What is a Foundation Drain? 

Foundation drains are pipes that are installed under your foundation or basement floor to collect water and move it off-site to prevent your basement from filling with water.

If your home was built after 1920 it likely has a network of pipes under the basement floor called foundation drains that are supposed to pick up groundwater before it can seep into your basement. If your house was built before 1954 (approximate date), your foundation drain is likely directly connected to the sanitary sewer near your floor drain through a fixture called a palmer valve.

Foundation drains that are directly connected to the sanitary sewer work well and require no maintenance, but they also add a lot of clear water to the sewer which greatly increases the chances of a basement backup for you and your neighbors. Houses built after 1954 are required to have the foundation drains directed to a sump pump that sends the water to your lawn or to the storm sewer.

If you do have a sump pump, there are a few things that you can do to minimize the chance of water in your basement and keep your pump functioning efficiently and reliably. 

If you have standing water in your basement or pooled water around your sump pump and / or electrical fixtures, do not try to do anything!  CALL A PROFESSIONAL PLUMBER!

How a Foundation Drain Connected to a Sump Pump Operates
How a Foundation Drain Connected to a Lateral Operates

Sump Pumps

It is ILLEGAL to Drain Your Sump Pump Into the Floor Drain or Wash Tub in Your Basement!

Doing so can significantly increase the risk of basement backups for you and your neighbors during heavy rain by slamming a lot of excess water into the sanitary sewer system when it's at or near capacity.

Always make sure the discharge pipe from your sump pump is at least six to ten feet away from your house. Your discharge pipe may go into another pipe underground that usually drains into a storm sewer. If you are not sure if the discharge pipe from your home is connected properly, call the plumbing inspector for your city or village.

To learn more about MMSD’s private property program to help homeowners rehab private laterals.

Common Sump Pump Problems

Sump Pump Runs Non-Stop

  • Remove the cover
    • If the basin is empty and the pump is still running, unplug the sump pump. The pump switch is activated by a float. Be sure there is nothing that is jamming the float.
  • Move the float up and down to be sure it is moving freely. Plug the sump pump back in.
    • The pump is now off, test the pump as described previously.
    • If the pump still runs constantly, the pump will need repair or replacement.
    • Reinstall the cover.
    • Call a plumber.
  • If the basin has water in it and the pump is running but the water level doesn’t seem to change, unplug the pump.
    • If the water level remains the same, the discharge pipe is likely blocked. Check for ice (winter) or other obstruction at the discharge.
    •  If the water level starts rising slowly, the discharge piping may be partially blocked, or the pump needs to be replaced.
    • If the water level starts rising quickly, plug the pump back in immediately. The pump is likely working fine but is struggling to keep up. Try to determine the source of the water and reduce if possible or contact a contractor to evaluate the source of water and the pump capacity.
    • Plug the pump in and replace the cover.

Sump Pump Never Runs

  • Test the sump pump as described above. Good quality sump pumps installed properly run very quietly. The sump pump may be working fine.

Sump Pump Cycles Often (on and off quickly) 

  • Remove the cover and watch the water level when the pump shuts off. If the water raises immediately with a rush of water, the check valve is likely faulty or there is no check valve. (All of the water in the discharge piping runs back into the basin). Contact a plumber.
  • If the water raises quickly but calmly, try to identify the source of the water.
  • Check the discharge location. If the water is discharging immediately next to the foundation or if the ground is sloped towards the foundation, the water is seeping back into the ground and recirculating through the foundation drain.  Extend the discharge pipe so the water runs away from the house.
  • Check the general grading around the house perimeter and the gutters/downspouts to identify the source of the water.

Sump Pump is Very Noisy

  • Test the sump pump as described above.
  • If the sump pump is working fine, try to determine if the pump itself is noisy or if the noise is coming from the piping. While a pump replacement may be necessary, often loose piping or piping that is contact with other pipes or HVAC ducts can transmit noise that can be easily fixed with added support or putting just a bit of distance between the two objects.

How to Test Your Sump Pump

Test your sump regularly, spring is a good time to test this before the snow melts. 

1. Remove the cover

2. Is the basin dry?

  • If the basin is dry and you have no problems with basement water seepage, congratulations! You have a dry location and not much to worry about. (You should still finish the sump pump test)

  • If the basin is dry and you have basement seepage, your foundation drains may be clogged. Contact a plumber to inspect.

  • The basin typically will have some water in it and you will likely see water trickling in through the connected foundation drains.

wet sump pump basin

3.  Pour water in the basin. The pump should turn on by the time the water covers the pump completely and before the basin is completely full.

  • If the pump does not turn on, skip to “Sump pump doesn’t turn on”.
  • If the pump runs, the water level should drop quickly, and the pump should turn off automatically.  
  • Replace the cover

*NOTE: If you have standing water in your basement or pooled water around your sump pump and / or electrical fixturesDO NOT TRY TO DO ANYTHING!  CALL A PROFESSIONAL PLUMBER!

4. Sump pump doesn’t turn on?

  • Test the outlet by unplugging the sump pump and plugging in a small appliance that you know works such as a lamp.
  • If the lamp lights, the sump pump is faulty. Contact a plumber.
  • If the lamp does not light:
    • If the outlet is a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) (see photo) check for a fault indicator light and reset. Recheck the outlet.
    • If the outlet still does not work or the outlet is not a GFCI, check your electrical panel for a tripped circuit breaker or a circuit breaker that is turned off. 

If you can’t determine why the pump is not working, call a professional (plumber or electrician).


Should I Get a Backup System for My Sump Pump?

If you already have a sump pump, it's a good idea to have some type of backup system installed in case you lose power during a storm. There are several to chose from with a wide range in price.

Most battery backup systems are equipped with alarms to notify you if the main power goes out and the backup system is operating. Battery backup systems are not designed to run for long periods of time, but they may buy you enough time to borrow a portable generator or for the electric company to restore power to your home.

When you lose power at home, your sump pump will not run without a backup system. Unfortunately, the water will keep flowing into the basin and the most likely time for a power outage is during a storm. You have three options for providing backup for your sump pump.  

  • Battery backup systems are the most common and most widely available.
  • A water pressure backup is a pump that runs off your municipal water supply pressure during a power outage.
  • You can also just plug the sump pump into a portable gas-powered generator.

Pros of a Backup System for Sump Pump

  • Battery: Automatically operates including when you are not home. Most easy of the three to install. Commonly available.
  • Water: Automatically operates including when you are not home. Virtually maintenance-free. Nearly limitless run time (assumes municipal water pressure is available)
  • Generator: Will run for an extended period of time with fuel refills, no extra cost if you already have a generator, can be used to operate other items (if sized appropriately) with during an outage or anytime needed.

Cons of a Backup System for Sump Pump

  • Battery: run time-limited by battery life (not a good option of your pump runs extensively during rain events), requires regular battery maintenance and checks, the battery has limited life regardless if the pump runs or not.
  • Water: Typically will require professional installation, limited capacity depending on your water system pressure, will not work if you have a private well
  • Generator: Not efficient or economical if only using to power the sump pump, must be operated outdoors