Monday, December 28, 2015

Heated Chicken Waterer

If you have chickens in a cold climate, odds are high that you'll eventually want a device to keep their water from freezing. (The alternative is to take them fresh, unfrozen water multiple times per day, which quickly loses its novelty.)  That's the situation we found ourselves in last winter when the temperature suddenly dropped to overnight lows of -10 °F.

A quick search of the internets revealed a ton of potential solutions, especially for bowl-type waterers and relatively mild climes.  There are fewer solutions to keep nipple-type waterers from freezing, but a few options we've seen include adding poultry nipples to a heated bucket and heating a larger reservoir that then gets circulated through a tube-type waterer and across the poultry nipples.  We also saw mentions of using a heat tape, an aquarium heater, and a stock tank de-icer to keep a bucket waterer thawed.  Those latter two options sounded pretty good to us.  Time for some research to decide which one is better for us!

There are many opinions on using aquarium heaters in chicken waterers.  Some caution against it because water can sometimes leak into the chamber with the heating element (leading to electrified water that can shock chickens or chicken keepers) and the glass on some models can shatter if the water level gets too low.  Other folks say they work great for several years and encourage the chickens to drink more water during cold weather (which, they claim, leads to better egg production and healthier--or at least, more hydrated--chickens).  The risk of electrified water can be minimized by using a GFCI outlet (which really ought to be used with any electrified chicken waterer), and the risk of shattering glass can be minimized by using non-glass or shatter-resistant glass heaters with automatic shutoff features (although, be careful about using titanium heaters in a plastic bucket because they can get hot enough to melt some plastics).  A 50 W heater is often times spec'd out for 5-20 gallon aquariums, so it should be plenty powerful enough for a normal-sized chicken waterer.  Also, while we're certainly not experts on aquarium heaters, we noticed that the opinions cautioning against using aquarium heaters in chicken waterers tended to be based on years (and years and years) of experience using them with fish, which doesn't necessarily account for many of the features that have become standard in recent years (i.e., plastic, metal, or shatter-resistant glass construction and automatic shutoffs).  Many aquarium heaters now carry lifetime warranties.

Meanwhile, stock tank de-icers keep the chicken water just above freezing, the smallest ones are 250 W, and they carry a 2-year warranty.  For those of you who keep track of such things, that means the power consumption is equal if the tank de-icer is on for one-fifth the time of the aquarium heater.  Also for folks living in the coldest climes, there is some anecdotal evidence that keeping the bulk of the waterer slightly above freezing isn't enough to keep the nipples from freezing.

Both a 50 W aquarium heater and a 250 W stock tank de-icer cost about the same, but in our minds, the aquarium heater seemed like a slightly better option.  Phew!  Decision made.

Ok, with all of that discussion out of the way...on to some pictures to demonstrate the reduction to practice!

This is the model we went with.  Last year, we had it in a 2-gallon bucket, and it was too long to sit flat along the bottom.  It worked fine (keeping our water at about 70 °F with outside temps frequently at 10 °F and lower), but we wanted to get it into a 5 gallon bucket so it would stay covered with water until the bucket was almost empty, and so that the heater would be close to the nipples, making it easier to keep them thawed.  NOTE: As luck would have it, our heater was probably breaking as we typed this.  We were home in Wisconsin over Christmas, and returned to Colorado to find an empty water bucket with a small hole melted in the bottom and a burnt rubber smell inside, and a cracked (but not shattered!) aquarium heater.  We didn't have it on a GFCI plug (do as we say, not as we do...), but obviously we can't recommend this heater anymore.

We drilled holes and installed the poultry nipples in the bottom of the bucket, leaving a space for the heater in the middle.  Also, for what it's worth, lots of folks seem to recommend drilling 11/32" holes, but we usually go with 5/16".  It's a little snugger fit, which makes it harder to thread the nipples into the bucket, but might help with preventing leaks. Also, 5/16" is a lot more common drill bit size.  For real cowboy construction, it's possible to slightly enlarge the hole by making the drill bit sightly off-perpendicular and rotating around, but be careful not to make it too big!

Next, in goes the heater!  You're not imagining it--we cleaned it up between the first picture and this one.

We picked this spot to cut an opening for the cord in the lid.

A few snips with a wire cutter, and voilá! Cord-accessible.

The cord goes out the bucket and trails off through the hole that provides access for the garden hose in the summer.  On the outside of the coop is an extension cord, eagerly awaiting a plug.

A couple S-hooks make it easy to connect the bucket to the chain it's hanging from.

And here's the finished product.  The chickens are clearly intrigued with the new deluxe model.

What's your heated chicken water solution?


  1. Replies
    1. Nope--see the note under the first photo. We ended up getting a sinking small stock tank/bucket heater, though we're not crazy about that one either.