report and repair invoice as a marketing advantage for their listing. It also helps to reduce the uncertainty that is a normal part of the transaction and gives the more impulsive and potentially unqualified buyers pause before they sign up for an agreement they may be unable to back out of. So, will you invest $400 for your integrity, a marketing advantage, and "deal insurance" or will you be forced to pay $2,000 or more in concessions or repair costs to salvage your deal and put and end to the emotionally draining negotiations?

Tenant Fire Escape Planning 101 for Landlords

October is Fire Prevention Month and Fire Prevention Week runs October 7th-13th. This commemorates the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but more so offers us the opportunity to ensure our preparedness measures are in effect at home. Be sure to pass along the FEMA flyer with helpful safety tips for tenant/occupant fire escape planning tips: (click on the title to auto enable hyperlink to FEMA infographic or copy and past this address into your browser)

As a landlord, you can assist tenants by creating a fire escape plan depicting at least two ways out of each bedroom in your rental unit.

It doesn't need to be really fancy, but a basic floor plan schematic with all available exits and fire safety related equipment (smoke detectors, escape ladders, fire extinguishers, etc.) should be posted during a change in tenancy (we put them in a Dollar Store frame and hang them in an inconspicuous space). Additionally, the same type of floor plan drawing is very useful when detailing walk-thru defects, such as wall or floor covering damages, etc.--helping to support a case for determining whether or not post tenancy repairs are due to pre-existing conditions or tenant-caused damages/neglect.

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