HOW TO: Maintain fountains and water features

Water features are a challenge. What can be a relaxing landscape element for your client can be the opposite for you. If you install one, you must commit to the maintenance required to keep it attractive and running. Any project or feature involving water can cause myriad problems, especially if the water utilized is “dirty” water (water pumped in from ponds and creeks), but the following tips should reduce trouble and help resolve problems more efficiently.

  1. Whether a large feature or small patio fountain, the pumps work essentially the same. There is an intake line, impeller, motor and outtake. Submersible pumps are designed to be completely submersed at all times while in operation. Allowing the water level to drop can cause the pump motor to work overtime and overheat. If you're hearing odd noises from the pump, those could be a clue the water is too low. Always maintain a minimum water level.

  2. The pump should be securely situated on level ground. If not, vibrations can cause the pump to move around and eventually loosen fittings or cause other problems.

  3. Debris can block the intake opening, even if there is a filter or screen. Filters and screens extend the life of the pump by making the water move through easier, but they can clog up. Inspect the screen and filter often, removing debris. You may be tempted to eliminate the screen, especially if the pump is designed to chop debris as it passes through the system. These pumps can usually handle 2-inch debris or less without problem. However, frogs can be bigger than 2 inches, as can snakes, some large branches, etc. Keep a careful watch on the water flow (or have someone with the client designated as your helper). Any changes should be cause to turn off the pump and inspect the intake and housing around the impeller.

  4. The impeller (looks like a propeller inside the pump) can get stuck on debris. Even after dislodging the debris, the impeller may need a nudge to get going again. Before disassembling the impeller, pull out your digital camera and take pictures of the pump at each disassembly stage. You may think you'll remember how it was assembled, but it's better to be sure. When reassembled, be sure all hoses are firmly and snugly attached. Sometimes you can dislodge debris by running water backwards into the pump, pushing the debris out the way it came in. Sometimes just turning the pump off and on a few times will dislodge debris.

  5. If the impeller becomes encrusted with minerals and sediment, remove the impeller and clean it up. If needed, soak it in a 50/50 solvent solution, such as C.L.R. (available at most hardware stores) for 20 minutes. Fountains using “clean” tap water may suffer the most from mineral deposits, while those using “dirty” water can easily become clogged with sediment. Depending on your environment, both can be a problem.

  6. The pump may appear to be in good working order at the end of the season, but sitting over the winter, without being cleaned, can allow sediment to dry up around the impeller. If possible, store the pump inside over the winter. Before starting the pump again in the spring, inspect and clean it.

  7. Algae can destroy the soothing looks of your fountain. Controlling the algae can be a challenge. There are two approaches: chemical or aeration. Many products are available to add to your system to prevent algae. Be sure to choose the one appropriate for your system. Some chemicals can damage water plants and frogs, fish and snakes, so if you have wildlife to protect, make sure the product is safe for them. Aeration does as the name implies: it adds oxygen to the water and allows accumulating carbon dioxide in the water to escape. The increased oxygen allows beneficial bacteria to more effectively break down organic debris and keep the water clearer. If your water feature is not equipped with an aerator, you can rig your own. Use a sump pump (like the one pumping out water in your basement) and have both intake and outtake lines in the water. The movement of the reentering water brings in more oxygen. If you have the luxury of periodically running a system at night or on the weekend when no one is around, you can reduce or prevent algae relatively easily. This works for ponds as well. Move the pump around the edges to help cover the entire volume of water.

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