Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cleaning and Maintenance Tips for Decorative Indoor Fountains.


     We use distilled water in all of the fountains in our store and we recommend it to you, too.  Most tap water - well, spring, and city water - has minerals in it.  In fact, if your cities water supply is too soft the water department will actually add minerals to it because soft water can leach lead and copper out of pipes and poison you.

     Unfortunately, over months and years of operation with tap water, your fountain will develop water spots and an ugly "bathtub ring" which may be quite difficult to remove.  The best thing to do is to use distilled water which does not have any minerals in it.  Not "drinking water" or "pure spring water" but "distilled water."  Here in Cannon Beach it costs about 99 cents a gallon, so it's not that expensive.  Once you've filled your fountain you just need to add a splash each day to replace the loss from evaporation, so a gallon of water should last a while.
Here's a handy trick that might work for you. Many people who live in an area of high humidity use a dehumidifier to dry out their home. A dehumidifier has a collection tank for the water that is removed from the air. Guess what? That is distilled water. If you've got it, use it. We use a small Kenmore humidifier on the very humid Oregon coast to produce about 2.5 gallons of distilled water each day. That is all of the water that we use in our many display fountains and it works perfectly.

     Water is the key ingredient of life, and where there is water, there usually is life.  That includes in your fountain.  If you put your fountain together and fill it with water, pretty soon algae and slime will start to grow in it.  These things are not harmful and as long as the water is circulating they will not stink or start to grow out onto the carpet or anything.  But they will continue to grow and eventually they will become unsightly and clog the pump.  If the water flow in your fountain slows down, it is time to clean the pump.  If you allow the pump to become so clogged that it cannot pump any water, it may overheat and then you get to buy a new pump.  How long does this take to happen?  It depends on the temperatures, humidity, and amount of spores floating around in the air where you live.  Typically you should clean an untreated fountain every two to three months.  More often if slowing of the pump indicates to you that it is time.

     "Untreated," you ask?  "What can I treat it with?"  Well, first of all, don't use bleach.  I know it seems like a great idea and cheap, too. But it is not.  Here's why:  
     If you read the ingredient list on the bleach bottle it will say "5.25% Sodium Hypochlorite."  So what is the other 94.75%?  It's a soap base.  So if you put a few drops of bleach in your fountain, the small amount of chlorine (in the sodium hypochlorite) evaporates off very soon, leaving the soap behind.  So what's wrong with that?  Nothing.  But tomorrow you will have to add a couple more drops of bleach to keep the algae down, and the next day a couple more drops, and pretty soon your fountain is a sudsy, foaming mess, and you will end up cleaning your fountain every two to three weeks.  How do I know this?  Hey, we thought it would be a great idea, and cheap, too...
     So what can you treat it with?  Having tried quite a few remedies, we have found a product called Fountec to be very effective and inexpensive over the long run.  One drop a week means the 8 ounce bottle will probably last a lifetime.  We have run some demo fountains for over a year without cleaning just by adding one drop of Fountec per week.  
     In its diluted form Fountec is supposed to be safe for pets (except for aquarium pets) according to the manufacturer.  Since Fountec kills algae, it may also kill other plants which you may wish to grow in the water.  Most people prefer to grow their plants in pots next to the fountain, so this probably won't be a problem for you.  We have lots of potted plants in the store alongside our fountains and splashing of water treated with Fountec has not affected any of them that we can see.

     Since we are on the subject of water, a few words about keeping it inside the bowl might be appropriate.  Some of the best fountain sounds come when water falls into water.  Unfortunately, sound and splashing are connected.  The more sound which comes from your fountain, the more splashing will come with it.  There are ways to minimize this.  Control of splashing partly depends on the design of the fountain.  The farther the water falls before it lands, the more energy it will have to dissipate and so the more splashing you will experience.  We've found that water falling more than one and a half inches results in nearly uncontrollable splashing.  And any less than one inch will result in a very quiet fountain.  So it is best for the water to fall between 1 and 1.5 inches.  If your fountain is correctly designed and proportioned, it will be possible to keep the water level within this range.  There will obviously be exceptions to this rule.  I occasionally put together an 18" high brass crane which spits water from its beak.  I make "splash guards" out of slate to catch the splashes and deflect them back into the bowl.  If I did not, there would be a three or four foot diameter wet spot around that fountain when it was running.  As it is, not a drop flies out.  Unfortunately, it is hard to add something like this once you've discovered that your fountain splashes too much.  It is generally best if the fountain is designed right in the first place.
     By correctly matching bowls to center supports to slate sets, we are generally able to get the most sound out of a fountain with the least amount of splashing.
     It is never possible to totally eliminate splashing.  Sometimes even the best behaved fountain will zing out the random droplet.  They are usually tiny, but they add up.  If your water level drops and you don't notice it, splashing may increase.  You might also spill a bit of water when filling the fountain.  Because of these things, never put a fountain on a surface which cannot get wet.  Antique wood tables are not good places to put a fountain unless you put a good coat of acrylic varnish on them first.  Always make sure the fountain is on a trivet or something to elevate it slightly from the tabletop.  This will allow air circulation underneath the basin and will prevent condensation from wetting the tabletop.  Don't place your fountain on antique doilies.  (This has happened.)


     Fountain bowls may be made of many different materials.  Most of our bowls - and all of the bowls on our website - are ceramic, either porcelain or stoneware, and glazed inside.  It is very easy to keep these bowls clean.  The first step is to use distilled water in your fountain so you don't stain them with minerals.  Even so, some soft minerals can leach out of the slate and cause spots.  If this happens, use a ScotchBrite pad and some white vinegar to scrub it off.  For really stubborn mineral deposits you can get a product at most grocery stores called CLR which is very effective.  You should use gloves with CLR as it apparently contains some pretty concentrated acids.  Otherwise, for algae/slime just wash with warm water and a tablespoon of bleach.  If you are not using Fountec, it is usually a good idea to sterilize all fountain components with a mild bleach solution before reassembling them so as to delay the onset of more algae.
     Some bowls may be made of low-fired ceramics.  Low-fired bowls are cleaned just like porcelain or stoneware bowls.  These materials are porous.  If the bowl is glazed inside, you must be certain that the glaze is impervious and that it does not get damaged.  We have learned the hard way that washing low-fired bowls in really hot water can crack the glaze.  Once this happens, water can seep (slowly) through the bowl and build up under the fountain.  Glazes on low-fired ceramic bowls may also have pinholes, or your bowl may not be glazed at all.  These problems can be fixed by resealing the bowl.  (See below.)
     Many fountain bowls are cast from plastic resins filled with marble dust, limestone dust or other minerals to give them a rich appearance.  These bowls are usually easy to scratch.  Oftentimes the insides of these bowls are painted to match the outsides and the paint is easily stripped off if you use abrasives.  So use only a cotton rag and warm, soapy water on resin bowls.
     You may have a fountain basin made of copper.  Copper is a biocide, meaning it is poisonous to living organisms.  Algae can grow in the water of a copper fountain basin, but it cannot attach to the bowl itself, so fountains in these basins can often go a long time without cleaning.  Copper is soft, so when you do clean it, use only a soft, cotton rag.  Unless your copper fountain has epoxy coatings on it (some do, most don't) you can use as hot of water as you like.

     If you have a low-fired bowl and it is seeping, there are a number of methods you might use to seal them.  Many of them are "home remedies" and you are on your own if you use those.  Furthermore, use of some home remedies may prevent some more effective repairs from working in the future.
     The easiest method I know of is to use a product called EZSeal.  You can get it from ceramics suppliers.  I get mine from Georgies in Portland, OR.  It's real easy to use: just pour some in, swish it around with a paper towel, let it soak in, then wipe out the excess and let it dry overnight.  EZSeal cannot fill holes or gaps, it just soaks into the porous ceramics and fills the pores.  It also leaves a rather soft coating on the inside of the pot which will scratch if you use a ScotchBrite pad to clean it.  
     If you have a planting pot with drain holes, you should use epoxy to seal it.  This involves two steps: first make a paste or putty by mixing a small amount of epoxy and adding very fine sawdust or talcum powder to it until it is thick.  Use this to plug the holes.  Then, after the putty begins to "gel" (to get firm and sticky) mix some more epoxy and paint the inside of the pot including right over the half-cured putty.
     You can buy pigments to tint epoxy, but make sure they are really for epoxy or your coating may fail to cure and you'll be left with a real mess.
     If you work with epoxy, always use latex or vinyl disposable gloves.  China bristle "chip brushes" are good for spreading the epoxy because they are cheap and you will throw them away after one use.  Epoxy can be thinned with acetone, but acetone is nasty stuff - it's better to be careful, take your time, and not get the epoxy anywhere you don't want it to be.
     It is important to use the right kind of epoxy.  Don't use the 1:1 ratio, fast curing epoxies (like 5 minute epoxy) that you might see in the hardware store.  They are not spreadable and won't soak in to the bowl.  Use 2:1 ratio boat building epoxies which are designed to soak into porous materials.  Two good brands that I know of are System Three and West System brands.  I use System Three, but that's mostly because it is more convenient for me to buy it.  Either of them will work well.  System Three has a trial kit which costs $10.00 and has everything you need to seal one or two bowls except for tinting pigments.  It even has the disposable gloves and stirring sticks and so on.  You can see it and get ordering information at their website.


     Most pumps have some sort of inlet strainers or screens to ensure that small pebbles or other debris doesn't get into the pump and jam or damage it.  Eventually, these screens will become clogged and the water flow will slow down.  It is important to be observant and if you notice the water flow slowing down in your fountain, be sure and clean the pump before it clogs entirely.  If it becomes completely clogged, it may overhead and burn out.  Then you will have to replace it.
     Your pump should come with an instruction booklet, though some do not (it's true.)  Read the instructions to learn how to strip and reassemble it.  Most small fountain pumps are extremely easy to strip for cleaning and do not require any tools to do so.  Sides pop off, impellors are attached to motor armatures and just pull right out as a single piece, outlets pull our or pop off.  We do it many times a day in the store and have demo pumps which have probably been taken apart and put back together hundreds of times and still work fine.
     Your pump is probably adjustable.  Be sure and make a note of the adjustment position when you remove the pump for cleaning.  In the process of cleaning, you may inadvertently change the adjustment and you will want to be able to set it correctly before you reassemble the fountain.  This will save you some work.
     Take the pump apart and clean it with warm, soapy water and an old toothbrush.  Dip the parts in a mild bleach solution and reassemble it.  One most pumps, reassembly means putting the armature back onto the motor shaft (it just slides on with not effort or tools) and popping a cover back on to the front or side of the pump.  The entire cleaning process probably won't take more than a couple of minutes.
     Be sure and use distilled water in your fountain because hard water deposits can build up on the motor shaft or other parts of the pump and place an extra load on the motor which may cause it to fail prematurely.


     Most slates are pretty hard material.  They've been in the ground for hundreds of millions of years, under enormous heat and pressure.  That's how they got to be slate: they survived.
     Cleaning is easy: warm water and a soft bristled brush or old toothbrush.  Slate can be porous, so don't use soap or it might soak in and then make your fountain bubble and foam up.  You can dip or spray on a mild bleach solution to sterilize it, but remember to rinse that off well before reassembling the fountain.
     Slate can break, but it probably won't, so don't worry too much about it.  Don't drop it on hard surfaces or hit it with hammers and it will probably outlast you.  If you somehow get a deep scratch in a piece of slate, you can use a fine steel wire brush to polish it back out.  Practice on the bottom side, first!

Other Fountainhead Materials

     Many other materials are used for fountainheads.  Some common ones are rocks (other than slate), ceramic, copper, and resin.
     All of our drilled rock fountainheads should be able to tolerate scrubbing with hot, soapy water and rinsing with a mild chlorine bleach solution.  You can brush them with a soft bristle brush (plastic or natural fiber bristles) but not with steel or brass.  If you have another type of rock, you will have to determine for yourself what kind of rock it is and how to clean it, but almost all rock durable for use in fountains will work with the above cleaning method.
     Ceramic fountainheads can be cleaned just like ceramic bowls.  ScotchBrite pads should work fine on them.  Be careful of thermal shock: don't put a cold fountainhead in really hot water or a hot fountainhead (just out of hot water) into cold water or you could cause the ceramic to crack or the glaze to craze and crack.  A toothbrush might be useful when cleaning fancy, sculpted ceramic fountainheads.
     Copper fountainheads are usually constructions of cascading leaves or similar shapes.  These can be very easy to bend so you must be careful.  Fortunately, they bend back easily, too.  Sometimes copper fountains will build up natural verdi-gris (green) coatings around the edges and above the water lines.  If you like this look (I do) then it is probably best to do nothing to a copper fountainhead except for a gentle dusting of the dry parts from time to time with one of those sheepskin dusting wands.
     Most molded fountainheads are cast from a polyester resin mixed with fillers such as powdered marble, other stone or some other kind of filler.  These materials tend to be very strong, but scratch easily.  Some may also be painted over the underlying resin.  The best way to clean these materials is with warm, soapy water and a soft sponge.  Strong acids may affect the color by dissolving filler materials near the surface, but won't penetrate.  Before using tile cleaners or other acids on a cast resin fountainhead, check for this possibility by putting a few drops of the cleaner on the bottom of the fountainhead and scrubbing it a bit with a toothbrush.  
     Bamboo fountainheads should not be allowed to dry out once they have been used.  Drying will often cause them to crack.  Most bamboo used in fountains is used in a horizontal or sloping "spout" arrangement.  If it cracks on the top, it probably won't hurt anything and might even add some character to your fountain.  But chances are it will crack on the bottom and then you will need to replace the bamboo.  If you leave bamboo uncoated, it will darken with age and may even blacken, depending on what's in your water.  I recommend that you accept this philosophically, and not try to seal the bamboo.  You will probably be unsuccessful if you try to seal it and the results will look lousy.  I've even tried dipping bamboo in the finest quality penetrating boat-repair epoxy and the coating failed within a few weeks.
     I've seen fountainheads made of wood.  As with bamboo, it is unlikely that a sealed wood fountainhead will remain sealed.  If the wood becomes wet under the coating, the fountainhead will look bad.  It's better not to try and seal the wood.  You can coat it with boiled linseed oil from time to time and that might help keep it looking OK, but you need to accept that a wooden fountainhead is going to get wet and it's going to darken and get slimy.  It goes with the territory.  For this reason, wood in a fountain looks best if it is intended to look wet and weathered.  I think the best thing to do with wood in a fountain is nothing at all.  Just change the water, clean the pump and bowl, and enjoy its rustic beauty.
     Black ABS center supports are durable and impervious to chemical cleaners.  Whatever you do to the fountainhead may be done to the center support.  Even if you scratch them up, it won't matter because they are black objects hiding in the shadows underneath your fountainhead and nobody will see it.
     If you have a fountainhead made from some material I haven't described here, let me know. 

     Most repairs to small fountainheads involve gluing, or re-gluing broken off parts.  In most cases, silicone adhesive caulking can be used for the glue.  It comes in clear and white.  Possibly other colors, but these are the most common.  You'll probably want to use the clear.  Be sure the surfaces you are going to glue are clean and most importantly: dry!  Wet slate or porous ceramic should be left to dry for a day or so before attempting to repair them with silicone.
     If you want a really good repair job, find some Sikaflex 291.  This stuff comes in black or white.  Sikaflex is really sticky stuff.  It sticks very well to slate, ceramic, and most things.  It doesn't stick well to Marble, or other alkaline surfaces, but what it does stick to, it really sticks to.  That includes you.  If you get Sikaflex on something you don't want it on you cannot wash it off.  Try to wipe and rub it off with a paper towel.  
     When Sikaflex cures, it is strong and pliable, but pretty sturdy.  I use it to make the spacers on my slate sets, but you can also use silicones.  If you need to make or replace spacers such as these, squeeze out a dab of the stuff onto the slate (or whatever material you are using.)  It should look like a tall chocolate chip.  You can then dip your fingers in soapy water and shape the spacer and pat it down to approximately the same height as the other spacers.  (You should almost always have three spacers.  More can result in tippiness.)   Keep in mind that you can always trim the spacers with scissors after they cure, so leave them a little high.


     It is usually a good idea to sterilize your fountain after you clean it and before reassembling it.  If things have been growing on the surfaces of the fountain, it is possible that some may survive the cleaning.  Once you put the fountain back together again, these organisms will start growing immediately unless you use Fountec.  To prevent this, give all parts, including the pump, a dip in a mild bleach solution before reassembling the fountain.  Sure, new spores will soon arrive and begin to colonize your fountain, but this will slow down the progression.


     Many plants will grow in a fountain, even plants which we normally consider to be "dirt" plants.  The key is to make sure that no dirt adheres to the roots when placed in the water.  Fungi live in dirt and if they accompany the plant into the water, the plant will get root rot.  Some plants will not like living with their roots in water, but try them - you might be surprised.  You can also root cuttings directly in the water.  Some plants will root this way and others will not.  We like spider plants because they root very easily and like living with their roots in the water.  We've got spider plants which have been living in water for years and are putting out shoots and blooming.  They also tend to have a "marsh grass" look and it is very difficult to find actual marsh grasses which are small enough to put in a tabletop fountain.
     If you grow plants in your fountain, there are precautions to take.  You must make sure that the roots do not grow into the pump.  You will not be able to use Fountec because that will kill the plants.  And you must make sure that branches or leaves do not hang in such a way that water runs along them and out of the fountain onto the table or floor.  This will empty the fountain and might ruin whatever gets wet, so be careful.

Pets & Children

     There are a few things to think about before buying a fountain if you have pets or children.  You know your pets or children better than I do.
     If they will drink the water, then you should probably not use Fountec in it. 
     Fountains on tables are much more stable than fountains on wire stands.  Cats tend to jump up onto things, children may bump into the fountain/stand or reach up to play in it, energetic dogs may bash into the stand while running and playing.  These events may knock over a fountain on a wire stand or cause water to slosh out of it.  If you are not certain that your pets or children can be trained and trusted to stay away from the fountain, you should probably make sure it is on a very stable surface.
     It might be wise to select a low fountain such as our tiered slate models which are fairly stable.  Tall fountains such as our monoliths and those made by some other manufacturers are going to be more easily tipped over by curious little ones or pets.

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