Sump pumps play a critical role in moisture abatement. You may not give them much thought in everyday life, but their functionality can mean the difference between a dry home and a flooded one. Here are five common sump pump problems homeowners and contractors alike should know about, plus how to fix them.

1. Frozen Discharge Lines

A sump pump works by draining water away from a building. It’s a crucial part of any home in a flood-prone area, which FEMA defines as any place with a 1% chance or higher risk of experiencing a flood each year. If the pipes that remove excess water from a home freeze in the winter, the sump pump will stop working and the basement can flood.

A grated discharge line attachment can help reroute water from a pump if the pipe is blocked further downstream. Furthermore, insulating pipes properly is imperative to prevent them from freezing in the winter.

Some homeowners may even need to leave faucets dripping in cold weather to keep the pipes operational. Although it might feel wasteful, this practice is much less wasteful than potentially letting the pipes burst due to freezing.

2. Power Outages

Because sump pumps are electric, power outages can affect their functionality. Storms, downed telephone poles or a tripped breaker can all cause a pump to shut off. The basement can flood if a sump pump shuts down during heavy rain.

A generator or backup battery system can protect sump pumps against power outages. It’s especially wise for people who regularly leave town or live in a flood-prone area to install a backup system.

You can install a backup battery or generator on an elevated platform — such as a shelf or table — near the sump pump. If the pump fails and the basement floods, the backup power supply will stay safe from water damage.

3. Pump Not Turning On

If a sump pump isn’t turning on, it usually indicates one of three possible issues. The first is the pump itself is broken. It may have a defective component inside you must repair or replace.

The second is the float switch that operates the pump isn’t working correctly. Look inside the sump pit and see if anything is physically blocking the float switch’s engagement. If there is something in the pit, you can remove it to get the pump going again. The float may also stop working if the pump shifts from its original position in the basin. If the float isn’t working, ensure the sump pump is properly positioned.

An electrical issue is a third reason for a sump pump not turning on. You may need to plug the unit in, check the main breaker box to ensure it’s turned on or test the outlet to see if it’s working. Try plugging another device into the outlet to check for power.

4. Clogged Pump

One of the most common sump pump problems is a clogged pump. Over time, dirt can make its way into a lidless sump pump and clog the impeller, stopping it from rotating. A clogged pump will be less efficient and may even quit working entirely.

Regularly inspecting sump pumps for debris buildup can prevent a clog. Additionally, installing a lid is one of the best ways to prevent dirt from contaminating a pump. It also makes it safer — no curious kids or pets can reach inside — and stops water from evaporating into the basement. Because a humid basement can easily become moldy, preventing evaporation helps keep it cleaner and healthier for occupants.

Unclogging a sump pump is a multi-step process. First, disconnect the sump pump from the rest of the system and lift it from the sump basin. Make sure it’s fully disconnected from the power source and put in a container so it doesn’t get water on the floor.

Next, check both ends of the discharge lines to see what’s stuck inside. You can use a garden hose to wash out any loose dirt, then use a scraping tool to remove stubborn debris.

Drain the check valve. You can do this outside or above a bucket to avoid making a mess. Next, use a shop vac to suck up any remaining water from the sump pit. Finally, reconnect the pump to the power source and turn it on.

5. Bad Odors

Another one of the most common sump pump problems is a strong, unpleasant odor emanating from it. A sump pump has a drain trap underneath that collects water. Just as with a p-trap under a toilet or bathtub, this water trap prevents sewage and gas from backflowing into the house. As is common with p-traps, the water can sometimes evaporate and allow strong-smelling gases — which may resemble rotten eggs or sulfur — to enter the home.

This problem often occurs during dry weather or when nobody is using the pump. Pumps with improper seals or no lids are more susceptible to drying out.

Luckily, preventing the issue is as simple as installing a lid and always keeping water in the trap. Pouring a solution of one cup of bleach and one gallon of water down the sump pump basin can eliminate any unpleasant odors and rehydrate the trap. Make sure to pour enough of it in to engage the float switch. You can also scrub the sides of the sump pump to wash out any residual odors.

Solving Common Sump Pump Problems

Some of the most common sump pump problems stem from clogs, power outages, frozen pipes, dry p-traps and electrical failures. A pump can also shift out of position in the basin and cause the float to stop working.

Luckily, professionals can resolve many of these problems with basic plumbing techniques and household DIY skills. However, it never hurts to call in a specialist. Your sump pump will be back in working order in no time, quietly humming away behind the scenes to stop flood damage in its tracks.