Increase Your Bottom Line with Water Features

In the past, some contractors with limited experience installed ponds incorrectly, causing this market to earn a bad reputation. Maybe clients heard stories, or maybe they’ve had bad experiences themselves.

That may have been true in the early days of pond construction, and may be the reason why ponds are not as popular as they once were. The same thing is not true of hardscape features.

However, pondless water features have risen in popularity—along with outdoor living areas—as the idea of ‘staycations’ picked up speed after the collapse of the real estate bubble in 2008.

Millennials, unlike Boomers, are less thrilled with the idea of a natural pond in the backyard, and more into the ‘Outdoor Living Space,’ complete with barbeques, electronics, LED lighting and remote controls, and water features.

Decorative water elements have consistently ranked in the top ten in the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Residential Landscape Architecture Trends Survey for the past ten years. Water feature sales have replaced ponds, as people turn to illuminated spillways and spouts that add the sight and sound of water up close and personal, without the maintenance. Along with this change in the market have come new opportunities for those who can take advantage of them.

The easiest water feature for the beginner

The simplest add-on water features are those that sit on or in the ground —the gurglers, as one of my friends calls them. No matter what topper sits on them—bubbling boulder, overflowing vase, traditional fountain— the formula is the same. Put a pump in a reservoir with a gurgler on top, and recirculate. Clients love the sound of water.

There are two main variations on the theme. The reservoir can be selfsupporting, or it can be made with a piece of liner.

Easiest of all are the self-supporting basin features. The basins need to hold water and be strong enough to support the decorative feature on top. Because they are stand-alone units, they are strong enough to sit on top of the ground; however, this requires a wall around the basin to hide it. The easiest water feature for a beginner is a basin dug down into the ground. Tools needed: a shovel, a level, a knife or tubing cutter, and a screwdriver. Skills needed? If you can dig a hole a foot deep and read a level, you may be overqualified.

Here’s the whole 5-step procedure:

1) Make a hole a few inches wider and deeper than the basin and level the bottom of the hole.

2) Insert the basin; check that it’s level and backfill around it.

3) Connect your topper to one end of a piece of tubing, and a pump to the other end.

4) Put the pump in the basin, fill it up and plug it in.

5) Adjust the topper and cover the basin with washed gravel or stone to hide it.

These features take very little time to install, usually an hour or two. That means they can be lucrative add-ons for a crew that’s already coming to the site for regular maintenance or service. They are almost maintenance-free; the gravel keeps debris out of the basin. In areas with winter freeze, simply remove the pump and reinstall it in the spring. The only regular maintenance issue, keeping the water topped off, can be dealt with by hooking up a simple, inexpensive automatic-fill valve to the nearest sprinkler zone or hose bib.

All this adds up to a tremendous potential for additional profit. Customers expect to pay in the range of $1,500 to $2,000 for an attractive water feature—more if it’s lit;, usually, material costs are typically half that.

Are you beginning to see the opportunities? It makes sense to let all of your customers know that they can add the sight and sound of water to their outdoor living area quickly, neatly and at little cost.

Variation on the theme – the lined matrix reservoir

With a little imagination you can turn just about anything that will overflow—old buckets, planters, watering cans, hand pumps, mailboxes—you name it, into a water feature. But when that day comes, and when you’ve turned anything and everything that will fit on a basin into a water feature, you might want to challenge your creative juices even farther.

Enter the lined basin. The exact same tools and skills are required— you’ll need to dig and level a hole, but with a piece of EPDM liner, you can make the reservoir any size or depth, to accommodate literally anything on top of it—from a forest of stone columns to a tractor or a piano. The trick is to support these items properly, and for that, the Aussies came to the rescue.

In the early 1980s, a landscape architect named Humberto Urriola had a vision for green cities. He invented a drainage cell to collect and infiltrate the water from rooftop gardens and green walls.

That idea has evolved into the water matrix block, a rectangular mesh box with internal supports that fills a lined excavation, creating structural support for anything set over the reservoir.

Matrix reservoirs have revolutionized water storage. Eight-piece blocks come knocked down in flat panels that assemble onsite, locking together into rigid weight-bearing structures capable of supporting tons of weight.

Lined reservoir installations are only a little more involved than the simple basin install, because there are a few more components. You’ll need a piece of liner and some geotextile to protect it. You’ll need the blocks and a pump vault, to house the pump alongside the blocks. Otherwise, the procedure is almost identical.

Dig the hole a little wider and deeper than the blocks and pump vault require, and level the bottom. Put down a layer of landscape fabric for protection against sharp edges in the soil, then put the liner in the hole. Install the blocks and vault on top of the liner, then backfill. Plumb the pump to the topper(s), cover the reservoir with washed gravel and fill it up.

If you can install a wall, you can install a waterwall

We’ve been talking about simple features that sit on horizontal surfaces, but there is another source of additional income available wherever there’s a wall. Various types of spillways to match every style and taste install easily in both new wall construction and in existing walls.

Kits make leak-free installation both fast and simple. Many manufacturers now offer a variety of lighted, translucent, stainless steel, copper and brass spillways to suit any outdoor living area, in sizes to fit any wall.

The simplest to install are sized to exactly replace standard wall stones at the top of engineered stone walls, in the course immediately below the caps. A pump in a basin set just below the spillway, up against the wall, recirculates the water. The spillways actively project water out from the wall for maximum effect, no ‘dribble’ and very little splash, so impact is high, installation is quick and maintenance minimal. The additional charge to the client is usually a small fraction of the cost of the wall construction or surrounding hardscape, so adding water is an easy sell, and the installation requires no additional skills and little additional labor. Waterwalls can be very profitable.

Let’s go through a typical install to illustrate. In new wall construction, the basin is set at or just below-grade, with the bottom level with the top of the base course of the wall. A twoand-a-half-inch gap between two stones in the second course provides the space for a one-and-a-half- or two inch pipe through the wall (for existing walls, a hole is drilled.)

No changes are made to the wall until the next-to-last course, except for the additional stone required to cover the face of the basin. The spillway of choice is set in place in the course just below the top, then covered by the capstones by the last course. Very little to no cutting is usually required, because the spillways are typically sized to exactly replace one or more whole stones. Basins incorporate mats or filter pads, to keep debris from entering the pump chamber, and also accommodate autofill valves, so maintenance is minimal.

The bottom line

The good news for landscapers and irrigators who haven’t done these before is that adding water to the hardscape is, in most ways, much easier than building new ponds, or even pond-free installations. No specialized tools or techniques are required.

Crews don’t need special training or skills. In general, hardscape water features require far less labor and materials, so they are inherently more affordable, and arguably, more profitable.

Single features can often be completed in a half day or less, and return $800-$1,000 in profit. Their lower cost also makes them easier to sell, especially if the crew is already onsite.

On a landscape job that might run $6,000 to $25,000, what’s another $2,500 to add the sight and sound of water to it? And water features are harder to comparison-shop than irrigation, flatwork or plantings, because they can’t be estimated by the gallon, square footage or materials. Finally, after the sale, they require little to no maintenance, so there are few callbacks to eat into the bottom line.

To paraphrase Manny de la Paz Vega, CEO of PoolCorp, instead of selling more backyards, sell more backyard. Shouldn’t you be adding water features to your portfolio?