Waterers That Work in Winter

Fresh water is important to horses all year, especially in winter. Some waterers are designed to remain functional in cold weather--with an insulated tank or bowl, a heater, or a combination of a heating unit and insulation. Following are some of the ways you can keep water flowing to your horses even when it's below freezing.

Insulated Buckets

Buckets made of insulating material work like a thermos to keep water from freezing. There are also insulated bucket holders made of a poly material with spray foam between double walls. The flat back can be bolted to a stall wall or fence. The holder has a round opening into which a five-gallon bucket slips.

Most of these bucket holders have an insulated floating cover made from structural foam (heavier and stronger than Styrofoam) that floats on top of the water and helps prevent heat loss. If a horse nudges it, water comes over it for drinking. Horses readily learn to use it; they know the water is in there so they push on the lid.

Bucket Heaters, Heated Buckets

Electric warmers are the least expensive type of heated waterer. Bucket de-icers are plugged into a barn outlet and simply dropped into the bottom of a bucket to keep water from freezing. These are thermostatically controlled and don't get very hot.

Several companies sell heated buckets. One is a polyethylene bucket with a heating coil in the bottom that runs through the plastic so you don't have an element in the water itself. A cord is attached to the bottom of the bucket. The bucket is made of thin plastic and the heating filament inside it stays at a low temperature; it never gets hot enough to melt the plastic.

The cord attached to the bottom of the bucket is six feet long and can be plugged into an outlet or extension cord. "It's a little safer and easier than a drop-in heater," says Wayne Kingery (American Feeds). "It's nicer to use because the cord comes out the bottom of the bucket and can go out through the wall behind the bucket. By contrast, if you have a drop-in heater, there's a cord coming out the top of the bucket that a horse can get hold of. A horse probably won't be injured by it, but might get it out of the bucket, and then it won't keep the water ice-free.

"A new design has a compartment under the bucket; you can roll up the cord and put a bottom on it," continues Kingery. "You can use it as a regular bucket the rest of the year and the cord is not a problem. The bucket can be set on the floor or hung from the wall."

Ritchie Industries makes a Stall Fount that mounts directly to the stall wall and has a 125-watt heater to keep the water from freezing. It also has a supply line heat cable and insulated shroud to protect your supply line and keep it from freezing.

Cliff Wilson, president and CEO of Ritchie Industries says, "The Stall Fount provides fresh water whenever your horse drinks from it, so you never have to carry another bucket." The water in the Stall Fount won't freeze, and it stays much warmer than water in a bucket.

It is very important to keep in mind that your barn must be equipped with a power supply and breakers capable of handling the electricity load without the potential for starting a fire. Outlets also need to be close to your buckets and heaters, but away from horses' teeth, in order to keep extension cords to a minimum.

Insulated Tanks

Some unheated tanks are made of structural foam (polyethylene plastic mixed with tiny nitrogen bubbles) that is resilient as well as insulating. Some use twin wall polyethylene (two or more inches apart); the air space is filled with spray foam.

In an automatic waterer, heat is provided by warmer water brought in from underground. If several horses drink, there is a fair amount of water movement, which helps keep the water from freezing. Choose a tank size appropriate to the number of animals; in winter you do not want a tank too large. There will be too much volume of water that sits and gets cold.

Some insulated tanks are small, covered troughs with a drinking hole protected by a floating ball that is pushed out of the way by the horse's nose when he drinks. Having a "lid" over the water surface helps keep ice from forming on top of the water. The ball is designed to pop back up and seal the hole when the animal is finished drinking.

Some waterers, like the Freedom Fountain marketed by Behlen Manufacturing, are designed to work without heating units, keeping water at the temperature it comes in from the earth. These rely on the warmth of the underground water. The water chamber is completely surrounded by heavy foam insulation. As horses drink, new water mixes with water in the tank, constantly replenishing the supply with warmer water.

Behlen also offers a combination insulated/heated waterer with thermostatically controlled infrared heat pads. These units use 75% less electricity than traditional block heaters. The heat pad is completely enclosed so horses never touch it.

Heated Stall Waterers/Stock Tanks

A stock tank de-icer can be used in any tank if there is an electrical source. "There are two styles," says Kingery. "One rests at the bottom; the other floats. In the ones that float, the heating element is below water level. As long as it is in the water, it is not hot to the touch, and if it gets out of the water, it shuts off. It is designed to not burn or injure a horse." It might also be a good idea to cover a portion of the tank with a flame-resistant tarp where the heater is located to not only keep horses' mouths away from the heater, but to also trap heat and help keep the water from freezing.

"The biggest problem with those is if wiring is not properly grounded," he adds. There's usually no danger of electrocution, but wiring might develop a tiny short; horses then get a little buzz of electricity off the water and may refuse to drink (see "Safety Innovation" on page 68). Often people blame this on the heater, but it's not the fault of the heater. If your wiring and grounding is correct, this can be an economical way to keep water in a stock tank from freezing, says Kingery.

"Or you can spend more for an automatic or pressure fountain with a heating element under the tank," he says. "The ones we sell have a heater no thicker than a thin piece of cardboard, with heating wires molded into it, fastened to the bottom of the trough. These use 150 watts of energy; older-style fountains of the same size use 300-450 watts." These are controlled by a thermostat and turn on when the temperature drops below a certain point.

Nelson Manufacturing Company makes durable, trouble-free waterers for stall or pasture. Scott Torticill, director of sales, says these are stainless steel and won't chip, rust, or become brittle like plastic. The valve system doesn't use floats or paddles (which can stick and leak if horses play with them).

"We use a weight-activated valve with a balance beam," says Torticill. "A stainless steel bowl sits on top of the waterer. A small crossbeam goes through the center of the housing at the top. The bowl sits on one end of the crossbeam and a lead counterweight on the other. When a horse drinks, taking weight out of the bowl, it rises and the lead weight drops. This activates the valve to put water into the unit. When weight of water equals the counterweight, it moves back over and turns off the valve.

"Our heating element is UL listed and designed so it never comes in contact with water or metal," he adds. "It sits under the drinking bowl, encased in ceramic insulators, working like a space heater to warm the water in the bowl. It's hidden in the crossbeam and is thermostatically controlled. It comes on when the temperature drops to 40ºF and shuts off at 60º to keep the water within that range." On an average cold day, he says, the water will be about 50ºF.

Keep Pipes From Freezing

No matter how sophisticated the tank, automatic waterer, or heater, it won't work if a water line freezes up. If you have problems with a waterer in winter, it's often because the water line freezes. The pipe must be below the frost line, and the riser bringing water up to the waterer must be adequately insulated, heated, or self-draining.

As stated by John Mellott (Equuspring), "Our stall waterers keep water ice-free at very low temperatures, if the pipe going to the waterer does not freeze. In California, it's not a problem, but my customers in New Hampshire use heat tape and other methods to keep pipes from freezing."

When installing a waterer, faucet, or hydrant, you must dig a trench for the water line (and power line if you want to include a heating unit for a waterer). The trench must be at least a foot deeper than the frost line in your region to keep the water line from freezing. This depth may be four feet in New Hampshire or southern Idaho, and six to eight feet in northern Minnesota or North Dakota (ask your county extension office to find out the frost line in your area).

Even if you put the waterer in a barn, its pipe must be below the frost line. Put the line even deeper if it goes under a road or any area where there might be vehicle or horse traffic, as impact on the ground drives frost deeper. Ground under a road freezes deeper and stays frozen longer in spring.

The upright pipe bringing water to your waterer must be well insulated. Kingery sells an insulated earth tube that can be put down the hole where the riser pipe comes up. This 16-inch diameter tube is made of two-inch Styrofoam and helps insulate the pipe. Some of the ground heat will then surround the pipe.

Nelson also sells an insulation tube to encase the riser pipe. Torticill says, "If you dig a deep hole down past the frost line--an extra four to six feet past the water line--this generates geothermal heat for your riser." Ground temperature below the frost line is usually 48-56ºF. The earth tube helps hold the heat around the water pipe; the tube is constructed from durable PVC with foam insulation on the inside.

If you can't dig a deep hole (due to bedrock, permafrost, or a high water table), use a high-quality UL listed heat tape to put down the center of the insulation tube around your upright water pipe, says Torticill. The power source for the heating unit in the waterer can be used for the heat tape.

Any water hydrants in a cold climate should be self-draining. When you turn the hydrant off, water left in the upright pipe drains back down below frost line. To ensure proper drainage and prevent freezing, the area around the bottom of the hydrant's upright pipe should be filled with gravel (about three cubic feet).

Take-Home Message

When you decide that breaking up the ice in your horse's water tank two or more times on every cold day has gotten old, remember that there are several ways you can keep that water from freezing in the first place. From something as simple as a drop-in heater to a fully self-contained heated waterer or tank, there is a solution for every situation to ensure that your horse gets fresh water in ample supply without hauling warmed buckets--even when it's freezing outside.

 NON-ELECTRICAL OPTIONS: Insulating a Waterer

Ann Grell (JAG Ranch & Services, Riverdale, Calif.) likes stainless steel Nelson waterers because they are maintenance-free and easy to insulate. With or without a heater, they work well in cold weather if they are adequately insulated. "They come with a kit and special sleeves for insulation," she says. "You can use a wide auger to dig a hole for the pipe coming up out of the ground, slide the insulating sleeve around the pipe, and pack around it with pea gravel between the dirt and the insulating pipe."

There are many ways to insulate waterers. "For a tall one, you can use a concrete connector pipe that flares out at the top," says Grell. "Set the waterer in it and pack around it with insulation. One of my customers tried this without a heater for two winters and found she didn't need a heater."

Some waterers have a conical insulating outer shell that traps a lot of warm air between the water and the outside air to provide natural insulation. "You could probably pack rock wool into the air space for greater insulation value," says Grell.--Heather Smith Thomas


For more information on various waterers, visit these websites:


If there's no electricity available, a unique solution is a watering system in which the animals "pump" their own water from a source below the frost line--where ground heat keeps water unfrozen. Jim Anderson (Rimbey, Alberta) invented it to water cattle on land with no electricity for a well pump or heater.

His innovation is a piston pump, like the old hand pumps with a handle to push up and down. He modified the top so cattle could use their noses to push a lever to operate the pump.

Julie Anderson, a rancher in British Columbia, uses the system for her horses. "There was only one time I had to help them," she says. "When the temperature dropped to 40 below, ice on the surface of the metal built up to where they couldn't push the lever. But it only took me two minutes to tap out the ice so it would work again."

"It might be a little harder to train horses to use this than cows," says Anderson. "Cows naturally push at something with their nose, whereas horses are more likely to use their teeth. The drinking area is slanted so the animal puts its nose to the back to drink the last of the water--right where it needs to push the lever in order to pump more water. As they drink the water, they push against the lever and it doesn't take them long to get the connection--and they push on it to pump in more water. For more information on nose pumps, contact Jim Anderson at 866/843-6744 or see his website www.frostfreenosepumps.com.--Heather Smith Thomas

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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