Water Features: Build Them Right the First Time
Any contractor who has been building or servicing water features for a while has stories to tell. They typically begin with: “You won’t believe how this crazy thing was put together…” Jeff Krenner, owner of Paradise Ponds and Waterfalls, LLC, in Buford, Georgia, has one. Called in to fix a waterfall that was just two weeks old, he soon discovered why.
Mistake #1: Instead of buried two-inch diameter PVC piping, an ugly, cheap garden hose with only a three-quarter-inch opening provided the stingy water connection, doling out a mere trickle.
Mistake #2: An inexpensive pump from a big-box store had been installed, and Mistake #3: placed in the bottom of a little homemade skimmer box. “The pump was clogging, of course, as it wasn’t meant for this type of work.”
Mistake #4: Liner was exposed and visible, as was three or four feet of the garden hose.
After Krenner pointed out all these mistakes, and more, to the client, he convinced her to let him “gut this ugly thing” and start all over, from scratch. If only that water feature had been installed correctly from the very beginning…but it wasn’t, due to inexperience on the part of the person who installed it.
Whether it’s a pondless water feature, a boulder bubbler or a fountain, we can’t say enough about the importance of building them right the first time. Callbacks are costly. To help you avoid them, we asked some veteran waterfeature builders to give us the benefit of their years of experience.
“Cutting liner too short is the number-one mistake I see, over and over again, and it accounts for more than half of the leaks we fix,” said Dave Jones, owner of the Pond Professional in Woodstock, Georgia.
He advises leaving at least one or two feet of extra material, and hiding it. Fold it over, roll it up tight and cover it with stones, dirt or mulch. This way, as the dirt settles, or at some point, you add a larger pump, you’ve got the ability to stretch it.
Leave slack in the liner at the attachment points, too. Why? As the rocks shift and settle, the silicone seals can get pulled loose. If you have a six- to eight-inch fold when you get to the top of your waterfall, fold it over and cover it. And buy enough of it to begin with.
Sean Frost, co-owner of Nature Scapes in Grafton, New Hampshire, says that a common mistake is using a liner that’s too small for the excavation being done. “Remember that you’ll have to go around corners and make twists and turns, especially in a stream,” he says. And don’t forget to add a certain percentage for waste.
Always use an underlayment fabric under your liner. It’s cheap protection. You wouldn’t install new carpeting without a pad; don’t install liner without one.
Finally, make sure no bare liner is fully exposed to UV rays; it’ll last longer. And lose the sharp stuff; Frost warns that old, outdated ‘howto’ books are still out there, saying to put stone dust under liners. Don’t do it—those bits of ‘dust’ are jagged and piercing, and you’ll end up making thousands of little holes in the liner. Rounded pea gravel is a better choice.
Bad installations often feature cheap pumps from the local big-box hardware warehouse. “These pumps draw a large amount of wattage, which will make the client’s power bill very high,” said Krenner. “They’re sump pumps (from t h e b i g - b o x store) that are only made to run for five or ten minutes, so it doesn’t matter that they use 1,000 watts of power.” But fountain and pond pumps need to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The only pumps that should be used in water features are the ones that were expressly designed for them. They cost more, but they work, and will keep working.
“In a residential installation, you’re looking for a pump that can provide 1,500 gallons per hour, for each foot of horizontal width of the waterfall,” said Frost. Double that for a commercial feature that needs to be visible from further away.
Dan Luke VI, co-owner and partner in Luke Landscape Contractors, LLC, in Minden, Nevada, advises putting check valves in the piping, to prevent water hammer when the pump first starts up.
Pick the right stone. Do not use sandstone—it’ll eventually dissolve, due to the water flowing over it. Jagged rocks will cut the liner. And avoid stone with high iron content; it’ll rust, turning itself, and the water, orange. Not a good look.
And Tony Sargeant, vice president and co-owner of Aquatic Creations in Grantville, Georgia, warns that “kids are going to walk on water features. If there’s a stream, set the boulders so they lean towards the bank. Then, if they fall, they’ll fall away from the water.”
The filter should be sized to handle the pump flow, not the gallons of water capacity. You can use a 5,000-gph-rated filter with a 3,000-gph pump, but you can’t use a 2,000-gphrated filter with a 3,000-gph pump and expect it to perform properly.
Sargeant often sees filters that are “way too fine. When the least amount of debris gets in there, it clogs the system, and water can’t get through. The pump starves for water, and burns up.” And choose one that’s easy to clean. “Oversizing the filter may cut down on the frequency of cleanouts, but not eliminate them,” said Jones. “But undersizing it is going to cause you more headaches than the few dollars you may save is worth.”
Keep your components and fittings uniform
Frost says that inexperienced installers often buy mismatched components; some liner from here, a pump from some other place. They were never intended to work together, and you’ll have varying orifice sizes and other problems. He advises sticking with a single, high-quality brand that supports its products and will quickly provide replacements, should there be a problem.
Frost adds one more thing. “If you’re constantly switching back and forth between manufacturers, you’ll never perfect the craft, because things will be different every time.”
Be careful with cement
Krenner often sees boulders or rocks that have been cemented into a top liner. “That gets in the way when a repair needs to be done,” he said. Say there’s a small leak in a liner; if there’s no cement involved, you can just move a couple of rocks and put a small patch on it, without having to use a jackhammer to get access to it.
And whatever you do, don’t cement that pump in, as though it’ll never need to be replaced! Seems obvious, but it’s a mistake these professionals run across quite often.
This is just a short summary. There are many other tips that are just as important: Don’t put your feature in a wet spot. Make sure the soil is compacted before you start. Leave extra cord around light fixtures so it’s easy to change bulbs. And a lot more.
All of these experts say the best way to learn is by doing. Take classes that feature hands-on training. Or, offer an experienced contractor free labor for the day, if he’ll let you tag along on a build. Then when you create your first water feature, you’ll be doing it right, the very first time.