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Bornstein Sons offers advice on
Maintaining the Pumps in your NJ Home

PUMPED UP! Maintaining the pumps in your home!      

As Published on and -- October 2009

It is very possible your home may have one or more pumps.
A pump is an electrical/mechanical device to move fluid, usually water, from someplace to someplace else.

The most common pumps in a home are:

  • Circulating pumps on a heating system
  • Condensate pumps on heating and cooling systems
  • Sump or "de-watering" pumps in your basement or crawl space

These devices may work silently and faithfully, often for long periods of time. Then, they fail, without warning. Failure of pumping equipment can cause anything from an inconvenience to a catastrophe. We can minimize the troubles failed pumps can cause by maintaining them.

Your heating circulating pump

If you are enjoying the comfort of hot water heat, whether through radiant floors, baseboard heaters, convectors or classic radiators, you have one or more heating circulating pumps. The task of this pump is to move heated water from your boiler to your heating radiation, where the water gives up its BTU's and is then returned to the boiler for reheating and another trip around your home. In hot water heating systems, heating capacity is equal to flow capacity. When your pump ceases to work, the flow stops and so does the heat.

Most modern pumps are water lubricated and require no attention from homeowners. Some of the older pumps, usually red in color, have 3 small oil ports. Add oil to these three ports each year. Use light motor oil, available at any hardware store but add it sparingly. Over oiling can cause deterioration of the rubber seals on the pump and more likely, an oily mess on your basement floor.

Your condensate pump

When air conditioning systems operate in hot summer weather, moisture is wrung out of the air in the form of liquid condensate. Most of today's cooling systems do a spectacular job of dehumidification, pulling upwards of 20 quarts of water out of the air per hour. In most systems, if situated in the attic or basement, this water will flow by gravity either to an outside roof gutter or nearby sink or drain. Many systems have condensate drains that are either below the level of nearby plumbing or are so far away as to make gravity drainage impractical. Here, we use a small device called a condensate removal pump. Usually about the size of a shoe box, this device consists of a water reservoir, a float switch and a small pump. As condensed water trickles into the pump reservoir, the float switch rises until it turns the pump on. The pump then discharges the water, usually through a small plastic tube, to a sink, drain line or even the exterior of the house. These pumps should be tested each year. A proper test will involve pouring significant amounts of water into the pump and making sure the switch activates the pump and the pump properly evacuates the water through the tubing. At this time, the tubing should also be examined for clogs, kinks or breaks. When a condensate pump fails, those 20 quarts of water per hour will drain by gravity right to the floor, or in the case of an overhead air conditioning system, through an upstairs ceiling as it escapes from your attic.

Today, often, these pumps can be equipped with safety switches which will turn your system off in the event the reservoir fills to the top and the pump fails to operate.

Your sump pump

Water, water everywhere! At least, we hope not. Here in New Jersey, basements and crawlspaces are very common if not universal. This creates a potential problem. There is water in the ground, at all times. The level can vary with the season and with precipitation. When the water level in the ground is higher than the level of your basement or crawlspace floor, hydrostatic pressure can force this water into your basement, causing flooding and serious damage to your home and contents. Sump pumps, properly called "de-watering" pumps can alleviate this problem. A circular pit is dug into the basement floor, usually two to 3 feet in depth. A porous cylinder is put into the pit. Cracked stone is put in between the cylinder and the side of the excavation. A small paving block is put at the bottom of the pit. The excavation is cemented closed at floor level. Water seeks its own level and will always seek out a lower place rather than a higher place. The new pit is now lower than the basement floor. Water will flow into the pit before flooding your basement. The cracked stone surrounded the porous cylinder acts as a filter to prevent silt and dirt from entering the pit. The porous cylinder allows water to flow easily into the pit. The small paving block at the bottom serves as a secure base for the pump. De-watering pumps come in two basic types, upright and submersible. In an upright pump, the motor and switch mechanism is above floor level. These pumps should only be used in commercial boiler rooms, where hot boiler water might be drained into the pump pit. Steaming water will destroy the motor and controls of the other type of pump, the submersible. All components of a submersible pump are concealed within the pump pit. As the water level in the pit rises, a float switch turns the pump on. The pump, powered by a large motor is connected to a discharge pipe, which directs the flow of water out of the basement and away.

Pumps do not last forever...they are appliances, with parts that move, they fail. Often, with disastrous results. Your basement sump pump should be tested at least once annually by a professional. During the year and before severe weather, we suggest you run or pour water into the pump pit until the pump activates. Observe the pump housing and discharge piping for leaks. Make sure the discharge pipe outlet, wherever it is, is clear. Pumps over 10 years old should be replaced proactively. You should not take chances. But even pumps of lesser vintage can fail, being mechanical and not divine in nature. Often, major storms and down pours are accompanied by power outages. Just when you need your pump most urgently, it lies there in the dark pit, useless as a rock. Fortunately today, we have two types of backup systems.

First, there is a battery backup pump. This pump operates off a marine-type battery. The battery is continuously charged through a nearby wall outlet. Should the primary pump fail, the water level will rise higher, triggering the battery-powered backup pump. This pump has a lower capacity that the main pump, but will usually suffice for short power blackouts. Should the power be out for longer periods of time, the battery will completely discharge. Battery backup pumps should also be tested twice a year. The average battery life is about two years. After this period of time they should be replaced. (Note: keep records or a reminder on your computer.)

Second and most recent, is the water-powered backup pump, also called water actuated. This device operates on the principal of water pressure. The water-powered backup pump is connected to the house water supply line. If the main pump fails, the water level will rise and trigger the backup pump. A mechanical valve will open, permitting high pressure water to operate a small turbine wheel. The will drives the pump. The pump will provide enough capacity to remove water in the sump pit along with any water used to power it. No batteries are required and other then twice yearly testing, there is no maintenance. We strongly reccomend this pump when loss of electrical power becomes a concern. With changing weather patterns we like this pump more and more each year. As a matter of fact, we installed one in our house when they arrived on the market, and are pleased with its performance. 

We do suggest that you check backup pump system twice annually to ensure they're ready when you need them.

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Written by Bonnie Bornstein Fertel

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