Pond or Septic System?

Aquascape, Inc. is a manufacturer in the water feature world of landscaping, and one of the largest at that. Many of my customers have an Aquascape- designed and built pond. I even have a pond here that utilizes some Aquascape equipment that I intentionally installed as a long term experiment.

After many years of testing, I have proven many basic design flaws with their equipment, design and function, and have since greatly improved upon their system’s flaws. The water in my pond is actually clear and healthy for fish, pets, and humans! (That is when I do not have it crazily overstocked and packed with big fish!) The standard Aquascape design falls far short of being able to achieve healthy clear water.

The water in Aquascape ponds is extremely unsafe for fish, humans and your pets. Aquascape ponds are breeding grounds for some pretty nasty bacteria that can negatively impact fish, humans, and other animals. Believe it or not a few people die every so often from bacterial infections they get from cleaning these nasty cesspools that Aquascape calls ponds! Many more become ill as well. In many of these cases the bacterial infections are very difficult to diagnose and treat, and many doctors have difficulty finding the bacterial strain responsible.

I have worked with many people who have Aquascape ponds to help them achieve proper water quality and clarity, and a safe, clean, and beautiful water feature. I basically redesign them to be suitable and healthy environments for fish, and/or to simply have better looking water that is not pea soup green or filled with nasty muck, debris, and fish pathogens.

Aquascape ponds may look good for the first year or two to the untrained eye, but as they mature they become complete disasters. The water will be dirty and murky from poor filtration and/or they become so green with planktonic algae you can’t even see any fish in them most of the time! That’s ok though because Aquascape with gladly sell you a maintenance contract for doing the frequent cleanouts they require. But if the pond was truly designed properly none of that would be required and there would be far less maintenance needed. Currently the Aquascape design as it stands is not a far cry from an open air septic system…Yuck!

How it all started

Aquascape, Inc. was started in 1991 by Greg Wittstock. I must say that Mr. Wittstock is a marketing genius! When he first started this company, his ponds were sold as Koi/fish ponds, because the Koi hobby was beginning to become popular in the U.S.

However, by calling them fish/Koi ponds, Wittstock was very quickly attacked by the scientific, Koi, and aquaculture communities for poor pond design and function when it comes to being a fish friendly and healthy environment. He tried his best to twist the science in defense of these systems as for being fish friendly, but you simply cannot argue basic scientific fact, and he was quickly stifled.

On top of that it was fairly easy to derail his arguments once you simply saw one of his ponds that is more than a year old. They are an ugly mess when it comes to water quality. Once he realized he could not win this debate with science, he quickly changed his tune. It was at this point that he started to refer to his ponds strictly as “water gardens” or “water features” instead, and he took the focus off the fish.

Now think about this. We all know that whether you call them ponds or water gardens, most of us associate fish with them. Wittstock knows full well that most folks will want to have fish in these “water gardens/water features” but he doesn't really discuss the fish aspect because he knows they are not fish friendly by design and function. Many of Aquascape’s ads show fish in their ponds as well! It is obvious that they are clearly, yet indirectly, advocating putting fish in their systems, so it’s all semantics as to what you call them, and Wittstock knows how to play the game.

Focus is on contractors/landscapers – not homeowners

Aquascape’s primary focus is on contractors that build and install their ponds and Wittstock teaches them ONLY how to build the ponds. It’s mostly landscaping techniques they are taught. The contractors are never taught about proper water quality or clarity, and how to achieve it.

What little is taught to them regarding biology or water chemistry is completely incorrect as well. These contractors are taught to tell their customers that these water features are self-maintaining and will achieve their own balance in time. They really like to throw around the terms “balance” and “natural” in their sales pitches. They either imply or directly tell the customer that their ponds are balanced systems that take care of themselves. If you believe this one, then I have some swampland in Florida to sell you!

Aquascape ponds ok as water gardens, not so great as fish ponds

In reality, and by definition, a “water garden” is just that: A place to grow aquatic plants (thus the word “garden”). The Aquascape systems are just fine for being a true water garden that houses nothing but plants. However, as stated above, many, if not most, folks that have them prefer to have them for fish. Even if they originally had no intention of putting fish in it, many people end up doing so. Let’s face it, how much fun is it to sit and stare at plants when you can have fish like Koi swimming around that actually have individual personalities? A water garden with just plants is literally like sitting and watching the grass grow!

 

Marketing mania

Since its inception, Aquascape has gotten into just about every aspect of the fish/pond hobby. This company even sells its own fish food for their so called “water gardens” that are supposedly not sold to house fish. Hmmm! If they are not for fish why would they sell fish food? If they are not for fish why sell all the ineffective chemicals to keep the water clear? You surely don’t need clear water for the plants. You need clear water to see fish, and chemicals and fish simply do not mix well.

Aquascape also manufactures and sells many types of equipment like skimmers, waterfalls, pumps, underwater lighting, etc. Some of their stuff is complete and utter garbage, and poorly designed and made. I would also be interested in seeing just how much of it is made in China as opposed to the U.S. As we all know most things made in China are of inferior quality. They have poor quality plastics and steel, as well as just about everything else.

“Magic Wands,” “Snake Oils,” & “Fairy Dust”

Let’s talk about some of the questionable things this company sells. It is ironic to me how they advertise how that their systems are “natural” and “balanced,” yet they manufacture and sell all these things to make the water better or more balanced and natural.

If their ponds are designed so well as to be natural and balanced, why would you need to add all these things to make them better? It’s simple. Their ponds are not natural at all, and definitely not balanced. No man-made ponds are, when speaking of the average size water garden.

First of all, Mother Nature would never allow such a small body of water to house much in the way of permanent life, and in most cases these small ponds would only exist seasonally for short periods of time. So forget natural as they do not exist in nature in the form or size of an average Aquascape water garden. As for balanced, the fact that they are so small does not allow for balance by nature’s standards. It requires human interaction to remain as balanced as possible, but no way can this be achieved in these shallow Aquascape ponds without constant upkeep. We will discuss this aspect a little later, and pick apart their design flaws. Too shallow being just one major flaw.

 

Their Magic Wand

One of the devices they sell I call a “magic wand,” (a $400 “magic wand”); they call it an Ion Gen. This device is supposedly sold for algae control.

With this thing, once again they have taken a little pinch of science and twisted it into something it’s not by leaving out some very important scientific facts. This little, crazily overpriced device uses electrolysis to emit small doses of copper into the water column. Why? Because copper is a known algaecide and can kill many unwanted algae like green water plankton and string algae.

 

One problem though; copper is HIGHLY toxic to fish -- even in small doses.

 

A concentration of just .006 parts per million (ppm) is considered a toxic level to most fish and aquatic life like amphibians and other species. This unit is capable of putting as much as .25 ppm into the water column! As you can see, this level far exceeds that which is considered toxic to fish!

Now you also have to understand that you need a higher concentration than .006 ppm (and even higher than their maximum output of .25 ppm) to kill many of the common types of algae that end up in ponds. So… it won’t work anyway, and it will absolutely, positively affect the fish in some negative manner, and possibly kill them in time. For sure at minimum the fish will be under constant stress and duress from the continual and purposeful leaching of highly toxic copper into the water column.

 

Here is one of my favorites … (not!)

 

“Aquascape Beneficial Bacteria for Ponds provides clean, clear and healthy water conditions and reduces pond maintenance.

  • Contains eight pure strains of concentrated beneficial bacteria;
  • Effective at reducing sludge, uneaten fish food, fish waste, dead and decaying plant material and excess nutrients that cause poor water quality and clarity;
  • Safe for fish, plants, pets and wildlife.”

(The paragraph above is an exact copy of one of their ads on this stuff.)

Ever see commercials on TV for Rid-X? You know, the stuff they sell for septic tanks? Well basically Aquascape’s “Beneficial Bacteria” is the same stuff. Let’s look at their ad another way further below and add a few of my own comments (in red):

“Aquascape Beneficial Bacteria for Ponds provides clean, clear and healthy water conditions and reduces pond maintenance.” This is simply not true. It does NOTHING beneficial for your pond or your fish. They are implying that these bacteria are part of the nitrification cycle. They are not nitrifying bacteria. They are not even close, as a matter of fact.

 “Contains eight pure strains of concentrated beneficial bacteria” that are used to break down muck and wastes that should not be there in the first place if the pond and pond filtration were designed properly!

“Effective at reducing sludge, uneaten fish food, fish waste, dead and decaying plant material and excess nutrients that cause poor water quality and clarity.” These bacteria are used in the waste water treatment world at much higher concentrations. They are naturally forming anyway, so even if you did want them in your pond, they would come on their ownThis is not something you want to add or waste your money on! This sludge and muck, etc. is exactly why their ponds are cesspools/open air septic systems. Do you really want your fish swimming in a septic system?

“Safe for fish, plants, pets and wildlife.” Maybe, maybe not… doesn’t matter because you are not going to use this crap. You would be better off putting it down your toilet to help your septic system.

 

 Pond salt?

 Oh, this is a good one, too. “Pond salt,” like it is some special salt made for ponds. Again… NOT! It is simply sodium chloride in crystalline form and there is nothing special about it. You can buy the exact same stuff in the water softener section of any home improvement store. I get mine at Lowe’s under the name Solar Crystals. All you need is 99% sodium chloride with no additives or preservatives.

First, you do not need salt at any level in your pond unless you have sick fish, or nitrite in the water. Other than that, YOU SHOULD NOT PUT SALT IN! Now here is the main problem I have with this company selling “pond salt.” At Lowe’s you can buy 40 lbs. of it for $5.00. That’s about 13 cents a lb. Aquascape sells theirs for $4.79 a lb.! They are making over 3,500% gross profit on this. They are blatantly ripping you off, people!

I could go on and on about all the different snake oils they sell, but let me assure you that you don’t need or want any of it in your pond! It’s as simple as that! Some of this stuff is actually harmful to fish as well, and ALL of it is a waste of money. As I have stated, if these ponds were designed and built correctly to begin with, you would not need all of these Band Aid type of fixes.

 

Poor Design

So let’s talk about these ponds/water gardens/water features, or whatever you wish to call them, and go over exactly how they are designed.

First, you have to understand that Aquascape is a company geared toward the contractors and landscapers that install their ponds. It is NOT geared toward the consumer/end user, and especially not for Koi keeping.

Aquascape’s philosophies, equipment, training, etc., is all designed to make the building and installation as contractor-friendly and efficient as possible, and not much focus is put towards a safe, fish-friendly and healthy environment for fish or people. All their training is devoted to the contractors getting in and out as fast as possible, and selling the customers as many of the snakes oils and fairy dust as Aquascape makes.

This company devotes a ton of money and time into training their contractors to do things “the Aquascape way.” From strictly an aesthetics standpoint, their training is fine. They do a decent job of teaching these contractors how to make a pretty and natural looking environment, and their equipment they sell is geared towards this as well.

However, one problem I do have with their training is the twisted science, partial truths, and even downright misinformation from a scientific and biological standpoint that they teach their contractors. From a scientific and biological standpoint, their teachings are simply wrong, or at minimum leave out crucial information and scientific facts.

 

Shallow ponds cause problems

Let’s start with the pond depth they usually incorporate. Most Aquascape ponds are less than two feet deep. This makes for very unstable water conditions because these ponds are subjected to constant environmental changes in water temperature and water chemistry due to their shallow depths and small volumes of water.

The ambient outside temperature changes will quickly affect these shallow ponds and this is not good for aquatic life. Most fish and other aquatic creatures need a stable environment to be healthy and thrive. Shallow water simply does not allow for this.

If the outside temperature changes quickly, then so does the water temperature and chemistry of these shallow ponds. This causes constant stress on fish and will lead to their early deaths. Their colors as well will suffer due to the constant barrage of UV rays through the shallow water and the constant temperature fluctuations. Yes, fish can even get sunburn without the protection of deeper water. Shallow water also promotes extreme algae growth as well.

For example, when the outside air temperature gets into the 90’s and higher, some of these ponds water will reach dangerous water temperature levels in the mid to upper 80’s. Water at these temps holds very little oxygen, and this is no matter how much additional air you try and add to it with aeration or waterfalls!

Scientifically, the oxygen content of water is limited by the temperature of that water. The warmer the water, the less oxygen it can physically hold or accept from aeration or waterfalls.

On the other hand, when the outside air temperature is cold this can be hard on the fish in these shallow ponds as well. Once the water temperature on the bottom where the fish stay in winter reaches below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the fish are under severe stress. In these shallow ponds there are no varied temperature zones as there would be in deeper waters. So the water can reach dangerously low temperatures due to the shallow water. On top of this, with the waterfalls running, the water can be super cooled and even get to below freezing. This, combined with the changes brought about by ambient air temperature changes, can all be a lethal combination for fish. So as you can see shallow water is not a good thing. Deeper is better.

 

Proper Biological filtration is required in an outside pond

Now Aquascape has even twisted the science here as well. Here is how they attempt to twist the facts. As most of you know, biological filtration is required in an outside pond. This is accomplished primarily with the filter, and, more specifically, on the filter media housed within the filter.

The filter media grows colonies of what are called “nitrifying bacteria.” No, not “beneficial bacteria,” but true “nitrifying bacteria.” These are very specific strains that are the heart and soul of biological filtration. These bacteria will also colonize on any substrate within the pond. They grow on the liner, rocks, plants, algae, etc.

So, Aquascape says that a shallow pond with a large surface area will grow more of these bacteria as opposed to a deeper pond with less surface area. Well, this is true when speaking of a pond with no filtration. The more surface area there is overall, the more “incidental” nitrifiers that will grow.

However, these incidental colonies are small in comparison to what a properly designed filter and the proper filter media will house. So, these incidental nitrifiers growing on the liner are not nearly enough to ever process all the ammonia and nitrite produced with the system.

Simply put, you need a properly designed and sized biological filter to accomplish this, and no matter the surface area of the pond, as these just aren’t enough. So they try and twist the facts to have you believe a shallow pond is better than a deeper one. Simply not true…period!

 

Lava rocks do not work well as biological filter media

 

Their filter waterfalls are just fine. However, the media they use primarily is not. The type of filter media is the heart and soul of proper biological filtration. Many times Aquascape contractors use lava rocks as filter media. Long story short, this rock does not work well, and you end up growing more bad, anaerobic bacteria than true nitrifying bacteria. Also they have no easy means built into their systems to be able to periodically clean and drain the waterfalls. So these waterfalls end up being a box of muck and harmful bacteria!

 

More serious design flaws - Inadequate Filtration

 Most Aquascape ponds incorporate a waterfall as a combination mechanical and biological filter and a skimmer filter which filters the surface of the pond only. This in itself is a design flaw. Most of the muck accumulates on the bottom of the pond, and Aquascape has nothing to filter the bottom!

This is a HUGE design flaw! As for the waterfall filter, it is critical not to collect muck in the biological part of your filtration. If you do, and do not clean it regularly, you will grow more anaerobic bacteria than the good nitrifying bacteria.

As previously discussed, these anaerobic bacteria are bad for the pond, fish, and you. In most cases these waterfalls contain filter matting as the mechanical media to collect dirt and debris, and then have bags of lava rocks as the biological media. The waterfall boxes are designed as up flow filters.

This means the water enters the bottom of the waterfall box, rises up through the filter media, then overflows out to the pond. In many cases these contractors install one filter mat in the bottom of the waterfall then sit the bags of lava rocks on top of it, then sometimes have one or more filter mats on top.

Here is the problem. First, lava rocks make very poor biological filter media. Why? Because firstly they take up too much room in a limited space due to their size and shape.

Second, these rocks are covered in small craters. Aquascape will tell you with their twisted science that these craters give the bacteria more surface area to colonize on. This is true to a degree, however, these craters get plugged up with organic muck and dirt, and at that point the good nitrifying bacteria cannot survive there due to the low oxygen levels. So you end up growing anaerobic/bad bacteria that will harm the fish.

Another problem with lava rock as filter media is that muck gets trapped in and around these rocks, and this in turn inhibits proper flow through the waterfall tub. The muck buildup literally blocks proper flow. This is referred to a channeling, and thus you are wasting valuable space for growing nitrifying bacteria that is required.

Also, lava rocks are heavy and messy to work with, as you will find out when cleaning the waterfall frequently due to this design flaw.

There is much better filter material to use. You can get more details about proper biological filter media on my website.

Also the filter mat that they install under the lava rock is there as mechanical filtration. It is used to catch the dirt and debris and remove it from the main water body of the pond. So why put it UNDER the lava rock when it has to be frequently cleaned of all the muck it captures? It is design flaws like this that really make for poor filtration and lots of difficult maintenance on the pond to keep it clean. It doesn’t have to be this way, people!

Their skimmer filters are sufficient for this type of surface filtration. They do an adequate job of collecting the floating debris like leaves and such.

 

Lack of bottom drain feature a serious problem

However, as discussed above, they do not have any means of filtering the bottom of the pond. This is where the majority of muck is collected. Instead they load the bottom full of gravel to hide the muck. We will discuss below in the next section why this is a big problem. The primary way to filter from the bottom of the pond is by incorporating a bottom drain. This is a specially designed plumbing device that is installed through the liner and then piped to some type of filtration. At minimum this can be piped right to the skimmer box. Since water seeks its own level, the water on the bottom will flow through the bottom drain by gravity to the skimmer or other specifically designed mechanical filter. The gravity part is important, as it keeps the dirt particles and fish wastes whole and thus easier to capture and filter out. Where if you had a pump on the bottom of the pond to pump this collecting muck, the pump would puree these particles into microscopic form, and thus be much more difficult to capture. Make sense?

So not having bottom filtration is probably the number one issue I have with Aquascape pond designs.

 

A Gravelly Mess

 Probably my second biggest issue with Aquascape ponds is the gravel they put in to cover the entire bottom and plant shelves. This is where the cesspool comes in.

You see all the fish wastes, dead plant material, leaves, dead bugs, etc. all end up in this gravel. Over a very short time this gravel is barely visible because it gets full of, and covered by, all these waste products. First, it looks like crap! Second, when this occurs this biological muck is an anaerobic bacteria factory and parasite nursery. Anaerobic bacteria are not good, as they carry fish pathogens that can and will attack your fish.

Also these bacteria need no oxygen to survive and they actually thrive in a low to no oxygen environment. These bacteria end up there because of the muck, as this is what they live on for food. Yes, they consume and process this muck, and one byproduct of this action is hydrogen sulfide in gas form. Aquascape talks about this as if it is a good thing! It’s not!

This gas gets trapped in this muck layer, and in time releases as bubbles which rise to the surface and dissipate. Hydrogen sulfide is highly toxic to fish, and is responsible for killing more fish than almost anything in the pond. This is especially true in winter.

In winter, this regular gaseous release gets inhibited when ice closes off the surface of the pond. When this happens the trapped gas can and will kill most of the fish, especially the larger fish. This is why it is critical to keep a hole in the ice directly over the deepest part of the pond where the fish usually live all winter. That slightly deeper water is a tad warmer than the shallower water, so this is why the fish live in the deeper spot all winter.

Aquascape twists this science by saying the muck never accumulates to dangerous levels because these anaerobic bacteria are processing it out. Well this is simply not true because of the sheer amount of muck that forms in this gravel cannot be quickly processed by the bad, anaerobic bacteria. It is a slow biological process. AND, remember, these bacteria carry fish pathogens that WILL hurt your fish in time.

So as you can see, the number one thing you want in a pond and filtration system is muck removal on a continual basis. You want zero muck accumulation, or at minimum you need a design that allows for easy and regular removal of it!

It’s OK though, because Aquascape sells a special bacteria that help digest this muck as well. The same bacteria they use in waste water treatment plants. Are you getting the sarcasm here people? Do you really want your pond to be this septic system that Aquascape designs promote?

 

UV Light

One other key missing element is something to address green water algae. Your pond water will turn green. When this happens to your new pond, Aquascape will tell you it is normal and that you are simply going though "new pond syndrome". I just love this stuff they come up with!

While it is true that a poorly designed pond will turn green it surely doesn't need to be this way. There teachings are that it will turn green and all you need to do is purchase their special snake oils designed to eliminate it. Hmm, why does this not surprise me? All you need to do is buy this stuff and put it in for life and you will have no problems with algae. Poppy-Cock! Firstly the stuff will not work, or it is dangerous to the fish. Manu folks are duped into thinking it works sometimes though. This is because the pond eventually gets so green it chokes itself out of getting sunlight. Once it is so green the sunlight is blocked from penetrating the water. This fact, and this fact only is what leads to the eventual die off of the algae that causes the green water. Then the pond will clear for a short time. However, after a short time of being clear, the cycle will start over again. The reason some people think their snake oils like barley straw helps, is because the natural clearing of the green water by it blocking its own sunlight just happens to coincide with them putting these magic elixirs in their pond. Thus they are fooled into thinking the snake oils cleared the water, when in fact it was the lack of sunlight penetrating the water caused by the green water itself blocking the sunlight.

A properly sized and properly installed UV light is a 100% fix for green water, and EVERY pond ends up needing one. Another simple fact, and yet another design flaw of Aquascape.

I could go on and on, but frankly I am tired of typing. In general, some Aquascape equipment is fine to use. You can even hire an Aquascape contractor to install your pond. However, as you know, landscaping is an art, and water feature landscaping is a very specialized form of art. So be careful which Aquascape contractor you hire. Now you can also use your knowledge to have them install a proper pond per your direction, instead of their very lacking designs and function.

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If you need some recommendations I may be able to help. For more details I am available for pond design consultations, and can give you clear specifications to give to whichever contractor you hire. There are some critical things that need to be engineered into your pond design to truly make for a healthy, clear, and low-maintenance pond. This is not something you will get with an Aquascape design. If you want to learn how to tweak their designs for a proper pond, simply contact me and I can steer you in the right direction. You should also read through my website for other very important information regarding water quality and how to test and maintain it.