Sump pump safety is no accident

WILD WEATHER typically drags mechanical contractors out to face unprecedented dangers: subzero temperatures that invite frostbite; bone-chilling, rain-soaked emergency calls; and torrential downpours where flooded basements urgently need pumping. We face that and much more. Danger lurks on every service call. In 1972, I was a new apprentice and Hurricane Agnes was determined to fill local basements.

WILD WEATHER typically drags mechanical contractors out to face unprecedented dangers: subzero temperatures that invite frostbite; bone-chilling, rain-soaked emergency calls; and torrential downpours where flooded basements urgently need pumping. We face that and much more. Danger lurks on every service call.

In 1972, I was a new apprentice and Hurricane Agnes was determined to fill local basements. Demand for sump pumps was outstripping local supplies and rationing based on supply house relationships dictated how many sump pumps we would be allotted.

No flexible sump kits were used; we had to hard-pipe each temporary installation. As a result, it was often necessary to wade into flooded basements — often waist-or chest-deep! The plastic piping was dry-fit so that we could take it apart and go on to another call once the basement was relatively dry.

Upon arrival, we'd quickly survey the site and pick a route for the discharge-line. As the apprentice, my job was to wade in, place the pump and open a cellar window ( if one was present), while the mechanic would feed me additional pipe and fittings. Once the piping was completed, I'd loop the cord over anything to keep it dry; connect an extension cord and, if no outlets were available in the basement, hand the business end to the mechanic.

Not the sharpest knife in the drawer! The safety rules we were violating were almost too numerous to mention. For starters, we didn't use submersible sump pumps back then, and it was often necessary to suspend the pedestal pumps on stairways or tie them off with ropes until the water level was lowered.

My awareness of the electrocution dangers came to light on one job in particular where I encountered a partially submerged floating freezer with its motor still running. It didn't sink in immediately that the compressor was most likely submerged. The pedestal sump pump's motor was just barely above water, so I held onto the motor to prevent its starting torque from tipping it over into the water. I waited a moment to ensure that it was stable and began my waist-deep journey back to the stairway.

As I turned, I overheard the homeowner giving the mechanic hell for having the discharge pipe too close to a flowerbed. He said he'd move the pipe, and I turned just in time to witness the turning pipe tipping over the pedestal pump. I was much closer to the pump's motor than the steps, so I lunged back and caught it just before it would have gone under! Just as I was breathing a sigh of relief, that dry-fit 90° ell directly above my head separated from the pump's riser and the resulting deluge soaked both the motor and me.

And that, my friends, was the moment when it dawned on me that no one was more responsible for my safety than I was. Consider it a wake-up call that was answered!

Today, we use far more submersible sump pumps than pedestal models. Flexible sump pump discharge hose kits permit fast and reliable temporary basement pump-outs. A rope tied to their handle permits installation without the need for anyone to get wet. When we see an emerging weather pattern that might produce flooding, we check our inventory and adjust accordingly.

On occasion, the electricity is out for an area or may be tripped off in a house due to the main breaker panel being submerged. Gas-powered trash pumps can be brought from the shop but have a limited suction-hose length. Carbon monoxide poisoning issues must be carefully considered — and not just when the engine is going to be running in an access corridor or stairwell. The home or basement can fill with CO levels that can kill. If proximity to a building creates a CO concern, a gaspowered generator can be placed some distance away with extension cords run to electric pumps.

A severe weather crisis presents an opportunity to sell sump pumps for permanent installations. If you've never experienced a flooded basement, I can tell you your heart sinks when you're confronted with a framed picture of a child floating past the basement steps when opening that door. We had just moved into a new house, so dozens of boxes were sitting in foot-deep water. The sump pump had expired.

The second time we experienced a flooded basement, I was out in the night's torrential rain running from flooded basement to flooded basement. The power had gone off in our neighborhood and Lois was calling me on the radio. She let me know, in no uncertain terms, who my next customer would be! Given that most sump pumps will be an occasional-use item during severe weather conditions, a battery back-up sump pump can be offered as an option.

They say hindsight is always 20/20, but dead is permanent no matter how well safety can be seen following an "accident." Work smart, work safe and don't let safety for your employees be an accident.

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 [email protected]