In a nod to man's eternal fascination with water, developers agree that one of the easiest ways to make a splash is by sprinkling dramatic, visually appealing fountains throughout their centers. Cool and inviting, fountains by their very nature impart a breath of fresh air to even the most stifling summer day.

But their appeal isn't limited to aesthetics. With their soothing, white noise, fountains help offset the din of food courts and other boisterous common areas. In addition, installing an attractive fountain in an area that receives little foot traffic can draw customers into that area, thereby keeping tenants happy.

What accounts for fountains' ongoing popularity? As much as anything, it is traceable to our age-old captivation with water itself.

"Water has always been one of the most effective ways to attract people and hold their attention," says Bob Evans, manager of sales and design for The Fountain People, San Marcos, Texas, a designer and manufacturer of fountain systems. "There's something magnetic about the sight and sound of water that draws people's eyes and ears."

With today's technological advances, there are more fountain types and styles than ever to choose from, and developers aren't hesitating to make use of them. "Fountains have become almost an essential component of shopping centers. In fact, nowadays there are very few that don't have a feature fountain of some kind," says Peter Crego, vice president of sales for Waterworks International. The St. Louis-based firm designs and builds interactive and other high-tech fountains for use in retail centers, water parks and botanical gardens throughout the United States and abroad.

Certain practical factors come in to play when choosing a fountain. For example, sufficient area must be available to accommodate a fountain. Similarly, if nozzles form an integral part of the fountain system, the splash area somehow needs to be contained.

Before making a final selection, the retail architect or developer should meet with the designer and establish the main objective, whether it be making a visual statement or masking noise. Will the designer have to work within the framework of a certain height? Where will the mall's customers be in relation to the fountain: at ground level or an elevated level? Will sound be a factor? How much area will be available?

Once these factors are determined, the sky is virtually the limit. Fountains can be subdued and elegant or loud and dramatic. Or they can be completely over the top, with multicolor laser lights and other special effects.

Often, locale dictates preference. In the South and Southwest, says Crego, many centers are gravitating toward flashy, entertainment-type fountains that incorporate musical components.

Fountains can make use of natural elements and the existing landscape. For example, at a strip center in a north Chicago suburb, Waterworks International installed a fountain at the site of a 150-year-old oak tree that the architects wanted to showcase.

The fountain featured laminar streams created by a nozzle designed to make the water resemble clear plastic tubing. So realistic was the final result, Crego reports, that shoppers would touch the streams of water, thinking they were actually tubes of plastic.

Some fountain installations can be temporary and transportable, like the modular systems built by Sundance Water Design. "All you have to do is take them into the center and plug them in," notes Guy Marsh, president of the Farmington, N.M.-based firm. The systems' "leapjet" capabilities provide a solid, partial or full stream of water, thereby adding more visual interest than might be achieved with a static system alone.

The company recently installed a system that essentially is two fountains in one. However, achieving perfect laminar flow within the black tile fountain, which Sundance has dubbed "Stealth" for its resemblance to the sleek Stealth bomber, presented some special challenges.

"Ultimately we came up with the idea of putting the jets in a room underneath the fountain, and then shooting water through those jets," Marsh recalls. "If you're just viewing the fountain from above, you don't see any equipment. But once you walk into the room below, you realize that there is a lot more (involved) than you might initially have realized."

Although certain kinds of fountains are proven people-pleasers, some, by virtue of the very feature that makes them most attractive, are impractical for use in certain retail applications. Interactive fountains, for example, are a time-honored favorite, especially with kids who love running through their spray and getting wet.

However, most merchants understandably do not want drenched children wandering in and out of their stores. As a result, interactive fountains for the most part are limited to outdoor areas, where drying time is hastened by the sun.

For enclosed areas of a center, other fountain options prove to be almost as amusing for children. According to Evans, many centers are installing fountains that incorporate special jets, including dandelion, mushroom, morning glory and crystal dome, to produce delicate crystalline droplets that create minimal splash. "The jets work wonderfully (indoors), providing there are no air conditioning ducts either right on top of or blowing on them," he says.

Another recent popular choice for indoor applications, Evans says, is water marble, a technique that has undergone significant refinements within the past several years. This special effect makes "balls" of water look like they're being launched vertically into the air.

The Fountain People recently was commissioned to design a fountain for a mall in Colorado Springs, Colo., that featured a stair transition from one level to the next. The end product was "very aesthetic, with custom bronze water spouts spilling into a pool," Evans says.

"Since shopping center fountains are viewed from close proximity," he notes, "they provide an excellent way of displaying art made of bronze, stone and stainless steel, as each of these elements can be safely used without running the risk of deterioration."

So do mall customers really pay any attention to its fountains? The numbers tell the story. "One of our centers drains the fountain for maintenance on a monthly basis," Marsh says. "And every time, they accumulate a five-gallon bucket of coins. That's a lot of coins."