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Building Water Features for Profit

ELIZABETH LEXAU | Waterscapes

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the desire to find solace in the comfort of our homes has grown exponentially. For those lucky enough to own a second home, their escape is usually found in some rustic setting, close to nature, often near a body of water. For everyone else, it’s found in the refuge we create called our backyard.

From the urban-bound city dweller sitting on a crowded subway, to the car-pooling suburbanite stuck on a freeway, there’s at least one thing we all have in common: the soothing pleasure to be derived from the sound of running water. Fountains are an integral part of the high-rise complexes and skyscrapers that fill our cities. And for the homeowner, water features are becoming as much a part of the American backyard as patios, deck chairs, and barbeques.

The last 15 years have seen an explosion in the installation of water features. Once the exclusive domain of the wealthy, fountains and ponds are now within the reach of most homeowners. This is partly because pond installation and maintenance is much easier and faster than it was several years ago. That simplicity has made pond ownership much more accessible to a wider consumer market.

“More consumers are recognizing that water features can substantially increase the value of their property,” says Mark Yunker, of Yunker Plastics, in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. His company offers consulting, design, and installation services for ponds and water gardening. “We’ve seen the trend grow from the simple, small backyard pond to one hundreds of feet in size. People see this as a great investment.” As a landscape contractor, you can be an essential part of helping your customers create their own little slice of heaven on earth.

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Here is a prime example of how a water garden enhance the landscpae.
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Photos courtesy: Savio Engineering

Contractors with knowledge and experience installing ponds and other water features, can count on increasing their profits by taking advantage of this growing market. Advances in technology have also made more and more contractors get into this market with less risk. A good starting point for the novice is the pond kit. Several companies manufacture pond kits that contain professional grade components designed for easy installation and trouble-free performance.

It is important to realize that you shouldn't attempt to install a pond without  knowing what you’re doing. There’s more to it than digging a hole and throwing in a liner, pump and fish! A kit makes installation easier; however, you still need a working knowledge of how to properly install the various components. But more on that later; let’s first look at the advantages of using a pond kit.

A kit and its components are designed by professionals who’ve built hundreds of water features. That experience gives them the knowledge of which designs work and which don’t. Except for rocks and plants, a kit contains all the basic components needed to install a pond: a liner, a filter, a pump and all the necessary hardware. By keeping it simple, these kits shorten the learning curve for the contractor just entering the field. They also eliminate the time it takes to piece together a system from different suppliers.

To maximize your profits, Chic Kelty, of Savio Engineering, in Sante Fe, New Mexico, stresses the importance of simplicity. “Eighty percent of the water feature market can be found in the mid-range ponds that range in size from 500 to 3,000 gallons. Most of your customers can be accommodated by one of the basic pond kits available. Keep it simple, keep it concise, and keep it profitable.”

When it comes to pond kits, keeping it simple doesn’t have to mean making it plain or run-of-the-mill. You can custom-design each water feature, creating an infinite variety of pond styles. “The pond kit is just the foundation on which to build a stylish pond that can be beautifully integrated into the rest of your backyard’s landscaping,” says Gary Wittstock, of PondSweep Manufacturing Company, in Yorkville, Illinois. “You can customize the installation so it doesn’t look like some cookie-cutter kit out of a box.”

A well-designed pond can be as unique and as varied as any found in nature. “Ninety five percent of our installations lean toward the natural side,” says Ed Beaulieu of Aquascape Designs, in Batavia, Illinois. “They feature naturalistic plantings with native species that are suitable for wildlife.” Pond kits are perfect for projects like those. They streamline the installation and mechanical design process, allowing contractors to devote more of their resources toward designing a creative and inviting waterscape.

Although advances in technology, such as improved filtration and durable liners, have made it much easier to build trouble-free custom waterscapes, it is still very important for contractors to educate themselves as much as possible before jumping into this branch of the industry.

Photo courtesy: PondSweep

“You can’t just decide ‘I’m going to start building water features and plunge in,” says Dean Pipito of Aquatica Ponds, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. “A pond that isn’t installed correctly is very difficult to fix. You almost have to start from scratch. A lot of our work is actually in water feature renovation. About one out of two calls we get is for renovation of ponds that were installed incorrectly by other people. While this may be good for our short-term business, it’s definitely not good for the industry.”

One of the fastest and easiest ways to gain knowledge and practice in water-feature construction is through one of the many pond-building seminars and classes available throughout the country. Conducted by professionals in the water-feature industry, these seminars give contractors a chance to learn from the manufacturers themselves, and work alongside builders who are experienced in water-feature design, installation, and maintenance. Your supplier should know when and where these classes are offered.

“You get great hands-on experience,” says Wittstock, “along with an opportunity to network with other professionals. And you can also learn from the mistakes they made on the job. Installers will often share what mistakes were made during the installation of a pond, and then proudly explain their solution to the problem.” It’s a great way to avoid reinventing the wheel.

Along with classes and seminars, you might also consider using yourself as a guinea pig.
“Another great way to gain expertise is to put a pond in your own backyard,” says Beaulieu. “Not only will you have a chance to experiment a little and really get to know the systems, you’ll automatically generate business. You’ll be inundated by neighbors who like what they see and want one too. Most of the business in this field is generated through word-of-mouth.”

Seeking help from other professionals is also a good way to become more educated, along with helping to generate new ideas. This is important for waterscape builders at any experience level. Wittstock also stresses learning on smaller ponds and waterscapes before attempting large ones.

Paying for professional advice is another option. “Don’t be afraid to use a good consultant,” says Yunker. A consulting fee can be a small price to pay for a successful design that keeps a customer happy for years. And some companies will credit the consulting fee towards purchase if contractors opt to use their products. Your distributor is also someone you can turn to. Not only are they aware of the newest products available, but they are also knowledgeable about how other contractors in your area are doing things.

Once you’ve become comfortable with the process of installing ponds and water features, you might consider moving away from kits and purchasing individual components as needed. The items are usually less expensive when purchased individually. According to Wittstock, you might enjoy up to a 15 percent savings, but he says the biggest advantage is the freedom to create a pond unlike any other. “You’re not limited to the specifications and size of the kit. You can design whatever you envision. You’re only limited by your imagination.”

The disadvantage to buying separate components is that you are on your own once you start the installation. If you didn’t plan properly, whatever money you saved will be spent correcting your mistakes. And if you forgot to buy something as simple as some screws or pipes, you can lose time and money while you stop the installation process to go and get the parts that are needed. Wittstock says you should have several months experience, and a few installations under your belt, before you abandon the use of kits.

Whether you choose to use pond kits, or decide to put together components from different sources, the quality of the components can make or break the success of the project. One of the most important components is the waterproof pond liner itself. Although ponds can be built with pre-formed rigid liners, concrete or clay, the most popular and versatile waterproofing material is a flexible pond liner.

Liners generally come in a wide variety of sizes and can also be ordered in custom sizes. Their size, variation, and flexibility allow for the infinite variety of shapes and styles contractors need to please the varying tastes of their clients. EPDM rubber pond liners have become very popular because of their ability to conform to all shapes. They are also weather and UV resistant.

Whatever type of liner you use, it must be strong, resistant to degradation, and above all, it must be fish-friendly. “It’s not just about creating a waterproof barrier, it’s also about the safety and integrity of the product,” says Yunker. “If you try to cut corners by starting with a lesser grade liner, you could find that three to five years down the road, it will start to break down. To go back and re-line the pond will cost at least twice what it would have cost to do it right the first time.” With proper installation, contractors can expect high quality pond liners to last at least 20 years.

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After
Photos courtesy: Aquascape Designs

Once a quality liner is in place, you want to make sure you use the right filtration system. After all, it is the engine that gives the pond life. An under-powered filter will ensure failure; an over-powered filter will waste water and electricity. Wittstock says that before installing a filter, you must take into consideration the size of the pond and pipes, the types of plants and rocks being used, the size and number of waterfalls being installed, and the types of fish that will be living in the pond. These are all elements that work together to keep the pond clean.

A pond is ultimately a man-made eco-system, a self-contained body of water. A properly designed filter system is essential to keeping the water clean and healthy, even if no fish are planned. Manufacturers can make all sorts of claims about what their product can do. Wittstock advises talking to your supplier and his technical staff. They can help you with any questions you have about what system to use and its features; they should also be able to show you a working system that’s up-and-running.

By learning how to properly install water features, the landscape contractor can create a profitable adjunct business to his service offerings. And a quality installation ensures you repeat business. Wittstock points out that your work is your own best means of marketing yourself and your skills; the better you are, the more you can be compensated for those skills. Seeing each job as part of your portfolio will help you take what began as an add-on service to the next level of success.

Jeff Ebben, owner of Jeff’s Lawn Care and Landscaping, in Kaukauna, Wisconsin agrees. A full-service design-build landscape operation, Ebben’s company started building water features about seven years ago. “We found a system that was easy to install and involved a lot less maintenance. We could make every project look unique and easily make them as natural-looking as possible.” Now about 20 percent of the company’s work is in water features.

“I’ve seen major advances in water feature components over the years, especially in the area of filtration and maintenance” says Pipito. “These changes have made it easier all around. It’s easier to sell a project, easier to install it, easier to educate the client in how to take care of it, and easier to keep clients satisfied years down the road when their pond is still functioning properly.”

“Adding water features has definitely increased our profits,” Ebben said. “Basically we were getting jobs because of it. It really added to the number of projects we were able to get because we could offer the whole package.”

But some may worry about long-term growth, wondering if they should get into this for the long haul? Will there still be a market in this field 15 years from now? From all indicators, the answer is yes.

Water features have become a vital part of the landscaping industry, generating much revenue. As more and more homeowners discover that waterscapes provide a relaxing oasis of tranquility in the sea of madness called life, it will drive the business to greater heights. And the revenue that generates should soothe the troubled brow of any landscape contractor worried about taking that first step.

 
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