Go with the flow

Features - Design/Build

Water features ranging from ponds and fountains to pools and spas are a spectacular addition to a customer’s landscape – and a contractor’s service mix – if they’re done correctly.

March 16, 2015

There’s something special about the trickle of water in a fountain, the view of a backyard koi pond surrounded by lush plants or the inviting sight of ripples on the surface of a swimming pool. As pleasant as water features are for people living or working near them, they can also be a boon for contractors.

“Water features are one of the most rewarding services we offer,” says Jeff Blunkosky, owner and president of Pittsburgh Stone & Waterscapes. “Our specialty is outdoor living spaces and I think one of the most overlooked, undervalued components is the water features. They really make the backyard come to life.”

Yet water features come with their share of challenges. Although the rewards can be great, the problems that accompany poorly done jobs are even greater. Here, some water feature pros share lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Training tricks.

Contractors who work with water features agree: Proper education is vital for success. That’s why all employees who work on water features for Red Rock Contractors in Mesa, Ariz., undergo training. Co-owner Rick Chafey says some employees are prepared to handle high-end tile installations, expensive glasswork and waterproofing. Others have basic masonry skills. And superintendents and designers regularly attend seminars, and are involved in different education groups to stay up-to-date. Much of the employees’ training comes from Genesis 3 University, a continuing education program. Although the training offered by Genesis 3 focuses mostly on pool design and construction, Chafey says much of what his employees learn translates to other types of water features, too.

After more than 20 years of work on water features, Pittsburgh Stone & Waterscapes has developed a company operations manual that includes a detailed, step-by-step learning guide employees can follow. To Blunkosky, it’s the best resource new employees have, particularly when it’s supplemented with hands-on training in the field, where new employees are paired with experienced ones on the jobsite.

David Katz, president of Elite Landscaping in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and a director for the NorthEast Spa & Pool Association (NESPA), also stresses the value of hands-on training in the field. In addition to offering in-house training, Katz is a big proponent of connecting with associations like those mentioned in the sidebar below.

Educating clients.

Clients also need to understand the ins and outs of water features. “What is the expected end result? What is your client anticipating?” Katz asks. Once you have a sense of what a client is looking for, you can work to design a feature that meets their needs – and educate them on what to expect once the water feature is installed.

Pond care pointers

When Pittsburgh Stone & Waterscapes installs a pond, its goal is to turn a completed water feature into a self-sustaining ecosystem. Here, Jeff Blunkosky, owner and president, shares a few tips for keeping ponds in shape.

  • Cover pond liners. Covering liners with river gravel can increase the life expectancy of the liner to 20–25 years, versus 10 years without covering it.
  • Install skimmer blocks. By placing a pond pump in skimmer blocks, debris is caught before it hits the pump, improving the duration of the pump and keeping the water clear.
  • Keep algae in check. “One of the biggest problems people have with ponds is they don’t want to see the green algae in the water,” Blunkosky says. “But if you have algae in the water, it means your water is clean.” The trick, he says, is reducing the algae. Covering at least half the water surface with plant material minimizes the space algae has to grow.
  • Pick the right fish. Choosing the right fish helps keep your pond clean. Goldfish breed quickly, which can lead to a lot of fecal matter. Fish like koi don’t breed as often and are natural scavengers, which keeps the water clean.

“A lot of water features in drawings look very clean, pristine and perfect, but most are going to age and show the character that the water makes them take on, whether that’s deterioration of finishes or calcification buildup,” Chafey says. Sometimes that’s acceptable to clients, but other times clients expect a water feature to look brand new all the time.

For this reason, Chafey says, setting expectations is important. “There’s no such thing as a maintenance-free water feature or pool,” he says. Although maintenance of some koi ponds is minimal if they are properly designed and installed, other features such as water walls require more attention and care. Clients who understand the reality of the water features they select are less likely to be disappointed later on.

Design and installation.

Of course, to ensure clients are happy with their water features, proper design and construction are a must. “It’s very easy to draw a pretty picture of a water feature,” Chafey says, “but most water features start to look terrible in a very short amount of time if they are not done properly, so understanding materials and proper construction methods is critical.” In particular, the pros encourage contractors getting started to:

Consider location. “Does it look like it belongs? Does it look like it has been there forever?” Katz asks. “A lot of people buy a hot tub and stick it on the patio. There are a lot of alternatives to that.”

In addition, a water feature should be placed where it can regularly be enjoyed both outdoors and indoors. “You don’t want to place a water feature where you have to go sit out in your yard to enjoy it,” Blunkosky says. Sound is as important as sight, which is why he suggests situating water features where they can be heard inside the building when windows are open.

Understand design. Chafey says that it is vital to understand design fundamentals. “It’s easy to draw different ideas, but to make them look like they belong in the environment is key to making that work so you have a beautiful project that is sustainable.”

Calculate proper components. “It’s very important that you design the water feature with the right components so it functions and looks aesthetically proper,” Blunkosky says. When contractors are working with materials such as cast stone or cast concrete, there isn’t room for error. If pipe size doesn’t match water flow, he says, “the results can be disastrous.”

That’s why proper design and engineering of hydraulics is so important. “The last thing you want to do is have issues with hydraulics and plumbing,” Chafey says. “Although there might not look like there is a lot of water moving with some of these features, there is.”

Focus on a solid foundation. “During excavation of any water feature, you need to dig it out in such a manner that you keep in mind the structural integrity,” Blunkosky says. Good soil is top priority. “If you have poor soil and set your rocks on it, it’s going to settle,” he says. Once a water feature starts to settle, it may start losing water, which, Blunkosky says, “becomes a nightmare.” He recommends digging in tiers. “You don’t want to dig a big 3-foot pond like a bowl because then you have to do a bunch of rock stacking, and the more you stack the less sustainable your feature is.”

Remember maintenance. Once a water feature is designed and constructed, the work isn’t done. Without proper maintenance, water features will fail to live up to both contractors’ and customers’ expectations. Yet there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to maintaining water features. With pools or spas, Katz says, many requirements are set by code. “Sanitary considerations go into it,” he says, because people will be in the water. With ponds that have fish, on the other hand, primary considerations are biological.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, Chafey says that smaller water features are often harder to maintain. With small bodies of water, the slightest change in chemistry from something falling in the water has an immediate effect. As a result, small features require frequent management and water changes.

Knowing what to expect.

The amount of time it takes to install a water feature varies greatly depending on the type and size of the project. Smaller water features, such as an 8- by 10-foot pond with a small waterfall, typically take about two days to install. In contrast, multimillion-dollar pool projects can take as long as 24 months.

Profit margins vary greatly, too, depending on the complexity of a project and a contractor’s location. For instance, in the Arizona market, competition with other pool builders is high, which decreases margins unless contractors focus on higher-end work like Red Rock Contractors does.

In some cases, insurance requirements increase along with the complexity of water projects. Most of the ponds Pittsburgh Stone & Waterscapes constructs are less than 2 feet, so additional liability insurance is not required. But companies that undertake pool construction may be subjected to additional requirements and permitting. Red Rock Contractors has standard construction liability insurance for swimming pools and basic water features. Yet a multimillion-dollar water feature for a commercial client may require an insurance level 10 times that of other projects. Red Rock also has a separate design company that carries its own professional liability insurance because it is often contracted to tackle design work for other contractors.

Many companies outsource parts of their work, ranging from design to installation, depending on employee skillsets. Katz says it all comes down to “recognizing what your strengths are and what you need to do to achieve the project.” For instance, Pittsburgh Stone & Waterscapes designs pools but works with a contractor on installation and maintenance. “Pools are a whole different animal than landscape installation, a whole different skill set and system,” Blunkosky says. “It’s complex, and for us doing the quality of work we do, we’d be spreading ourselves thin by doing pool installation in-house.”

Staying smart.

“Water features are definitely one of the most profitable services we do,” Blunkosky says. He admits, however, that increased profit margins only came with more experience. “The first couple of years weren’t very profitable. It was a big learning curve.” That’s why he recommends that contractors looking to begin installing water features start small.

Chafey says it's not uncommon to hear of a contractor who bit off more than he could chew. “There are stories on a daily basis of contractors who built average in-ground pools for 15 to 20 years, then got a chance to do a project outside their capabilities and it put them out of business or cost them a ton of money,” he says. His company takes over projects for builders who start them but can’t finish them. The results are often disastrous, he says. “It’s not like building a small house, then a bigger one. These are complicated situations, especially with higher-end glass tile work,” he says.

“As beautiful as these things look, they require a lot of attention to detail. There are going to be mistakes, especially when you are just starting,” he adds. One way to avoid costly mistakes, Katz says, is to reach out to companies not in your competitive area for guidance. He also suggests joining trade associations and attending regional and national conventions.

“Water features have been constructed for thousands of years. It’s not a new concept,” Katz says. “There’s so much information available. If you’re willing to read and study, you shouldn’t have a problem making an attempt at it.”

“My biggest recommendation is: Don’t go into it without accepting the responsibility of getting an education,” Chafey adds. “Ninety-five percent of the time when we repair other peoples’ work, it’s not lack of caring but lack of knowledge on how to do it right.”


Get water-feature smart

The pros agree: Education is key to designing, installing and maintaining water features. Here are some of their go-to sources for information, workshops and more.

Genesis 3 University (genesis3.com) offers coursework, projects, examinations and continuing education opportunities for professionals involved in watershape design and construction.

Aquascape (aquascapeinc.com) provides online and regional hands-on training on installing water features through Aquascape Academy.

Atlantic Water Gardens (atlanticwatergardens.com) also has online water gardening education through Atlantic University, which includes four colleges – construction, pumps, filtration and biology – with lessons presented by visiting professors with years of experience working on water features.

The Association of Pool & Spa Professionals (apsp.org) offers online training and a variety of levels of hot tub and swimming pool certifications.

Many regional associations also offer education opportunities. For instance, the NorthEast Spa & Pool Association (nespapool.org) offers the Professional Training Institute (PTI), which provides hands-on and classroom-based technical and business training.


The author is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Ill.