Pondless Water Features


In an increasingly stressful world, it's nice to know that some-thing as simple as the sight and sound of splashing water can bring tranquility to one's spirit. A water feature in one's front or back yard turns that space into an inviting personal retreat. The contractors who build water features reap handsome monetary rewards, but they're also paid in the currency of happy smiles from contented customers.

Water features are considered luxury items, yet just about anyone can afford them. One of the least expensive, yet no less soothing, variety of water feature is the pondless waterfall. Not only is it a good ‘entry level’ fountain project for a client, it’s also a good introductory item for a novice contractor just getting into the pond game.

The pond and water feature business took a dive during the recession, but it’s recovering nicely. “We’ve definitely seen a lot of recent growth,” said Ed Beaulieu, director of field research at Aquascape, Inc., in St. Charles, Illinois—and the inventor of the pondless waterfall.

“Sustainable projects and large commercial features are pretty strong, and big, recreational-style ponds are quite popular right now as well.” As are ‘introductory’ water features—smaller items such as boulder bubblers, cost-effective fountainscapes that still bring a bit of water into a landscape. Pondless waterfalls fall into this introductory category.

Beaulieu invented the pondless waterfall back in 2001, almost by accident. While washing down a feature with a hose, he happened to observe how the water was flowing out of the hose and over stacks of stones, down into a gravel bed.

“The water just disappeared into this underground reservoir that we were using as our filter. I started wondering if I could come up with a method whereby an underground vault could store this excess water. The waterfall would then recirculate the water from this underground reservoir, instead of from a pond.”

Pondless water features are pretty simple. Besides a hole in the ground for a basin or reservoir, they consist of a geotextile underlayment, EPDM liner, a structural void space comprised of a modular, porous geosynthetic block used for storage and infiltration, a pump located within a pump vault, a debris collection area and a gravel-bed/infiltration area.

Rocks and plantings are aesthetically positioned on top of the reservoir. When the system is operating, water flows down over the rocks and waterfall and through the gravel, where it collects in the reservoir before the pump recirculates it back up to the top of the waterfall, starting the cycle over again.

Not only are they fairly easy to install, they aren’t hard to take care of.

The low-maintenance aspect of these features is one of the main reasons they’re so popular.

Beaulieu says that the main customer base for pondless water features are Baby Boomers, people born from 1946 to 1964, who are now starting to retire. They like the fact that they can let the grandkids come over and splash around, without having to worry about a large body of water and the safety issues that go along with that.

That’s been Jake Bright’s experience. Bright, owner of Living Art Water Gardens, Inc., in Owens Cross Roads, Alabama, says that most of his customer base is between 50 and 60 years old. “My pondless customers are people who are really busy, and don’t have the time to spend on even relatively low-maintenance water features.”

“They’re people who don’t want to deal with fish,” said Gil Belcher, owner and president of G & D Aquatics and Landscaping, Inc., Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “They’re for the person who’s looking for something to give his house and yard added visual appeal.”

Brenda Sorrells, owner and president of Exotic Aquatics, Inc., in Savannah, Georgia, says a lot of her customers don’t want the liability issues that can come with having a pond, and they also don’t want to have to feed and tend fish. But she hasn’t noticed any age-related trends.

“We sell pondless water features to all different age groups and walks of life. I couldn’t even come up with a demographic breakdown for you.”

Bright has been installing these features for more than 20 years. Doing it dovetails nicely with his main business, creating custom outdoor living spaces. When someone is already spending the money to build an elegant outdoor kitchen or living room, including a water feature only seems logical, like icing a cake.

“We try to bring together all the ancient primal elements—fire, earth, and water—to create a complete outdoor living experience. I never have any trouble adding water features to the package.”

Maintenance: minimal, but necessary

Pondless water features don’t need a lot of maintenance, but they do need some, at regular intervals.

While you’re selling one to a client, sell him a maintenance contract to go with it. It’s not only a lucrative revenue stream, but a great way to keep in contact with that customer.

“I sell maintenance contracts with everything I install,” said Belcher. “They may need a new pump later on, or something else, maybe lowvoltage lighting.” If you’re the contractor they’re talking to, you’ll get that sale.

It fits with his business philosophy, which is: to be successful, never let your clients go. It’s worked for him, having been a contractor for well over 40 years, starting at age 17. He still has all the clients he originally started with, except for four who’ve passed on.

Just maintaining water features is a good moneymaker. For Sorrells, cleaning, repair and refurbishment of pondless and other water features is 90 percent of her business.

The most important thing about maintaining these features is keeping them full of water, according to Beaulieu. Their underground basins hold a specific volume of water, usually about 100 gallons or so. A certain amount will be lost to evaporation; the more arid the climate, the more water will be lost.

A 100-gallon reservoir means water must be added every week or two. If a client doesn’t want to add water that often, then the reservoir can be doubled in size for not too much extra cost.

The other factor in keeping a pondless feature running well is the gravel-bed infiltration area, the part that allows the water to get back down into the underground reservoir. “The bigger that zone is, the less you’ll have to clean it,” said Beaulieu. “Leaf debris will clog up the infiltration area so it must be removed.”

In southern climates, once-yearly cleanouts are usually sufficient. In colder latitudes, winter shutdown is simply a matter of turning off the fountain and disconnecting the pump. Some people like to keep their features running year ‘round. It can be done, even where it snows. Burying the reservoir four feet down will get it below the frost line, where the geothermal activity of the soil will keep the pump from freezing up.

“The waterfall part will turn into a big sheet of ice,” Beaulieu said. “But a pondless feature almost looks better in the winter than it does during the season. It’ll be like an ice sculpture that changes every day. It can really look stunning, especially if it’s lit.”

“You have to be careful, though,” warns Joe Genovese, owner and president of Genoscape, Inc., in Markham, Ontario, Canada. “If it gets too cold, the friction that’s generated by the moving water in the reservoir won’t be adequate to keep things flowing.”

Should the mercury drop below zero, the feature should be shut down. A lot of his customers “play it by ear,” keeping their features on until they absolutely have to turn them off.

Taking the plunge

Sorrells has some advice for any landscape contractor who’s thinking of ‘going pondless. “Do some research first. Try building one or two on your own before you start charging for them.” Genovese recommends taking advantage of the training many pond component manufacturers offer.

These contractors have seen plenty of mistakes made by inexperienced or ill-taught installers. About six months ago, Sorrells ran across a pondless feature that wasn’t working because the waterfall and stream were too large for the reservoir.

“When the power cut off, the reservoir overflowed, and didn’t have enough water to start back up again. We had to tear out and redo the whole thing to make it work.”

Belcher says that shallow basins are a common mistake, having seen some that were only 14 inches deep. He makes his at least two-and-a-half to three feet deep.

Dave Jones, owner of The Pond Professional in Woodstock, Georgia, says that using pea gravel instead of larger rocks is a major mistake. Debris can easily accumulate and keep the water from reaching the pump.

Genovese has seen a few pondless installations where inadequate accommodation was made for groundwater seepage. If the reservoir goes dry, hydrostatic pressure in the ground can push up on the liner, and shove the geosynthetic blocks right out of the ground.

“When installing in heavy clay soil, where you can see a water buildup in the substrate, you need to put a system of weeps, or drains, underneath the liner. But some people don’t, and that pushing-up phenomenon can happen.”

A lot of help can be found through membership in professional organizations. Sorrells has belonged to the IPPCA (International Professional Pond Companies Association) for about eight years, and has found the members to be very helpful. An online message board allows you to ask questions of other pond professionals and get their advice.

A sustainable luxury?

These days, sustainability sells, especially under drought conditions.

Water features are usually a tough sell in such situations, but they don’t have to be. You might be surprised to hear it, but pondless water features can be engineered to become water-conservation tools.

“Because of the modular nature of these features, we can direct water from roof downspouts into the underground reservoirs so that they become rainwater capture systems,” said Beaulieu.

“We’ve installed them in California and other arid locations. In certain situations, we’ll end up with a surplus of water, which can be used for irrigation.”

Beauty, safety, and a feast for the senses, all in one economical, lowmaintenance package. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? We’re willing to bet your clients will think so, too.