Why you should never un­plug your sump pump

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - HOMES - ARI MARANTZ

QI read your ar­ti­cle on sump pumps in the Free Press on April 16. I found it very in­for­ma­tive and timely. How­ever, I would have liked to have seen you ex­pand on the is­sue of never un­plug­ging the sump pump. There must be read­ers out there who ques­tion the wis­dom of leav­ing your pump plugged in dur­ing the freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, and burn­ing out the mo­tor be­cause of frozen lines. In­deed, why wouldn’t I un­plug? Is there any harm done leav­ing it in stor­age in the pit un­til spring? I would ap­pre­ci­ate your com­ment. Lorri R.

AN­SWER: In an ef­fort to keep my col­umns fresh and avoid re­dun­dancy, I rarely an­swer ques­tions on the same topic so close to­gether, but yours is not the only in­quiry I had on this sub­ject af­ter the re­cently pub­lished ar­ti­cle you site. With the ris­ing waters and flood risk in­creas­ing for the sec­ond time this spring, I thought I would also pro­vide an encore in an­swer­ing your sump pump ques­tion.

In my pre­vi­ous com­ments, I made a gen­eral as­sump­tion that most home­own­ers who have sump pits and pumps un­der­stand that they should never be dis­con­nected, but ob­vi­ously that is not the case. The rea­son be­hind this is that the sump pump gives you pro­tec­tion from weep­ing tile wa­ter over­fill­ing the plas­tic drain lines un­der your base­ment floor slab and pos­si­bly the sump pit, it­self. This is much more of a concern with sump pits in­stalled in newer homes that act as catch basins for the weep­ing/drain lines, but may also ap­ply to retro­fit pits in older homes, to a lesser de­gree. To un­der­stand this fully, I will pro­vide a ba­sic les­son on the func­tion of these some­times mys­te­ri­ous com­po­nents of our homes.

A sump pit in a newer home, nor­mally one built in the last 25 years in our area, will be in­stalled to act as a catch basin for all of the wa­ter drained from the weep­ing tile/drainage sys­tem. This sys­tem of cor­ru­gated plas­tic pipes col­lects ex­cess ground wa­ter from out­side the foun­da­tion and di­rects it to­ward the sump to pre­vent seep­age and ex­cess hy­dro­static pres­sure at the foun­da­tion and foot­ing.

In other words, the weep­ing-tile sys­tem keeps your foun­da­tion dry and pre­vents dam­age from soil pres­sure. The plas­tic pip­ing out­side the foun­da­tion, in­stalled near the bot­tom of the foun­da­tion, is per­fo­rated with small open­ings that col­lect ex­cess ground­wa­ter dur­ing rains and spring melts. This wa­ter is nor­mally di­rected through the foot­ing, be­low the foun­da­tion walls, into non-per­fo­rated plas­tic drain pip­ing in­stalled in the sub­strate be­low your con­crete base­ment floor slab.

These pipes are grad­u­ally sloped to­ward the sump pit to drain the weep­ing tile wa­ter by grav­ity. The plas­tic weep­ing tile pipes ter­mi­nates in­side the pit, al­low­ing the wa­ter to drain to the bot­tom of the sump, well be­low the floor slab.

A sump pump is in­stalled near the bot­tom of the pit, which is equipped with a float or pres­sure switch that will en­gage the pump once the wa­ter reaches a cer­tain depth, nor­mally be­low the bot­tom of the weep­ing tile ter­mi­na­tions. This elec­tric pump will be con­nected to rigid ABS plas­tic pip­ing that di­rects the wa­ter, through a small open­ing near the top of the foun­da­tion, to the ex­te­rior. This dis­charges the wa­ter above the ground out­side the house, so that it can safely drain away from the home and foun­da­tion.

The rea­son that you should never un­plug your sump pump is that wa­ter can drain into the sump pit at any time, even in the dead of win­ter. Even if the ground is snow cov­ered and is frozen a me­tre of so be­low the sur­face, it may not be near the foot­ing or bot­tom part of the foun­da­tion.

I have many clients and call­ers that tell me their sump pump runs pe­ri­od­i­cally all year round, which is likely due to un­frozen soil around their foun­da­tions and high wa­ter ta­bles. Also, we nor­mally ex­pe­ri­ence one or two pe­ri­ods of warm weather in the mid­dle of a typ­i­cal win­ter where snow will melt, and of­ten cause ad­di­tional seep­age into the weep­ing tile sys­tem. If your pump is un­plugged in ei­ther of these sit­u­a­tions, the con­se­quences can be dis­as­trous.

In the worst cases, enough wa­ter can flow into the sump pit to over­fill the top of the weep­ing tile ter­mi­na­tions and even the pit, it­self. This wa­ter can cause a mini-flood in the base­ment if it over­spills the top of the sump.

Even if this doesn’t oc­cur, hav­ing the non-per­fo­rated drain lines un­der the floor slab com­pletely filled with wa­ter can cause them to heave and crack and push up on the con­crete. This can cause sig­nif­i­cant crack­ing and dam­age to the floor slab and in­te­rior base­ment walls. While this seems like an un­likely sce­nario, I have seen this oc­cur in sev­eral homes where drains were blocked or pumps dam­aged or dis­con­nected.

To fur­ther il­lus­trate the need to keep your pump plugged in at all times, the du­plex elec­tri­cal out­let is re­quired to be on a ded­i­cated cir­cuit. In plain lan­guage, that means that the out­let in­stalled for the sump pump, as re­quired by the Build­ing Codes, must be the only thing at­tached to a spe­cific cir­cuit breaker in the elec­tri­cal panel. That’s re­quired so that the cir­cuit-breaker does not ac­ci­den­tally get tripped by any other de­vice or ap­pli­ance, pre­vent­ing the pump from go­ing on when needed.

If the of­fi­cials who cre­ate the build­ing codes feel that it’s im­por­tant enough to have con­stant power to your sump pump, you know it is crit­i­cal.

As for your concern of a frozen sump-pump hose caus­ing the pump to burn out, which is a very le­git­i­mate worry, the so­lu­tion is sim­ple. Most new sump-pit lids come with a brightly coloured sticker that states, “sump pump dis­charge hose must be dis­con­nected at the ex­te­rior in the win­ter to pre­vent freez­ing”. If they also in­cluded, “and sump pump should al­ways be con­nected to a ded­i­cated elec­tri­cal out­let ex­cept when ser­vic­ing”, the ad­vice would be com­plete.

Ad­her­ing to these two small prin­ci­ples, and an­nual test­ing of the pump, will pre­vent a se­ri­ous prob­lem associated with the sump pump and weep­ingtile sys­tem.

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