The fundamental blueprint every builder should use
by Zack DeKuiper – WeekEnding, Inc.
I look at a lot of ponds each year. A LOT of ponds. At our store in Holland, Michigan, we have customers come in every day who are struggling with a host of problems. Most pond owners' issues can be addressed and solved during the design and construction of the pond. How? By thoroughly communicating with the customer to find out what they really want and can realistically expect from their water feature; by working with knowledgeable suppliers; and by you, the pond professional, becoming more knowledgeable.
Location, Location, Location
The first question to answer in pond construction is where to put the pond. When we look at nature, it makes sense that we build ponds in low-lying areas. After all, that is where we naturally find them! But in our world of beautiful yet artificial environments, this is a mistake. It is our job as professionals to encourage our customers to rethink their locations and foresee the challenges that locations can present - and deal with them. If a customer insists on that low-lying spot, ensure that your design includes a drainage system to relieve the pressure under the liner. Also, make sure the sides of the pond have a berm that is built up at least six inches above the surrounding grade so that water flowing over the ground is not able to get into the pond.
The Trouble with Rain
When ponds are built incorrectly (or in the wrong location), I sometimes have a perplexed pond owner show up at my store describing his murky brown pond that he "just can't keep clear." As I ask a few questions, I usually find that the problem presents itself after it rains. He cleans it again only to have it happen again.
What has happened is that hydraulic pressure from groundwater often lifts the liner from the pond bottom and creates all kinds of havoc. The next issue is that every time it rains hard, the water pours down the ground around the pond, picking up all kinds of debris and tannins and depositing them into our beautiful creations. This results in ponds filled with detritus and water that is stained brown.
I have a quote on my desk right now for a pond built too low in an already low area. The contractor's solution to the floating line was to cut holes in it (which he did!). My new customer just spent $20,000, and it is going to take $15,000 to fix the problem. A better plan and conversation could have saved this customer a bundle of money and a lost client relationship.
Build Where You Want to Be
The other most common location mistake is to use side yards with hills that go down to walkout basements. They are so tempting because they help create beautiful waterfalls. But think about why we add moving water to our landscapes in the first place: the movement and sound. I love a big waterfall as much as the next guy. (OK, more than the next guy.) But if your customer doesn't spend any time there, she will eventually forget it's there. Once that happens, the maintenance starts to slip and the whole thing becomes a burden. Ponds can bring great joy, movement and life into our landscapes ... that is, if we are near them.
Encourage your customers to bring the new water feature into the space they already occupy. Putting our creations near patios, close to open windows or in front entryways brings the sounds of water, beauty of fish and color of plants into the daily lives of our customers. Also think about pond lighting as the period at the end of a sentence. I have customers come into our store every week who don't even realize that lighting is an option. Bonfires, drinks with friends and interacting with your fish at night are all wonderful ways to relax at the end of a long day or week.
Stocking the Pond
The second question to answer is what to use in the pond once it is built so your customer knows how to maintain his or her dream water feature. There are a lot of ways to balance our ponds with fish loads, water changes and plant materials, and I agree that all of these should be done.
The number one complaint that I get at our retail store is that customers' ponds turned pea-soup green in a few weeks ... and no one told them this would happen. The choice is to wait two months or so and often it will improve. This is fine, except that here in Michigan it means not enjoying your pond for a large portion of the summer each year. The reality is that for a small additional expense, almost all of our customers would be happier with a pond that goes crystal clear fast and effectively each spring and stays "gin clear" for the entire season.
No tool does this as well as a good and properly sized ultraviolet system. You just plug it in, and without additional work or chemicals, the UV does the work for you. Once you get on a weekly maintenance program in addition to using UV, every pond can be quite simple to maintain. So at least give the customer the educated choice by learning how the systems of the manufacturers you use can be incorporated into our pond kits.
Bringing it to Fruition
The last question to answer is how to bring the vision into reality. Once the correct products are chosen for your customer, make sure your installation crew knows not only how to install the entire system, but how and why they work together. Most products come with instructions and photo diagrams. They should also be backed up with a knowledgeable supplier who you can speak with and get advice from if the situation arises. I cannot count the times that I've showed up at a pond to find the skimmer faceplate is installed upside down or there are live wires hanging down into the water. So for the record, the skimmer faceplate needs to be open at the surface of the water! If the skimmer does not open above the waterline, it will not work. The owner now has a pond that does not deal with leaves and debris properly.
The ideal water level should be about one inch from the top of the skimmer. This will allow material to pass through to the basket and enough flow of water to keep the pump operating properly, even with some evaporation between fill-ups. Your customer may never know you did it wrong, but they won't be happy unless you do it right!
The final step in pond building is educating the customer. We are all professionals here. If you build more than two ponds per year, invest in a water meter. If you don't, at least time how long it takes the hose to fill a gallon milk jug. Time the filling of the pond with that hose and do the math to determine how many gallons are in the pond. Write down that number on the customer's final invoice for the pond. Type it into your records. Tattoo it onto his arm, and inscribe it on the bottom of the skimmer lid! Of course, you don't need to go that far, but we need to make sure this magic number is known since it will answer many future questions. "How many fish can I have? Is my filter large enough and turnover adequate? How many ounces of bacteria should I use? What size algaecide bottle should I buy?" Not one of these questions can be answered without knowing how many gallons the entire pond holds.
"But what about measuring the length and width and using the old 7.49 gallons per cubic foot method?" A couple of years ago, a structural engineer assured me that his math of 3,240 gallons was accurate to within 5 percent. Close enough to know how much ulcer medication to add, right? After half of his fish were killed by the treatment he put in, we drained and metered the fill at 1,159 gallons, to be precise. A simple step by his contractor up front would have saved his fish. We can all do this one, and your customers will thank you for it in the long run by hopefully recommending other clients to your business.
Proper design with the long-term needs of the customer in mind, along with choosing knowledgeable suppliers and installation crew, will make a big difference in your customers' satisfaction for many years to come. If we expect to grow and thrive as an industry, we need solid customer experiences. One customer frustrated with his water feature will keep his friends and family from even considering wanting one. But a customer who loves her pond will bring repeat business and new friendships to your door for years to come.
About the Author
Zack DeKuiper has been in the fish hobby for almost 40 years and a professional pond builder and retailer of EasyPro Pond Products for over a decade. His obsession is with true custom koi ponds, but his knowledge extends to the creation of nearly all types of water features, from pondless waterfalls to hotel water fountains.