Check your sump pump now

Farm Forum

For many homeowners, a sump pump is their first line of defense to prevent water from seeping into the basement.

“No one wants to return from a trip or weekend outing to find water in the basement because the sump pump failed,” North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural engineer Tom Scherer says.

Due to low precipitation amounts last fall and very little snow this winter, many sump pumps have not operated for a year or more. But spring storms can change that quickly. Scherer suggests that as a precaution, homeowners should check the sump pump now to make sure it is working properly.

The sump may be connected to tile that drains the footings of the house, the entire basement or just the area where the sump is located. Many houses have tiling installed around only a portion of the house. The water that drains into the sump must be removed. That’s accomplished with a sump pump.

To check the pump, first make sure the discharge pipe on the outside of the house is not plugged and that it directs water away from the house. Next, make sure the pump is plugged in. Remove the lid (if the sump has one) and use a flashlight to check if the sump is clean and the pump inlet is not plugged.

If the inlet from the tile is near the bottom of the sump and no water is flowing into the sump, temporarily plug the inlet. Then slowly pour water into the sump until the float turns the pump on. Try to simulate the speed that water normally would flow into the sump. Watch the on/off float operation and listen to the pump.

Make the pump turn on and off at least twice. If the pump sounds like it is pumping gravel or the float is sluggish, then you may need a new pump.

A common cause of pump failure is damaged or rusted bearings in the motor. Another common problem is the float switch doesn’t make good electrical contact and turns on slowly or not at all.

Sump pumps are available in two basic models: upright (commonly called a pedestal) and submersible. Either works well with proper maintenance, according to Scherer.

Submersible pumps are designed to be submerged in water and sit on the bottom of the sump. A float-activated switch controls the on/off operation of the pump.

The float moves according to the water level in the sump. When the water in the sump rises to a certain level, the pump turns on, and when the water level drops to a certain level, the pump turns off.

The float control mechanism can have different configurations, depending on the manufacturer. For some models, the on/off distance is adjustable and it’s not on others.

The pedestal pump’s motor is usually about a foot above the top of the sump and the pump is at the base, which sits on the bottom of the sump. The motor is not meant to get wet. A ball float connected by a rod to a switch near the motor turns the pump on and off. One advantage of this type of pump is that the on/off switch is visible without you having to look into the sump, Scherer says.

Either type of pump should have a check valve on the water outlet pipe so water doesn’t flow back into the sump when the pump shuts off. Water flowing back and forth can cause the pump to turn on and off more frequently than necessary, which decreases the life of the pump.

For more basement water protection, many houses have an electric backup sump pump. This pump is installed in the same sump as the primary pump, but it only turns on if the primary pump fails. These pumps are battery-powered.

More information can be found in the NDSU publication “Electric Backup Sump Pumps for Houses” (AE1771), which is available online at, or from your county Extension office or the NDSU Distribution Center at (701) 231-7883.

For more details on sump pumps, you can view a video at