March 30 2020 06:00 AM

No matter its size, a water feature can make a big splash.

A water feature can add a powerful element to a landscape design, but bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to delivering the right experience for your customer. Sometimes, a smaller water feature can provide just as much of an impact while also reducing both the overall installation bill and water-use costs.

Choosing a water feature should begin with a talk about what the customer is willing to pay, says Nicholas Tate, owner of Uppercut Property Services in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“When I get approached for a water feature, I’ll start with the budget to see what exactly that will let us get,” Tate says. “I’ll talk about what’s available in that range.”

Tate says he stays connected with his local suppliers to make sure he has plenty of options for customers that come at a reasonable cost. That way he can offer the best possible price for a water feature that won’t break the customer’s bank and still make enough money to make the job worthwhile.

That conversation should also include some discussion of what the customer wants out of the water feature, says Sam Pole, operations manager at Lawns of Texas in Woodway, Texas.

“Is it just a visual, is it auditory?” Pole says. “It depends on a client’s aesthetic needs with their landscapes.”

With that information in mind, it’s time to talk to the customer about options. Pole says water restrictions in Texas can make it more challenging to provide a high-impact water feature, but providing the client with details about costs of installation and its water use is the right approach.

“You need to educate them,” Pole says. “That’s the best customer, an informed customer.”

Reduce evaporation

The installation bill isn’t the only place where a more conservative water feature can make an economic difference for customers. Tim Brucks, owner of Total Landscape Concepts in Roseville, California, typically does much larger water feature installations, but the water restrictions in his region cause some customers to look for more water-smart options.

“We’re a drier climate and we deal with a lot of evaporation,” Brucks says.

Higher amounts of evaporation mean a more expensive water bill over time for customers, so Brucks’ goal is to reduce that rate in the water feature. One of the best ways he’s found to do that is to focus on a pondless feature, such as bubbling rocks and urns that catch the water in a basin underground. That minimizes the amount of splash and prevents large amounts of water from exiting the fountain.

“Limiting splash or even channeling the water a little bit — that’s the biggest thing you can do,” he says.

When designing a landscape with a water feature, Brucks utilizes plants around the feature that can make use of any extra water that might splash.

“Obviously we don’t plan on any water being outside the parameters,” Brucks says. “But we try and put some plants, maybe some grasses, around the feature. We use Virginia creeper around the fountain on the edges. We’ll utilize plants that are going to really like that water. That gives it the potential to use it without wasting it.”

Waterfall-style features are always popular and can still be an option for smaller installations, says Pole. A waterfall feature doesn’t have to have a huge splash at the bottom to provide both strong visual and auditory aesthetics, and it can be constructed with a small basin area to reduce the amount of water.

In some designs calling for a pondless waterfall, Brucks has used a trough from a farm supply store, depending on the budget, he says.

Any part of a feature that has exposed running water is an opportunity for evaporation, though, says Pole. Another popular look is a stream bed-style feature with circulating pumps taking water over a longer distance as compared to a pond or basin.

“If you’ve got that moving water, you’ve got more of an evaporation situation present,” says Pole. “We will steer them away from that or give them a short run that gives them the stream but then keep most of the basin water protected, hidden in a larger basin or under gravel.”

Water feature placement can also affect evaporation, with full sun causing the most trouble, says Pole.

The right tools for the job

An important part of designing a smaller water feature is choosing the right pump, says Brucks.

“You need to make sure that your pump is matched to what you’re doing,” he says. In the same way that he wouldn’t put a 6,000-gallon pump in a 10,000-gallon feature, he wouldn’t put a huge pump in a project that doesn’t require it.

“We’re always trying to be conservative, and thinking about the electricity used comes along with that,” Brucks says. Using a larger pump turned down on a smaller water feature not only wastes electricity, it can strain the pump and damage the parts more quickly.

The pump is also one part of the water feature where Brucks doesn’t suggest using less-expensive alternatives.

“Never go cheap on the pump,” he says. “A good pump is going to be quiet; it’s going to be efficient. It’s going to be less likely to break or have issues. They last a long time, and a good pump will use less electricity overall.”

The type of pump should be determined during the design phase of the project. An above-ground pump is what Brucks prefers because it’s much easier to service than a submersible pump. If the pump is above ground, it’s important to consider the pump’s suction and total dynamic head, or how far the water will be pushed. Determining the correct amount of flow for a water feature takes some trial and experience, he says.

“I always say that even though you don’t want to crank down a pump too much, you can always turn it down,” Brucks says. “Too small of a pump is going to be lackluster.”

Working with smaller projects doesn’t mean that the water feature has to have a smaller impact, says Pole. Using a water feature in concert with other landscape elements can deliver the experience of a larger installation.

“If they want big features, then I would accent more around those features with elements not necessarily anything to do with the hydro feature, but accent it,” Pole says. “So you would have a tropical look around that or even a hardscape that accentuates it, but you’re not using a larger amount of water.”

Using a water feature as a centerpiece of a hardscape installation can bring a lot more energy to the feature, says Brucks. He uses rock along with additional landscaping elements to really make an impact.

“The landscape is key, because you can really create that focal point by complementing it with some color and other foliage,” Brucks says. It’s important not to go overboard in bringing those additional elements, but finding that balance point takes practice. The overall goal is for all of the elements to feel incorporated and natural in the design, even with the more modern look of a feature like a water blade.

Using hardscaping like a bench or walking path can make the feature feel even more inviting, regardless of its actual size. “It gives the client the best of both worlds,” says Pole.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at