PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
Frank Hyman
November 16, 2016

It’s bad enough that the chickens have to go thirsty whenever their waterer ices up. But it also means that my wife and I have to head out into the freezing weather with a kettle of boiling water or a hammer to break up some ice.

Fortunately, this is only a problem a few times during our mild North Carolina winters. For colder regions, many months of subfreezing temperatures will make waterers rock solid and bone dry. The chickens may worry that you haven’t paid the water bill.

If, like us, you have a water bucket with nipples underneath, you might have heard of some keepers who recommend wrapping electric heating tape around the bucket’s base. However, because the plastic of the bucket is an insulator—not a conductor—the heat tape is only effective into the upper teens. Plus, to keep the hens from unraveling your work, you would have to use a second bucket to create a sleeve to cover the heating tape.

Other chicken keepers recommend using aquarium heaters. They are inexpensive, and they’re made to be in water. But chatter online indicates that they wear out quickly. Outdoors, these heaters are raising water from subfreezing temperatures, so they work long and hard until they fail—probably at the worst possible time. And when they fail, the ones made of glass burst and electrify the water, as well as the metal part of the nipples. The voltage is low, but still, think of what that does to tender chicken beaks.

At last, I found great option on a chicken forum: birdbath heaters! They’re made to work outdoors, they can withstand a long winter, and they function safely underwater. No bucket-cutting, no heat-tape-wrapping and no busted-aquarium-heater-replacing is required. Plug a birdbath heater in, and drop it in the bucket. If you have a lid for your bucket, you can leave it ajar for the season because neither mosquitoes nor algae are active in winter.

In addition to keeping your chickens’ water from freezing, a heater has other advantages. The warm water will keep the chickens’ body temperatures up, so your chickens won’t need to eat quite as much food to keep warm. Also, because they’ll be able to drink more water, their overall health will be less at risk. Drinking more water may even encourage more egg production in winter.

But don’t just rely on the birdbath heater alone. I highly recommend a few more components for the sake of savings and safety:

  • If the cord from the birdbath heater isn’t long enough to reach an outlet, you’ll need an extension cord that’s UL-rated for outdoor use.
  • If you go that route, also use a watertight clamshell connector to enclose the two cords where they meet to prevent short circuits caused by moisture. Both items are available at home-improvement stores.

Nonetheless, there is a very small chance that the cord or the heater could short out in wet weather for various reasons. A short could then go through the outlet, heat up more wires, and cause a fire in your house or garage, so plug the cord into a ground fault circuit interrupter outlet. A GFCI outlet turns itself off in response to a short and saves your house. After you fix the short, pushing a button on the outlet revives it. A licensed electrician can switch any normal outlet to a GFCI. It’s worth it: After all, you’re dropping a live electrical device into water.

If your birdbath heater doesn’t come with an internal thermostat—it should say on the box—you’ll waste a lot of energy while it runs as the temperature warms up. A TC-3 Thermo Cube has a simple internal thermostat. Plug it in between an exterior outlet and the cord (or another spot exposed to outdoor temps), and it will only turn on when the temperature drops below 35 degrees and turn off when the temp rises above 45 degrees. It will pay for itself through saved energy and by extending the life of the heater. You can purchase these easily online.

This collection of simple, reliable and inexpensive devices will let you sleep in on lots of icy cold mornings and go on worry-free winter vacations.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Chickens.


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