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How Often Should A Sump Pump Run?

A slick black new sump pump on a white background.

Sump pump operation is a mystery to many folks, especially when it seems to be running to much. Find out when your sump pump should be running normally and when it should not.

If your home has a basement, then it probably has a sump pump. It’s one of the most fundamental components of a basement water system. It protects your basement from flooding and the resulting water damage and costly repairs and wading around downstairs trying to do something about the mess. During periods of heavy rains or if a water pipe happens to freeze and burst, your sump pump leaps into action to pump that excess water safely out of your home.

It’s an important job and sump pumps really are unappreciated, until they’re needed. Most homeowners are aware they have a sump pump downstairs, but many have little idea of how they work or how they are supposed to operate. They do know they often hear it running a lot, and they wonder if that’s normal or if it’s a sign that the sump pump needs to be repaired or replaced. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions professional plumbers hear about the sump pump operation. These answers apply whether you have a below-ground submersible or an above-ground pedestal type of sump pump.

How Does A Sump Pump Work?

It’s a very simple system really. It was created by an American named French back in the 1800s, but back then they didn’t have electric pumps, so they had to use hand pumps to drain the water out of the sump pit. But the principle is still the same. When water starts to invade your basement, it runs into and collects in a big hole in the ground called a sump. The sump pump is placed into this hole, and when the water level reaches a certain point, afloat on the pump activates a switch that turns it on.

It then begins to pump the water through a line leading outside and away from your home. The line has a one-way valve installed in it, called a check valve, to keep the water from draining back into the sump. With proper inspections and maintenance, a sump pump should serve you well for a long time.

How Often Should A Sump Pump Run?

A sump pump being used out on the garden grass lawn.

When should a sump pump turn on? The short answer to this question is only when it is needed. That may sound a bit smart-alecky but it’s true. Assuming your sump pump is in good normal operating condition, it should only run when the water level activates that float switch. Depending on your location, it’s not unusual for your pump to kick on two or three times a day. Yet it’s possible that your sump pump runs all the time while your neighbor’s hardly ever run at all. Some of the more common things that might cause this include:

  • The groundwater level and the drain tile around your home are such that the water collects at the lowest level and seeps into your basement. There’s not much you can do about it except to make sure your pump is capable of handling the job. You can also try pointing the walls of your basement with waterproof paint, or having it professionally sealed. This can take care of the problem for a while, possibly for good, but if you have a lot of water around your foundation the problems will likely return.
  • You could have a negative ground grade around the foundation of your home which allows rainwater on the surface to drain toward your home instead of away from it. The solution is to build up that grade to redirect it. You’ll probably want to hire a landscaper or general contractor to ensure that the job is done right.
  • There could be underground water main broken near your home. A couple of ways to test for this is by shutting off the water main to see if that reduces the water, and by testing for the presence of chlorine in the water in the sump.
  • There might be an underground spring or other water flow near your house that you aren’t even aware of. Some of these underground water flows can be seasonal and only occur at certain times of the year. Also, if your home is located near a body of water like a lake or a pond and your basement is below the level of the water, then you’re probably below the water table and that will cause seepage.

These are some of the most common reasons that a sump pump may be running every 5 minutes. If you can rule these causes out, then it’s time to start looking for possible problems with your sump pump system itself.

Other Reasons For A Sump Pump To Run Constantly

A sump pump installed in a basement of a home with a water powered backup system.

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If your sump pump runs every 30 seconds for more than 2 or 3 days, depending on outside weather and local water table conditions and ruling out the problems listed above, then it’s time to start looking at other possible problems in your system. It’s important that you have this evaluated quickly because a pump that’s running all the time will burn out much more quickly and need to be completely replaced. Here are several possible causes. If you’re pretty handy you can fix most of these yourself, but you might want to call in your local professional plumber to make sure the job is done completely and correctly.

A Broken Check Valve

You might remember that the one-way water valve mentioned above prevents the water from being pumped out of your sump from flowing back down the pipe. These are commonly referred to as a check valve because they check the flow of water. Like anything mechanical, over many years the can become worn out and start to stick in the open position. Of course, with the check valve allowing water to run back into the sump, your pump will keep running to move it out. This isn’t a particularly expensive part to replace, and it’s not hard to replace one. You’ll need to remove it from the line and inspect it for good operation.

Too Little Power

Depending on the size of your home and the water conditions in your area, it’s possible that your sump pump is simply too small. The most common size pump found in most average-sized homes is rated at ⅓ horsepower and is intended to pump 25 gallons of water out per minute. Some people are tempted to use ¼ or ⅕ horsepower pumps because they are cheaper but if they’re not big enough to do the job they’ll just wear out and need to be replaced sooner so you’re really not saving any money in the long run. Just switching to a larger pump could solve the problem of your sump pump running every 5 minutes.

An underperforming pump could also be caused by mechanical problems or by losing power just because it’s old and worn out. Yet another cause of low pump power is using an extension cord that’s too small for the pump. There are calculators that you can find online to determine if your power cord is sufficient for the size of the pump. These are problems that you should consult with your local plumber about.

Frozen And/Or Clogged Discharge Line

When your water discharge line is blocked at the end or somewhere along its route out and away from your home, it can cause water to flow back into your basement. A clog in your check valve can cause the same problem. These are common reasons for a sump pump running constantly but not draining. If you can figure out where along your discharge line that frozen spot or clog is located you can probably clear it yourself. One way to find out if it’s stopped up is to take a ShopVac if you have one and attach it to the end of your discharge pipe to test if the line is clear. You might have to disconnect the line from the pump to do it.

A Clogged Up Pump Or Switch

If there is no lid over your sump pit and pump and it’s just an open hole, which is a very common situation, then over time the pit will collect dirt and debris and that can cause all kinds of problems. Pumping dirty water will eventually cause the mechanical parts of the sump pump to become clogged up, especially if the pump is situated close to the bottom of the sump pit where all the sludge and silt collects. The intake holes on the pump might be plugged up and preventing water from entering.

The float switch can easily become stuck in the on position and be the reason the sump pump turns on and off quickly or keeps constantly running, or in the off position which will allow your basement to flood. The solution to keeping this from happening to your sump pump is to install a tight cover over your sump pit to keep all the dirt and debris out. This will not only keep your sump clean, but it prevents pets and kiddies from falling in, and if it’s reasonably airtight it will keep the standing water from evaporating back into your basement and increasing the humidity levels. It’s a very inexpensive fix that should be done whether you’re having sump pump problems or not.

Sump Pit Is Too Large Or Too Small

Just as your sump pump needs to be the right size to handle the specific needs of your home, so does the pump pit need to be the right size and depth to serve your home or business. For example, if the groundwater table around your home, which might have changed since your house was built, is consistently below the level of your basement floor, this can keep your sump pit filled up.

Raising the depth just a little can bring it above the groundwater level and solve the problem when your sump pump runs every 30 seconds. This is another issue for a professional plumber to assess. They can factor in the square footage of your basement and the groundwater levels and drainage situation around your house and calculate the correct size of the sump pit you need. It might be a bit of a job and cost a little bit of money to fix the problem, but again it’s worth it in the long run.

Once again, with many of these problems, it may be possible for you to fix it yourself. It’s always a good idea to call in a professional if there is any doubt at all.

Why Does My Sump Pump Run Constantly In Heavy Rain?

A sump pump manhole with water backup viewed with a flashlight.

In most cases, it’s perfectly normal for a sump pump to run constantly after heavy rain, often for 2 or 3 days in a row. Obviously, during periods of heavy rain, there’s a whole bunch of water falling on the surface of the ground very quickly, and that water has to go somewhere. If the soil is very porous and permeable and not already soaked it will filter through the ground quickly. But if the ground is not very porous, usually meaning a high clay content, or as it gets saturated as the rains continue, then the water will build upon the surface.

If you have a flat or negative grade around your basement, then the water will gravitate toward the foundation and the hydrostatic pressure of the water can cause it to seep and leak through the walls and floor of your basement. So it’s normal for your sump pump to be working overtime during heavy rainfall, but if it keeps running very much longer after the rains have stopped, you could have a problem.

Why Is My Sump Pump Running So Often In The Winter?

A few things can answer the question ‘how often should a sump pump run in the winter’. It might seem to be running a lot because during the winter is generally when the local water table is at its highest level and the ground is saturated. There could also be a spring underground that runs seasonally. And of course, the cold could be freezing up your discharge line, see above. If so, heat tape could be a solution for some types of lines. You might have to attach a hose that you can remove and bring inside at night to thaw it out.

Why Won’t My Sump Pump Come On?

Repairing a sump pump in a basement with a red LED light illuminating the pit and pipe work for draining ground water.

The opposite problem of your sump pump running too much is it not running at all, which can be even worse. As with most things mechanical, there are several possible reasons for an inoperable pump, some quite simple and some more complicated. Here are some of both.

The float switch isn’t being activated

This could be for the reasons discussed above, such as being stuck due to dirt or just malfunctioning. But it could also be hitting up against the side of the sump pit or there could be an obstacle like a hose or something else that has fallen in the pit that’s keeping it from rising. Check for obstacles blocking the float, and manually raise it either by hand or by filling the pit up with water to activate it. If it still doesn’t come on then there’s something electrical or mechanical wrong with it.

It’s not getting electricity

The first thing to do when an electrical device isn’t working is to make sure the danged thing is plugged in. You’d be shocked just how often the fix is just that simple. Also, make sure the circuit breaker hasn’t been thrown. If it’s not protected by a breaker or fuse you need to hook it into an outlet that is. Try plugging it into a different outlet without the extension cord to make sure your cord isn’t bad. As noted above, make sure you have the right size extension cord for the size of your pump.

The pump impeller is jammed

The impeller is the fanlike component that sits right above the water intake holes on your sump pump that moves the water through. If it gets clogged the pump can’t run. You can unplug the pump and pull it out of the pit and inspect the impeller by removing the bottom cover. If you can see that it’s clogged, clean it well so the impeller can rotate easily.

The pump is overheated

If your sump pump has been working hard it can sometimes overheat. Not getting enough power can also cause overheating.

The float switch is bad

If everything else looks ok and you suspect the float switch is defective, you’ll have to try it with a new one.

The sump pump is just kaput

With proper maintenance and inspections, a quality sump pump of the right rating and design for a home or business like yours will give you many years of loyal service. However, all good things must come to an end. If all the above has failed, there’s a good chance that it’s time for a new sump pump. Ask your local professional plumber for advice on a good make and model.

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