March 25 2019 06:00 AM

Learning to install and maintain water features can lead to waterfalls of income.

Imagine gazing at an expanse of serene blue water, watching waves gently lapping or listening to rain splash outside your window. You feel your heart beating slowly, your breathing deepening and those stressful thoughts melting away. For perhaps as long as the history of humankind, people have been drawn to water. It’s no wonder that many homeowners want to have water features of their own.

As a landscape contractor you may be fielding requests from clients who are seeking water features in their yards or patios.

Knowing the ins and outs of installing and maintaining them, whether they’re fountains, pondless waterfalls, water walls, ponds, rain curtains, reflecting pools or any other type of feature, can pay off substantially.

Demi Fortuna, director of product information for Atlantic Water Gardens, Mantua, Ohio, says a simple stone pillar with a bubbler, a basin, a pump and a light would cost about $400 to $500 wholesale. He estimates that a contractor who adds some mulch, flowers or plants around the installation can charge a customer in the range of $1,500 to $2,000 for it, and he’ll be delighted by the result.

“They look like a liquid torch,” says Fortuna. “People are just entranced by them.”

Extended benefits

Another way a landscaper can reap rewards from a water feature is by doing repairs. The part of a fountain that’s most likely to break is the pump. Fortuna says new pump costs about $100 to $120 wholesale, and an installer can charge about $100 for a 15-minute installation.

Dave Jones, owner of The Pond Professional, Woodstock, Georgia, charges $150 for a service call. He also assesses an upcharge to the customer for any equipment needed.

Fortuna and others involved in manufacturing and installing water features are seeing lots of innovations and refinements in these products.

“LED lighting has just exploded in both landscape and water applications,” says Fortuna, who notes that his company’s modular waterfall product, appropriately called Colorfalls, comes with lights capable of displaying 48 different colors. “The light is carried by the water,” he says. “It looks like the water is glowing from within.”

Lighting that enhances water with a multitude of hues or patterns has extended the time in which a water feature can be enjoyed, taking it from a daytime-only delight to a 24- hour attraction.

“Over the past 10 years, water features have become a nighttime thing,” Fortuna says. “You can see and hear your feature during the day, but it’s actually more interesting at night.”

The appeal of falling water speaks to just about any homeowner, but Fortuna says the demand for water features is also driven by another sort of customer.

“Many people are looking to extend their outdoor living spaces,” he says. “They already have an outdoor kitchen and a fire pit and want to add a water feature.”

Frank Hanold, owner and president of Stonecasters LLC and Henri Studio, a producer of cast stone fountains, bird baths, statuary and garden décor in Wauconda, Illinois, has noticed customers drifting away from the traditional multitiered fountains.

“They’re still out there, but we’re seeing a trend toward more compact fountains with multiple bowls flowing into each other. They’re not your traditional three- or four-level fountain,” says Hanold.

Pondless waterfalls, too, are growing in popularity, adds Geoff Steele, Midwest territory sales manager for Castle Aquatics, San Leandro, California. He also operates a business that installs water features.

“Pondless waterfalls need less maintenance,” he says. “People don’t want to spend their time cleaning out the algae or feeding the fish. In most cases, they give you a similar look without all the work.”

Many people like the look of fountains, ponds or other water features with an aged appearance, as if they were always a natural part of the yard. “Some people are doing more woodland types of fountains that blend into the landscape,” Steele says. “They might look like fallen logs.”

“As a contractor, I want to make a water feature look like it’s been there forever,” adds Jones. “If it looks like it’s been there since the glaciers receded then that’s good design.”

Scale also matters. “You don’t want to install a small vase or a little multilevel birdbath in an acresized backyard. It would just get lost,” he notes.

Step by step

The process of installing a fountain isn’t difficult, especially with a kit, according to Hanold. Henri Studio’s kits come with instructions, and the company’s website has a library of instruction manuals for all its products, including discontinued ones.

Atlantic Water Gardens also offers instruction manuals and videos. “We try to make things as clear and easy as possible,” says Fortuna.

“Fountain kits can be installed by a couple of guys in two or three hours,” says Jones. “Even though these kit fountains tend to be small, they’re still quite attractive.”

Steele agrees that kits are useful. “It takes the guesswork out of things,” he says. “The company has already decided that the pump they’re providing is adequate for the application.”

While many contractors work on their own, Paul Keeler, director of sales and marketing for Midwest Tropical, Skokie, Illinois, says his company operates somewhat uniquely.

“We design, fabricate and test water features in our factory and then ship those factory-built components to the site,” he says. “Then we send one of our employees to complete the installation by working with a local contractor to complete the install and explain the unit’s operation and maintenance.”

Midwest can make features in cell-cast acrylic, stainless steel or other materials a customer specifies. The company has designers who can help a contractor better visualize and sell a feature.

“We have talented designers in-house and can operate as a local contractor’s back-office team,” he says. “We can make color renderings to show what a new water feature will look like in an existing area.”

The main utility that is required for a fountain or other small water feature is electricity. “People don’t even need to have a garden hose,” Steele says. “As long as they have a bucket to fill the fountain.”

Cautionary notes

No matter the size of the feature you’re installing, Jones recommends checking with local utilities and the town’s construction laws and ordinances first to be sure it’s okay to dig in the chosen spot or if it’s okay to do any digging at all.

“It depends on what area of the country you’re in and the municipality, but you may need a permit. In Georgia we need a state-issued permit just to stick a shovel in the ground.”

A water feature also needs a power source. Steele prefers electrical lines that are buried and extended to the site of the planned water feature. That makes it easier. “If it’s buried and you don’t see any wires or cords, that’s ideal,” he says.

For some small fountains within easy reach of a house, Steele’s customers use an extension cord.

“If you’re within 10 feet of an outlet on the back of your house, people will use an extension cord with a cord cover that gives it a water tight seal,” he says.

While the installation process of simple water features may not be difficult, the features themselves can be unwieldy. Hanold estimates water features can cost anywhere from $300 to $25,000 and can weigh many hundreds of pounds.

Steele takes into account a variety of factors in the cost installation cost estimate, including whether or not he’ll need extra bodies to help him move the feature into place. He charges customers a percentage of the cost of the water feature, for his time and for other expenses related to preparing or beautifying the setting.

While fountains may appear easy to install, Jones says they can have their problems. “They clog much easier than ponds,” he says. “The water in most fountain systems evaporates very quickly and if people don’t keep an eye on them the pump runs dry.”

As with fountains, ponds can also be constructed from kits. A typical one comes with a precut liner, a pump, a filter and a waterfall. But before you get started installing a kit pond, Steele and Jones say there are some pitfalls to be aware of.

One is to be sure the provided liner is big enough to fill the space required for the pond. “Putting pieces together (because the liner is too small), however, is a recipe for disaster,” says Jones who notes that piecing the liner together can lead to leaks. The process involves using a compound similar to contact cement and seam tape.

“It’s an extensive process. You really don’t want to do it,” Jones says.

Steele says that some small liners on the market are made of preformed plastic and hold about 100 to 150 gallons of water. “If you want something small and easy and all you have to do is dig a hole, go that route,” he says.

Lining for larger ponds is made from rubber similar to the tires on a car. “The rubber lining is heavy and it can be expensive. I won’t sugarcoat that,” says Steele.

“You want to have enough liner to have some excess that extends over the sides of the pond. You can always hide it under rocks or something.”

Jones suggests leaving at least 3 feet of extra lining to compensate for the weight of water, which will pull the lining down.

If a pond springs a leak as a result of piecing the liner together then you’re back at square one, says Jones. “In most cases you’ll have to start all over again.”

Steele agrees, but adds that ponds are long-term investments, and properly installed linings should last at least 20 years.

Make them last

Winterizing a concrete water feature isn’t difficult, but it is important to do in the colder parts of the country, both Steele and Hanold say.

“In most cases, it involves cleaning and draining it until it’s empty of water, then filling the basin with towels to remove extra water and then covering it with a tarp or fountain cover,” says Steele. Regular maintenance of a water feature can better assure its longevity. Steele advises periodic cleaning with a brush — even a 99-cent toothbrush will do for a small feature — to break up any algae or debris that could clog the pump then running clean water through it. With regular care most pumps will last three to five years.

Midwest Tropical recommends using distilled water in its features because it’s free of dissolved solids, so there is no potential for scale or lime buildup. It also suggests nonchemical ultraviolet sterilization.

Steele recommends putting a fountain on a timer. “There’s no need to have a fountain running day and night,” he says. “It’s not like a pond with fish that has to constantly have running water in it.”

Ponds are a different story for Jones. “To me, a pond is a living mechanism,” he says. “If you shut off a pond you shut off its heart.” He also says submersible pumps have longer lifespans if they aren’t turned on and off every day.

Much of Steele’s knowledge on ponds and water features came through sheer trial and error, but he recommends taking the classes and seminars manufacturers offer. It may not be a bad idea learning how to install these wet wonders as the desire to have them certainly isn’t going away.

“Mankind is drawn to water at almost a genetic level,” says Jones. “Water is lifegiving. I think that might be the tie-in.”

Annemarie Mannion is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers business, technology and the environment.