Outdoor Living – May 2009

Whether it’s creating a new pool or refurbishing an existing pool, landscape designers and contractors are getting in on the trend of creating backyard retreats for their clients.

Many resorts have been installing multi-functional swimming pools for years, but the movement seems to be expanding more rapidly in the residential market. The basic premise is to give clients the most for their money by increasing the dimensions of their pools – figuratively speaking. In particular, residential pools typically are used very little by swimmers; most of the day and during the cold months they tend to be just visually flat, unappealing elements in the landscape. By adding lighting, heated spas, planted islands, “beaches” and waterfalls, landscapers can give clients a water feature that has multiple uses and adds pizzazz to the landscape. Waterfalls add a vertical element to a flat poolscape as well as the appealing element of sound. They also can be enjoyed year round, even if the chill in the air makes it too cold to swim.

Chuck Thomas, CEO, estimator and designer for Aquatic Gardens in Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in natural stone waterfalls. His custom creations typically start at $15,000. Thomas says adding a waterfall to the landscape brings life to any outdoor environment. His work, like most landscaping, is a careful balance of art and science. “I’ve never seen a pre-fab unit that didn’t look just that,” Thomas says. “It sounds elitist, but it really is a creation – taking a pile of rocks and creating something that is functional and realistic. We feel we are the artistic accompaniment to the pool and just concentrate on the waterfall.”

Once the design is determined, Thomas lets the pool contractor know how much water he will require to get the desired effect. “If the final fall into the pool is to be 12 feet wide and we want 1/2 inch of flow over the last rock, it will require 25 gpm for each one foot of width,” he says. “If the discharge pipe is to be located 10 feet above the pool it will require 18,000 gph at 10 feet of head. Since we are subcontractors to the pool installer, I prefer to keep the responsibility for the pool and supply piping in their scope of work.”

Due to the grand scale of his waterfall projects, Thomas typically selects large boulders weighing more than a ton. He uses a 30-ton truck crane and nylon straps rated for 10,000 pounds to set the stones on top of an 8-ounce geotextile, .45 mil EPDM liner topped by another layer of 8-ounce geotextile. “Once all the rock has been placed we pour a grout mix with an ochre color,” he explains. “The grout mix is usually poured with a concrete bucket or pumped using a concrete pump truck.”

Thomas says he has done retrofits on existing pools, but says he is usually limited by the size of supply pipe to the pump, which limits the amount of water that can be used for the fall. “These falls are usually smaller and not as wide,” he says. He also cautions against the common mistake newcomers make – installing pipes that are too narrow. “Once you’ve made that fatal mistake, you are locked in to the maximum size of the pump and thus the flow.”
Bruce Riley, managing director at RicoRock, headquartered in Orlando, Florida, says there are several reasons more landscapers are opting for pre-fab concrete waterfalls such as the models his company manufactures. “We make molds from natural rocks and design the waterfalls to work better than the natural rock – to sheet fall or cascade with a low water flow, to drain down when the pump is off, and to have drip lines,” Riley says. “Also our interlocking pieces prevent water seepage, a big problem for natural rock falls. Our cast rock is made of fiber-reinforced concrete and weighs 70 percent to 80 percent less than natural rocks.”

Riley says the kits weigh from 600 to 1,500 pounds, with the heaviest pieces weighing about 300 pounds in some kits but only 180 pounds in most kits. Riley says the relatively light weight of the sections keeps shipping costs reasonable. “To the farthest point from one of our offices, a large pallet costs about $400 to ship,” he says. “We usually offer free shipping on orders over $5,000.”

Riley says RicoRock modular waterfalls are relatively easy to install. Sections are mortared to a concrete base or existing concrete deck and additional layers are also mortared together. Plumbing goes in a pipe sleeve. The cast rock pieces are pre-colored but come with a touch-up kit of acrylic stain that is easy to apply and works well for covering mortar seams. For pool applications, a three-way valve is added to the filter pump and water is diverted to the waterfall as needed.

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