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Spring Pond Clean-outs

Discussion in 'Water Features' started by tadpole, Oct 29, 2010.

  1. jp14

    jp14 LawnSite Member
    Messages: 24

    Ok, I am late to the game when it comes to this post but I will throw some thoughts out there.

    First of all, I believe the original question was why do clean outs in the spring? I believe this is due to two very different reasons. One is about marketing...because we can. People expect to clean things in spring, whether it is the house, the lake cottage, the garage or the pond. Even if a pond does not need cleaning, consumers are conditioned to expect or ask for spring maintenance.

    One of the posts on here spoke about making sure customers are given the knowledge they need to make good decisions about their pond. How many contractors out there would walk away from a spring clean up job when we know it is not necessary? I am treading as lightly as I can but this comes down to your "approach" and what your reasons are for being a pond installer in the first place. Is it purely about profit or about doing something you love and are passionate about? The advice and knowledge you give your customers will reflect this idea. I have alot of feelings on this issue but will keep them to myself and focus on the question at hand.

    A second and more regional reason for spring clean outs is simply due to the fact that they are necessary. I operate in northern Indiana and my installs experience a wide range of debris and litter, anywhere from virtually none to some that need almost daily maintenance, even in the winter. It really boils down to location, the surrounding conditions and the customer themselves. It is nice to think that all customers will act rationally and do what is necessary to properly maintain their pond, but that is a fantasy.

    I have customers who refuse to have leaf nets installed, want no fall maintenance, won't utilize deicers or aerators and a few who pull the plug in December and cross their fingers until March and hope for the best. No amount of education has changed their behavior and as long as they are able to get away with no (or minimal) negative consequences, they feel justified that they are correct and I am just trying to push my services or products on them.

    Yet they are the first to call in the spring wanting "spring maintenance" and year after year I explain to them that the job will cost more in the spring alone than if they hired me to do the work in the fall and spring. Again, some people just can't be convinced no matter how honest you are with them. So in some cases it has to be done in the spring "just because".

    Another reason spring maintenance makes sense in a northern climate is it causes the least disruption to the ecosystem at that time. Cleaning in June for instance would result in a much greater disruption to not only the bacteria colonies but also to the fish which are much more active, the plants that are actively growing and the other aquatic life forms present. So we try and do the work as early as safely possible and put the pond back together as quickly as possible to enable the system to get online and working toward full capacity.

    Again, this varies from region to region because my jobs experience a virtual complete beneficial bacteria shutdown throughout the winter months and any debris/litter that does make its way through nets, skimmers, ice, etc... basically sits unchanged until the spring. At that time it either needs to be removed or it will decompose at a faster rate than what the beneficial bacteria can process it because of the time lag in water temps matching air temps.

    Another corresponding issue here is the use of so called "cold water" bacteria and the types and strains of bacteria used in those formulations. I have seen conflicting reports (and nothing concrete in either the positive or negative proof) that indicate cold weather bacteria blends are more anaerobic than aerobic. This is a concern in my jobs since we have ice cover for a significant time period and the last thing I want to introduce into the pond is a bacteria that will break down debris but produce sulfur gas as a byproduct. I would rather leave the debris and get it out in the spring than risk a fish kill during the winter. Just my approach and opinion.

    Which leads me to the more contentious subject on this thread....how a pond is built as compared to how much maintenance it needs. I will make no broad statements or generalizations but the minute words like never, absolutely, always, in all cases, etc.... are used, then the argument begans. To say a pond will never need cleaned if it is constructed properly blurs the real issue at hand.

    First of all, who is the arbitrator of what constitutes a properly constructed pond? And what does the word pond even mean? Are we talking about a goldfish pond, a water garden or a koi pond? Each case is different and will result in a different construction technique.

    Secondly, how many of us have an ideal client base that write blank checks so that we can do installs exactly as we want to? Quite honestly, I have never done a single install to the level of quality I demand of myself quite simply because not one single customer is willing to pay for it. We each have different economical factors at work and in my area, the pick up truck landscapers and big box store DIY kits have driven the price down so low that it often leaves me wondering why I still try to compete.

    Add to that the pressure from the "build em in a day" companies that come and go each year and the damage they do to the marketplace from failed installs and the perception that all pond installers are questionable at best and I work in a market that requires me to scratch and claw just to convince people they need a skimmer and filter unit. And then I see and read information that claims the "correct" way to install is xx skimmers, xxx filter units, xxxx gph pump, etc, etc... and I just stop and shake my head.

    Maybe we all would like to build that way but my reality is I have a budget to work with and if I built in the ideal manner, my budget would be gone on just equipment and I would have to provide my labor for free. So I have to install in a manner that maximizes the capabilities of the equipment that I can squeeze into the budget and I have to educate the customer on the costs/long term effects of building in this way. If they clearly understand what I am telling them, I do the job. If not, I walk away because it will only lead to trouble down the road.

    What I have learned from my experiences has led me to develop my own installation method that addresses the challenges I face. As such it has also led to my own approach on cleaning and maintenance, including spring cleaning. I don't do "pump and dump" cleanings each spring in jobs I have built and instead have a straightforward cleaning, vacuuming, filter service that is less invasive and stressful on the system (at least I think so).

    Are my ponds built to the standards others may have set when it comes to "properly constructed"? No, but they are built to the standards the customer has set regarding budget, level of maintenance they are willing to do, proper function, health of the ecosystem and the level of expectations they bring regarding water clarity, debris, etc.... If they want crystal clear water and not a hint of debris, then they must be willing to pay for that type of install. When faced with an estimate for that type of install, the first response is that I must be crazy. If I manage to not get kicked out of the house, then we have a more realistic conversation about what they want.

    For those of you that are able to "sell" the perfect install, more power to you. I don't resent the fact you have such customers or that you are profiting from performing work to a high standard of quality. But not every customer wants a Mercedes and as an industry we need to address how we can sell Kias that still function and perform properly and meet the level of expectations the customer has for any given price point. A very big part of this is education and another huge dimension is contractors letting go of deciding what is right and wrong when it comes to installs and instead paying attention to what works and what doesn't, even if it goes against some set of rules that exist for what a "proper" install is.

    One comment heard in my circle of contractor friends is that a bad installer can make good components fail and that a good contractor can make bad components perform well. As we gain knowledge and experience, we find ways to make a less optimal install perform better than expected. We are no different than the mechanic that can make a car perform better than the next guy even though they have the same tools and parts to work with.

    As this discussion moves forward, we need to focus on how we each have found ways to optimize a less than perfect situation and how that can be applied across the board to all installs. That type of knowledge will determine what a "proper" install is and how well it should function and perform. But until we all have a way to talk, communicate and share our ideas, knowledge and experiences, we sit around and protect our own ideas and feelings on what is right and wrong instead of spreading that knowledge and experience industry wide so that everyone can benefit.

    As a final side note to this discussion, let me point out one last thought. The pictures posted show a "clean" pond. I am making no assumptions here in any way but when you talk about how clean a pond is, I would like to see the specific data from that pond...ph, ammonia, oxygen levels, etc... I have seen many "clean" ponds with dead fish present (not saying that is the situation in this case, just sharing my experiences). I would also be curious to see a picture of the same pond with the gravel scooped away down to the liner and the resulting pile of gravel put into a bucket and strained for debris/sludge/sediment. Not because I want to question the claims of how clean the pond is, but to have a baseline comparison of how a pond in my region would look given the same test (scooping out the gravel).
  2. tadpole

    tadpole LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,221

    I have been wondering why no one has asked for water test results before now. The photos were taken Nov. 26, 2010 at the start of cooler weather. The following are water test results obtained 10:30 AM Jan.2, 2011,

    Temperature- 56F
    Oxygen Content- 9.7 mg/L (93% sat.)
    pH- 7.4
    Alkalinity- 180
    Hardness- N/A
    Ammonia- .10/ 0.001 (unionized)
    Nitrite- 0.00
    Nitrate- 14 mg/L
    Chlorine- N/A
    ORP- N/A
    Phosphate 10

    As to the "bucket" test, I will perform one as soon as the weather warms a little more, mainly out of curiosity, but I really don't expect the level of mulm and debris to be of any significance due to the fact that there is only a single layer of large gravel and "skipper" stone along with a small amount of sand. The Koi are constantly moving this around exposing bare liner and keeping any mulm that does form in suspension which is ultimately filtered out
  3. jp14

    jp14 LawnSite Member
    Messages: 24

    Thanks for the technical numbers. You have demonstrated the pond is clean and healthy which is what I would label an optimal result for any install. Let me continue the conversation with a few comments/questions.

    You state that any install should include bio conversion that is oversized. How do you know that your bio conversion units are oversized and not sized just right for your install?

    How do you know that your pond is overstocked? Could it be that you have just the right amount of koi for the system you have built?

    Could it be that your bio conversion units were oversized in the beginning relative to the koi population and that as the koi grow/multiply, that balance will no longer be perfect? If so, at that time could it be possible that you begin to see sediment/mulm buildup that occurs at a rate faster than the bio conversion process can handle?

    If you picked up your pond and installed the exact same job here in northern Indiana, do you feel confident you would achieve the identical results/technical parameters as reported? Why or why not?

    Do you feel you could tweek/change/adjust any part of your currently successful install formula and still get the same optimal results? What factor do you feel has the most room for adjustment and which one could least be altered?

    Do you use the same formula for every job you do? For example, does every job get two skimmers, two bio units, etc... or do you tailor each job according to the goals the customer sets? And does every job you do experience the same optimal conditions your display pond enjoys?

    These are the things I am interested in learning about instead of having some manufacturer or trade group dictate to me how I am supposed to do an install. By having a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips a skilled installer can optimize any situation given the parameters they are given to work with. And as we each get better and do more optimal installs, we can learn and find ways to lessen the need for spring cleanings (and the resulting revenue streams from spring cleanings) and instead concentrate on giving customers the most value for their install money.

    This whole thread reminds me of a slogan used in the past that roughly said "everyone wants a water feature, they just don't know it yet". That is true marketing at its best. I hope for a time when contractors adopt the belief that follows this line of thought: "We are willing to educate everyone about what it takes to build a good water feature, how much work and maintenance they require and how enjoyable they can be if your expectations match the investment you make in the final product. Then we will be able to properly serve customers who know what they want and can confidently hire a contractor capable of providing the best value for their money."
  4. Stillwater

    Stillwater LawnSite Platinum Member
    Messages: 4,889

  5. tadpole

    tadpole LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,221


    That statement was made partly out of frustration. Most of my service requests come from pond owners whose ponds were installed by some other "contractor?".Installations that were done with the one size fits all mentality. I am sure that you have the same "Pros?" in your area.
  6. jp14

    jp14 LawnSite Member
    Messages: 24

    A few more random thoughts to tie up some loose ends in this thread:

    The notion of truth in advertising when it comes to the products we use is laughable at best. Lets face it, we are installing essentially identical boxes with some fancy media that vary very little in the basic design and intended function. Yet somehow the performance claims range from mild to wild about how well they work. One of my favorite charts I have seen in my research is one that lists the various filters and the amount of surface area the media in each filter offers. This particular chart was rigged to highlight the product offered by that specific manufacturer.

    Even if I was willing to accept that a particular media has the most surface area you have to be dumber than the rocks you were putting in their filter to believe that is the sole determinant in filter performance. After all, media can have a billion feet of surface area but if the filter channels after a week in operation, does it really matter how much surface area the media has? I posed the question about oversizing bio filters for a specific reason.

    Until there is a credible means of comparing filters in a head to head comparison and also a scientific means of demonstrating how the capacities are calculated, then we are all guessing when it comes to how well they work and what size filter is needed. Yes, we can oversize by adding a filter bigger than we think we need but that is a problem in itself because it shows we really don't know what is actually required. Would you let a HVAC guy into your house to install a furnace and listen to him say "well I don't really know how big of a furnace you need so I am going to put in the Big Bertha just to make sure you have enough heat"?

    Sounds silly but that is we are doing when we "oversize" filters, pumps, skimmers, etc... Not only does that drive up install costs, maintenance tasks and operational costs, it also leaves contractors at a disadvantage because we are taking someone else's word on how a product performs. When we go buy a work truck, we know it has been tested to verify mpg, horsepower, torque, crash safety, etc... Yet no product we install in a pond comes with that kind of testing nor do the claims made by each manufacturer bear any relation to that of the other makers. Even the flow rate and lift of pumps are determined in a manner set up by each maker and not based on a tested and accredited independent lab. Will this change? Not if we keep on the present course we are on.

    I also asked the question about an overstocked pond. The notion of "overstocked" is another great marketing bonanza just waiting to be manipulated into additonal revenue streams. Is your pond overstocked? Then you need to add more of this product, intall this piece of equipment, switch to this type of food, etc... How do we really judge what is overstocked? Yes I have seen the figures about so many inches or pounds of fish per square foot of surface area or volume. Quick question...how many of you have pulled all the fish out of a pond and weighed and measured them to determine if it is overstocked or not? Anyone?

    We need a rational and measurable way of determining conditions in a pond that will then influence design parameters. I have customers that shoehorn more koi into a pond than a sardine can and the water is pristine and the chemistry is ideal and yet the neighbor has a pond with a few goldfish and everything that can go wrong has. So which one is overstocked? Do I think it is the best conditions for the koi in the first pond, based on the crowded nature of the pond? No, but people also live in houses with 100's of cats so who am I to judge? We need a concrete way to set up parameters for what is crowded, overstocked, ideal, etc.... But until we have products that are truthfully labeled and tested to give us accurate information on the installation side, we are spitting into the wind when it comes to figuring out what "overstocked" is.

    Finally I asked a few questions about Tad's approach and how he designs and builds each job. His response was that he treats each job independently and many factors go into a successful install, including the biggest wild card...the actions of the customer. Yet we seem to have no problem that certification programs routinely teach new installers to crank out cookie cutter ponds that strive to take away any guess work (or learning, knowledge and experience) involved with doing an install. Go buy a pond kit for a predetermined volume and slam it into the ground and get paid.

    Am I the only one that is sickened by the thought that my competition barely has to know which end of the shovel is used for digging but they are "certified" to install a pond? And even worse is the fact that the marketing I see continues to encourage contractors with little or no background in our industry to jump in and make a splash and grab a big handful of profits. Don't believe me? Consider these slogans: Just add water.... Small pondless features are low hanging fruits.... Everyone in America wants a pond (some just don't know it yet).... Heck, this last one is not even original and is nothing more than a rip off of a previous slogan but when it comes to marketing, go with what works.

    So why am I ranting about this on a thread about pond clean outs? That is simple enough. Until we contractors accept that the way we currently do things is just the first step on a process that has the potential to be greatly improved, we will be stuck in the muck having this same conversation years from now. And even more importantly, I am willing to admit and be open about the fact that I came into this industry without enough knowledge, training and experience to be "competent" when I started out. And no amount of build a pond in a day seminars or certification classes would of changed that fact.

    Instead we need to put up or shut up when it comes to the future of our industry and push to see the next crop of installers be held to higher standards, to have more knowledge and education specific to our industry and to enter the industry because they are talented and capable installers and not because they have a pickup truck and wheelbarrow sitting idle when they are not out pouring concrete or cutting down trees or cutting lawns. Some of us will fall to the wayside in this process and others will reach even greater successes but if we truly care about the industry we work in and are passionate about what we do each day, then we will be willing to take that chance.

    Quite frankly, I don't want to see another guy like me come into the industry. I want to see someone better, someone more knowledgeable, someone even more passionate about what it is that we do. It is clear that viewpoint is not shared by others and the marketing used to target contractors is aimed to motivate the desire for profit and not the desire to be great at what you do because you love to do it. And there you have the perfect tie in to a thread about cleaning up the muck...I will shut up now.
  7. stebs

    stebs LawnSite Senior Member
    Messages: 495

    I've always heard that you should kill your waterfall pumps when the water temps fall below say 50 degrees so that you dont disturb the temperature layers in the pond during the winter (ie, warm water on the bottom, cold on the top).

    Any truth on this?

    I personally kill my waterfalls on my pond in the late fall/early winter when it starts getting cold, but I take the head off my floating fountain and leave it running to keep some oxygenation taking place and to keep a hole in the ice when my pond does freeze over.
  8. tadpole

    tadpole LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,221

    Stratification does not occur in ponds that are less than 5 feet in depth. In larger, deeper ponds, the stratification layer may occur much deeper than 5 feet.
    Even if it did occur, you would want to vertically circulate the water as much as possible to ensure adequate oxygenation throughout the entire water column.

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