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2-6 cohen artBy Scott Cohen

Last time, I mentioned the fact that many of my design clients these days are environmentally aware and want to make certain I can help them devise landscapes and hardscape treatments that make sense in eco-friendly ways.

To at least the same extent, clients who contact us at The Green Scene (Northridge, Calif.) want us to work with their pool, spa, fountain and pond designs in the same way:  They want us to minimize the environmental footprints of whatever we install; they want us to lower their ongoing utility bills to the greatest extent possible; and they want us to help them feel great about the choices they’ve made in their backyards.

For us, these clients are simply the best:  They help us perform to the highest standards and constantly challenge us to think about what we do in innovative, creative and thoughtful ways.

Counting the Possibilities

As is the case with hardscape areas and landscapes, ‘green’ watershapes require planning and preparation to make them work.  This means we need to discuss relevant issues, products and possibilities up front and work the decisions we make into the construction documents so we’re always be on the same page and moving in the same direction.

To get the eco-friendly ball rolling, we discuss a range of possibilities with our clients, covering relative costs, defining environmental benefits and basically opening their eyes to a surprisingly diverse set of options they need to consider, from variable-speed pumps, cover systems and solar-powered equipment to solar heating and sanitizing systems that limit the need to handle hazardous chemicals.  And that’s just for starters.

2-6 cohen art Variable-speed pumps have made a huge difference in reducing the energy consumed by the process of circulating water through pools, spas, fountains and all sorts of waterfeatures.  Basically, instead of using the one-size-fits-all approach of standard one- or two-speed pumps, the variable speed pumps can be precisely tuned to system needs and move water with the greatest possible efficiency – and at the least cost with respect to energy consumption.     

2-6 cohen art Darker interior finishes absorb heat during the day and radiate it into a pool’s water at night to keep the water warmer, thereby reducing heating bills.  Plaster and pebble finishes alike will get the job done.

2-6 cohen artCover systems contribute to eco-friendly watershaping in three ways:  First, they significantly reduce evaporation when deployed over a pool or spa’s surface, thereby limiting water use and related costs.  Second, by limiting evaporation, they reduce ongoing maintenance costs by keeping water-treatment chemicals in the pool where they do their work.  Third, they help the water retain heat, so it stays warmer and consumes less energy by reducing the need to use a fossil-fuel heater.

2-6 cohen art Solar-powered equipment has been coming on strong recently, with solar pumps, surface skimmers, sanitizing systems and more appearing on the market.  These products all turn the sun to great advantage, doing more and more to take pools, fountains, streams, waterfalls and other systems in which water must be circulated off the general utility grid and thereby substantially reducing overall operating costs.  

2-6 cohen art Solar water-heating systems perform another eco-friendly service to homeowners, reducing or even eliminating reliance on fossil-fuel-powered heaters for pools in particular.  All it takes is a section of nearby roof with good sun exposure to keep the water warm enough for swimming well beyond the usual season.  True, they’re not capable of heating water to hot-tub temperatures all year long, but they give the water a good head start through most of the year, thereby reducing heat-up times.  (At my own home in sunny California, my automated control system flips over to “spa ready” mode at 3 p.m. each day from April through October and pre-heats my spa to 102 degrees; this inclines me to use my spa much more frequently than I once did – an added bonus!)     

2-6 cohen art  Sanitizing systems are increasingly part of our green-related discussions, mainly because our clients want to get away from the need to handle the serious sorts of chemicals that make pool, spa, and interactive fountain water safe for human contact.  Partly, they don’t want to be responsible for the hassles associated with keeping water in balance; but they also want to get away from transporting chlorine, acid and other hazardous chemicals and storing them on the premises.  From ozone systems to fully natural swimming pools, clients have options that will make them happy.  And I’m starting to hear good things about the new sphagnum moss filters, too!

The Big Picture

The possibilities listed above are the big ones – but there are more.  For example, for years some pool builders have recommended a process known as “flow reversal” in which heated water is introduced to the bottom of the pool at the main drain rather than through the returns found on the wall.  This requires some special valving, but it distributes heat much more efficiently.  As a less-costly alternative, directional return fittings are now available that do a great job of dispersing heated water more evenly.

It’s also possible to insulate a lot of the plumbing associated with pools and spas so heat isn’t lost to the surrounding soil as water moves from the watershape to the equipment pad.  Some even advocate the insulation of the outside of concrete shells as a means of enabling pools to retain a bit more of their heat – a strategy that makes even more sense if a good insulating cover system is used.

In many cases, achieving the best eco-friendly result requires an investment:  Variable-speed pumps, for example, cost more than standard fixed-speed pumps, and solar powered equipment comes at a premium as well.  In most cases, there’s documentation that covers the payback rate; these sheets let homeowners know when the break-even points will be reached.  

If these clients are thinking long-term, the numbers begin to make sense in a hurry, particularly given rising costs for energy, water and fuel.  In many cases, we’ll set up packages that take our clients to whatever level of environmental commitment that makes sense to them in both practical and financial terms.

The great thing about the Green Revolution is that it’s always presenting us with new possibilities – and those possibilities have a tendency to become more reasonable as time passes, competition develops and everyone gets more comfortable with the available technologies.  If it’s not yet a factor in your discussions with clients, it certainly should be:  They’re way ahead of us in thinking about this and acting on what they’ve learned!


Scott Cohen is president and supervising designer of The Green Scene, an outdoor design and construction firm based in Northridge, Calif. He is also the author of books on a range of subjects related to watershaping and landscape design.  For more information, go to

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