Fountain Maintenance: Tools and Techniques from the City of Fountains

colored water commercial fountain

This fountain was dyed pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Kansas City is known as the City of Fountains. With 200 registered city fountains and many more residential and commercial features in a centralized location, our customers’ expectations are elevated. The techniques, tools and tricks in fountain maintenance used here can be adapted to most regions and can provide a steady stream of income for the water-feature professional.

Open for Business

Opening fountains usually starts between mid-April and early May and is largely predicated by the amount of debris from flowering trees and migrating birds. If features are opened too early, motors get clogged with birch and oak catkins as well as lots of waste from birds moving through or back into the area. It has also proven very important to open fountains before Mother’s Day to keep customers happy.

 In many ways, opening time is very gratifying, but it can also be very frustrating. To see clear water spraying about is a beautiful sight and a reminder of how special this job can be. On the other hand, regardless of whether a fountain worked like a dream when it was shut down the previous three months, when it is turned on again and a motor is burned out or plumbing is cracked and the auto-fill is not working, it can be very time-consuming when time is in short supply. Opening is basically a reversal of the closing process: putting plumbing back together, lubricating O-rings, replacing light bulbs, pressurizing the system and checking for leaks. This should all be done in a systematic, focused manner to avoid missing any details. With some of the more advanced systems, the smallest component out of place can cause lots of damage.

Submersible vs. External

For the purposes of this article, fountains can be classified in two ways: submersible and external pump-driven. There are different considerations and techniques required for each, although weekly maintenance for either is ideal to keep them in the best aesthetic condition. Typically, smaller fountains like those found in the yards of residential customers are submersible pump-driven and hold less water volume. The pumps are located in a compartment within the lowest bowl, hidden from view by a removable door. The challenge is how quickly the small volume of water can build up nutrients that feed vigorous algae and bacterial growth. A full flush and scrub-down of the system may be required several times a season.

Pump enclosure commercial fountain

A fully concealable, underground pump chamber and control panel.

Larger-volume fountains with more automation rarely need the same complete clean-out. More sophisticated fountains come with many options for display and maintenance, and many are driven by external motors plumbed with various filters and valves. Housing this equipment out of sight in an underground pump chamber is a popular option, allowing flooded suction for an external pump and space for supplementary systems. The biggest concern for this setup is flooding. A flood in the pump chamber can lead to a total loss of vital components. Having a sump pump in the lowest part of the pump chamber is a must for these systems. An above-grade system alleviates the dangers of flooding but can be an eyesore and subject to vandalism.

Better Living Through Chemistry

Maintenance requirements vary by the type of feature, yet all have the same goal of clear water flowing properly. Knowing the water chemistry and how to adjust it is very helpful in achieving this goal. Of primary concern are pH, carbonate hardness, phosphate and chlorine levels. The pH is a determining factor on how treatments will react within the system. A range of 7.8 to 8 pH is a worthy goal — slightly higher than most swimming pools, but still wildlife-friendly. The water will vary wildly from that range if not buffered. Buffering the water to a target of 125 parts per million (ppm) carbonate hardness (KH) can be attained easily by using the proper amount of baking soda. Phosphates can lead to algae blooms, so knowing the levels and reducing them is wise.

There are many products on the market to sequester phosphate in fountains, and all seem to do a fine job. Chlorine is one of those necessary evils when it comes to fountains. Chlorine can be very hard on the components of the fountain, so using just enough to keep things looking nice is a balancing act. That act is helped by using an algaecide. A very effective product is one that contains no metal, is non-foaming, and is 60-percent Poly [oxyethylene (dimethylimino) ethylene-(dimethylimino) ethylene dichloride]. This can be found at most swimming pool supply stores and is usually referred to simply as “60 percent.” Getting the product in contact with the offending algae or bacteria is where the man-power comes in. Using soft, plastic bristled brushes of varying sizes, from toothbrush to push-broom size, one should dislodge as much sessile unwanted material and get it into suspension. Some detritus will be immediately taken out by the filters, and ideally the rest will be neutralized by the correct balance of chemistry and product. All these levels of water chemistry work together, along with some elbow grease from the service technician, to achieve a great-looking fountain.

reservoir pond fountains

An empty reservoir and slotted covers are installed, all ready for winter.

During the season, there are different holidays when clients may want to change the color of the water as part of the celebration. Here in Kansas City, the most popular colors are blue for the local baseball team, the Royals, and pink in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Be sure to use dyes that are highly reactive to chlorine so you don’t permanently dye the fountain!

Toolbox Must-Haves & Winterization

Service technicians will need basic tools on-hand like screwdrivers, channel locks and a garden hose for filling. A net is helpful for removing floating leaves and bugs, but a net with a flattened or straight front edge is handy to scoop larger items like coins and rocks out of the reservoir. Debris like sand that is too heavy to get sucked into the filter, too fine to be scooped out and doesn’t react to the treatments, can be vacuumed using a 1-inch inside-diameter hose. It is beneficial to keep a measuring cup and conversion chart on-hand for exact dosing. One common mistake in converting is to assume 1 ounce of volume is the same as 1 ounce of weight. That conversion depends on the product being used, and sometimes weighing it yourself is the only way to get it right.

Pump enclosure above ground

An above-ground pump pit is shown closed and open.

In a climate with freezing winter temperatures, it is necessary to shut down and winterize fountains annually. Based on customer requests, most fountains are kept running until after Halloween. The first couple of weeks in November are filled with draining reservoirs, blowing water out of plumbing lines and covering statuary fountain pieces. In situations with submersible pumps, the pump will need to be pulled, if possible, and stored in a tub of water where it won’t freeze. If pulling the submersible pump is not an option — if, for example, it is hard-wired into a junction box — the next-best option is to find a watertight container with a lid. Store the pump in the container and fill it with organic RV and marine antifreeze. The lid may need to be notched just enough to allow the cord to exit, but not enough to let precipitation into the container.

External pump fountains should have all power turned off except for the dedicated line to the sump pump in order to protect against flooding through the winter and early spring. The main reservoir of the fountain should be kept dry. Sometimes a fountain cover will encapsulate the entire structure, but in cases where the reservoir is open to collect water through the winter, drain plugs should be left open.

Depending on the size of the drain, it is a good idea to replace the plug with a slotted drain cover, which will let water drain while still preventing the drain line from becoming clogged with large leaves and stones. Water in the winter is a concern for decorative fountain pieces as well. A vinyl cover works well for protecting fountain pieces from degradation. Sometimes it is necessary to have a custom cover fabricated, but in most cases, an off-the-shelf model will do just fine. Supporting the cover from the inside eliminates water collection, which can lead to damage from expanding ice. The support separates the decorative fountain piece from getting damaged by the cover moving with the wind. This protection can be as simple as a tomato cage turned upside down with a tennis ball stuck on the end to cover the sharp parts. Be sure to strap down the inside support and the cover independently of each other. Using a good-quality waxed twine will make this job much easier and will last though the dormant months.

Regular fountain maintenance can fit nicely into almost any contractor’s schedule. One day a week dedicated to water tests and treatments can add steady cash flow for any business, and all it takes is a bit of education and planning. Fountains are being built and installed all the time, and the owners need someone to take care of them. There is no reason that person can’t be you!

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