Check Your Sump Pumps

          This news release from NDSU Extension about checking your sump pumps is very timely and a great reminder for us. We may not have as much snow as some parts of the state but the cool temperatures we have been having are slowing the normal snowmelt and increasing the likelihood of a quick melt and local flooding when the warmer weather finally does come.

          I checked my sump pumps and found problems with both of them. The one with the sump located in the basement has a black pipe exiting through the basement wall above ground. I discovered that I had hooked the discharge pipe (black plastic) with the snowblower sometime during the winter. I didn’t get the pipe wrapped into the auger but must have pulled it along the ground for a short distance before it came loose. When I checked in the basement I found that the pump had been pulled out of the sump hole and was hanging from the pipe where it goes through the wall. Disaster averted! The drain tile on the other side of my house dumps into an outside sump reservoir and plugs into an outdoor weather-protected receptacle. Melting and settling snow pulled the cord from the receptacle.


Make sure your sump pump is working before the snow melts.

A sump pump is the first line of defense for many homeowners to prevent water from seeping into the basement.

“Last summer and fall were dry, so many sump pumps probably haven’t run for a long time,” says North Dakota State University Extension agricultural engineer Tom Scherer. “However, as the snow starts melting this spring, homeowners should check their sump pump to make sure it works properly, and if it has some age on it, have a backup ready in case it quits. As the snow melts, some water is sure to seep into the tile surrounding the house footings.”

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

The pedestal pump’s motor usually is 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 having to look into the sump,” says NDSU Extension agricultural engineer Ken Hellevang.

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

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. The on/off distance is adjustable on some models and not on others.

To check the pump’s operation, first, make sure the discharge pipe on the outside of the house is not plugged in and that it directs water away from the house. Alternatively, some cities allow the sump pump to discharge into the sanitary sewer before a certain date for a fee.

Make sure the pump is plugged in. Remove the lid (if the sump has one) and use a flashlight to check that the sump doesn’t contain any material that can plug the pump.

If the sump is dry, lift the float for about 10 seconds to see if the pump turns on and runs smoothly, then lower the float slowly. Briefly running a pump when it’s dry will not do any damage.

If you have an electric backup pump, that can be checked the same way.

You also can check the pump’s operation by pouring water into the sump until the float turns the pump on. Try to simulate the speed at that water normally would flow into the sump. Watch the on/off float operation and listen to the pump.

“Make sure the pump turns on and off at least twice,” Hellevang advises. “If the pump sounds like it is pumping gravel or the float is sluggish, then you may need a new pump or float.”

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.

“If the homeowner is new and not familiar with sump pumps, now is a good time to call a licensed plumber,” Scherer says. “The plumber can check to make sure the sump pump is ready for the spring thaw.”

Because of power outages or sump pump failure, many houses have additional protection in the form of 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.

Battery maintenance is very important, the specialists say. For more information, see the NDSU publication “Electric Backup Sump Pumps for Houses” (available online at, or contact the NDSU Extension office in your county.

Check out the NDSU Extension flood webpage at for more information on sump pumps and other flood-related resources.