Building a Pondless Water Feature
Child safety, low maintenance among benefits
By Paul Bianchina
There’s nothing quite like the sound of water bubbling in your backyard. A water feature can become an eye-catching landscaping feature, or a cool and tranquil backdrop that also helps block unwanted traffic or neighborhood noise.
A water feature can also be a great do-it-yourself project that just about anyone can tackle.
The term “water feature” can mean different things to different people. But if you want a stunning, low-maintenance option that’s customized to your yard and your style, consider going “pondless.”
Also known as a “disappearing pond,” pondless water features eliminate the open pond that requires periodic maintenance to prevent algae and other problems, along with potential safety issues for small children. Instead, they use a water reservoir, a recirculating pump, and some type of rock or other feature that the water flows out of. The water filters down through a rock base over the reservoir and disappears, to be recycled endlessly.
The basic components
Pondless water features can be large or small, simple or elaborate. Their design is pretty much limited only by your imagination, ambition and budget. But they all share the same four basic design elements:
1. The reservoir: This is simply a big, relatively shallow round or square box made of a tough, high-impact resin. The box is solid on the bottom and sides to retain the water, and is perforated or slotted on the top to hold the rock while allowing the water to drain through. The top also has a removable plate to access the pump. Reservoirs come in a few different sizes, depending on how much water you want the system to process.
2. The pump: This is a submersible, 110-volt electric pump specifically designed for these applications. It sits inside the reservoir, with a filter on the inlet side to filter out impurities, and a hose on the outlet side that’s routed to wherever you want the water to come out. There are several different sizes available, depending on the amount of flow desired.
3. The water outlet: The water coming from the pump exits through some type of visible outlet, and this is where your creativity can have free reign. Many water features utilize a natural piece of basalt as the center piece of the design, which is drilled to receive the hose coming from the pump. You can find basalt in many sizes and shapes, and you can use one piece alone or a grouping of several pieces with the water tumbling over all of them. Other options include decorative jugs, vases of any size or shape, actual water fountains, cherubs and other garden statues, pieces of discarded masonry, and many other objects.
4. Base rock: Finally, you’ll want to cover the reservoir with a layer of rock that the water flows over and disappears into. There are many different types, sizes and colors of rock to choose from, depending on your personal preferences. You can mix and match sizes and colors, as well as incorporating pieces of natural wood, metal sculptures and other objects you might like.
Putting it all together
Select an area for the water feature, and lay out the general size and shape you want. Remember that the overall size of the rock base can be the same size as the reservoir, or it can be substantially larger.
Next, you’ll need to excavate a hole for the reservoir itself. The hole should be a little wider and a littler deeper than the reservoir, to allow for leveling and backfilling. Place a layer of sand in the bottom of the hole, which will make it easier to level the unit, and also protects it from rocks. Check the level in all directions; pack some additional sand into the hole around the base to stabilize it; and then backfill up to the level of the top lip.
If you’re installing a heavy water feature such as a piece of basalt, it’s typically installed next, directly on top of the reservoir for stability. Be sure you have adequate help for lifting this into place; some larger pieces will even require a forklift or other machinery. Route the hose through the hole in the rock, and seal it with an approved sealant.
Install the pump in the reservoir and connect the hose. Route the wire from the pump to an exterior-approved, GFCI-protected electrical outlet, but don’t plug the pump yet. Make sure the inside of the reservoir is clean, then fill it with clean water. Activate the pump and test all the connections and the flow rate. If everything looks good, install the access door on the top of the reservoir, then cover the top of the reservoir with the base rock.
You can sometimes find small water feature kits, with a reservoir, pump and all the other components, at home centers, warehouse stores and other retailers. For larger pump and reservoir equipment, check with any local retailer that handles landscaping supplies, including nurseries or sprinkler dealers. They’ll either have the materials you need in stock or they can easily order them for you. They can also work with you on the proper sizing of the pump. You can also find what you need online; start with a search for “disappearing water features,” and go from there.
For basalt and other rock, check with any local retailer of rock supplies. They can also drill rock for you if you find a specific piece that you like, and can assist you with delivery and placement. As far as the electrical wiring’s concerned, consult with a licensed electrician to have the proper GFCI outlet installed near the water feature’s location.