How Often Should a Sump Pump Run?

Every homeowner knows how vulnerable basement spaces can be (1). Whether it’s harsh winters, nonstop rain seasons, particularly strong thunderstorms, or just a regular leak, your basement needs to be protected at all times.

Aside from proper insulation and the suitability of the entire location of your home as it related to groundwater levels, basement security largely depends on the productivity of its sump pump. Quality sump pumps can be expensive, but they are generally worth the investment since cheap plastic pumps with no lids can malfunction and lead to water damage which puts the entire foundation at risk.

So to ensure that your basement is always adequately protected from flooding, plumbing leakages, and other accidents, it is always best to familiarize yourself with common problems related to the work of sump pumps. (2)

Is it normal for a sump pump to run every minute?

There are instances in which a sump pump should be continuously active, such as the sudden rise in the groundwater table caused by precipitation and irrigation. If such occurrences haven’t taken place but the pump’s pit is actually empty and the pump is still working, something is definitely wrong.

If the issue isn’t solved as soon as possible, the pump may overwork and burn out, so it’s recommended to check for all common causes behind the pump’s faulty operation. There are several main causes of unnecessary continuous work of a sump pump. (3)

Faulty float switch

Often a float switch gets stuck due to clogging—which is the case of many budget sump pumps and sump pits constructed from plastic. Sump pump float switches react to the water level in the sump pit and turn the pump on and off according to the water level.

Faulty float switch
Sources: ofilip.com

If by any chance some debris causes the switch to stick in one setting—in this case, the on mode—it keeps the pump running even if there is no water to discharge. Check for any blockages and debris regularly so that you can fix the float switch in a timely fashion.

Though it’s not only the budget models that encounter this problem: quite often the vibrations from prolonged pumping operation can tip the entire unit towards the side of the sump pit, and as a result, the float switch goes haywire. (4)

Issues with the check valve

A sump pump’s check valve is vital for the correct functioning of the entire unit since it stops the discharged water from backtracking and returning into the sump pit. Normally, sump pumps are located below the ground level—often referred to as below grade—and their discharge lines are threaded in an assurgent manner, from a lower to a higher position, allowing the collected water to be directed up.

 When the water passes the outlet, the gravity takes care of the rest and directs it all down until it is outside the compound, in this case, your house. So when a check valve is either damaged or absent, the discharged water keeps returning into the sump pit, causing the pump to work in a loop and eventually go into overdrive. (5)

Incorrect Sump Pump or Sump Pit Size

This problem also concerns the sump pit, as well as the sump itself, since the effectiveness of water discharge relies on the balanced work of these two elements. If a sump pump is too small, it simply can’t manage the amounts of collected water, so it compensates with constant pumping.

If a sump pump is of the correct size but its pit is too small, the overdrive issue occurs once again. The problem is in the sump pit’s incapacity to hold large amounts of water at a time, so it fills up quickly and activates the float switch that turns on the pump. Since the sump pit is bound to do that on a loop, the pump will continue to work non-stop to accommodate the sump pit which results in what is commonly referred to as short-cycling. (6)

Overflowing Sump Pit

Sometimes the causes for overrunning sump pumps are quite natural, for instance, the continuous overflooding of the sump pit. If the groundwater table is naturally high or remains raised for long periods of time, it causes the sump pit to overfill on a regular basis.

A few simple solutions can sometimes help: you can try elevating the sump pit to counter the high groundwater table or you can add another sump pump to your basement in order to manage the constant flow better. In any case, careful analysis of the entire basement space, groundwater table levels, and sump pump performance are required before conducting upgrades or extra installations.

What is the groundwater level? The topography of a region, as well as its climate, dictates the way the groundwater or aquifers normally behave. The groundwater is separated by the groundwater table from the capillary fringe which is an unsaturated level that lies directly above the table. Groundwater seeps through the water table and into the capillary fringe where water is collected via pores at the base of the level. Then, through capillary action, the water seeps into the upper soil moisture zone.

When groundwater levels rise, the water table and the capillary fringe are affected, the results of which you can commonly observe in the constant pumping of your sump pump and the overflowing sump pit.

Groundwater and subsequently water table levels are often elevated by changing weather conditions, namely various forms of precipitation, as well as irrigation and newly added ground covers that require extra watering which shifts the balance between saturated and unsaturated underground zones. (7)

How often should a sump pump run in the winter?

It is actually quite normal for sump pumps to run in winter every so often, though only for short periods at a time—provided you live in an area where snow (or other forms of winter precipitation) occurs regularly.

In winter, sump pumps run when the snow melts and gathers in the sump pit at the level enough to trigger the float switch and force the pump into action.

If this is not the case and your sump pump runs continuously or sporadically, there might be an issue in its operation, most likely caused by improper winterization. (8)

What is the proper way to maintain your sump pump in winter?

  1. First, you need to remove the discharge hose, sometimes called the flex hose. The discharge line runs from the sump pump’s pit and outside your home where it dumps the removed water in the safe distance from the foundation. It’s recommended to remove the discharge line in the fall after the rain showers are over and just before the freezing temperatures settle in. If you fail to remove the hose in time, it may freeze the entire line and disrupt the pump’s operation. Frozen discharge hoses prevent the sump pump from removing moisture and melted snow in winter, causing the pump to run continuously without any success which can lead to overheating and mechanical failure.
  2. Do not shut off the sump pump. Even in cases of long and cold winters, it is never a good idea to turn off your pump entirely. Sump pumps are essential for taking care of collected moisture and melted snow, but it’s those brief temperature rises and sudden periods of warming that you should look out for. If brief warming happens in deep winter and causes partial thaw, a sump pump will promptly take care of it, provided you reattach your discharge line beforehand.
  3. Do regular test runs. It’s important to ensure your sump pump is always up to the task even in winter. If the spring comes and your sump pump is suddenly out of commission, you will probably have flooding on your hands. Make sure to test your pump throughout winter with the discharge line connected to see how well it performs. If for some reason it malfunctions, you will have time to fix it before spring arrives.
  4. Try to maintain warmer temperatures in the basement. Winter months can seriously disrupt your plumbing and other adjacent systems if you fail to keep basement temperatures above freezing levels. Sump pits and discharge lines are in particular danger from freezing temperatures, so try your best to keep the basement as warm as possible to support your sump pump and piping.
  5. Keep the sump pit clean. Overtime the sump pit can get clogged up with various debris, dirt, and sludge. Even in winter, you may often find some unpleasant residue collecting in the sump pit, so it’s important to check it regularly and clean it out as efficiently as possible. This way you will not only prevent possible damage to the system but also keep the sump pit ready for spring.
  6. Connect the discharge hose before spring. When you know that thaw is just around the corner, it may be the right time to reattach the discharge line to your sump pump. Always clean out the pit first and ensure that the snowmelt is definitely happening before connecting the piping. Early spring is particularly water-heavy—the direct consequence of thawing, spring rains, and a general overabundance of moisture—so your sump pump and pit should always be ready to handle the flow. (9)

Does a sump pump use a lot of electricity?

The relative cost of electricity consumed by an electrical appliance depends on its horsepower rating. If your sump pump’s power capacity is somewhere in the middle—for example, ⅓ HP—it will require around 800 watts for a regular run.

More powerful sump pumps, such as ½ HP units, can ask for as high as 1050 watts. Starting wattage differs from running wattage and is usually higher. Based on this average, it is estimated that during the wettest spring periods a typical ½ HP sump pump adds up to $30 to your electricity bill on a monthly basis.

How often should a sump pump be replaced?

Most sump pumps are built to last about 10 years. Some manufacturers recommend replacing sump pumps as often as every 5 years, especially if you live in an area with high levels of precipitation.

However, other sump pump parts should be replaced even more often as they tend to break with overuse. This includes the float switch and the check valve. It is recommended to regularly inspect your sump pump and all its vital parts every 6 months to estimate the scope of potential repairs. 

Even though sump pumps can get rather volatile, especially in rainy seasons, maintaining them can be easy as long as you keep to the routine. Always inspect the sump pump before major weather shifts and remember to winterize it correctly.

Whenever you encounter issues in operation, such as continuous running or pit overflowing, check for mechanical vulnerabilities and plan for every contingency ahead. This can save your basement as well as the foundation of your home in particularly harsh weather conditions, so by protecting the integrity of your sump pump you protect the integrity of your home. (10)

About the author

Jessica Nickson

Jessica Nickson

Jessica Nickson is a keen home and garden innovator with over 25 years of hands-on experience in, home improvement, landscape gardening and all things appliance related to making life easier and more interesting. You can contact her via e-mail - jessica@thehomedweller.com.

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