Updated: Jan 20
Very often, property managers, building managers, maintenance coordinators, and other curious people ask me about how the sump pump system works. I have been cleaning sump pumps for about 8 years, so I find myself in a position where I feel uniquely qualified to walk you through how to maintain a sump pump. I decided to write this blog post to serve as an overview/guide to maintaining a sump pump for you to reference at any point in time. Think of this as a guide for someone that is responsible for a building's sump pump, but is not fully aware of how a sump pump system works. I will go over the basics of what a sump pump is, how the system works, why maintenance is important, and what maintenance is needed.
Before we get into maintaining a sump pump, there are a few things I should cover first to give some context. So, what exactly is a sump pump, and what do they do? Sump pump is short for a “submersible pump;” it's a waterproof pump that is submerged and removes water from your property. The sump pump is located in the pump chamber, which is a large basin that collects water from all around the property. The pump chamber is often located at the lowest point in the property typically in the parkade, however they can hide in obscure places at times.
Sump pumps will either pump storm water (perimeter drainage) or sanitary water (toilets and sinks) out of the area regardless of which type of liquid it is carrying. It is common to see two separate pumps, one for storm and one for sanitary. Although what they pump is quite different, they work in the exact same way. The drainage system works diligently throughout the property to collect all of the water to the pump chamber, and once the water fills up to a certain level, the pump will engage and the water will be removed from the property.
How does the pump know when to turn on? Great question. There are floating switches contained within the pump chamber, they are referred to as floats. When the water level rises, the float tips up which engages the pump. Once the water is pumped down, the float will lower, causing the float to tip back down into the off position. It’s as simple as that. Larger pump systems get slightly fancier with multiple floats, including an on-off float, and an alarm float, but those are more common to see in large-multi story buildings.
People often forget about pumps. I have seen pumps which have been left for 10 years, and to my amazement it is still functioning. However, I have also been called in more times than not for floods due to pump failure. Floods can cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, and cause a very stressful situation for everyone involved as you can imagine. The easiest way to avoid this is simple: maintenance.
By designating just one day per year to sump pump maintenance is all it takes to avoid these pesky problems. As part of the routine maintenance, the pump needs to be checked by a plumber and cleaned to remove all debris and build up. It is possible to get away with doing biennial servicing -- however, it just means that if and when a problem arises, it will not get addressed as quickly, and will cause a greater chance of pump failure and flooding than if annual maintenance was performed. This is a choice owners and council members must make themselves based on their specific circumstances and risk levels. We recommend annual servicing as we have seen too many neglected pumps leading to costly flooding.
Plumbers' Role In Maintenance
Now that you know why maintenance is instrumental, let's talk about what the maintenance process looks like. There are two parts to maintenance; first, the plumber performs their required maintenance procedures. The second step of maintenance we perform, which I will discuss in the next section.
There are a number of different technical checks a plumber must perform on the pump to ensure everything is working correctly. First, the plumber will test the motor on the pump to ensure it is drawing the correct amount of electricity. If it is pulling too low or too high of electricity, it may lead to motor issues. The issues may be a simple replacement of a capacitor (usually around a $20 part), or possibly the entire motor will need replacement (can range from $200 - $18,000).
Additionally, the plumber will check the floats to ensure they are working correctly, as these will need to be replaced over time. We recommend replacing the floats every 3 years--they are cheap and easy to install. Plumbers will also check for an air lock release port, these are often missed during the initial installation and may need to be installed after the pump has been cleaned. The air lock release port can also be known as the “relief hole” as noted in the diagram above. I will discuss the air lock release port in more detail below.
Finally, the plumber will wait for the pump to fill up to ensure that the entirety of the system is working correctly. The plumber should mark the service date on the sump pump control box to know when it was last serviced and when it will be due for another service.
Please note: sump pumps often located in remote areas with confined space entries to enter the pump chamber. Do not attempt to go into the pump chamber as it can be dangerous without proper personal protection equipment and training.
Ramos Holdings' Role In Maintenance
The second part of maintaining your sump pump is to clean it. The drainage system often has systems in place to attempt to keep debris from entering the pump chamber. Such preventive mechanisms can include catch basins, oil water separators, or interceptors. Even through our best attempts to keep debris away from the pump, inevitably, over time debris will build up in the pump chamber. The problem with having debris in the pump chamber is the pump will suck up debris which may damage the internal parts of the pump. In some situations, large debris can completely clog the pump, stopping the internal propeller from rotating.
That is where Ramos Holdings comes in -- we use specialized low profile vacuum trucks to fit into any parking lot so we can directly access the sump pump. During the process, we suck out all of the water in the pump chamber, then we use the pressure washer to break apart all debris in the chamber from the surfaces and suck up the remaining water dirt mixture. During the process, we pressure wash the walls, pump, floats, and pipes within the pump chamber. Our custom build vacuum trucks have the equipment on board to service any and all types of pumps.
Once the pump chamber has been cleaned out, we wait for the pump to fill up and ensure that the pump is working prior to leaving the job site. But what happens if the pump does not work when we go to test it? Well, this happens on occasion, and 99% of the time it is due to an airlock. Click HERE for a great video description on the air lock problem, but basically there is air stuck in the water outlet pipe, and there is no airlock release port. Simply put, a hole needs to be drilled in the side of the pipe. This is one of the things a plumber would check for in their servicing.
Finally, the material we have collected in the vac truck during the servicing needs to be disposed. Depending on the type of material collected (storm, sanitary, presence of oil, presence of grease), the material needs to be taken to the respective disposal sites for proper treatment. We have accounts with many different disposal sites across the lower mainland and can properly dispose of all materials collected once the servicing is complete.
And that's basically it. The sump pump system is really quite simple. It's a pump that pumps water away from the building, and it requires servicing once a year. If it’s forgotten about and not properly taken care of, it may cause flooding. Let's try and avoid that hassle, call Ramos Holdings and we will take care of your full sump pump maintenance. We have qualified plumbers we know and trust that will get your pump properly taken care of.