When it comes to cleaning out a pond, people often make a mountain out of a molehill. Everyone, contractors included, seems to worry about the idea of completely draining a pond once a year. Cleaning a pond doesn’t have to be rocket science and can be broken down into an efficient procedure, so that a two-person crew can perform as many as six to eight cleanouts a day.

Cleaning ponds once a year

After a pond runs for an entire year, it’s a good idea to start the new season off fresh. Cleaning a pond in the spring simulates the normal flushing action that lakes fed by streams and rivers experience during heavy spring rains. Most pond owners shut off their ponds during the winter months, allowing leaves and other debris that have blown into the pond to settle and tint the water a tea color. Replacing this water eliminates the color as well as water with fresh, clean, and clear the excessive nutrients that have built up in the pond over the previous year.

Do you have to perform a full cleanout?

Every pond is different and some ponds don’t require cleanouts. Ponds with surface areas larger than 2,000 square feet might only need to be cleaned out every few years. Larger ponds may never need complete cleanouts because the ecosystem is so healthy, and heavy rains replenish large quantities of water at a time. In essence, the larger the pond, the easier it is to maintain (just like a fish tank). If the pond looks the same in March as it did last June, it’s probably okay to take a pass for this year.

Even if you live in a warmer/ southern climate, a periodic cleanout may be beneficial. Evaluate the pond for overall water quality and organic matter load (debris on the bottom of the pond). If a cleanout is necessary, do it during the cooler months, before the fish and pond biology become active. At the very least, a partial cleaning may be necessary, in which the biological filter is thoroughly cleaned, manual debris is removed using a leaf net, and aquatic plant maintenance is performed.

Why you should clean ponds in the spring

The best time of year for performing a pond cleanout sometimes becomes a topic for debate. The problem with cleaning out ponds in the fall is that the majority of pond owners shut their ponds down in the winter. When the pond is shut down, leaves and other windblown debris settle and decompose at the bottom of the pond, resulting in poor water quality.

No matter how thorough a fall cleanout is, you will have a difficult time starting out the spring season with crystal-clear water. When cleaning the pond in the spring, the pond is ready for the season and flushes the system the way Mother Nature does it herself.

Don’t scrub away algae

Remember, the goal with a pond cleanout is not to sterilize the pond! String algae is a natural and healthy part of an ecosystem, as long as it’s kept in check. Don’t waste your time scrubbing algae and getting every last surface clean. Simply remove all of the large debris by hand and do a quick once-over with a power washer. During the season, you can use products like the IonGen System to help control string algae.

Using a cleanout pump, fill a fish-holding container with the pond water, to house the fish while you clean the pond. Use the remaining water in the pond to wash down all of the filter pads, stream and waterfall. You can even use this water to clean the top shelf of the pond. The nice thing about it is that you’re using the high-volume flow from a 1 1/2"-2" pipe versus a 5/8" garden hose, so it’s much faster. This is also a free source of water that doesn’t have chlorine in it, so it won’t sterilize the filter pads and biological filtration.

Continue using the recycled pond water as much as you can until it turns a muddy brown, then discharge the dirty water into the surrounding planting beds. Be sure to move the discharge hose frequently, to limit erosion or flooding of the planting bed. This dirty pond water is a great boost of natural fertilizer for the plantings since it’s loaded with nitrogen and phosphorous from fish waste and partially decomposed organic matter.

Make sure all aquatic plants have been cleaned and trimmed of last season’s leaves; divide plants if necessary. This is a great time to fertilize water lilies and lotus with a slow-release fertilizer for optimum blooms.

Marginal aquatics typically don’t need additional fertilizer.

Check any underwater lights and transformers for proper operation, and replace or repair as necessary. Reposition lights within rock crevices as needed. Check foam joints in the waterfall area, and use waterfall foam to seal any gaps or joints to divert the water as originally designed.

Check all pond edges, ensuring that all EPDM liner is covered with rock or gravel, depending on the pond’s design. Remember, it’s a pond, not a sterile swimming pool or spa. Some debris or algae is okay as it’s part of a healthy ecosystem. The goal is to keep it under control and managed with proper techniques and water treatments.

After power-washing the pond, use the water from a garden hose, pouring it out over the stones and gravel to channel debris to the pond bottom, where your pump will remove it. You can pump the pond water through a flexible hose to a drainage point in the yard. Start on the top ledge of the pond and slowly work your way down, using only the pressure of the unrestricted hose water. After doing this for 20-40 minutes, you will notice that the water pooling up around the pump is relatively clean. This is an indication that the vast majority of solids that were not digested by the bacteria have been cleaned out. You are now ready to begin filling the pond.

If the pond was shut down during the winter

If the pond was shut down for the winter, the waterfall pump that was stored inside can be installed back into the skimmer and reconnected to the plumbing. The fish can be introduced back into the pond once it is approximately one-third filled. Be sure to add dechlorinator before adding fish, if the tap water is from a city water supply. Acclimate the fish to the water temperature by floating them in a small bucket for 10-15 minutes. Slowly introduce some of the pond water into the bucket. This will prevent the fish from going into shock from any sudden temperature change.

After the fish have been added, you can finish filling the pond. The pump is ready to be plugged in once the pond is full.

Final thoughts on cleanouts

Cleaning ponds can be cold and dirty work that isn’t exciting. Yet it’s done at a time of the year when it’s difficult to do construction, and so it can produce off-season income for your company. Pond cleanouts are a service that allow your customers to enjoy their clean ponds for an entire year. Some will want to clean their own ponds, but many will prefer to have a professional do it for them.

From a business standpoint, pond cleanouts are not only a good source of income, they also keep you in front of your customers, allowing you the opportunity for upgrades and additional work. Remember that the best source of marketing is word of mouth and referrals; happy customers with properly functioning water features sell more work!

One problem you may experience is the customer who doesn’t schedule a cleanout in spring, but calls you later in the spring or early summer to have it done. Cleaning out a

pond when the temperature of the water is greater than 55 degrees disrupts an ecosystem that’s in the process of being established. If a cleanout is performed at this time of year, beneficial bacteria colonies may be reduced. During this time, excessive nutrients in the water (the type a bacteria colony eat) may cause the water to turn green until the bacteria can catch up. This may require the addition of bacteria more often (daily) to get the colonies of bacteria re-established.

To help your customers, and to help you schedule jobs close together, notify customers of your cleanout program six weeks prior to beginning work. Send out a letter or email six weeks in advance explaining that they need to have their water and electricity turned on for you to use. You can also send a final notice postcard three weeks before you begin cleanouts, so everyone knows they have to schedule now to get on your books. If you do landscaping, you can also offer to re-do their mulch and any other spring cleanup work they would like done on their yard at the same time.

Step by step pond cleaning

1. Shut off the water fill valve and begin draining the pond, using either a small pump or the pump from the skimmer. If the pond has fish, begin filling a container to hold all the fish with the same pond water.

2. With six inches of water left in the pond, catch any fish present and place them into the containers holding the pond water you just pumped out, so as not to send them into shock from a rapid temperature change. It’s wise to place a net over the container to eliminate the chance of any fish jumping out.

3. Remove any solid waste, such as leaves or twigs, by hand while the stones are being washed.

4. Begin washing down the pond rocks with either a jet-type sprayer or hose, starting from the filled pond line and working your way toward the bottom of the pond, all the while pumping out the collecting water. (After the initial power-wash, use only the pressure of the hose water to channel dirt to the bottom.)

5. After hosing down the pond, wash off the filter pads from the skimmer and biological filter.

6. Transfer the fish to smaller buckets of the old pond water and float them in the pond as the water fills it back up. A dechlorinator should be added to the tap water to remove chlorine before returning fish. Release fish while the pond fills. EDITOR’S NOTE: Ed Beaulieu is vice president of field research at Aquascape Inc., www.aquascapeinc.com.