How To Test Sump Pumps

Updated: Feb. 12, 2024

Don't be surprised by a sump pump failure. Here's an easy tutorial on how to test your sump pump to make sure it will perform when needed.

Sump pumps are low-profile home protection heroes. They may not be as costly as a furnace or used as often as a refrigerator, but they’re an essential part of keeping your home safe and dry. As such, the sump pump should be part of your regular home inspection ritual.

What is a Sump Pump?

Sump pumps move water out of low-lying areas, like a basement or crawlspace. That keeps your home dry, discourages mold and mildew growth and keeps insect and rodent populations down. Usually installed in a pit, sump pumps generally last seven to 10 years, sometimes longer.

Luckily, the basic steps of testing a sump pump are the same for pretty much any residential model.

How Often Should I Test My Sump Pump?

Annually. If your home is in an area prone to flooding, test it as often as needed for your own peace of mind. You may also consider getting a backup battery and pump.

Tools and Materials Needed to Test a Sump Pump

It doesn’t take much:

  • A five gallon bucket of water
  • A pair of waterproof gloves. (These are optional if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty.)

How to Test the Sump Pump

  1. Fill your five gallon bucket with water. Remove the sump pump cover (if there is one) and pour the water into the sump pit. A properly functioning pump will draw the water out of the pit and through the exhaust line. Once most of the water is out (a small amount will remain), the pump will disengage, and the check valve will stop any water flowing back down the exhaust line.
  2. If your sump pump has a battery backup, repeat the process with the power disconnected so the pump relies on the battery. If your pump has a warning system — an audible tone or text messaging alert — that should kick in as well.
  3. If the test water remains, that generally indicates a problem with the intake pump, check valve or power supply.

Intake pump

If the motor activates but doesn’t clear any water, or doesn’t clear it fast enough, then it’s likely an intake issue. Unplug the pump and feel around the intake. You may need to remove the pump from the pit to do this effectively.

Sump pumps may have a dirty filter or foreign objects clogging the impeller (the spinning part that sucks up the water). Because sump pits are often in basements near laundry and rodent activity, common culprits include socks, mice or simply accumulated dirt.

Remove the item clogging the intake/impeller. Then reassemble the sump pump and plug it back in. It should now work properly. Here find out how long sump pumps last.

Check valve

A check valve should be installed on the water discharge line, fairly close to the pump. It’s essentially a one-way door allowing water to flow through, then snapping shut to prevent water from backtracking into the pit when the pump stops running.

If your sump pump removes the water but immediately fills back up, or if you hear running water immediately after it finishes a pump cycle, chances are you have a faulty check valve. Here’s how to replace a check valve; it’s simple.

Power issues

If the sump pump doesn’t run at all, the problem lies with the power line or the motor. Check the outlet first with a receptacle tester. (If you don’t have one, simply plug a lamp or phone charger into the outlet and see if it gets power.) If the outlet functions, the sump pump itself is the issue.

If the pump has a float, manually raise it to make sure there’s no obstruction interfering with its activation. If the motor still isn’t engaging, it’s likely burned out.

Unfortunately, a sump pump with a dead motor is usually not worth repairing. You can frequently purchase a new one for about the same cost as a repair. Here, find out the cost to replace a sump pump.

Advanced Troubleshooting

The above test and troubleshooting covers the majority of issues that a homeowner is likely to face. For a deeper look, the Sump and Sewage Pump Manufacturers Association (SSPMA) is great resource. Its helpful advanced troubleshooting chart covers unusual issues.