reviews: aquascapes System

Updated April 2013
Aquascapes is a company with aggressive marketing and a strategy to turn the average landscaper into a "master pond builder". Unfortunately in the final analysis the science just doesn't add up - Aquascapes shallow rock bottom ponds should never be confused with a properly constructed pond

Most people have a "fish pond" not a pond with a couple of fish. These are also small closed systems which lack the dilution, maturity and trophic levels [biodiversity] of ponds found in nature - so backyard ponds are not "natural"

River rock can be a great accent, please don't mistake it as a filter media. We recommend 1 layer only and it can be retained with waterfall foam
Consider the Source of your Information !
Of course their is a lot of conflicting information out there on every subject - especially on the net. When it comes to ponds, there are measurable ways to make things better - which removes subjectivity. After being active in the hobby since the early 80's and seeing thousands of ponds, their are definite trends as to what works best for most folks and these methods are what we promote on this site

Their are no shortcuts to knowledge, you need to put in the time and effort to learn and this journey takes decades. The bottom line is, Aquascapes ponds are for the benefit of the landscaper first - not for your nor your fish
Some Benefits of Aquascapes
Originally the typical landscaper pond was constructed by placing the pump in the pond and the water was fed to the waterfall. Sometimes there was a canister or box filter, often the water was just re-circulating. For many reasons, this is the worst way to operate your pond. Deficiencies like the pump clogging and the poor aesthetics of seeing the pump & tubing all make this bad design

Aquascapes came along and to their credit, endorsed the use of a skimmer. Skimmers are a recommended piece of equipment for most ponds. They skim surface debris and as the pump is located in the skimmer, it seldom clogs. Their is some bio filtration, albeit not enough to support a substantial bioload. The skimmer usually returns the water to a waterfall filter [ie. biofalls]

The waterfall "filter" specs are far from the best. The media is limited and often consists of lava rock and filter wool. It is difficult to clean as there is no drain in the biofalls. One can be installed but its usually underground and difficult to access anyway

A good filter is based first and foremost on settling solids for easy removal. See the video on our filtration page which shows how much debris can quickly accumulate. This is key. Removing particulate mechanically with a pressure filter lends itself to heavy maintenance which nobody wants

Another good advantage to the Aquascapes system is it can be installed quickly. This means your pond is up and running in less than a week - maybe a day ! The components also take up less space than the conventional larger filters that experienced pond enthusiasts recommend. Initial construction costs are sometimes lower [but this is not always the case] while the ultimate cost of ownership is significantly higher as these ponds are often rebuilt once the owner realizes the short cummings. 80% of our work is rebuilding to address all sorts of errors, including those commonly found in the aquascapes style of pond

Fundamental Design Flaws with Aquascapes

2 Foot Depth
Frankly I'm shocked at this recommendation. Fish kept in these depths face a lot of adversity:
  • More susceptible to predators
  • A smaller "cage" - less space for your fish
  • A baseline level of stress - no safe deep water to retreat to
  • Sunburn potential
  • Koi body Conformation suffers in shallow water
  • A less stable environment - both chemically and temperature wise
  • Smaller pond volume for a given footprint means fewer fish can be kept
  • Decreased chance of Winter Survival as a 2 foot depth is often not below the frost line, so the pond is colder

    The irony is that Aquascapes always harkens to "Mother Nature" but only when it is convenient. You won't find fish the size of koi in similar small shallow ponds found in nature for a reason

Rocks on the Bottom of your Pond

Aquascapes suggests that rocks on the bottom of your pond serve as a bio bed to provide all the nitrification you need. This is another shockingly overstated comment which really has little merit biologically. It also is suggested it hides the liner and makes the pond look more natural. The picture to the right is of a bare liner - we can see the algae build up that makes it look very natural. The Fish also eat this
  • In pond filters are the hardest to clean
  • Stone has a low amount of surface are per cubic foot. Bacteria are sessile and live on surface area
  • Nitrification takes a lot of oxygen - that is why the best performing bio filters are trickle / shower design or heavily aerated ie. rotating media
  • Anaerobic pockets can develop in the stone - the detritus can break down into toxic hydrogen sulfide
  • The stone tends to cave into the middle, making the pond even shallower and trapping more detritus

    Bottom line is that there are far better media's and technologies available today than the archaic in-pond gravel filter
Liners will take on a very natural appearance over time

No Bottom Drain & Lack of Good Filtration

Aquascapes views on bottom drains are that they are an old technology. The real truth is that they are a proven technology. Again it is very selective verbiage. Ponds with bottom drains don't require drain and cleans. That means the pond guys lose all that revenue from those complete drain and cleans that are very stressful to the fish. Words motivation and agenda come to mind
  • Skimmers don't remove bottom debris
  • Pay a little now for a bottom drain, or pay a lot more in the long run
  • Drain and cleans stress fish and your pocketbook
  • Good filters pay for themselves because they get the best results and they are easier to maintain
  • A pond with a bottom drain never has to be emptied and cleaned

Higher Maintenance Costs for an inferior Product ??
At the end of the day, the cost of ownership of this type of system is higher, while you spend more time/money to maintain a quantifiably inferior system
  • I have seen online $400 quoted for a 16 x 16 pond opening while our bottom drain ponds typically cost $150 for a pond opening
  • I built a pond in 1995 which was rebuilt in 2009. It never had to be drained because the bottom drain kept it clean all those years
  • I have met with dissatisfied clients only to discover they were charged a higher price for their stone filled pond than the cost to actually build it properly

This sludge is actually about 2 inches thick and unhealthy for the pond
I guess the billions of bacterium forgot to break down this waste

Aquascapes take on Bottom Drains

The impetus for me to write this page was perusing a competitors site and reading the company line on bottom drains. I found this diatribe to be illogical and incorrect on many levels. Here is the quote you will find on most Aquascapes websites :
Bottom Drains
The only reason that we've included bottom drains in the water filtration section is that many filters rely solely on water that's circulated from the bottom of the pond. With older filtration systems, the water that was near the bottom contained everything that settled, including fish and plant waste. This contaminated water was then transferred into the filter system that was intended to eliminate wastes. To use here at Aquascape Designs, bottom drains represent one of yesteryear's pond construction techniques. With modern pond filtration techniques, a bottom drain is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive. The rocks and gravel on the bottom of the pond are covered with billions of tiny bacterium that break these wastes down and convert them to useful plant fertilizers. When installing most bottom drains, a hole needs to be made in the lowest part of the water garden. If the seal around the bottom drain fails, all your water will drain out of your pond leaving your fish high and dry. The risks involved in bottom drain installations outweigh any potential benefits that they may have

First, the tone of their comments are disparaging and lack objectivity. In the first line alone is ridiculous - it's actually their systems that rely solely on one point of re-circulation - the skimmer. Proper ponds incorporate bottom drains and skimmers and a whole lot more. Dissecting their copy from this angle is too banal and not productive

Skimmers do a good job, but they obviously do not capture everything that lands in the pond. So inevitably, debris does end up at the bottom. Plants also break down and fish defecate - these wastes are usually not collected by the skimmer and sink to the bottom too. It is very important to remove this organic debris. Lets put this in simple terms - caged animals kept in unhygienic conditions usually get sick - a pond is really just a cage and the bottom needs to be kept clean

The last line of the first paragraph attempts to cast doubt on the function of a filter mainly because Aquascapes doesn't have a filter [sorry the biofalls filter doesn't count]. The first line of a good filtration system is to remove larger particulate with a vortex. This separates waste from the water column which is easily purged from the system by opening a gate valve. To see how much debris can actually be collected, visit our Filters page to see a video on cleaning a vortex

Box and canister filters [a category the biofalls falls into] require awkward manual cleaning and because there is no provision for settlement, the sponges can be saturated rather quickly as they needlessly capture large particulate - resulting in more maintenance and slower return flow rates to your waterfalls depending on the system

Bottom Drains Leak !?

Scare mongering at its worst. It is rare to see a bottom drain leak - in fact aside from just one bad install, I have never seen a drain leak after the installation. Drains are pretty easy to install and the liner actually works like a gasket which seals the pond well. The suggestion that your pond will be devoid of H2O when you return home one afternoon is absurd and just illustrates their lack of real knowledge when it comes to ponds. If a leak somehow did develop, the percolation rate of most soils is so slow I would suggest it would take days for the pond to drain completely - and that's if at all.

Ponds that leave fish "high and dry" as Aquascapes claim are ones which have a submersible pump in the bottom of the pond and have the return to the pond compromised. Experience tells me that when someone calls panicked that their pond has lost a lot of water, I tell them it's a pump out situation and they likely have a major hose break or waterfall overflow as rapid loss is always pump related

In all my pond servicing experience I have never received a call about a leaking bottom drain, but we have rebuilt many aquascapes systems to incorporate them
This Client is looking to rebuild because he now sees some deficiencies

In Summary

First, I want to make it clear I have no axe to grind with Aquascapes. They have filled a niche and their ponds may function suitably in the beginning. I do take issue with the stretching of the science and people need to be aware of the limitations and shortcomings of their systems. I think potential pond owners should take their time and learn the facts. If they prefer to have less maintenance and a quantifiably better system, they will install more equipment, better equipment and make the pond deeper. This is based on objective science, not a sales pitch

Additionally, most of the installers have limited knowledge in regards to fish and pondkeeping and proof of this lies in the bad advice they provide on their websites ie. don't feed your fish in the Summer ! In fact I have yet to meet one aquascapes installer that has even a novice level of knowledge. And shockingly, I had one tell me and I quote, "I know nothing about koi". This was at a trade show in front of his pond booth !

Because these systems are less involved, they are much easier to build with less potential for construction related challenges. The whole thrust is make these ponds quickly and make money while experienced pond people know that building a pond is a process. These individuals add ponds to there long list of services as a way of increasing their revenue but the reality is to really know your stuff you need to specialize in only 1 thing

The Verdict
Aesthetics - Aquascapes ponds usually look pretty nice and I do like the look of the stone in the water. This is invariably covered with algae [as with all healthy ponds] which will diminish the look of course

Construction - Very rarely is a concrete collar installed or footings for waterfalls. Usually the ponds I have seen are merely "okay" with some minor defects. In some cases we have seen larger stone caving in due to lack of support

Design - Aside from the skimmer, the design is very rudimentary and the lack of depth is unjustifiable. They do not incorporate any of the plethora of great products now available on the market

Maintenance - Unfortunately, there is a lot. Of course, the aquascapes builders are glad to gut your pond annually as part of their money making formula. This is going to stress the fish which is never a good thing

Cost - This is an interesting point. I have seen comparably sized ponds [but with no depth] that cost more than we would charge - and they lack any real equipment. Other quotes I have heard are outrageously low so it will be initially cheaper to get that pond you always wanted. The bottom line however, in most cases is it will cost you more - eventually. Remember, when you enter any hobby at the lower end, it invariably does

Overall the Aquascapes system can't be given a passing grade. Clients are led astray as to the actual positioning of this product in the market place. Over time one realizes there are much better ways to doing things. 4/10