DIY Koi Ponds or Hire a Contractor and Write the Check
by Tom Barthel
Installed properly, a koi pond can be the best investment that you've ever made in your quality of life and the value of your property, but building one requires a big commitment. Drawing up plans, selecting equipment and breaking ground could take weeks if you hire a professional or months if you decide to do it yourself. If you decide to take the plunge, you have some big decisions ahead.
Before you turn the first spade of dirt, it's essential that you take some time to figure out exactly what you want. Do you want a pond simply to show off several beautiful koi, or do you want a water garden, filled with waterlilies that can accommodate a few koi? These are important questions to answer. Take a look at your options, which might be more than you think.
What Makes a Koi Pond?
In your mind, you might a picture a beautiful pond filled with colorful koi and exotic tropical waterlilies. Did you know that koi often eat lilies and overturn their pots when foraging for food? Unless you segregate the koi from a zone created just for plants, the two will not mix easily. Be realistic before you become attached to your dream pond.
"The planning process is critical," says Brian Buchholtz, owner of Pondworks in Pottstown, Pa. ''Along with that is the amount of time or care you want to spend on it. If you want to replace waterlilies a couple of times a year when they get damaged, you can do it, but if you really want to step back and not do much to the pond, that's a different scenario." In fact, what you've envisioned might not even be a "traditional" koi pond but a water garden that can tolerate just a few fish.
"A typical backyard water garden will range anywhere from 150 to 200 square feet," says Ken Brown, water garden manager of New England Nurseries Inc. in Bedford, Mass. "The avid koi enthusiast is going to want anywhere from 400 to 500 square feet, and [the pond] could be 20,000 to 30,000 gallons as opposed to 1,000. There is quite a difference."
Regardless of what exactly you're planning to create to house your koi, you're looking at one really big decision - whether to tackle the project yourself or hire a contractor.
"So many people say, 'Well, I'm physically fit, I'm strong, I can dig a hole, so I can build a pond,' " says Mike Lucas, owner of Garden Ponds Unlimited in Moore, Okla. "The hardest part is setting the skimmer just right, hooking up the plumbing and filtration, and building waterfalls. What I tell most people is that if you're retired and have lots of time, install it yourself."
DIY weekend warriors beware. Constructing your own koi pond will require a substantial investment of time and technical brain power.
"Often the one big thing people overlook when building a koi pond, when they are doing it themselves, is the cost, the time and the technical nature of the filtration and the plumbing," Buchholtz says.
The good news? Help is on the way. There are more and more kits available that provide everything you need to tackle the job on your own. These all-inclusive packages include supplies and detailed instructions, either in book or video form.
Shop around before deciding on a kit that's right for your needs.
"There are a lot of differences between kits," Lucas says. "For example, for a 10-by-10 pond, pond store A sells the kit for, let's say, $800. Another person sells the next kit for $1,200. Both make a 10-by-10 pond. Is the one that's cheaper really better?"
The proof is in the components. Communicate exactly what you want the pond to include, being specific about the number of fish, the square feet and the volume of the pond that you hope to construct. A qualified retailer can help you make the decision.
"I've seen kits that include a very smaller skimmer, filter and pump, but the liner was big - to make a big pond," Lucas says. "Another kit might be a lot more money but have a twice-as-big filter and pump ... A lot of people don't see that, just that the one is a lot cheaper and both are the same size."
Choosing a retailer to work with as a do-it-yourselfer can be the most important decision you make, Brown says. That retailer becomes a partner for advice and consultation during and after construction. Find one close to you who knows the hobby well, and start a relationship that will carry you through any problems that might occur.
Even if you have the spare time and are handy with a shovel, you might avoid headaches by calling in a professional depending on the size of your project.
''A 6-by-8 or an 8-by-10 is something that a lot of people can handle in a couple of weekends," Brown says. "When it gets to the larger ponds, a good portion of my work is redoing failed ponds or ones that homeowners began to work on and just couldn't quite get the feel for."
If your plans are big and you've got your heart set on doing the work solo, you might consider using an outside consultant. A seasoned pro can advise you on your plans and guide you through the construction phase.
Most reputable contractors are more than willing to put in a clear and concise estimate for you if you want planning or consulting services, Buchholtz says. Most will arrive at a reasonable fee to act as a source of information, should you need help planning or doing the work yourself.
Often, he says, if you end up hiring your consulting contractor to complete a portion of the work, you'll get a price break. A few of your consulting dollars will come back to you.
Let's say you're not so talented with a shovel and the thought of planning and executing a slice of paradise on your own makes your head spin. Skilled pond professionals abound. Choose a contractor based on your needs and their existing portfolio, and you'll be enjoying a new hobby in no time.
Hiring a Contractor
Beware of the "yard guy'' who cuts your grass and trims your sidewalks, says Duane Eaton, owner of The Pond Planner in San Antonio, Texas. He'll say he can build you a pond "no problem'' and for a rock-bottom price. Resist temptation and find a qualified contractor who knows exactly what they're doing.
The clearest indication of expertise is a strong portfolio, years of experience and a willingness to share references. "Look for someone that is established and can show you pictures of at least 20 to 30 ponds," says Lance Ligon, president of Kremmling Water Gardens in Kremmling, Colo.
"Talk to people who have dealt with that contractor, both in good and bad circumstances. If things go wrong, you want to know how well the contractor will take care of it."
Another assurance to look for before hiring a professional is whether they offer a written warranty on labor and craftsmanship.
"What about if you have a pond built with a filter and a skimmer and it's too small?" says Lucas. "You're not going to know until a couple months down the road, when the pond turns green. The warranty should not only promise the pond will work properly. It should state, 'filter and pump of adequate size for the pond.'"
Another issue to be wary of when choosing a contractor is whether they're willing to design and build a pond that suits your lifestyle. Their portfolio might be filled with award-winning waterscapes, but is such a project right for you? "Don't be fooled by contractor bragging," Eaton says. "[Industry] awards are based on aesthetics, how pretty it looks, but they can be completely impractical.
"Don't be blown away by all the trophies and awards that are out there," he says. "You want the pond you want and need, not the pond the builder wants to build for you."
One way to make sure that a contractor can give you a pond with maintenance requirements that fit your lifestyle is to choose one that also provides maintenance services.
"Try to find a contractor that also does maintenance work," Buchholtz says, "because even if you don't want them to do the maintenance work, they're going to tend to build things that are maintenance-friendly."
Regardless of the approach that you choose, take the stress-free route - you'll be glad you did. If you enjoy getting dirty and being creative, take up your shovel and get to work. If you're better suited to a supervisory role, pick up the phone. Either way, it's not worth the hassle of getting in over your head.
Tom Barthel is the former managing editor of Koi World.