Photo courtesy of Aquatic Artists, Inc., Youngsville, NC

Guide To Water Features for Pools: Design, Installation & Cost

Types of Water Features: Installation & Cost

A great pool design is often realized by the water within—its appearance, reflections, and how it refracts light and color. By adding a vertical element of moving water, the design can spring to life and almost become a work of art. There are many types of water features to choose from, and the effects they can create are seemingly infinite when factoring in size, flow rate, acoustics, and lighting. Simply put, today’s pool builders create customized features that move water in astonishing ways.

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To get started, speak to your builder during the design phase. He can explain the different options for your budget and the look you’re hoping to achieve. As a general rule, rock waterfalls are ideal for rustic, lagoon-style pools, while sheetfalls, laminar jets, and fountains can establish a more formal or clean look. Mediterranean-style pools utilize raised walls with sconces (in which water pours out of mounted rosettes, lion heads, etc.). At Aquatic Artists, Inc., Youngsville, N.C., president and principal designer Trey Marshall incorporates foam (or sun) jets into many designs. Also called fountain bubblers, these features protrude upward like mini geysers and are usually built into a pool’s shallow sun ledge. “They look good with almost any pool style and kids love them,” says Thom Blumenkamp, senior designer for Texas Pools in The Woodlands, Texas. “And due to their low cost, they’re one of the most popular water features in the country.”

Deck jets create an elegant look as they shoot streams of water from the deck to the pool, but they must be placed properly to perform well. “You can get more dramatic with laminar jets, which produce a solid stream of bubble-free water, and add color by illuminating them with fiber-optics, but laminars cost considerably more,” Marshall says. The biggest issue with laminar jets is their sensitivity to wind, which can easily ruin the effect. To prevent water from splashing onto walkways and other areas, wind sensors can be installed to shut off the jets when winds go over 5 mph.

Beyond a preferred style, pool owners should focus on something that fits the topography. To make use of a tall hill, a design could include a “step ripple effect coming down the elevations,” Blumenkamp says. “If you have an area 50 feet long and a drop of 15 to 20 feet, you might run a waterfall down the length of that with 4- to 5-foot-wide step increments. This allows the water to go flat for a ways then spill over the next level so that it flows down several layers.”

Types Of Water Features

Rock Waterfalls

Photos courtesy of RicoRock, Inc.

More pool owners are requesting rock waterfalls and rock features to make their pool feel like a home resort. Rock waterfalls are commonly used on freeform pools and are ideal for natural-style pools that may resemble a tropical lagoon or mountain spring. These pools can be surrounded by large rocks that serve as a small deck and go to the edge of the pool as coping would on a traditional pool. Large boulder clusters or rock planters help the waterfall blend into the pool area.

Some rock styles and colors are universally popular, but each region of the country has a preferred color pattern and rock type based on the appearance of local stone. Many pool owners prefer natural stone, but faux rock is a great option as well because it allows for customized formations. We cast our faux rock from natural rock formations to give a truly authentic look. Faux rock is also lighter than natural rock, which makes it easier to install.

The size of the waterfall should be relatively proportional to the size of the pool, but multiple waterfalls on an average-sized pool will look great with the right landscaping. Using several waterfalls for a dramatic effect typically works better than one massive waterfall.

Sheer-Descent Waterfalls

Photo courtesy of Morehead Pools. Little Rock, AR; Photography by Jim Cunningham

Sheer-descent waterfalls, also called sheetfalls, are more suited for modern and geometric pools. The water flows through a thin spillway creating a sleek elegant look as it descends into the water. Sheetfalls are often installed along a raised wall on one side of the pool. The wall can be finished in glass tile for a stunning effect or stacked stone for a more natural look. We have one sheer-descent waterfall with an ashlar pattern stone finish that works well on contemporary pool designs.

Sconces, Laminar Fountains, and Fountain Bubblers

Photo courtesy of Platinum Poolcare, Ltd.; photography by Linda Oyama Bryan

Formal pool designs may employ sconces and scuppers; these wall-mounted water spouts can be sculptural or industrial in their design, offering unique ways for water to spill into the pool.

Fountain bubblers and deck jets can be used on almost any style of pool and are quite affordable. Fountain bubblers look like mini-geysers and are often installed on sunshelves, creating a fun shallow area where kids can play. Deck jets shoot arcs of water into the pool and can be installed on the deck or in planting beds.

Laminar fountains, a type of deck jet that produces a bubble-free arc of water, are more common on modern pools and often lit by colorful LEDs for a look that is both stunning and exciting. However, designers must pay careful attention to windy areas because too much wind will ruin the effect. Laminars are more expensive than standard deck jets, but either type can be installed on an existing pool. Fountain bubblers, on the other hand, must be installed during new construction or a major renovation since they are built into the pool floor.

Sound and Other Considerations

Sound and flow rate are critical to the mood a water feature will create. Rock waterfalls often produce a gushing sound to drown out ambient noise, while sheetfall waterfalls are quiet and ideal for poolside conversation. More often than not, water features have several different settings so homeowners can change their effect based on current activity or personal preference. It’s also important that each feature be on a separate valve so each one can be turned up and down independently.

How the water enters the pool also has a big impact on sound and overall appearance. “We did a mammoth waterfall—25 to 30 feet in length and 10 feet high—that required multiple return points and catch pools. It really is an art to get it right,” Marshall says. In fact, after the feature is complete and turned on for the first time, builders often spend several days fine-tuning the water’s flow to create the desired sound and look.

“What makes water features so appealing is that fluid motion,” says Scott Cohen, pool designer and garden artisan at The Green Scene, Canoga Park, Calif. “They reflect sunlight in interesting ways. In fact, laminar jets will actually create a prism effect. If you have a vanishing edge or perimeter overflow, you get this beautiful mirror-like surface where the water is undisturbed.” If you want to include additional water features on a vanishing-edge or perimeter-overflow pool, you’ll want something that doesn’t disrupt the stillness of the main body of water. This can be accomplished by adding a negative-edge spa that carries the water into a channel that takes it just below the pool level, Cohen says.

Installation and Operating Costs

While the space and topography of the yard may limit the scope of some water features, budget is the biggest limitation. Rock waterfalls are the most expensive because they must run on at least one separate pump—and larger ones require several pumps, increasing the utility costs of the pool by 5 to 8 percent. “Every additional pump you add might tack on $30 to $40, depending on how long it runs,” Marshall says. Rock waterfalls are also labor-intensive because of the weight of the rocks and the importance of their positioning.

A water feature comprises 10 to 15 percent of the total cost of pool construction on average, Marshall says. Typical waterfalls run $7,000 to $10,000, though some cost as much as $30,000. Features that use small amounts of water, such as scuppers, sconces, and most sheetfalls, have a low operating cost and can run off the primary pool pump. Since designs that include foam jets will typically have only two or three jets, they also require no additional pump.

“We often use water features that flow from the spa to the pool because you get the most bang for your buck,” Cohen says. “They require no additional pumps—just the circulation pump, which you’re running anyway.” Waterwalls that fall flat against a wall, often creating a ripple effect as the water travels downward, vary in expense. Cohen notes one project that contained several water features, including an $8,000 waterwall with a fire feature below it. “It ran on a small separate pump. It costs $10 month to run that pump eight hours a day, and the cost of gas for the fire feature is insignificant—it’s equivalent to running your clothes dryer,” Cohen says.

For a water feature to really shine, especially at night, proper lighting is critical. Incandescent lighting used underwater or to illuminate a stream of water, costs about $300 per light. LED lighting costs about $700 to $1,000 per feature, but has a much longer lifespan. Waterfalls are often lit by using feature spotlights from above, which cost approximately $500 and should be installed by a lighting specialist. “Many people don’t think of lighting in the planning,” Blumenkamp says. “But you have to budget for that. Why go through the expense of adding these features and not be able to show them off in the evening?” Texas Pools utilizes two types of visualization software so customers can see what the pool and water features will look like with artificial and natural lighting at different times of the day and through the seasons.

Water features are a great way to turn your pool into a show-stopping centerpiece, and it’s the attention to detail that allows them to make a cohesive statement in your pool and backyard.

Types of Water Features: Glossary

• Fountain bubbler, foam jet, sun jet: This feature shoots up out of the pool floor and falls back on itself, like a mini geyser and is usually placed on a Baja shelf (a shallow sun ledge or extended first step).

• Deck jet, fountain spitter: A deck jet is an inexpensive option that shoots a narrow stream of water from the deck into the pool. The stream contains air and water sprays slightly apart in droplets.

• Laminar jet: A more expensive jet that produces a steady, forceful arc of bubble-free water, creating the illusion of a glass tube. It can be hidden in flowerbeds and is often lit by LEDs to create a colorful visual effect at night.

• Sheetfall: As the name implies, this feature has sheet of water that flows down from a thin, flattened spillway.

• Sconce: A decorative object mounted on a wall from which a narrow stream of water flows.

• Scupper: This feature sends water across a small ledge before falling down into the pool.

• Rainfall curtain: A series of pencil-like streams of water rain down from an elevated beam to create a curtain of water.

• Rock waterfall: Usually seen with tropical, lagoon-style pools, this type of waterfall varies in size and complexity.

• Waterwall: This feature sends water cascading from above and flowing down the wall.

Retrofitting a Water Feature

Unless they are stand-alone, most water features look best and can be installed most efficiently when incorporated into the original design. But existing pools can receive a little visual pop without undergoing a major renovation if the feature is placed outside or on the edge of the pool. Laminar jets are easy to add, as are raised fountain walls in which water from sheetfalls, sconces, and scuppers pours into the pool. Waterfalls can also be added, but weight is a factor. Adding too much to an existing shell can cause cracks and result in costly repairs. To avoid this problem, many builders use glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) faux rock, which weighs much less.

No matter what feature is added, it will always cost more—up to three times as much—than if incorporated into the original design. Consider utilizing your original pool builder, as he will be familiar with the plumbing setup.

Frequently Asked Water Feature Questions

Homeowners looking for pool design ideas will quickly realize there’s much more than the shape and style of the pool to decide—there’s also those extra features that make your pool unique and exciting. Water features come in many different forms—from waterfalls to fountain bubblers to deck jets—and with customized features, the possibilities are endless.

We interviewed Dan Essig, president of Essig Pools in North Miami, Florida, to learn more about custom water features and view some spectacular unique designs.

What types of pools are good candidates for sconces, rosettes, and lion head water features?

Sconces, rosettes, and lion head water features are typically used in pools that are geometric pools (straight lines pools) and are very well suited for Roman shaped pools with raised walls as primary or secondary focal points.

Are fountain bubblers a common request?

Fountain bubblers are getting used in more and more pool designs. They are becoming more popular because tanning shelves and extended steps have gained popularity in the last five years, and the bubblers look great in those areas. The bubblers look pretty, kids love playing with the water, and now they can even come with LED lights so they illuminate at night.

Can the pool owner adjust the height of the water in fountain bubblers?

Yes they can adjust the height, by opening or partially closing the water flow to the bubbler(s).

Many of your projects feature tile or stacked rock along the raised wall of the pool and/or around the spa. How does adding these materials help to enhance a water feature?

 By installing coordinating tile, the same tile as the waterline of the pool, rock, or stacked rock around a water feature or along the raised wall, it enhances the focal points and often helps make it easier to maintain that part of the pool.

Photos courtesy of Essig Pools, Inc.

How were the two water bowls selected for this project?

These water bowls have a coated material that gives that look of copper (patina), but it doesn’t put copper in the pool which could stain the pool. The look and textures of different materials can enhance a project and coordinate with the existing style and design of the house.

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