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Building a Backyard Oasis

By Bruce Fordyce, editor

Use LEDs to create a soft bath of light, as shown here in the waterfall. LED lights are low voltage. The wire gets hooked up to a transformer and plugged into standard 120v outlet. The homeowner has the ability to alter the choice of color via remote control, if so desired. Replacing the LED bulbs is a simple bulb exchange. Fiber-optic lighting is wired to a lighting unit, usually running on LED, HID or halogen bulbs. Fiber-optic cables emerge from this unit and are sent to the ceiling inside the grotto, to crease interesting lighting designs on the grotto roof. Photos courtesy of AquaFX.

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Nothing enhances a backyard more than a swimming pool with a rock waterfall; and when the waterfall is integrated with caves, grottos, waterslides, plants and custom-lighting schemes, it evokes fun, relaxation and renewal like the perfect vacation day.

Waterfall pools provide homeowners a private oasis in the desert of suburban sprawl, providing them their own private theme park and gathering point for family and friends to swim, socialize and relax. This is just one of the selling points contractors can use to entice clients to add these features. Another point: Waterfall pools offer enjoyment day or night. During the day it's like a day at a favorite resort, while at night it can create a luau-like experience or romantic get-away.

Like other landscape industry niches, waterfall design and installation is far more complicated and specialized than it may appear. According to Jeffrey Ingrassia of AquaFX, in Long Island, New York, ''Waterfalls are a specialty, and definitely not for everyone.'' Ingrassia knows of what he speaks, as 50 percent of his work is fixing inferior waterfall work performed by others. ''Peoples lives can be at stake,'' warns Ingrassia. ''An improperly installed cave or grotto could collapse if it was not designed and installed properly.'' Depending on the size and complexity of the structure, building permits and city-engineering inspections may be required.

The power for the waterfall comes from the pool pump. If the contractor installs a dedicated waterfall pump, they MUST add additional suction lines to avoid entrapment hazards. Having a dedicated waterfall pump offers more control, and the waterfall does not have to compete with the pool pump.

There are two types of waterfall building material, real boulders or reinforced concrete. Reinforced concrete is a good choice when building a theme-park-style waterfall feature, like the one shown here. There are companies that offer rock waterfall kits. For a list of companies, visit: and search ''waterfall systems.''

Two Types of Materials

Pool waterfalls are made from two types of material: natural stone or reinforced concrete. Natural stones or boulders are good for low-profile waterfalls. Use boulders when the client is looking for that "natural look." For the larger theme-park-like features, use concrete. Ingrassia stated: "You would never make a cave or grotto using boulders."

AquaFX made multiple original castings for this project. ''I like to make every project take on its own shape and originality,'' stated Ingrassia, adding, ''we mold the tree trunks, stumps, and cave floors and the seams where the castings meet each other.''

At a different project, the Lorraine family desired a more natural waterscape. In this instance, the contractor used real boulders to make the waterfall, instead of making his own reinforced concrete blocks.

Lighting Features

LEDs and fiber optics are the two main lighting sources employed. Most features offer a combination of both. LEDs are utilized to create a soft flood-like feel. Different colors can be used to create different moods, or the lights can be controlled to change from one color to another along the spectrum. Fiber-optic lights create a pinpoint of light, and can used to present creative designs and looks, such as imitating a starry sky on the ceiling of a grotto. A color wheel can be placed in front of the fiber-optic light to present a single color or a changing spectrum.

Take a Night Out

An important consideration when designing the lighting is observing the structure at night. Only at night can you calculate where lighting elements will be the most useful and dramatic. So plan your location design carefully. According to Ingrassia, lighting has become almost standard now with waterfall features.

At the Lorraine project, white LED light lights the background, while a green-colored LED bathes the falling water. Spotting light where the waterfall hits the pool water is a simple yet dramatic lighting technique.

Presenting the Client

How elaborate should contractors make their presentations to the client? How do they help the client visualize the design choices? In today's visual-oriented society, video presentations are mandatory. Clients are savvy and expect sophisticated presentations, thus all sales and marketing materials need to be elegant as well. Ingrassia explained, ''We present slide-shows and videos of previous jobs to the client to give them some ideas.'' He also utilizes social networking sites like Youtube to present his work. An investment in simple video production equipment and editing software will pay for itself after a couple of jobs. Or, hire a production company to create your videos. It's important not to undercut this area of marketing if a contractor plans to be taken seriously as a quality waterfall specialist.

For projects that run upward of $20,000, Ingrassia uses Pool Studio, a 3D-design software program from Structure Studios. The program can create a full 3D view of the entire environment, giving clients a truly realistic view of the finished project.

Key Points

  1. Install the lights during construction; trying to install lights, cables and sleeves after the project is finished is almost impossible.
  2. Choose the right workers. Day laborers are not the right choice for this level of work. You will need electricians, concrete experts, plumbers, low-voltage experts, etc.
  3. Only use real boulders for low-profile work.
  4. Create polished video presentations for sales and marketing.
  5. Visit the job site at night to see the area's lighting characteristics.

If becoming a waterfall specialist seems too daunting, you can still benefit from this niche through strategic networking. Link yourself to the best waterfall specialists in your area, and when your clients ask for a waterfall feature that's out of your comfort zone, sub the job out. Ingrassia concurred, ''We get 50 percent of our work from other contractors, and we even go out of state to do the jobs at times.''

Jeffrey Ingrassia can be found online at:

Choosing the Proper Strength Waterfall Pump

Landscape contractors often use the pool's main pump for running the waterfall, but for bigger jobs or more control options, a dedicated waterfall pump may be called for. Dedicated pumps allow the waterfall to run without running the pool pump.

When selecting a waterfall pump, measure the crash width of the waterfall. The crash width is the linear width of the waterfall as it hits the water. For every foot of crash, the waterfall needs1500 gallons per hour.

Pumps are rated at gallons per hour. Each foot of waterfall ''crash'' requires 1500 gallons per hour, according to Ingrassia.

With the following easy formula, you can calculate the correct strength pump: Each linear foot of waterfall ''crash,'' requires 1500 gallons of water-flow per hour. (1 foot of crash = 1500gph) As an example, a 2-foot crash would need a 3000gph pump; a 4-foot crash wants a 6000gph pump, etc.

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July 19, 2019, 6:56 pm PDT

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