Plumbing 101: Sump Pumps vs. Septic Systems

toilet flushing

Sewage systems for homes can differ depending on the year the home was built and the location of the home; you may have a sump pump or a septic tank. The differences between these two systems not only impact the plumbing process of the home, but also impact how that plumbing is maintained. Septic systems are generally a stand-alone type of system, with a septic tank dispersing waste. In a home equipped with a sewage sump pump, the system is usually shared. We will look at both to see what the differences really are, as well as what this means for your home plumbing needs.

Whether you’ve moved to a new home in an unfamiliar neighborhood or have the option of changing your existing sewage system, it is important that you understand both types of plumbing prior to agreeing to anything. Both systems require specific maintenance tactics to keeping them in proper working order, so you need to be up to the challenges of whichever sewage system you’re presented with.

This can not only tell you whether or not you have a septic system or sewage pump, but it can tell you if there are any issues with the plumbing too. No matter which type of system you have, doing your homework will definitely pay off. By paying more attention to what we are putting down our drains, we can not only save us money and time, but some frustration too. We often forget about the plumbing in our homes when we are doing maintenance, but with a bit of diligence and regular maintenance we can extend the life of our plumbing.

Sump Pumps

replacing sump pump

Sump pump systems come in two different types: pedestal vs. submersible.

Pedestal systems have electric motors and sit above your basement floor, with a shaft that goes below the water to turn the impellor, which moves the water. A hollow float switch controls the pump motor. The motors for pedestal units do not require much voltage, making them more economical. However, the motors are cooled down by surrounding air, so if there is not ample space around the unit, it can overheat quickly. Also, pedestal motors are notoriously noisy.

Submersible systems are most common and typically sit below the water line of the home and are used to protect against water and moisture in the house, as well as to pump waste into city plumbing lines. The sump pump unit is a submersible pump contained within a sump pit. An internal grinder works on solids to make plumbing more fluid, as the function of the sump pump is water management.

When investing in a home with a sump pump, you want to make sure that the core of your pump is made from cast iron, as opposed to plastic. Because the heat from the pump will be dispersed to outlying water, you need a durable system that can withstand extreme temperatures over time. Cast iron pumps will run cool under the pressure of severe rainstorms, where as a pump made of plastic, or even pumps with plastic components, can overheat and cause warping. Additionally, plastic parts have the potential of cracking over time. While some models combine cast iron, stainless steel, and plastic, a fully cast iron model is the most durable option.

Keep in mind, no matter how heavy duty the core of the pump is, the unit is only as good as the switch mechanism that operates it. Vertical float switches tend to be the most reliable design over time, as they are low voltage and work electronically to communicate with the pump. A solid float is also preferable, as hollow floats can fill with water and sink over time, which often goes undetected until water infiltrates the basement.

You also ideally want a sump pump with a no-screen intake, as this will help to keep your plumbing free of serious clogs, as this system does not deal with solid waste as efficiently as the septic system.

Regular sump pump maintenance is important to extending the lifespan of your system. Neglecting maintenance could lead to a failing part, which can go undetected for long amounts of time, only surfacing during heavy rains, flooding your basement. Also, it is a good idea to have a back-up pump as well as a battery back-up for both, as this will keep it running even if the power goes out.

Septic Systems

septic tank

Unlike sump pumps, septic systems are usually not tied into city plumbing, but instead work as a closed tank system. This type of waste plumbing is common in areas that aren't easily connected to to main sewage pipes provided by local governments or private companies, though other components such as pumps, alarms, and disposal methods are often controlled by municipalities or corporations.

While sump pumps are water management systems, septic systems are better equipped to handle water, solid waste, and solid items that are flushed down pipes. Septic tanks are rectangular or cylindrical compartments placed below your waste water pipes, which are then also tied to a drain field. The tank is large and takes up space underground on your property. The septic tank works by having the in-flow from the household plumbing pumped directly into the tank. The solids then sink to the bottom, and the remaining waste flows through and is pumped out to a drain field.

If properly maintained, a septic system can last more than 30 years. Alternatively, if not maintained properly, these tanks can cause serious damage to your home and property, as well as cost you enormously to fix problems.

One way to ensure that your system remains in good working order is to use enzymes that both eat at the solids and keep your plumbing from becoming corroded and clogged. You should also have your septic system pumped and tested every two to four years. This will add to the overall life of your system, as well as keep your overall costs to a minimum.

Beware of Un-Flushable Items

hair in drain

Whether you have a septic system or sump pump, it is crucial be aware of what you are flushing down the toilet or down drains. Frequently allowing non-biodegradable items flow through your piping can cause serious damage, as items can get entwined in the different mechanisms. To ensure your always utilizing your plumbing safely, beware of the following items:

  • Ashes from cigarettes or fireplaces
  • Baby wipes or cleaning wipes
  • Corrosive chemicals and drain cleaners
  • Cooking oil, fat, grease, or lard
  • Cigarettes, cigarette butts, filters
  • Condoms
  • Cotton swabs or wipes
  • Dental floss
  • Diapers
  • Explosive or combustible liquids or materials
  • Glass fragments or debris
  • Cat litter, gravel, or stones, such as from an aquarium
  • Hair
  • Metal fragments or scraps
  • Plastic toys, scraps, or fragments
  • Rubber gloves
  • Sanitary napkins, tampons

Keeping these items in mind will help you to extend the life of your plumbing system and keep you from having to call in an expert for expensive services.