A new trend in irrigation

Christian James Baker of James Ponds uses his residential property in Doylestown, Pa., as a showplace and display arena. With two ponds, including a masterful 35-by-18-foot gem that features two waterfalls, and also a 20,000-gallon swimming pool and a sauna, you wouldn’t think he’d need to harvest rainwater, too. Or would you?

As last summer ended, he installed a 500-gallon underground Aquascape RainXchange system in front of a bay window adjacent to his home’s front porch.

More functional than decorative, his system’s basin is 6 by 9 by 4 feet. “There’s not a whole lot to see, it’s all underground,” Baker says. “While it’s all good and well to collect the rainwater, you also want to be able to use it.”

With the help of a Walrus TQ400 .5 hp booster pump, the system will be tapped to allow his wife/partner Diane to water her plants, flowers and lawn, and for them to top off their ponds, which are often featured on pond tours, and swimming pool. For any client, capturing and reusing rainwater for irrigation reduces fertilizer use and avoids municipality-induced watering schedules. Of course, Baker also has an on-site rainwater harvesting model for perspective clients.

The holding basin for rainwater located underground in Chester, N.H., at Chester Hollow Water Gardens.
An urn situated on top of a 500-gallon rainwater harvesting system by James Ponds in Bucks County, Pa.

Baker is a certified Aquascape contractor. Thus far, he’s also installed a rainwater harvesting system in Warrington, Pa., at Lentzscaping, a distributor for St. Charles, Ill.-based Aquascape.

Baker has participated in Aquascape training courses in New Hampshire, New Jersey and Chicago as part of a green community makeover. Each time, as many as 30 contractors built a single system together. The Bakers are also traveling to Colombia at the end of January for an Aquascape charity project similar to one in Ghana where contractors built a RainXchange system that converts stormwater that falls on a school roof into ionized, drinkable water.

“Aquascape gives a phenomenal education for those who want it,” Diane says. “A lot of contractors say they’d rather do it themselves, but Aquascape is really for those who focus on training and doing it right.”

A landscaper since 1994, Baker designed his first water feature, a waterfall, in 2002. This past season, he finished his fourth year as a full-time pond specialist. “We’ve sold the mowers,” he says. “This is a tiny, tiny bit more satisfying.”

With 27 installs last spring and into the early summer, it was his best year yet. Most of his jobs fetch $5,000 to $6,000 (like a 500-gallon RainXchange system would; his 6,500-gallon pond in his backyard would cost a client $30,000.

“We do a ton of rebuilds,” Baker says. “Another contractor might do a great job on the patio, but water features are different. It takes a bit of an eye.”

Now, despite the omission of rainwater harvesting from a list of the 10 best ways to reduce stormwater runoff as published in his borough’s recent quarterly newsletter, Baker’s convinced these underground systems are horticultural harbingers.

“It’s moving slowly, but this will be absolutely huge,” he predicts. “Aquascape is getting around the entire country, and you know how many green initiatives there are.”

If clients have properties with wells, Baker agrees it’s one less reason to install a rainwater harvesting system, but he’s also quick to point out, “You don’t want your well to go dry if there’s a dry summer.”

On average, in a typical rain, 1 inch of rainwater off a 2,000-square-foot roof will produce 1,250 gallons of reuseable rainwater. Southeastern Pennsylvania typical gets 40 inches of rainfall a year. “Call and see what your borough charges for that many gallons of water,” Baker suggests.

The project begins with excavation at least 6 to 8 feet away from the foundation of any building. (If you’re adding a waterfall, you can even use the excess soil to build the berm.) The hole is then lined with an underlayment, a geotextile fabric, followed by a 45-millimeter rubber liner. Interlocking, recycled plastic Aquablox form the water matrix storage tank that sits within a foot of the surface. A Snorkel Vault and Centipede module provide an access point for maintenance and cleaning.

Aboveground, you can accent with boulders, or a water feature, such as a tall urn that recirculates the water back down into basin. “You could build a permeable patio on top,” Baker suggests.

Baker favors the visible recirculation water because the water remains fresher (though sub-ground-level water already is) and can attract desirable wildlife, but also because it helps a client connect with the source. “You see it, you want to use it,” he says.

The Bakers are diverting rainwater from just one downspout, but that depends on the size of the basin, which depends on roof size. The diverting water runs from the roof to the gutters and down a downspout into a downspout filter and eventually a fine debris net that remove roof grit. You do need to build in an overflow plumbing with the installation to channel excess rainwater away from the basin and any foundation and into deeper soils.

In commercial landscaping, these systems are becoming popular as an alternative to retention or detention ponds. A retention pond channels water into a hollow. A detention pond is designed to hold water permanently. “We can install a filter system in a detention pond, but with Aquascape, the whole system is underground, and you still have your real estate,” Baker says. “With retention and detention ponds, you lose space.”

Jeff Doelp, Jeff Doelp’s Landscaping in Perkasie, Pa., also sees growth potential in proposed commercial projects for landscapers willing to take on large jobs. In instances where a township is concerned with having an effective stormwater management strategy, a rainwater harvester provides the perfect solution.

Doelp says retention and detention ponds, and even rain gardens, can be unsightly and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes, but an underground system keeps the water temperature constant, so bacteria and algae don’t grow as much. “The overflow percolates back into the ground and recharges itself in a big circle,” he says.

What’s problematic, Doelp says, is the cost, anywhere from $5,000 to $35,000, depending on size, features and a client’s reuse plans. He’s done a couple installations, and lots of quoting, but says most are balking at the price. “You have to be committed to what you’re planning to do with the captured water,” he says. “Anything that’s green now is also green with money.”

There’s also the utility costs for keeping the booster pump running. Doelp suggests solar innovations for running the pumps.

A pondless waterfall rainwater harvesting system by Aquascape, Inc. and installed by certified Aquascape contractors at EPCOT in 2008.

“Down the road we’re all going to pay more for water,” he says. “Every homeowner has to ask, ‘What’s the payback?’ It’s all evolving. The world is going in a big circle. Years ago we used cisterns and hung our clothes out to dry. It’s all coming back, but rain exchange systems are a long way from cisterns.”

There are also other ways to collect rainwater. “There are lots of ways for keeping water on a property, and not letting it run into the Delaware River in five minutes of a heavy rainstorm,” says Eve Minson, assistant professor of environmental design at Delaware Valley College. “Conserve water, keep water clean and keep it on-site.”

The best way to use water is to have precipitation infiltration as close to where it falls as possible. Collecting rainwater, a naturally soft, nutrient-rich, chemical-free water, is free, better for plants and reduces stormwater damage.

The Bakers also have an Aquascape 75-gallon rain barrel to collect rainwater from their 160-square-foot pool house roof. Decorative as well as functional, it has a small planter basin built into its top to help disguise what it is.

The Saucon Creek Watershed Association teaches homeowners and landscapers how to make an economically feasible rain barrel. For $35 and 40 minutes of time, anyone can learn to build one.

For the initiative, Erin Frederick, program specialist for the Lehigh County Conservation District, bought heavy, white, plastic syrup drums from Coca-Cola for $10 each (the price the company reaps when it recycles each barrel). Coke donated the first 75 drums, which must be food-processing drums, and not those used for hazardous waste. The 3-foot, 55-gallon barrels can be stacked vertically or horizontally, and connected.

“Our organization is so excited because we’re not just keeping it to ourselves,” Frederick says. “It would be great to work hand-in-hand with landscapers. That’s a great avenue. Why not partner with landscapers?”

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J.F. Pirro has been published in 75-plus national and regional magazines and dozens of daily and weekly alternative city newspapers.