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Selling & building water features
Carolyn Magner | April 1, 2010

Pump up profits by adding water features to your landscape business.

If you run a landscape business, you probably have the skills, crew, tools and creative ability to provide a range of water features for your clients.

Water features add tangible and aesthetic value to property

There are plenty of good reasons to do so — high profit margin, repeat business and relationship building with customers — while the few negatives link back to (avoidable) contractor errors.

Contractors say they earn 40 to 70 percent profit on most water features, and, more importantly, customers return for additional services such as lighting and hardscaping.

You’ve probably also heard the horror stories of disgruntled clients complaining about clogged pumps, algae-filled ponds, leaking liners and disappearing Koi.

Is it worth the time, expense and learning curve to add water features to your business?

Healthy fit?

The answer depends on how motivated you are to acquire the training and hands-on experience needed to successfully install a fountain, waterfall or pond. It also helps to have a passion for the beauty and tranquility water features add to a landscape.

Water features often become focal points in a landscape, whether they are expansive streams or a simple decorative fountain.

Whether a water feature is as simple as a bubbling rock or as elaborate as an exotic fish pond, it will be a focal point of the landscape. People and animals gravitate toward moving water, and studies show the mere sound and sight of water reduces blood pressure and stress and increases a sense of relaxation and tranquility.

Matt Warren, owner of Warren’s Landscaping in Milford, Ohio, says he was attracted to the water feature business after his construction supplier invited him to attend an all-day Aquascape-sponsored, pond-building workshop. He then built a pondless waterfall and bubbling boulder in his backyard. Even his crew was impressed with the ease of installation and dramatic results.

“Everyone was so excited about how it looked and sounded that I was ready to offer my customers water features to complement the landscaping I was already doing for them,” he says.

Getting your feet wet

Landscapers usually decide to get into the business when a customer asks for a referral for a pond or waterfall, says Brian Helfrich, vice president of construction at Aquascape in St. Charles, Illinois. At that point, it’s up to them to acquire the information and education they need to succeed.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Joe Archer, owner of Mobile Joe in Alpharetta, Georgia. “If you can read a carpenter’s level and put in a patio, you can install a basic water feature. The key is to get the information and experience you need to do it right.” Archer attended a course and then, as other contractors typically do, built a water feature in his backyard.

There’s a vast amount of information available through courses, classes, books, YouTube videos and DIY seminars. Most manufacturers offer pond- and waterfall-building classes such as the one Warren attended. These courses also offer pricing and marketing support. The major industry associations offer free courses and seminars designed to give you comprehensive instruction on proper installation methods.

One of the most influential advocates of water feature contractor training is Rick Bartel, certified master water feature specialist and author of The RISE Method, a best-selling book on natural water feature design. Bartel has trained more than 15,000 contractors during the past 10 years through various associations and the Savio (skimmer manufacturer) Water Feature Institute (SWFI). He’s a firm believer there are no bad water features, only bad installers.

“There’s no more important investment you can make than to acquire the training you need to properly install a water feature,” Bartel says.

Choosing the water feature

Water feature types range widely, giving you the flexibility to design a waterscape that fits your client’s budget and the natural terrain. Most landscapers who build water features specialize in a few for which they have an affinity and that work well in their geographic location and climate. Warren has always loved working with the natural rocks and boulders in his area. His passion translates into upselling more rock fountains than any other feature.

Mark Keightley, owner of Artistic Landscapes in Woodstock, Georgia, built his first water feature in his backyard and has since become a Koi enthusiast. He only installs a few water features per year, but the projects draw customers to his business and traffic to his .

“Bubbling brooks, serene Koi ponds and cascading waterfall photos show potential customers your design skills and ability to create natural waterscapes,” Keightley says. “Even if they don’t have the necessary budget, the photos generate positive images that attract them to my business.”

Pondering trends

Customers are influenced by home and garden shows like the HGTV network and the DIY marketing by manufacturers and retail chains. Homeowner demand for low-maintenance, natural-looking, large water features continues, and smaller features such as fountains in decorative pots and urns are also popular.

The sound and sight of moving water offer a tranquil respite for the owner.

The key to matching a client with the right water feature is to evaluate his or her lifestyle. A pond hobbyist interested in complex ecosystems and exotic fish maintenance is a different customer than the one who wants to enjoy his waterfall from his kitchen window.

Most water features can be purchased in a kit form that includes all of the parts required except a shovel, wheelbarrow and strong back. If you decide to go with all-inclusive kits, you get the benefit of manufacturer training and support.

If you use products from your construction supplier, most offer access to information you need to successfully install the feature. Many contractors who start out with kits move on to choosing individual components for more design flexibility as their skills and customer base grows.

Customers are trending toward water features with naturalistic appearances, Bartel says, a look he advocates in his book. “People want the water feature to look like it was part of the terrain and not plopped into a backyard and surrounded with ill-proportioned rocks,” he says. The second most important trend is reflected in the demand for low-maintenance features. Industry surveys show that no matter what bells and whistles the customer wants, he or she usually doesn’t have the time or interest for elaborate maintenance.

Choosing features

Water features can be classified as either open body, like a freestanding pond, or disappearing reservoir, also known by manufacturers as “pondless and pondfree.” This means the water is hidden in a reservoir inside the feature or underneath it.

Contractors report water features can yield a profit of 40 to 70 percent.

Ponds (container for water) may be any shape or size, have a formal or natural appearance and can include fish, plants, retaining walls and a wide variety of stone and landscaping.

Fountains enhance the landscape with the sight and sounds of moving water and can be any size or shape. You can install freestanding and wall fountains or use decorative items such as urns and pots or have water bubble from the top of large rocks and boulders.

Streams and waterfalls (moving water) are more elaborate water features and may be incorporated into ponds and pools streams.

Profit stream

Profit margins can be as high as 70 percent, but even small jobs can lead to expanded business.

Warren says his first water feature job was for a client who had an existing pond. He billed $2,300 for the project and cleared $1,300 profit, but that job has continued to generate additional landscape and hardscape work.

“My customers are usually thrilled with their water feature and then want to light the pond, install a bench, add water plants and so forth. It’s win-win for everyone,” Warren says.

Correct pricing is key to profits, and Bartel cautions newcomers about cutting corners on a project rather than offering the best product within a customer’s budget.

“If you build a high-end water feature, but cut corners to make it fit a lower-end budget, you end up offering a race car but no transmission,” he says.

Bartel’s seminars offer pricing guidance, and he says the SWFI forums on LinkedIn include contractors who are willing to help newbies with all aspects of the business.

Nikos Phelps, owner of Utopian Landscapes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and 2012 TLC Landscaper of the Year Finalist, says he should have obtained more guidance on pricing and sizing before attempting his first water feature. “We didn’t know how to properly size for materials like liner, stone, pumps and filters,” he says. After that, he aligned himself with a local supplier who helped estimate materials and provided training, and today he enjoys both the profits and the satisfaction of the water feature side of his business.

Muddy waters

Once you begin offering water features, you’ll likely run into botched projects from either a DIY gone wrong or an unskilled/untrained contractor. Archer says he had to completely relocate and rebuild two ponds for clients who had paid his predecessor big bucks for poorly designed and installed water features. “They ended up with beautiful ponds they continue to enjoy, but it is stories like this that give the industry a bad name,” Archer says.

The bad rap water features get usually involve algae, and Bartel says that, again, is pure installer error. He’s been installing water features for 20 years and says he’s never had an algae problem. “Take the time to become educated about all aspects of water features. And then take your time and do the project the right way,” Bartel says.

Phelps also emphasizes the importance of taking time to ensure a quality installation. “All it takes is a small leak or bad fold in the liner, and you could end up with a water feature that has a hose refilling it as a permanent feature,” he says. “These problems tend to be harder to find and locate than it would seem. Nine times out of 10, they come back to installer error.”

Rocky dilemma

Problem: Your client wants a natural-looking water feature but you are afraid that using gravel and rocks to hide the liner will cause debris to accumulate and ruin the clarity of the water.

Solution: Rick Bartel, with Savio Water Feature Institute, says the real problem is not the gravel and stones accumulating debris but inadequate filtration and circulation. If dirt and debris are entering the pond and settling in the bottom, it’s a lack of proper filtration. You can achieve crystal clear water with the proper filtration system.

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