Real Estate

Water Features: Wasteful or Worth It?

J. Wickham Zimmerman

Water features are an integral part of many commercial properties, including retail centers, corporate campuses, and mixed-use destinations—where they add everything from ambiance to entertainment and can provide a soothing place of respite or an exciting attraction for visitors.

But with rising operating costs coupled with sustainability expectations, are water features still a smart component for property owners and facility managers?

In celebration of World Water Day, and in conjunction with continuing advancements in design and technologies including AI, there is no better time to dive into how water features can be operated sustainably. Today’s most engaging water features can operate without using extensive freshwater resources—and can even enhance energy efficiency.

Sustainability by design

Increasingly, water features are being designed specifically with sustainability in mind, helping to contribute to water conservation at the locations where they are installed in addition to supporting more cost efficiency for the long term.

Many fountains don’t actually need to use potable water; they can be designed to use alternative water sources such as reclaimed storm water, HVAC condensate, and recycled water—all of which aid in water conservation efforts. Others can use an underground reservoir store of water to operate, continuously filtering and recirculating the water in a sustainable way.

For example, our team installed an interactive water feature in downtown San Diego’s Waterfront Park that utilizes an underground reservoir. This perpetually filters and recirculates the water needed to operate the feature to create a safe, sanitary, and sustainable amenity for city residents and visitors to enjoy.

Additionally, water features can modify their microclimates in both indirect and direct ways, which in turn can support energy efficiency. For example, indirectly, they can act as a heat sink—absorbing heat energy from the surrounding atmosphere, providing a slight cooling effect. More direct ways of actively cooling and reducing humidity in a space with a water feature include chilling the water seasonally or adding desiccants that absorb moisture.

Today’s water features don’t have to use excessive amounts of water; when properly designed, engineered, constructed, and maintained, the only water lost is through splash and evaporation—which can also be minimized with a modern design. 

Evolving Tech enhances operations & experiences

AI technologies are being implemented at some features to further optimize the operations and sustainability of water features.

For instance, AI can help lower energy consumption by gathering data on periods of high usage and adjusting fountain operation to coincide with peak visitor times. Overall operating costs can be reduced through the usage of LED lights, as well as integrating remote-controlled leak-detection systems that shut off a fountain in case of an emergency.

This is already being integrated into large show fountains like Illuvia at EpicCentral in Grand Prairie, Texas, where OTL has incorporated an innovative AI technology that also allows visitors to interact with and even control the fountain’s effects. There are no pressure sensors or magic wands—the technology uses cameras to capture a person’s movement and then directs the lights and water to mimic it.

As technologies improve, they can be more easily implemented at both new and existing installments. An example of this is that our patented AI technology can be used with any feature or system that utilizes DMX—and it has already evolved tremendously, in part because AI is constantly teaching itself to get smarter. 

As design techniques and technologies continue to improve, the creative and innovative ways it is used will expand—including for conservation and sustainability practices that also create cost savings.

J. Wickham Zimmerman is the CEO of Outside the Lines Inc., a design-build themed construction company that specializes in creating rockwork, water features and themed environments for retail entertainment, hospitality, gaming, and golf properties around the globe.

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