Introduction: Disappearing Water Fountain

This project is for building your own outdoor disappearing fountain (err "water feature" as I guess they call it in the biz). We're not talking about a little pot with a trickle of water into a saucer. I'm not a fan of fountains that sound like someone peeing into a cup. :P We're shooting for an effect similar to a geyser shooting out of the ground. The basin will hold around 15 gallons, and produce a noticeable gushing and splashing sound.

A disappearing fountain gives you the spray and sound of water, without the open pond. It can be a pretty cool visual effect, as the water will disappear into your base. The smaller water basin makes for a greener solution, requiring less water. This can be a good choice if you have children or pets that you don't want to worry about falling into a pond, and don't care about having plants or fish.

There are great looking ready-made fountains, and fountain kits available on the market. Unfortunately, even a modest outdoor ready-made water feature starts at several hundred dollars and can easily run into the thousands. The pre-made components (e.g. basin) required to piece together your own creation really aren't any cheaper by the time you're done. Our goal is to build an in-ground fountain with inexpensive, easy to find materials. Depending on your specific needs, you can probably get it done for less than $100 ($200 including decorative rock).

Step 1: Materials & Tools

Let's make sure we have all the necessary tools and materials. The fewer trips we make to the hardware store, the better. Less money on gas means more money for beer! :) Obviously some of these items are optional. You're using power tools, so you must be an adult. Thus can decide for yourself if you'd rather where safety glasses now, or an eye patch later.
P-)  to the left is my emoticon for an eyepatch smiley.

Depending on your design, and where your fountain will be located, the size and quantity of materials you need may vary. Ours is a pretty simple geyser shooting out of rocks design. It will be about 20 feet from our power source.
  • Basin (15 gallon HP15 $22.99)
  • Pump Laguna 529 Gallon Per Hour (GPH) pond fountain PT8160 ($55.99)
  • Sprinkler drip-system tap (1/2-inch riser adapter with 1/4-inch barb $1.49)
  • Valve box circular 10" ($10.97)
  • Electrical PVC Conduit 1.25-inch x 10 feet (2 x $3.72)
  • PVC Sweep connector 1.25-inch (3 x $1.74)
  • PVC slip cap 1.25-inch (2 x $.87)
  • PVC Glue ($2.29)
  • Landscape fabric
  • Sheet plastic, or lawn garden bags
  • Noiyo cobble decorative rock (1,000 lbs in bags $82)
  • Rebar .25-inch x 4 feet (4 x $3.27)
  • Rebar .25-inch x 3 feet (2 x $2.78)
  • Hardware mesh
  • Spray primer gray $4.59
  • Spray paint flat black $4.49
  • Shovel
  • Hack saw
  • Dremel rotary cutting tool
  • Pipe tape
  • Gloves
  • Safety glasses
  • Knee pads
  • Marking chalk (flour works too)
  • Pressure washer *
  • Dog *
* Optional, but highly recommended

Step 2: Site Prep

Make sure that you've cleared the area and have all your tools and supplies handy. It's a good idea to test your pump now before you go any further. Also make sure that your pump power cord will make it to an electrical outlet. Bigger pumps have cords that are 20 or 30 feet. Since you're mixing water and electricity, it would be best if your outlet had a GFCI breaker (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter).

Spray marking chalk is a big help for designating where everything will run. Flour is a decent alternative to marking chalk, if you don't want to spend the money or have pets that you'd rather not expose to the chalk.

We had an existing concrete slap with a dirt filled hole. This made a great place to contain our rock garden. It does add the challenge of running hose and power cord under concrete.

Step 3: Digging

Break out that shovel and start digging (or excavating if you want to sound like a pro)! If you have a dog, let him help.
  1. Rock containment needs a few inches. Notice that we've taken down the dirt evenly acoss the surface.
  2. Basin hole so that it can sit with its top edge level with the ground. Our basin is about 9.25 inches in height.
  3. Power cable trench if you're running your cable across the lawn. We choose to run our power cable inside electrical conduit. It is easy to cut with a hack saw. The conduit might seem like overkill, but I think worth the extra effort:
    • If your fountain is not near an outlet, it will hide the power cable. For me, seeing cables and wires ruins the effect.
    • It will protect your pump cord from getting getting cut.
    • If you ever need to replace your pump you can just tie a line on the power cord and pull the one for your new pump back through. No digging.
  4. Water supply run: We have an existing sprinkler system and I decided to tap off of it so that the basin has a chance to refill every morning when the sprinklers run. Not all that splashing water will make it back into the basin, and I don't want to be refilling with a garden hose.
We had an existing slab which adds the challenge of running hose and power cord under concrete. A pressure washer is great for blasting a path through dirt and gravel. Try to keep your under concrete run as small as possible, so you don't weaken its support and cause a crack. Tree roots are another story.

Step 4: Hook It Up

  1. Line your hole and surrounding ground with landscape fabric. This will help limit weeds, but still allow any spill, splash, or rain water to get back into the ground. 
  2. Place your pump in the center of the basin
  3. Run your power cord to your electrical outlet (through the conduit if you're using it)
  4. Run your refill tube if you're utilizing one.
  5. Give it a test run. Fill the basin and plug it all in to ensure everything works before we start filling things back in.

Step 5: Support Grid

Build a support grid for your rock using rebar and hardware cloth. The rock required to cover a 5 foot diameter area weighs over 1,000 pounds. Elevating the rock above our basin lets us keep more water available for the pump, prevents rock from crushing things, and gives us some wiggle room for the pump.
  1. Make sure the rebar extends well past the width of your basin hole. Run at least two rebar cross members perpendicular to the other pieces and secure them with wire.
  2. Secure hardware cloth to the rebar with wire.
  3. Cut a hole in the center of your hardware cloth. This is where the fountain will spray through. Make sure the hole it large enough to fit your hand and the pump through should you need to reposition or replace it.
  4. Paint: We chose to paint the support grid black. This will help minimize any rust, and also made the grid less visible under our rock. A good coat of primer before painting will help protect the metal, and also give the paint something better to stick to than galvanized metal.
  5. Place your grid over your basin, with the pump extender tube centered in the hardware mesh hole. Be careful not to pinch your power cable or refill tube. There will be a lot of weight on the grid, and not easy to move later.

Step 6: Decorative Rock

We choose Noiyo cobble stones as ground over for our fountain. If you do not have a truck or wheel barrow, find a supplier that sells by the bag. It may cost a little more, but will keep from tearing up your car, and make it manageable to carry the rock to your fountain area.

Start placing stones in the center so that you can insure stable rock placement around the pump itself, and adequate space for the fountain to spray up. Work your way out. We found it best to position flatter stones as a bottom layer, then use smaller round stones to fill in gaps. In the end, you do not notice any ground or support structure unless you look very hard.

Step 7: Site Cleanup

  1. Fill in your trenches with dirt. If you dug under concrete, make sure that you pack your dirt and gravel material back under it as best possible. It will help prevent cracking.
  2. If you have set aside your initial digging that has grass attached, put it back on top of your fill in dirt. Walk on it and give it a good watering. It will look rough for a while, but will likely grow back in.

Step 8: Enjoy!

Step 9: Other Costs

Electrical Costs
Consider the long-term cost of your pump. A cheap pump may require frequent replacement or use a lot of electricy. Costing you more in the long run.

You can estimate the electrical cost of running a pump by using this formula: amps x volts divided by 1000 x KWH cost x 24 hours-a-day x 30.4 days-per-month = cost per month. For example, a .45 Amp, 120 Volt pump at 17¢ per KWH that runs 24 hours 7 days a week will cost roughly $6.70 per month.

If the pump is rated in watts instead of amps use this formula:
watts divided by 1000 x kWh x 24 hours-a-day x 30.4 days-per-month.

There are also some online pump operating cost calculators that will help you.

Decorative Costs
Due to size of the area we needed to cover, and our choice of rock, the decoration ended up costing more than than the fountain itself. You can certainly choose another type of ground cover, or even use a flower pot or some other type of vessel, to save some money and let your idea spring (pun intended) to life.

Step 10: Tips & Tricks

Tips & Tricks that might save you time and headaches.
  • Use common sense. You're playing with tools, electricity, water.
  • Electricity and water can be a hazardous mix. Use cables and connectors designed for outdoor applications.
  • Call before you dig. Particularly if you live in an (sub)urban area, there may be sewer, electrical, water, cable, phone lines, etc. buried on your property that you're not even aware of.
  • Note that plants and fish have special water filter and treatment needs which can add to the cost and complexity of your fountain.
  • Pump should circulate half the volume of your pond every hour. So a 200 gallon pond requires at least a 100 gph pump.
  • Raise your pump a little off the bottom of the pond to minimize clogging. If your pump doesn't have feet, a brick will probably do.
  • Don't treat your water if you want to keep it safe for pets. Our dog will likely drink from the fountain.
  • Don't let it set stagnant. Fresh standing water is a favorite place for mosquitos to develop their larvae.
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