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.

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.”

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.

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

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