Flooded basements and sump pump safety

Second in a series. CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS are a funny thing sometimes. A recent submersible sump pump installation triggered a series of angry phone calls. The relief hole we'd drilled in the discharge pipe just above the pump was the cause of his concern. When a pump pit dries up, the impeller housing will lose its prime and when water once again fills the pit, the pump's housing can trap air, suspending

Second in a series.

CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS are a funny thing — sometimes. A recent submersible sump pump installation triggered a series of angry phone calls. The relief hole we'd drilled in the discharge pipe — just above the pump — was the cause of his concern.

When a pump pit dries up, the impeller housing will lose its prime and when water once again fills the pit, the pump's housing can trap air, suspending the impeller in an air pocket. The column of water resting on the check valve's discharge side prevents the air from leaving the pump.

A small relief-vent hole ( 1 /16 in. to 1 /8 in. in diameter) drilled in the discharge piping (below the check valve and above the impeller section) will allow air to escape as water fills the pit, fully submerging the impeller. A small stream of water will be ejected during the pump's operation.

It was the small discharge hole that caused the complaint: "You're ripping me off here!"

He believed we'd drilled the vent to over-tax his pump by letting "all that water" escape back into the pit, thereby hastening the demise of the new pump. We explained that this was in the instructions. As it turned out, the manufacturer's instruction sheet no longer included this tidbit of information. Now he was really irate!

We spoke to the manufacturer's technical service folks and were informed that someone had inadvertently edited out that vital information. They offered to speak with our customer. That little omission in the instructions caused two return trips, brought a number of irate phone calls and sucked the profit out of the job!

When you respond to a flooded basement or mechanical space, open a clogged sewer or pump out the water, you may be facing additional work where appliance motors, wiring, controls or gas valves were submerged.

I remember one absentee landlord property where the sewer would clog frequently. The tenants had no access to the basement. They'd call the landlord for no heat or no hot water, and we'd discover a swimming pool of sewage! I kept a pair of hip-waders on the truck and operating the sewer machine safely would often require that we carry it and set it on top of cinder blocks to keep its motor dry.

Once the basement drained, we'd dismantle the water heater's burner, pilot tube and drain all liquid. The boiler had an old Roberts-Gordon motorized gas conversion burner (originally burned coal) at floor level, and every time I'd pull its cap to find a charred mass of low-voltage wires. The transformer, located high-and-dry at floor-joist level, would be fried. Transformer replaced, new wiring installed, burner pulled and cleaned, motor oiled and that tough-as-nails conversion burner would run as if nothing at all had ever occurred!

Today, with liability issues being what they are, I'd be reluctant to place a piece of submerged equipment back into service without the manufacturer's approval. I asked Mike Gordon, vice president/engineering for Bradford White, to comment on water heaters in general and to detail Bradford White's policy for the newer flammable vapor ignition resistant models.

"Any electrical or safety control that has been submerged must be replaced," Gordon told me. "The burner will need to be inspected and thoroughly cleaned. For our FVIR models, the arrestor screen will need to be carefully checked and cleaned — we recom-mend using compressed air. Contractors should call the water heater manufacturer to obtain information regarding safety procedures and policies regarding these issues.

"In the final analysis, the costs for labor and materials might exceed the cost for replacement. The same advice would apply for furnaces, boilers and any other appliances."

A temporary backup or flooding caused by a power outage can make it difficult to ascertain the "high-tide" level that existed. Careful examination of walls or posts and catching the reflected light on an appliance surface will often reveal a ghost-like pattern detailing how high the water level was during the crisis.

The basement might be high and dry by the time you arrive, but the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association, in a series of press releases following floods (www.gamanet.org/gama/news), has stated emphatically that all appliances that have been submerged should be replaced, not repaired, and that homeowners should always hire professionals to do the work. While it's tempting to repair appliances and showcase your skills in an effort to save your customer a bit of money, the risks of liability and potential for compromising customer safety far outweigh any benefits.

Homeowners should contact their insurance company prior to any extensive efforts to restore or repair equipment that may have had electrical components submerged. While the manufacturer might permit restoration and re-pair work, the homeowner's insurance company may have stricter regulations.

For customers concerned about power outages, low-voltage battery back-up sump pumps are available and relatively easy to sell once they're presented as an option. A deep-cycle marine battery (sold separately due to lead/acid shipping issues) needs to be purchased and installed to complete the package.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at behler@blazenet.net

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