Contractor's Corner

Contractor’s Corner | Step Up Your Game Plan

Out with the old water pumps and filters. In with external filtration!

filter with pump

Filter with Pump.

First, a little history. Back in the ‘90s when I started in the pond business, I ordered a few water lilies from Rolf and Anita Nelson at Lilypons, some pumps from Little Giant and Cal Pump, and a few filters from Davis Creek called the “big guy” and “little guy” filters. Equipment for a pond was akin to having only three channels on TV during a speech by the President. The pumps had a threaded inlet that hooked to a bulkhead fitting on the side of a pot filled with buffer pad material. It was amazing how quickly the water cleared!

The problem was that the unit was in the pond. It was heavy with water, filled with all kinds of debris from who-knows-what, and was a nasty proposition to clean. However, it was an answer to the problem at the time. Times are changing.

Fast-forward a few years, and a well known company builds a box that can skim the water, collect leaves, filter the water and protect the submersible pump from large debris. Not to mention, it was easy to clean. This was groundbreaking for our industry. However, the pumps were still an issue, as many of them leaked oil into the water if (and when) the seals broke. Uncoated aluminum pumps would galvanize and soon fail. Times are changing.

Over the years, many pool owners have wanted to purchase a separate sand filter and pool pump to clean the water. This type of filter required a high-pressure pump to push water through the sand, which uses a considerable amount of electricity and is quite loud. Sand also can harbor bad bacteria, which can cause the nitrogen cycle to abruptly raise the nitrite level. Many backyard ponders did not want to hear such a loud, industrial-style motor that had a low entry price but did not last very long due to bearing or seal failure. Sand filters had a tendency to stop up quickly when an algae bloom occurred. A better solution was just around the corner. Times are changing.

It’s time to step up your game! There are many vendors who sell long-life, low-rpm motors that have a warranty of up to three years and generally last for many years beyond that. These pumps are safer, since they are not submerged in water. At first, we purchased flooded-suction motors that were great and very quiet, but they were difficult to prime if they were above the water level. Also, these pumps required a separate in-line skimmer to keep debris out of the impeller veins of the motor. This was a possible source of an air leak on the suction side of the pump. Times are changing.

External Filter

External Filter.

Then, new self-priming pumps were introduced. These pumps can be used as a flooded-suction unit or above the pond water level to keep the water moving. The pumps are usually powered by a motor that is not big and loud — maybe 1 or 2 Horsepower, as are most pool pumps. But, they start out at 1/8 Horsepower and go up to ½ Horsepower, producing more than 13,000 gallons per hour if the piping is correctly sized. Noise has been significantly reduced, since they generally turn at 1,725 rpm instead of 3,450 rpm. Pumps began lasting much longer than the warranty, and flow was adequate.

Now, variable-speed pumps can be installed to not only impress the neighbors with massive water amounts, but also can be programmed to turn down at specific times. The new series of pumps can even be run on 110-volt power! Just plug and play — no need to hire an electrician to run a 220-volt line to the motor.

Demi Fortuna is widely known for his demonstration of water flow using one pump and getting significantly more water flow out of large-diameter piping as opposed to the traditional 2-inch pipe. Safety has improved as well, as there are no submersible pumps that the national electric code allows in any body of water that humans may touch. This includes swim ponds, too!

There are many types of filters for ponds, from simple pads located in the skimmer and water falls with lava rock to hold down the pad, to external foam pad-filled plunger filters, to high-end, backwash filters. Most everyone starts out with a skimmer that has a 1-inch pad through which you could read a newspaper. This type of filtration catches large debris like leaf chunks and other similar-sized debris, but it allows small debris to easily pass through and recirculate back into the water column. Usually it is best to wear weekend work clothes to clean these pads. Still, there is a better way to filter water. Times are changing.

Every pond owner wants simple, easy, clean, efficient filtration. The cost for the DIY-er or big-box store filters keeps most pond owners from getting the best high-end filters on the market. Their advertising and slick marketing promise clear water, but the reality of constant maintenance when fish loads increase, or the seasonal spring and fall leaf drop generally get the best of most pond owners.

Automatic Filter

Automatic Filter.

The best filters use a media that is generally plastic and looks like cut-up soda straws or beads. They are easily cleaned with normal-to-aggressive backwashing. The media is long-lasting and seldom needs replacing.

Let’s step up the technology. After many years of selling pond products, I have found that the best filters have a blower on them to aggressively loosen the media from the debris so it can be washed out during a normal backwash cycle. These blowers break loose the debris from the media, which facilitates cleaning the media and saving water. I have also found that the internal plumbing in the filters can be a hindrance and accelerate the backwashing cycle. If there seems to be a tangle of PVC pipes, flow will be lost, and the ability to clean the water efficiently will decrease.

I have also used several brands with cases that tend to crack after a short time. That’s why I tend to look to brands that have a lifetime warranty on the filter casing.

I am a forward-looking pond owner and have sold as many as 22 fully automatic filters in one year. These filters have one or two mechanisms to start the backwash mode. The first is a pressure sensor in the filter set at a user-defined point to clean the filter. The second is a timer that automatically backwashes on a predefined day and time. Many customers only want to enjoy the pond and not perform backwashing maintenance, so these filters are a great fit for them.

If there are pine or oak trees in the area, there is probably a tendency for the water to be a clear brown color, which reduces the clarity. Now there are backwash filters that contain activated carbon. These filters will remove not only the brown color, but also any toxins that are in the water. This type of filter does not have to be used year-round; it can be used periodically to clear the water and then be bypassed until the next time it is needed — generally in the spring and fall when leaves and needles fall.

My greatest selling point for an external pump and filter is the convenience. External pumps have an easy cleaning basket. Backwash filters keep the maintenance easy. Backwashing can be done while wearing good clothes, with a cup of coffee or cell phone in hand, and there is little risk of getting soiled from dirty water.

Recently, I attended the Water Garden Expo in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and I had the pleasure of showing many of my pond-builder friends the benefits of external filtration. After taking the leap and installing a correctly sized filter, Brad Cazee of Cazee Ponds was astonished by the amount of brown waste-filled backwash water that came out of an otherwise clear pond after just three days. One week later, he backwashed again and was still amazed at how the external filter had super-cleaned his water!

Installation of the new generation of external pumps is easy. When plumbing lines that are the correct size are used, the location is seldom a factor. We generally place the pump, filter and other equipment around the corner of the house or away from the water feature, so the maintenance is convenient for the homeowner (or more importantly, me). So, step up your game with an external pump and filter, and enjoy your pond!

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