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Sewer gas smell in basement after ejector pump repair

Last week I had the pleasure of learning what happens when the ejector pump in our basement fails. Very messy and stinky to say the least.

I’m driving home and get a panicked call from my wife that we have a problem in our basement. She of course asked if I used the toilet the prior night assuming I’m responsible for blocking the toilet (again). For once, this wasn’t my fault. She proceeds to tell me that the basement toilet is backed up and now we have sewage water backing up from the drain in our utility room. The water is starting to leave the utility room, spreading into the living area of the basement. Shit. Literally.

I tell her this sounds like an ejector pump issue, beyond what I can fix, and to call the plumber. I hang up and a minute later I think it could be the switch that is stuck and if our ejector pump switch had a separate cord she can bypass the switch and plug the pump directly into the outlet. This would quickly stop the progression of dirty water in the basement, and hopefully cause it to go back down.

I call her, only to hear her angrily say she was just about to hear the after hours number to call for plumbing emergencies when the call waiting interrupted her. I should have expected that. To her credit, she calmly asked if she should first try my suggestion or should she call the plumber. I told her to call the plumber and then call me back.

As I’m waiting for the return call, I’m thinking how much damage we could have in our basement, whether to file an insurance claim for any cleanup, and how this has to be worse than when we’ve flooded with rainwater.

The wife calls me back and tells me the plumber took her through troubleshooting steps, identified it was a failed switch, and the water has now receded. He told her what I was thinking – to plug the pump directly into the outlet, bypassing the switch’s plug.  This caused the pump to run properly.  Once the water went down, she unplugged the pump to shut it off.  She said the plumber offered to come in the morning and that it would be around $650 to fix, or he could send someone in about an hour, but it would run around $850 to fix because it was after hours. My wife opted to have them come that evening. I agreed with the decision, but was curious if that price was just to replace a switch or replace the entire pump. She didn’t know.

For the rest of the ride home, I’m thinking a switch is probably only $50 but I’m thinking I don’t want to be mucking in an ejector pit. I also knew it was sealed with tons of caulk and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get it opened.

About two hours later, the afterhours plumber arrived and started working on it.  I watched what he was doing from time to time.  He got the lid unsealed and said if the pump is a decent pump and running fine, it probably doesn’t need to be replaced.  He said it looked like it was a Zoeller pump, which I know is a good pump, but said he wasn’t positive since it was messy in there.  I’m sure it was.  Because he didn’t want to scrap the pump, he said he couldn’t just cut the cords and would have to cut one of the two pipes in order to remove the broken switch and to replace it with a new one.  I’m still not exactly sure why that was necessary, but he seemed to know what he was doing.

About two hours later, the work was complete.  He said he cleaned up some of the excess caulk that was on the lid and placed the new switch in a spot where it shouldn’t get impacted by the inflow of crap.  The overall cost was $495, with $200 being the cost for the afterhours call, and $100 for the switch.  The rest was labor costs.

Fortunately, my wife took care of cleaning up the sewage water from the basement.  She made a diluted bleach mixture and mopped the floor pretty good.  Because we have a duraceramic tile floor in our basement, it was fairly easy to clean up.  The guys who installed our floor didn’t seal between the tiles, so moisture does get between them when very wet.  I of course am grossed out by the thought of sewage water being beneath the tiles in our basement and leaving “crap” once it dries out.  I just hope that the bleach mixture kills any bacteria and other badness down there, at least neutralizing it.

So, after everything was cleaned up, I figured I was good to go.  Wrong.  Nothing ever goes smoothly regarding my basement.  We continued to have a noticeable sewage smell in our basement.  Strong enough that at times we would smell it at the top of the basement stairs on the main floor.  I called the plumber who had someone come out the next morning.  The guy sent out was a crappy plumber – no pun intended. He took a 30 second look at the lid of the ejector pump and said it all looks like it was sealed up properly and shouldn’t be the source of the smell.  He said it may just be some lingering odor and will hopefully clear up soon.

I wasn’t convinced as the smell was still pretty bad later in the day.  I was hoping it wasn’t due to sewage that tracked under the flooring but I knew that was possible.  If that were the case, and we couldn’t get rid of the smell, we may have to pull up the tile and clean everything that way.  Not a cheap endeavor and I was considering if I’d need to make a claim on my homeowner’s insurance.  Something I wanted to avoid.

I took a closer look at the ejector pump lid, could tell there was a bad smell the closer I got, and saw that there looked to be some space around the edge of the rim.  I decided to try to seal it better myself.  I invested in about $10 worth of clear silicone caulk. When I got ready to apply it, I noticed I could feel a slight draft of air coming out from some of the areas around the rim.  Clearly there was an air leak and sealing should help.  I was able to feel slight air leaks not just around the rim, but also around one of the pipes where it came out of the lid, even though there was a rubber gasket around it.  I liberally applied caulk around the lid, especially in the areas I felt a draft.

After about 24 hours, the smell had been reduced dramatically and I thought I had fixed the problem.  A day or two later, my wife was down in the room where the ejector pump is and told me it smelled.  Shit.  Again.  I went down there and took a look and it did indeed smell, especially close to the pit.  I decided to try to see if I could identify any more air leaks.  I remembered how I checked for gas leaks on my gas grill – I made a mixture of soapy water and covered all of the areas and looked for bubbles.  I went ahead and did that with the lid, figuring it also wouldn’t hurt to clean it.  I didn’t notice any bubbles, but figured maybe it only drafts air after the pump runs.  I ran some water in the basement until the pump ran.  I didn’t feel any draft near the lid, but I heard a high pitched noise for about 30 seconds after the pump ran, realizing it was an air leak from the spot where the plumber reconnected the pipe.  Now I was trying to decide if I wanted to caulk the pipe or if it was going to need an actual plumber to do a better job sealing the connection and to figure out if the smell was coming from anywhere else.

I had looked online for advice and seen some people suggest doing a smoke test to see where the leaks are.  I was pretty sure the leaks had to be coming from the pit.

I decided it was time to call back my plumber and request someone to take a closer look at things, but make sure it wasn’t the crappy guy who came out the previous time.  My plumber sent someone else, who was excellent.  Prior to him coming out, I had noticed some moisture collecting on the lid.  At first I thought it was water leaking from the repaired connection.  On closer examination, I realized there was some moisture at the check valve connection.  What the hell?  I don’t think the initial repair guy touched the check valve as the cut was well below it.  Either way I told the new plumber that I saw the moisture both by the check valve and on the lid.  I wasn’t around to see exactly what he did to fix everything, but he fixed the leaky check valve, the leaky connection, and he even put some of his own caulk around the lid.

I’ve had no problems since.

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