Disappearing Water Features Create a Visual Wow Factor

Published on October 28, 2017

weeping spring limestone wall
Creating a weeping spring limestone wall, this amazing feature looks completely natural and creates a maintenance-free water feature for the client. (Designed and built by Water Features of Texas)

We’ve all seen them, and they continue to grow more popular — the waterfall that disappears into a bed of river rock; the bubbling urn that entertains with a mix of brightly glazed color and dancing, living water; the soothing stream that flows along a pathway and out of sight below a bridge. The disappearing water feature has a wow factor and intrigue about it that is hard to replicate with other designs. “Where does the water go?” is commonly heard from our customers as they stand amazed in front of one of the many disappearing water features we have on display.

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 These features are common in commercial and public settings and are becoming a favorite choice of homeowners for numerous reasons, from their low maintenance to their small footprint to their uniqueness and ability to integrate a variety of materials. For professionals, they can be the perfect answer to a challenging situation, a great landscaping add-on for existing clients or a simple way to create a wow factor in a very short amount of time. But to truly excel with these features, you must know all your options and when to use what equipment, from what the customer sees on the surface to the workings underneath that should never be seen.

Your first challenge at hand is no different from that of installing any other water feature  to offer the perfect visual that matches the purpose, backdrop and feel of the area. For example, bubbling urns are great if you are looking for a quiet visual and a splash of color. These fit aesthetically in gardens, commercial settings, contemporary buildings and where sight is more important than sound.

color glazed urns
Add a splash of color! Glazed urns are a fantastic addition and come in endless sizes, shapes and colors to please your client. Designed and built by Peyton Stefek (14 years old) for Water Garden Gems.

Other common water features like basalt columns, drilled rock and concrete fountains plumbed to be disappearing features are similar in that they have locations that are ideal for them, such as circle drives, courtyards and meditation areas. However, if you are working in a turf yard or a grove of trees, these will conflict with their natural surroundings. The waterfall or meandering stream that drops the water into a bed of gravel and disappears right in front of your eyes is more the ticket in natural settings, and your choice of water feature dictates the equipment and hydraulic designs needed. Once you have visualized the proper feature, you must equip it correctly.

The Equipment Makes the Project

There are endless options on the market for disappearing feature basins that come in a variety of shapes, sizes and weight limits. An EPDM liner with a simple reinforced metal grate can be situated above the pond to hold the layer of rocks that hide it — a tried and true, preferred method in large or more complicated features. Then there are Aquablocks and pump vaults that can be added if desired to make accessing the pump easier. With so many options, how do you know what to use?

The answer is dependent on the feature. It’s part math problem, but the rest is structural common sense. Always err on the side of caution. First, you have to know how much water is going to be displaced when you plug in the pump. Make sure the basin will hold two to three times that amount. For urns, basalt columns and the sort that are small, lighter weight and do not displace much water, prefabricated basins can work great as long as they are on solid ground that is not subject to common movement that causes them to lose their level state over time.

Alternatively, a liner system that will flex and flow with ground shifting will work. Just use reinforced grating above the water level to hold up the feature. Be sure that your rock or media of choice over the pool is large enough so that it cannot fall into your water basin and cause a potential issue with your pump. For this, we love using ¼-inch heavy plastic mesh that will last the lifetime of the feature to keep pebbles, leaves and anything else from falling through. Regardless of your chosen basin design, always install an automatic float valve to fill the basin back up so you always have plenty of water and your pump never runs dry.

Choose the Right Pump

Next, your choice of pump is not a complicated one, but an important one. You must realize that it is not easy to get to the pump, no matter what your design is. It will require, at the very least, moving a couple of rocks to uncover the vault or the trapdoor, or, at most, cutting electric cords and possibly dismantling part of the feature to access the pump. We want to install a pump that is going to churn and burn maintenance-free for a long time. When I consult with customers on this, I always recommend that they absolutely do not skimp on this particular item, as you always get what you pay for.

basin diagram
Use a liner and structural blocks under a coated metal grate and fine plastic mesh for a very versatile basin ideal for heavy features, natural rock features, streams, waterfalls and anywhere flexibility is needed.

Small features can use magnetic drive pumps, but make sure you choose a brand that can pass particles and has a strong impeller. In my experience, Laguna MaxFlow pumps are great for these features, as they not only have nearly indestructible impellers, but they are housed in a large filtering basket to keep particles from getting to the pump, increasing the surface area of suction. In larger and natural features where some sand and larger particles could get into the basin, I prefer horsepower pumps made by Matala and Performance Pro, which have a strong record of performance and can pass the particles without causing damage to the impeller.

Always use pumps that have heat sensor shutoffs so they will not overheat if the basin runs dry. Regardless of size or design, you need a pump that can push water consistently without needing a prefilter to protect the impeller, as we do not want to put a filter down in the basin that would require routine cleaning.

Filtration Finesse

With disappearing water features, we are not interested in biofiltering the water to keep it healthy. Instead, we are interested in water clarity and algae control. How we accomplish this is again determined by the feature design and the client’s desires. Do we need equipment or additives?

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 With some features, accepting the added cost of equipment to control algae up-front is the right thing to do. Ionizers help control algae growth on rock surfaces and can be very helpful when installed inline to keep your feature looking fresher and decrease the wet-rock algae visual. A UV clarifier can be a nice addition if there is pooling water, where the suspension green-water algae can take away from the beauty of the feature. These provide specific algae control without maintenance on the client’s part.

Most commonly, though, we do not need these filters and can simply use additives to treat algae issues. We at Water Garden Gems love 35-percent hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide destroys organics on a cellular level, creating a fantastic option for complete algae control regardless of the feature design. It is also odorless and safe for animals above the surface to drink, as opposed to some algaecides, chlorine, bleach or vinegar. This method, while great for nonliving water features, is not recommended where fish or aquatic plants live. However, it can be an amazing answer for some disappearing water features, and your client will love you for providing them with magic in a bottle! Granular oxi-algaecides can be very effective and easy to use on larger features and streams that have great surface mass.

Go the Extra Distance

water feature home
Artistry shines in a variety of ways with disappearing features. A massive copper vase feature uniquely accents this home built by Water Features of Texas.

When developing your design and offering for your client, you have to give them the answers to their algae issues before they arise. So, think ahead. In your design, take the plan one step beyond the drawing board and build a clean-out plan. These features inherently can be a problem to clean when the time comes for it, so make that task easy to accomplish.

Pipe in a drainage port and plug in the lower side of the basin that is easy to access to drain as needed. In larger features that have tubing coming out of the basin, install a diverter tee and valve inline so you can turn the valve and drain the basin without messing with the pump. Think about the leaves; skimmers are not installed in disappearing features. Leaves can be a problem, but there are solutions available if they are included in your design.

Always use sludge pellets. No matter what the feature or design, sludge will accumulate in the basin. This includes dead algae and decomposed biomass from leaves and other materials. The monthly use of sludge-removing pellets will keep the basin and feature cleaner and thereby protect your pump and your system from possible clogs and other issues as well. These can also eliminate the need for periodic cleanouts altogether.

Say Yes with Confidence

Disappearing water features are a great offering for your current and potential clients, and the possibilities for wowing are limitless. To do them correctly, they require expertise in the design, which is no different from any other water feature. Give your customer something exceptional by choosing the right equipment for the specific job and giving them the extras to make their work easier and enjoyment greater.

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