Pond Construction | Renovate & Re-envision Existing Water Features

moss lined waterfall

We have a monthly service account with this property, which is rich with planted moss.

When homeowners decide to invest in professional landscape architecture, many choose to incorporate a beautiful water feature as the focal point or “crown jewel” of the design. This is no surprise, because we as pond installers know that a well-functioning, attractive water feature offers homeowners much enjoyment and brings the landscape to life with the sound of water and wildlife. However, when a pond or water feature no longer operates properly due to aging or improper installation, what was once a crown jewel can easily tarnish, creating an ongoing nightmare for homeowners. This is when a professional pond and water feature installer can assist the homeowner with re-envisioning the water feature so it can be, once again, a source of pleasure — not a constant heartache.

My business consists of a 50-50 mix of maintenance and construction. We have a large number of water features under contract for weekly, biweekly and monthly services, which keeps work for us year-round, so do not overlook the maintenance opportunities.

Renovate & Maintain

As a pond and water feature installer, I have had the privilege of helping numerous customers renovate less-than-desirable water features. My company serves the central part of North Carolina, which is one of the biggest markets for water features in the country. There are at least six professional water feature contractors within a 60-mile radius, and all are doing well and growing their businesses.

Though there is competition, there is also collaboration to better our work overall. We share ideas, provide feedback and assist each other on larger-scale projects. Through this competition across builders, there can be opportunity for potential work through maintenance and renovations. Competition can be your best advertisement if the original builder is not interested in ongoing maintenance, or if the homeowner is not satisfied with the original work. In our market we have noticed a distinct trend to renovate ponds and water features primarily due to older construction, and sometimes due to poor installations by unskilled installers or do-it-yourselfers.

Many times the homeowner who wishes to take on a water feature build is doomed from the start because of lack of experience, or perhaps because they watched the wrong YouTube video. A word of warning to homeowners: there is an abundant amount of wrong information about pond construction on the internet today. It is through the experience of professionally building ponds and receiving specialized training and certifications that one can gain a full education and become a “pond professor” to know what works and what does not.

My business consists of a 50-50 mix of maintenance and construction. We have a large number of water features under contract for weekly, biweekly and monthly services, which keeps work for us year-round, so do not overlook the maintenance opportunities. Even though new pond builds continue to be requested, we noted that 70 percent of our builds this year have been renovations of existing features. So, for the first time in company history, we have done more renovations than new builds.

How to Tackle a Renovation

Some contractors are reluctant to take on renovations due to the difficulties of predicting the time and expense for demolition and reconstruction, as well as the time involved in detecting all the current problems. It is much easier to price a new installation than a reconstruction, because the process of demolition may reveal more issues than originally expected. So, accurately quoting a fair price for the company and the customer can be a challenge. But with some experience of common pond failures, a contractor can become more familiar and comfortable accepting these jobs. When you take an existing water feature apart, you can find the flaws in the system and learn from the former mistakes made by the original installer or DIYer. This learning process assists the renovator in quoting future projects.

a renovated pond

The homeowner built this pond, left, with bare liner and exposed mechanics. Our renovation, right, is a significant improvement to this waterscape.

It has been my experience that equipment failures are another reason for renovating a leaking water feature. Leaks tend to be the major complaint for homeowners. I use a systematic process for diagnosing possible failures to address all the concerns of the customer. For my process, I address potential issues with skimmers, biofalls and plumbing first. Bolts on skimmers and biofalls erode and disappear over time and need to be replaced, and at that time you can give an old waterfall a new and improved look for the customer. Leaks are often caused by the wrong type pipe, such as corrugated, or the use of non-pressure fittings, which can come apart underground over time. I recommend using flexible PVC pipe and pressure fittings on all installations. The pressure fittings have a deeper socket for a long-term hold if roots grow under the pipe or if the ground shifts. The pipe fittings may gain a little more water friction but I will take that over having to repair down the road.

There are a lot of details to consider when performing a renovation, such as skewed or contorted skimmers. These can be replaced or straightened to create a better product or proper function. Overflows built into a pond are a must to prevent water from getting under or behind the liner. When redesigning a pond, make sure the skimmer placement is the first concern to allow for the overflow, so water does not compromise the pond integrity over time. For better aesthetics, I also recommend placing the skimmer out of sight of the prime viewing area if possible. Nothing tarnishes a natural water feature more than the faceplate of the skimmer being the first thing you see! Rock placement at angles can conceal a skimmer, leaving space for leaves and debris to hide the skimmer entry. It takes a little more time to make sure a skimmer is hidden, but that is the part of being an artist!

Pump choice is just as important for a pond. We have had success by turning the pond over two to three times per hour, meaning that an increased rate of gallons per hour would double or triple the number of gallons of water in the pond. The waterfall should be on the opposite side of the skimmer for maximum cross-flow circulation of the water. Choose properly-sized plumbing to support the desired rate of water turnover. A common installation mistake is when the pipe size is too small for the necessary water flow. Find a pipe-sizing chart and learn what can flow in pipes of each diameter that may be used in any installation.

When assessing the work of the original installer, I often notice that the company had manufactured their own products. I strongly recommend not taking the time to create your own pond products, and instead use commercial-grade equipment that is professionally engineered, field-tested, and backed by a manufacturer’s warranty. Otherwise, your company is responsible for that product’s function or failure. Find the products that work for your company and your customers. Not one manufacturer on the market today has the best of everything. For my business, I research all products regardless of a specific manufacturer and use what works best for my business without committing my company to a specific brand. I find that this gives my customer a better, reliable product in the end and avoids future equipment failures and expenses to my business.

The Crowning Finishes to a Rebuild

Proper tucking of the liner is one of the most important parts to finishing the construction of a pond. It can be the most overlooked element for a lot of installers. Improper liner installation in many cases leads to the need of a renovation. To achieve a sound, reliable liner installation for a new construction or renovation, build a slight berm around the pond liner. This is the key to achieving good water quality, stopping the surrounding earth from getting into the pond and preserving the integrity of the feature to prevent leaks for years to come. Leave about a 4-inch piece of folded-down liner, press the liner against the back of the rocks and backfill tightly with dirt, leaving at least 2 inches of liner above the water level. Set your water level off the highest point that the pond can run (the overflow) using a transit.

A leaking feature, left, is the product of an inexperienced landscaper and never worked from day one. Our complete rebuild from the ground up is seen in the second photo, right.

The “story stick,” as we call it, never lies. If you do not have a transit, make sure to purchase one in the near future. It is one of the most important hand tools a pond builder can have, because it shows you the water level around the entire perimeter of the pond. I advise leaving extra liner to allow for a fix if and when the feature settles. This provides 6 inches of liner left to pull up to fix the issue. It also gives a sound structure to prevent small rodents from burrowing to eat holes in the liner, eliminates the pearl necklace of river rounds around the entire water feature and avoids unsightly liner from showing after a couple of months. The dirt also looks more natural against your boulders. Running short of dirt should not dictate a poor feature. Bring in more dirt and fix grades, not leaving huge slopes for runoff and erosion. Taking these extra steps is inexpensive in comparison to coming back and repairing later.

To allow customers to enjoy their features day and night, offer low-voltage lighting and plant packages to take the existing pond to the next level. Low-voltage lights extend a water feature’s enjoyment through the evening hours when most homeowners have more time to relax and enjoy it. Without lighting, the feature simply recedes into the landscape. Choose your lighting manufacturers wisely. Lighting failures cost your company time and money and is an expense that may be overlooked when first installing the feature. Plantings around a pond are also important for aesthetics and crucial for erosion control and water quality. We have learned that it is best if we complete this task. It reduces the risk of someone else cutting low-voltage wiring, pump cords and plumbing lines, or possibly causing liner damage. The plantings are the finishing touch to soften the hardness of the rocks and give a more natural look. Both lighting and plants are key to a successful pond enhancement, so my company always encourages the customer to consider these options during the construction process.

pond rebuild

To sum it up, the pond industry is aging and could use a good facelift! When you do your spring cleanings or maintenance checks, take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of you by re-envisioning your current customers’ water features. They will thank you for renewing what was once tarnished and is now the crowning jewel of their landscape.

We all have our ways of running our businesses and signatures on the ponds and water features we build. Just from seeing a feature in our market that we do not build, I can tell which contractor in our area built it. Be an artist, be rewarded for your work and leave your mark for years to come. Our formula for success is simple: Always call customers back, do what you say you are going to do, back your work and put quality before quantity. We are artists, so be proud of what you have the opportunity to share. Build a water feature to last a lifetime. Make it serviceable, build relationships and strive for the customer to become part of the family — not the assembly line. At Pond Professors, our slogan says it all: We Build Water Features to Enrich Your Life!

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