How to keep animal's water from freezing in winter without electricity?
November 29, 2012 7:16 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to heat up a rock or piece of metal to drop in my chicken's water source to warm it up. What should I use?

I cut a whole in a large insulated water storage container. I put a ceramic plate inside on the bottom so I could drop something hot in the water and not burn the plastic. What should I heat up and how should I heat it up?

I suppose I could boil water and add it to a mason jar and then set the mason jar in the water. I have also thought of rocks and something small made of cast iron. Do you have a better idea?

There is no electricity in the chicken coop. I heat my house with electric heaters so I would have to heat the object by boiling water or in a toaster oven. Or??

I do have a nice solar oven I could use. Not sure if it works on a cloudy day. About half our days are cloudy here in the winter.

My goal is to lessen the times I have to remove solid ice blocks from the water storage. I'm trying to cut down on my labor. Last year I had two rubber bowls. I switched out the bowls every day because the water froze solid every night.
posted by cda to Pets & Animals (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Your best bet is probably the mason jar, as the water inside it will retain heat longer than dropping rocks or metal into cold water (you could add hot rocks to the water in the mason jar to keep that water warm longer). The only real way to keep the water liquid would be to insulate it somehow. Of course adding boiling water to the water they drink would help as well.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:32 AM on November 29, 2012

Someone can come along to do the calculation, because I suck at math, but I think you are likely talking about needing either a very big object or a very hot object to seriously affect the temperature of your water. Especially when you have a cold environment. I would suggest that your best bet is getting all of the water in the cooler to the upper level of what the chickens can drink, and letting the cooler help you keep it warm. (Although it actually looks like you have opened the cooler up so that the insulation will only be of marginal use?)

Basically, I think your proposed solution is going to require as much time and attention as what you are trying to avoid in the first place. If your worry isn't that the chickens will go thirsty, why not just change out the water every day instead of heating something every day to toss into the water that is already there?
posted by OmieWise at 7:32 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

If this is less to do with the health of the chickens and more to do with ice management..

then I think you're better off draining the water at night, refilling in the morning, and draining/refilling midday. It doesn't look like it's a large amount of water we're talking about. Which might be adding to the problem. You're also probably negating some of the effects of the insulation container by putting that hole in it.

How do you keep your chicken warm..? Why can't that method be used for the water?

You could try heating a brick in your oven. Mason jar will be least effective. Clear glass conducts heat fairly well.
posted by royalsong at 7:33 AM on November 29, 2012

You can get a "bucket de-icer" from $25-40 bucks.
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 7:40 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: TMI - but my partner had a stroke back in February and it is a long way out to the chicken shed and I am looking for any way to cut down on my chores because I am overwhelmed with caretaking. Not bad enough to give my chickens away yet though!

I don't have to heat the chicken coop. It is super insulated (with proper ventilation) and the chickens thrive. But the water freezes every night.
posted by cda at 7:48 AM on November 29, 2012

As a kid we had a bunch of chickens in upstate New York and we had a sort of electric blanket that we wrapped the birds' water tank in. This page has a bunch of similar-ish options:

posted by gyusan at 7:50 AM on November 29, 2012

Never mind, I see you don't want electrical solutions...
posted by gyusan at 7:51 AM on November 29, 2012

Response by poster: I can't run an extension cord out there because one of my neighbors will inevitably surprise-plow my driveway and cut the cord (this has happened).
posted by cda at 7:53 AM on November 29, 2012

There are two issues here really:

1. What material is good for storing heat.

2. How can you slowly release that heat into the water - (as atmospheric heat loss rates are roughly proportional to temperature.) So ideally you keep the cold water at just above freezing.

Water actually has a very high Heat Capacity compared to other materials:

Which means it would be good for storing the heat. However simply pouring the water into the other water will mean that it looses that heat quickly.

Instead I think storing the heat inside a somewhat well insulated thing would work quite well to ensure a slow dissipation of the water heat to the outer water.

So putting boiling water in a ceramic container could work ok. Since the ceramic will slow the heat transfer from the hot water to the cold - but ideally the container would be fully submerged in the cold water.
posted by mary8nne at 8:08 AM on November 29, 2012

1) Bury the extension cord (probably difficult this time of year)
2) Solar panels + battery + electric heater
3) Use an oil lamp to heat the water (taking utmost precautions place in a fire resistant device that also shields from the elements)
posted by 6ATR at 8:27 AM on November 29, 2012

We have this microwaveable pet bed warmer. It's a disk that you heat for several minutes in the microwave, slip on the fleece cover, and it gives off decent warmth for several hours. They claim 12 hours but it depends on ambiant temperature. Maybe it would be long enough to prevent the water from freezing overnight? But you'd still have to warm it up and take it out there each night. I'd imagine you'd wrap that in some fabric, then put the water bowl on top -- don't submerge it in their water itself. I'm imagining a cooler sliced horizontally so it's not as tall, with this at the bottom, and a tray of water on top. I have no idea if that's realistic for chickens!
posted by barnone at 8:31 AM on November 29, 2012

Brilliant idea to cut a hole in the insulated cooler!

Are you planning to put a lid on the container? That should help hold the heat in some since heat rises. Even placing something on top (not screwing it down) should help. You might also incorporate some thermal mass there, but I'm not sure how much it would help.

You might also consider placing the container on top of something that holds heat -- a large rock, a divot in the ground.

This is basically a plastic-covered disc (not sure of the interior - some kind of solid that becomes a gel, maybe?); the fleece cover is removable. You heat it for 8 minutes or so in the microwave (there's a time chart on the disc), and it stays warm for hours and hours (I use mine for my feet in bed). Not sure how well it would hold up outside, and it definitely costs more than a rock, but it's really nice to have anyway.

Barnone, saw your comment on preview -- I'm delighted that i'm not the only one to know about this.
posted by amtho at 8:33 AM on November 29, 2012

Can you run the extension cord up a pole on either side of your driveway, so it's suspended above the plow/cars?
posted by barnone at 8:36 AM on November 29, 2012

You could also try adding a rubber ball or piece of wood. If it floats around enough, it should keep the water moving and help to prevent freezing.
posted by FreezBoy at 8:38 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have that microwaveable pet warmer that barnone linked. I think you could put that in a ziplock freezer bag (so it's food safe) and drop it right into the water.
posted by HotToddy at 8:40 AM on November 29, 2012

Boiling water in a mason jar will crack when it hits the cold water. (Ask me how I know!)

I am assuming you don't want to do something like add boiling water directly to the water because you want the water to get too hot for the chickens to drink. The problem with something that has high thermal mass but also high thermal conductivity (ideas like a jar of water, cast iron, rock[s]) is that it's going to fairly quickly equalize in temperature with the chicken water. So you really can't add that much more heat with a "contained" but still conductive device like a jar of water or a rock than you can by adding straight boiling water, because it's all going to be transferred to the chicken water quickly anyhow.

Possibly, if you had something that stored a lot of heat but that had lower thermal conductivity you could add more heat that would equalize more slowly with the chicken water. Something like boiling water in insulated water bottles or a couple of ordinary water bottles wrapped in a piece of old quilt and inside a sealed plastic food storage container.
posted by drlith at 8:41 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a little rechargeable heater. Maybe two of those under the water bowl would be enough to keep it toasty for the night.
posted by barnone at 8:43 AM on November 29, 2012

I think (someone please correct me, I'm no physicist) that drlith's points would be addressed by the pet warmer in a ziplock. I think the thing itself is designed to have lower thermal conductivity (it has a thick plasticky shell), then the air inside the ziplock and the plastic of the ziplock would add to that.
posted by HotToddy at 8:45 AM on November 29, 2012

As your container is insulated, much of the heat loss will be from the surface of the water. You might find it helpful to cut a circle of expanded polystyrene (or anything light enough to float and thick enough to insulate) to cover and insulate the top of the water, with only a small area cut out to give the chickens access to drink.
posted by anadem at 8:50 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh wait, I've had a stroke of genius! You want to put a lot of hot water inside your insulated chicken waterer, but in the air space at the top, and not into the water itself.

I'm assuming that your chicken waterer is only filled to just below the opening, and that the chickens drink out of the opening Build a little rack or stand that sits above the opening and doesn't block it off, and set a gallon ice cream pail of boiling water on that then put the lid on. I.e., your boiling water is sitting in the top of the waterer keeping the whole thing nice and warm but not in the water so it's not overheating the water.
posted by drlith at 8:52 AM on November 29, 2012

And here's a great DIY: insulated water holder for chickens. The chickens are in Sweden and it seems to prevent the water from freezing until it's below -10C.
posted by barnone at 8:56 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Instead of a glass container, how about stoneware? Check out your local antique shops for something the right size or something similar made of metal. I suspect that if you put boiling water in there, you could plug the top and then set it in the water. The pottery will slow the heat transfer but still allow it to occur.

Alternatively, those little reusable chemical handwarmers might work, especially if double-bagged so they float.

Sorry to hear your caregiving responsibilities are increasing, don't forget to take care of yourself too.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 9:06 AM on November 29, 2012

Find the warmest corner of the chicken coop and put the water there.

Do the neighbors have kids who take care of their own chickens? Offer them a few dollars to check on yours each day too.

Whatever you do, don't put a glass jar of boiling water into a cold pan.
posted by yohko at 9:13 AM on November 29, 2012

(There is a bit too little info here to provide a perfect answer.)

Heat flow follows rules. It moves in response to surface area and the characteristics of the interface materials. in your case, it's water vs. air.

to maximize the amount of energy in the water, use as much water as possible. minimize the surface area exposed to cold air. drlith's suggestion is aiming in the right direction. (The reason that the air is an issue is because the rest of the water surface area is insulated already by the setup you describe.)

Of course, chickens are smart and won't die of thirst overnight. it generally should be easier to provide liquid water in the day because that's when temperatures are typically higher. the best alternative is to get the entire water source in an insulated space. if you can keep the air temp above freezing, you can't freeze the water. Chicken emit some heat. You've got to balance this entire model out with the energy inputs and losses you have available.

Also, if you do go the route of using a thermal ballast, putting the water in a mason jar seems silly. It's just a quantity of water that you are immersing in another quanitity of water. The heat will flow out of it and average into the heat of the surrounding water at a very predictable rate, based on the weights of each.

I have to run, so others will hve to fill in. This is a simple physics problem. No such thing as free heat. You have to manage heat loss more than provide heat input, IMO.
posted by FauxScot at 9:18 AM on November 29, 2012

Dropping a microwaveable pet warmer or any other hot object into the water is a non-starter. The pet warmer advertizes ten hours, but that assumes air. Water has a much higher thermal conductivity. That is why blacksmiths quench in water rather than in the open air. Anything immersed in the water is going to reach equilibrium very quickly. Placing a heater next to the water is going to be even less effective.

If an active energy source is not an option, insulation is going to be key. Without adequate energy input, you need to prevent energy loss. Unfortunately, the surface area from which the chickens drink is going to be a radiator. If you can keep that as small as possible, and add water as warm as they can handle, that will help. As yohko suggested, put it in the warmest area of the shed. I don't know how many chickens you have, but they are radiating body heat into the coop.

No matter what, I think you will be making daily trips to the coop.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:23 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I should add that the cooler is working much better than my swap-out method from last year. 4 days now and the water has not frozen although on the fourth day ice is forming on the surface. (Compared to open rubber bowls of water in the coop for comparison which are frozen solid.)

I thought that if I heat the water somehow I may be able to go 5 days without having to change the water.

I do have the lid it came with on top.

After I go over these suggestions I may construct a space underneath the cooler to place a microwaveable pet bed warmer. And maybe also put one in the huge space above the water inside the cooler.

I have a wool blanket wrapped around the cooler and I am thinking about more insulation around the cooler as well.

barnone: I did not know there was such a thing as a rechargeable personal heater. Thanks! I will probably buy those. And that Swedish design - that is very similar to the one I am working on - I knew I couldn't be the only one thinking about this - thanks for the link.

I'm still going over all the suggestions, thanks everyone, this is really helping!
posted by cda at 9:42 AM on November 29, 2012

I would be very wary of heating water to the point where it will hurt your chickens. It also will only make the water go a couple hours longer without freezing.

I think you need to increase the amount of water, and decrease the amount of surface area, as well as insulate the container. You only need to keep the water just above freezing. It will be important to insulate the lid of the container and also any gaps. I think what I would try to do is get a big wide container that could hold a smaller container with spray foam between the two. Then I would cut a hole for drinking out of a non-toxic lid that fit the containers. I would insulate the lid with a piece of styrofoam that also had a hole cut out of it. The surface area would be small, the amount of water would be relatively large, and the whole thing would be insulated. If sun got into my coop I might paint the outside container black. It seems like you could possibly use two rubbermaid containers, keep the snap-on lid for the largest. You might need to cut down the smaller one to get it to nest properly inside the larger with the lid on. The difficulty would be finding a shallow enough container so that when the water got low, the chickens could still reach it (unless you still fill the water regularly). You don't want little birds falling in and drowning, either.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:23 AM on November 29, 2012

... or you know, just a big bowl inside the larger container.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:24 AM on November 29, 2012

I was going to suggest an old, half-gallon stainless steel thermos filled with boiling water which would very gradually lose its heat to the drinking water as an implementation of drlith's suggestion of metered heat, but that would add only about a day and a half/two days to the four days you have already achieved.

I might try a tall, relatively narrow glass container, at least half a gallon, very loosely covered at the top and filled with very fine steel wool and water, but only partially immersed in the insulated container in order to keep the steel wool from coming into contact with the drinking water.

Rusting steel gives off a lot of heat, and that might be enough to keep the water liquid for awhile, but you'd have to replace the steel wool periodically.
posted by jamjam at 10:44 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another thought--I don't know your coop setup. Mine is like a raised henhouse that is inside a hardware cloth run, with a roof over the whole deal, and my water is down in the run. I can't have the water upstairs because there's not enough room and they'd make a mess in the bedding, so it's down in the run. If you have something similar, then it would help a LOT to wrap poly sheeting around the coop to keep out the wind and get some passive solar heating.
posted by HotToddy at 11:23 AM on November 29, 2012

Paint the water jug black and position it where it'll get direct sunlight. It'll absorb more solar energy during the day and probably help you more than dropping hot things in the water.
posted by fontophilic at 11:40 AM on November 29, 2012

i'm back.

a 1 qt mason jar of water at 200F cooled to 34F releases roughly 340 BTUs of energy. (160 f x 2.05#)

a 10 gallon tank (82.5 pounds) of water you want to raise from 33 F to 34 F will require (82.5 x 1 F) BTUs = 82.5 BTUs.

To keep this tank just barely above freezing, you'll have to add 82.5/340 (.24) quarts of 200F water to compensate for whatever heat loss there is due to the surface being exposed and the (presumed negligible) heat loss via the insulated portions. a lot of factors are involved, including the relative humidity of the air and just how close you are to the freezing point of the water, where the rules change due to the phase change from ice to water or vice versa. far enough away from that (i.e., a target temp of maybe 37) and it's safely linear. (I suggest this because your problem is undefined in a lot of aspects, so precise advice would need more data.)

empirically determining your heat loss will require some data collection... i.e., volume of water in the tank, surface area, an initial temperature at a given time, a stable temperature in the surrounding air at that same time, and periodic recording of the water temperature and verification that the surrounding air temperature is stable. A few hours should be good enough. This will then tell you how much heat you need to add for a unit of time and you can use that to determine when/how much hot water to add if indeed that is what you want to do.

hotter water is the best material to add as a heat source.

if you had an extremely well insulated separate tank you could fill and drain slowly into your feeding tank, you could meter out both clean water and enough energy to keep things liquid. you'd need some engineering and insulation, but it might be a way to make a continuous process.

then, of course come the economics. is this worth doing if it's a 3 month per year problem? is water free? is the heat free? how do these compare with the relatively simple solution of a buried power line and a water bowl heater? how do these tasks compare to moving the coop to your side of the driveway and closer to an outlet? how much time are you willing to put into invention and how does that compare to the amount of time you put into transporting hot water to a bunch of ungrateful chickens?

problems get progressively more complex when you try to preserve certain constraints instead of going back to the basic assumptions. The real goal here is live, non-thirsty chickens, not a novel new way of making an energy intensive task energy free. Have you examined everything with this in mind? Why settle for the status quo if you can make simple changes that have profound effects?
posted by FauxScot at 12:35 PM on November 29, 2012

There is another source of very cheap energy available to you, but it's very tricky to make use of because it is only available right at the freezing point of water, and only a tiny bit can be used for the benefit of your chickens before its very production makes the rest of it useless.

I'm talking about the energy water gives off as it freezes, and there's quite a lot of it; enough from a given weight of water to raise that same amount from near freezing to more than three quarters of the way to boiling, though that won't happen because heat can't flow from a colder object to a hotter one.

This is the rationale behind oneirodynia's suggestion of more water. As some of the water freezes, it gives off heat which will slow the freezing of the rest. The problem is that the surface of the water freezes first, and as soon as it's completely frozen the water is unavailable to your chickens, and so you only get the benefit of the tiny amount of energy from the frozen surface layer.

I think you could get around this limitation by plugging the open top of your insulated cooler with a lidded metal bucket full of water. Under those conditions, I think the water in the cooler that the chickens are drinking would not begin to freeze until the water in the bucket was almost completely frozen, because the water at the bottom of the bucket would tend to hover above freezing as the bucket froze from top to bottom, and therefore the bucket would tend to radiate heat which would keep the surface of the drinking water in the bottom of the insulated container from freezing, and maintain a little column of above freezing air below the bottom of the bucket but above the top of the hole you cut.

The seal between the top of the cooler and the bucket should be fairly tight, I'd think, and for stability it would be nice if the bottom of the bucket set down into the cooler a ways.
posted by jamjam at 3:04 PM on November 29, 2012

jamjam has the right idea--this is all about latent heat management. Any water that evaporates will take a lot of heat with it, so you want to prevent evaporation as much as possible. Water that freezes will give off heat, as paradoxical as this seems--I understand that fruit farmers in normally warm places will sometimes spray their fruit with water during hard frosts, because the ice freezing on the surface will keep the inside warm long enough for the weather to improve. So allowing some of the water to freeze may actually help, as long as you can keep that from cutting off access to the unfrozen water.

I think that if you get a waterer that is mostly covered and had just a small area for the chickens to drink from (along these lines), which would refill from the larger covered reservoir, that would keep the water unfrozen for quite a while just by itself. You could use a fairly small heater to keep the water in the drinking area unfrozen, and then even if the water in the reservoir started to freeze, it wouldn't cut off your chicken's drinking supply until the whole thing was frozen solid.
posted by fermion at 5:13 PM on November 29, 2012

cda writes "There is no electricity in the chicken coop. I heat my house with electric heaters so I would have to heat the object by boiling water or in a toaster oven. Or??

As others have mentioned water is pretty well the highest heat storage medium you'll commonly have access to so your best bet would be just adding boiling water to your reservoir. The easiest way to do this would be an electric kettle: fill it up, bring it to a boil, bring it out to your hen house and pour it in.

However the absolute easiest would be an electric stock heater (This is just an example, you could get away with 60-100 watts easy). You've mentioned that an extension cord would get damaged by snow clearing equipment. Where I work we have a similar problem which is solved by stringing the cord over top of 3' high pylons. This gets it up in the air where you can see it and also marks the location with the pylons. Could you possibly do something like that (maybe involving a circuitous route so you could still park your cars)? Maybe with a few stacks of milk crates or chunks of fire wood or hay bales. Or you could make support pylons out of vertical lengths of 2x2 or 2x4s nailed to 2x4 crosses (ala Charlie brown christmas trees).

Or could you set up a couple supports to get your electrical cord high enough in the air that you could drive under it? When I lived where I needed to plug in my car but I was parking on the street I used a simple L shaped piece of EMT to get my cord over the sidewalk without creating a tripping hazard.
posted by Mitheral at 7:52 PM on November 29, 2012

Get an old tire (off its rim) and stuff it with rocks. Wedge a large bucket or similar-sized container in the hole in the tire and pour the water into the bucket. The black tire will absorb the light from the sun during the day and heat the rocks stuffed inside the tire and the rocks will radiate enough warmth to keep the water from freezing. This is a trick invented by horse owners trying to keep water out in their fields from freezing.
posted by dottiechang at 9:58 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

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