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Responsible Pond Building

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Just the other day, I received an email from a long-time customer. I did not build their pond and 50-foot stream initially, but I have been cleaning and putting band-aids on their chronically leaking stream since the start of our professional business relationship.

Let me quote a brief excerpt from this email: “Dave, I wanted to thank y’all for the rebuilding of the stream. It is so much better—looks great and there are no leaks. You were right, Dave. I have not known anything other than leaks. But I have not had to add any water to the pond since you rebuilt the stream.”

It seems like it was just yesterday, but looking at the calendar, I see it was a decade ago that I saw this problem and others raising their ugly heads within the pond industry. Back in 2003, I noticed that my percentage of new installations was taking a steady plunge in comparison to renovations.

In 2001, my business consisted of 100 percent new pond building. In 2003, when I started looking at the stats, I realized that this was changing. We were doing almost 60 percent renovations, and it really bothered me. Why were so many people having their new ponds rebuilt?

Those of us who have been in the pond industry for more than awhile realize that around the turn of the century, there was a mass-marketing, all out assault on the pond fancying consumer market. This resulted in a lot of people who weren’t necessarily qualified to design and build a pond getting involved in the industry. They gleefully jumped into the market and started selling water gardens and ponds, even though they had received little or no training or had any experience. They figured, “How tough can it be? It’s just a hole in the ground, a rubber liner and some other stuff.” Right?

In all fairness, training courses were offered all over the country. Many people attended these courses, but many, many more didn’t. In a lot of cases, many of those who did attend these training courses really didn’t get much more than a bare minimum of knowledge.

The number of pond installations that needed major renovations/repairs/redos exploded in just a couple of years in the market I serve, which is Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve heard from other seasoned pros that it occurred pretty much all across the country, and it still continues today.

With the morale and physical support of a good friend, we formed the International Professional Pond Companies Association (IPPCA). This not-for-profit group offers the consumer a pre-screened and prequalified contractor search data base online, where they can find and hire professionals to do quality installations for them. That is really the motivation for this article.

When you take on a project to build a water garden or pond for a client, you have a professional responsibility to do a good job and leave them with a successful feature. If you haven’t had any training, you’re doing your customer and yourself a disservice. I’m going to make a quick list of some of the things I’ve seen done wrong in pond and waterscape installations over the years. I hope we can all learn something from them.

ONE

Liner cut too short

Many, many water features have had to be torn out and redone because somebody cut the liner too short around the pond or stream edge. Don’t cut the liner until the system is full and running. Then leave several inches of extra liner, folded over and buried, rather than just cut off.

TWO

Skimmer set improperly

Many beginners don’t understand that the skimmer establishes the final, ideal water level in a feature. Eyeballing doesn’t always work. Use a lot level or a straight board with a level taped to it to determine level and the proper depth to set the skimmer.

THREE

Wrong size pump

Many installers don’t realize that skimmers have maximum recommended flow rates to work correctly. They do, and you need to know what it is when you design the system. Know what flow rates are the maximum recommended for the plumbing as well. Putting a 6,000 gph pump in a skimmer with a six-inch opening and running 1½ inch pipe is a major design flaw and wasteful. For one, 1½ inch pipe will only handle about 3,000 gph. So you’re wasting the pump’s potential and using too much electricity. Secondly, a six-inch skimmer can’t properly handle much more than 4,000 gph. It works well at 2,000 to 3,000 gph.

FOUR

Wrong size filter

A filter is designed to handle a certain maximum amount of flow to do its job properly. Too many people buy with the perceived dollars they’re willing to spend, rather than what will properly do the job. I see filters with  one inch inlet/outlets hooked up to 3,000 gph pumps. The one inch filter can handle about 1,000 gph at max. Do you see the waste and failure potential here?

FIVE

Poorly compacted dirt

Too many installers don’t think about the soil settling over the years. The more weight you put on dirt, the more important that it should be well compacted beforehand. Think long term what is going to happen to that two-ton boulder you’re setting along the edge of a pond. Does it need a support column poured first to keep the edge of the pond from collapsing a couple of years after you set it there? That stream edge will start leaking if not properly compacted, especially if the liner is cut with zero tolerance.

SIX

Too much gravel

Way too many times, I go to a new customer to clean their pond and find a foot of pea gravel in the bottom of the pond. There should only be one to two inches of mixed pea gravel, just enough to cover the liner. Any more and it goes septic and causes all sorts of fish health problems. Large Koi will pick up pea gravel, roll it around in their mouth and then drop it. Over the course of a year, quite a bit will get “grazed” upon from upper levels and will get dropped to a lower level. You need to put it back up there when you do your annual pond clean.

SEVEN

Multiple level ponds

How many times have you seen the upper pond spilling over into a waterfall/stream down to a lower pond?

It’s a great idea and a design used frequently. The problem occurs when the upper pond is larger than the lower pond. Any loss of power and the upper pond’s surplus drains down to the lower. If the lower can’t handle this extra water, it overflows and is lost. Now, the power comes back on, and there is no longer enough

water for the system to fill the upper pond back to full pool and your pump is left there sucking air, over-revving and burning itself up. Make sure your lowest level can handle all the “suspended” water without overflow.

EIGHT

UV bulbs stuck down in a skimmer

Ultraviolet clarifiers, aka UVs, are primarily used to damage single-cell phytoplankton so they can’t split and replicate. To do this damage, the amount of exposure to the ultraviolet radiation has been scientifically calculated. The water has to pass through the “reactor chamber” at a rate no faster than science and tests have shown to be effective. A skimmer is not a reactor chamber, number one, and number two, it’s usually moving a lot more water than the bulb can properly irradiate. There is one skimmer out there that has provisions for putting a bulb down into a built-in “reaction chamber.” Literally every one that I have seen set up that way is pulling too much water for the UV to have any chance of doing its intended job. Bolton Photosciences, Inc. has done all the scientific tests. Unfortunately, only one UV manufacturer in the pond industry uses their equations for its recommended flow rates.

NINE

Overall design flawed

Rather than go over all the bad designs I’ve seen over the years, I’m going to simply and briefly outline the steps I use to properly equip a pond. First, we determine the location and size of the feature. Knowing the size, I can determine my approximate gallons of capacity. Knowing the gallons, I can now determine my pump size. I like to get the whole volume of the pond through a properly sized filter one or more times per hour. Let’s just say that the pond is going to hold 2,000 gallons of water. I’m planning on a two-foot-wide waterfall that will split into two 10 foot streams, each approximately two feet wide. I want a good flow in both streams, so I am going to put in a 4,800 gph pump. This now lets me determine the correct size skimmer. I want one with at least an eight inch opening. Now I determine that I will use two inch pipe that has a maximum recommended flow rate of 5,000 gph. My filter has to be sized to handle the 4,800 gph that I intend to put through it, not just the 2,000-gallon size.

Several of these topics could merit their own articles, but due to space constraints, I have tried to give you the basics.

During INFO TANZA, seminars covering these subjects are given. This year’s event will be held in conjunction with the Irrigation Association Show in Austin, Texas, November 5-7. Check it out.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave Jones is the owner of The Pond Professional.

 
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