April 9, 2009

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Backyard Waterworks

Green Waterscaping Tips Save Your Wallet

By Heather Stewart

April 9, 2009

Waterworks for the yard—pools, spas and landscape water features—can add enjoyment, relaxation and beauty to your home. But let’s face it: they can also add a hefty sum to your monthly power bill. The cost of heating and pumping pool water can add up to as much as $1,500 to $2,000 annually, according to the Department of Energy. That new hole in the ground? It might as well be a hole in your wallet. But the pool and spa industry is going green and catching onto the demand for energy-efficient equipment. “Most of the ‘green’ equipment is fairly new—it’s only been on the market for about a year,” says Brian Stilson, manager for Intermountain Aquatech. “But we’re definitely starting to see the demand for it.” The major components of pool and spa equipment are now available in models that devour less energy. For example, consumers can choose fuel-efficient gas heaters to keep hot tub water toasty. And Stilson says that water filters have been redesigned to reduce water-pressure stress on the system. “Unlike traditional valve filters, cartridge filters don’t build up back pressure.” But for the greatest energy savings, look to the pump. From swimming pools to waterfalls, the pump is the heart of any water feature. It keeps the water moving continuously so it can be cleaned and heated. It also creates water pressure for spa jets and for fountains and waterfalls. Traditional pumps operate at a single, pre-set speed at all times. But Stilson says the latest models, called “variable speed” pumps, will control your water circulation with greater accuracy. Essentially, variable speed pumps can be fine-tuned to run at the optimal speed for your specific pool, spa or water feature—significantly cutting back energy use. “You’ll end up paying a bit more for green equipment, but simply from the energy savings, you’ll get a return on that within just a couple of years,” Stilson says. As an additional bonus, variable speed pumps are more durable than traditional pumps. “Over traditional models, they’ve greatly stepped up how they build things,” he says. Homeowners can take other steps to reduce outdoor energy use. Covered pools stay warmer, requiring less energy to heat the water. Stilson adds, “The best cover you can get is an automatic cover—the material it’s made of will retain heat and actually absorb heat from the sun.” Keeping the water clear of debris and the equipment in good repair will also ensure the system runs at optimal efficiency. New designs and trends in outdoor waterscaping are also leading to energy savings, says Derk Hebdon, owner of Brätt Water Features in American Fork. The traditional landscape water feature is a waterfall that flows into a pond surrounded by plants. The pond water cannot become stagnant for a variety of reasons, but particularly if there are fish in the pond. So the pump must continuously circulate the water. The latest trend is what Hebdon calls a “disappearing” waterfall: the water tank and pump are underground, and the water simply flows back down into the tank, rather than into a pond. “The pump can be put on a timer to run during certain hours,” explains Hebdon. “You can set it to run only when you are home.” Bottom line? The pump works for maybe four hours a day, instead of 24. “We used to mainly do ponds,” Hebdon says, “But over the last few years, most of the water features we’ve done have been pondless.” The pumps and filters for water features have undergone the same revolution as pool equipment has, and when the latest technology is added to a pondless design, the energy savings can be enormous. “The equipment tends to be a little pricier up front, but it can definitely save—over the course of a single season—what you would spend in electricity,” says Hebdon. One last issue to consider is the lighting around pools and water features. Lighting adds an extra touch to water features, and it can extend your enjoyment of beautiful landscaping well into the evening hours. However, lighting is notorious for slurping energy. Homeowners are already using energy-efficient bulbs in interior lighting and they can do the same outdoors. “Outdoor lighting can also be put on a timer to reduce your overall energy use,” adds Hebdon. Hebdon’s final word of advice is to search for reputable designers and contractors. Poorly installed equipment will place a greater strain on pumps and filters and can leave you with a lifetime of high energy bills. The Solar Option According to the U.S. Department of Energy, solar water heaters for the pool are cost competitive with energy-efficient gas heaters. And in Southern Utah’s sunny climate, the solar option may be the friendliest to your budget—and to the environment. In a solar system, filtered water is pumped through a solar collector, where it is heated and then pumped back into the pool. This process requires more energy use for pumping, but that is generally balanced out by the energy saved in heating the water. Installation of a solar system can cost as much as $4,000, but the Department of Energy says this type of system will pay for itself in one and a half to seven years, depending on the climate and local fuel costs.
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