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Waterscapes: Maintenance Ponds & Fountains

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Last spring, you installed a beautiful pond
with a waterfall. Your client indicated
that she would stock it with fish. But after a long, hot summer, you got a call complaining that the pond had some green stuff growing on it and
the fish looked funny. Youre no fish expert,
but you knew something was wrong with
the pond. This year, you wont repeat that
scenario because you found out what to do.

To avoid most maintenance problems with ponds and fountains, you need to do it right the first time. That means youll need to do your homework about the environment in which youll build your pond and install your fountain. Think of a pond as a big aquarium, says Steve Springer, president of the Waterscapes division of OASE in Camarillo, California. The major and critical aspect of creating and maintaining a pond is protecting the biological balance of everything in it. You will be creating an ecosystem, and everything that goes into it must maintain that environment.

The key to maintaining your pond is the water factor. Installing and maintaining aerating and water cleaning equipment, and adding the appropriate bacteria will keep the pond environment stable and healthy for the plants and fish you want to put there. It takes time to get the proper water balance, usually about 6-8 weeks for a brand new pond, says Springer.

Maintenance calls for commercial ponds vary, depending on where youre located. According to Dirk Rohloff, owner and president of Pacific Water Art, in Mountain View, California, it depends on climate, environment, landscape plants around the pond, and the grading and drainage patterns which affect runoff into the pond. Each pond or water feature has its own personality; subsequently, some require twice weekly maintenance, others require only once a month, Rohloff says. Often with large ponds, the water quality can even change from week to week, due to the amount of nutrients in runoff and debris in the water.
Some contractors, like Mike Graham, vice president of operations for Landscape Concepts Management in Grayslake, Illinois, offer a weekly contract through the growing season. This allows the contractor to keep an eye on changing conditions.


Before & After

Residential pond maintenance differs from commercial maintenance. According to Michael OKeefe of Aquatic Landscapes in Dallas, Texas, The residential pond doesnt have the same runoff problems as the commercial pond; it doesnt collect fertilizer and street oils. So a maintenance program is not as intense.
Nearly all contractors teach residential clients to maintain their own water features, usually by their request. OKeefe explains that the homeowner enjoys working with his pond almost too much, to the point that sometimes he has to tell him to leave it alone because its too clean. Therefore, the majority of maintenance contracts for pond maintenance are for commercial ponds, and its a lucrative business.

Pond Problems
Bill Wingo, aquatic biologist and owner of Lone Star Fountains and Magnolia Fisheries in Flower Mound, Texas, says that submersed aquatic weeds and algae present a constant challenge. The degree of aquatic vegetation growth is a function of water depth, water clarity, weather patterns, and nutrient loading. In addition to being an eyesore, algae clog filters, pump inlets, and other equipment. Silting is accelerated, oxygen levels reduced, and bad odors result, he says.
The ponds use and state regulations influence the treatments selected. Ideally, Wingo adds, aquatic plant management should be a combination of methods that work harmoniously with the environment. There are a number of techniques that help maintain the pond environment. These include pond aeration, filters, controlling runoff, biological methods, and the use of aquatic herbicides.

Pond Aeration
Aeration is a common and effective way to maintain good water quality and kill or prevent the growth of algae. Aerators promote a healthy fish habitat, reduce nutrient problems due to lack of oxygen, reduce odor, and increase decomposition of organic matter.

Two types of aeration are generally used: floating fountains, also called surface aerators, and bottom-diffused aerators. Fountains come in a variety of sizes and spray patterns. Some are even designed to alternate between patterns. While very functional, fountains and aerators also add drama to a landscape, especially when lit at night.

Rodney Bulava, manager of the water feature department for Landscape Concepts Management, says his company uses a variety of aerators. He suggests being cautious with floating fountains alone for putting oxygen back into the water, because he has found they dont grab the deep water. To counter this, Wingo says, Fountains can be equipped with suction tube extensions to pull water from greater depths. This enhances mixing and oxygenation of the pond.

Bottom-diffuse aeration systems are the most efficient for providing oxygen flow within a pond, according to Wingo. In very deep ponds, these are not visible as they do their work. They can also be combined with a fountain, for aesthetics.

Maintaining Aerators and Fountains
Many maintenance calls for aerators and fountains occur in the aftermath of thunderstorms and after power interruptions, which stop the work of the water-cleaning equipment, says Wingo. Storms blow debris into ponds, which can overtax a filtration system. Plastic bags present special problems, because they tend to clog up the suction screen and restrict water flow to the fountains. Having the proper skimmer, a device that strains the large debris, in place in front of the pump and filter will prevent most clog problems, says Springer. If the debris makes its way into the propeller shaft and locks up the fountain, then the pump may need to be removed and cleaned or repaired. Its a good idea to schedule a maintenance check after a major storm.

The quality of the pond denotes whether removal of the fountains and aerators are necessary during our routine maintenance calls, says Bulava. We do a minimum of two mid-season calls, and have found that plastic bags are the biggest culprit. He uses dual intakes to avoid totally plugging up the system.

There are numerous brands of fountains and aerators available, and most offer one to three year warranties. Some manufacturers recommend yearly removal and servicing of the fountain or aerator motor. Others are water-cooled and lubricated, and require no routine service to remain within warranty. Nearly all contractors remove and clean them at least once a year.

Enhancing Water Quality
Providing enough oxygen for the pond environment is one step toward creating the aquarium environment desired. Standard water-quality tests are a good tool to determine the general condition of the pond, Wingo says. These tests look at pond temperatures, pH, alkalinity, hardness, nitrite, and phosphorus in the water. If fish will be added to the pool or pond, these tests will guide you in adjusting the water to sustain fish. These tests are also helpful in gauging the extent of the effects of runoff.

Filtration systems also help keep the water clean; however, make sure you use ones that are suited to the size pond, says Springer. Spa filters should never be used for a pond because they are designed to be used with water that does not have very many dissolved particles in it, and is treated with chlorine or bromide. These filters have paper or fiber cartridges that have to be replaced frequently.

Three of the popular types of pond filters are: gravity, pressure, and bio. Gravity filters should be installed where the outlet is higher than the water level. Pressure filters can be buried or camouflaged in a vault. Bio filters are suitable for all pond types, whether there are plants and fish or not. They require little maintenance, because the filter medium is cleaned and reused.

Runoff for large ponds is a problem that not only contributes to an unhealthy pond but can also impact the environment. It can be minimized by some general landscape maintenance techniques. Graham encourages homeowner associations to leave a four to five-foot buffer along the mowing edge. This reduces erosion and discourages Canadian geese, he says. Waterfowl can add extra nutrients to the water environment. Graham adds, We use erosion fabric and plugs of native plants along the shoreline, offering a natural look while growing a natural filter for runoff.

Tom Fochtman, owner of CoCal Landscape in Denver, Colorado, has his crews clean the primary drain inlets and trickle channels from streets and gutters to restrict oil and grease pollution from streets. They also clean out silt build-up in ditches using manpower or backhoes. And they have reshaped the banks of drain ditches to eliminate trickle channels into their ponds.

To decrease nutrient overload and algae bloom from inorganic fertilizer runoff, Graham uses water-soluble dye to prevent sunlight from penetrating the water. This discourages plant and algae growth. Wingo suggests switching to organic fertilizers for the surrounding lawns. These arent so quickly released into the water system after a rain.

Biological Control
The introduction of organically-occurring bacteria, or microbes, to restrict algae growth is a natural way of treating algae. Microbes work by consuming the excess nutrients that algae need to grow. But patience is necessary. This can be difficult for the client who wants instant gratification.

Since chemicals work right away, the expectations are that microbes work just as quickly, Wingo says. Bacteria work slowly, naturally, so we explain to our clients not to expect visible changes in the water for three to four weeks. While chemicals address the symptoms of the problem, microbes address the cause of the problem.

Aquatic Herbicide Control
If you choose chemical herbicides, there are two different kinds: contact and systemic.
Contact herbicides achieve fast results, but may require multiple treatments during algae bloom season. Additionally, exposure of every part of the target plant is necessary. Systemic herbicides are slower to kill, however they provide seasonal control, and there is no oxygen depletion due to rapid decomposition of vegetation.

Many pond management companies, like Fochtmans, use a combination of aquatic chemicals, bacteria, and aerator systems to combat algae in the ponds his company maintains. Bill Henkelman, vice president for The Brickman Group, Glendale Heights, Illinois, says his company uses aquatic herbicides or bacterial treatments in combination with aeration techniques.

California is much tougher than other states on the use of chemicals, states Rohloff, You have to report what, where, and how much youve added. While aquatic herbicides may be safer than they used to be, we dont use them unless its the last option. We use the addition of bacteria and mechanical filtration systems with commercial-grade sand filters that remove solid products from the water.

Every state requires, at minimum, a pesticide applicators license to apply aquatic chemicals. Contact your states Extension Service and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, who regulate chemical usage in wetlands, adds Wingo. Both of these departments maintain lists of allowable chemicals.

Pond maintenance can save you headaches, and will also help preserve the aesthetics of the pond or pool you installed, keeping the environment healthy. According to Rohloff, commercial pond maintenance contracts arent difficult to sell. Pond maintenance is profitable, he says. Youre not going to get rich, but its steady work.

April 2002

 
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