Chicken Waterers - the challenges and solutions

Keeping chickens in water can be a messy and annoying task, but it's a necessary one.

Chicken waterers come in various designs, but all face challenges due to their environment. If you're raising chickens, they'll need access to fresh water, so overcoming these challenges is important.

From the traditional fount to the automatic watering systems, each one is prone to what the weather, environment and chicken/animal activity can do to interfere with proper operation. That's just how it goes.

Human interaction is often required to overcome problems with water sources for chickens.

Ideally, we should use a method that will minimize the chore of keeping fresh water for our birds. Occasional upkeep is okay, but I'd like to keep my chores associated with watering my chickens to something like once a week or even less.

Basic Design of Waterers

Although I'm not experienced in all designs, I can offer an overview of the most common ones, and discuss how I have handled raising chickens and keeping them watered.

Founts - the most common of chicken waterers. Founts come in a variety of sizes, with the largest being about 9 gallons. Since water is heavy, it limits how large you can make a container. Nine gallons of water weights over 70 pounds, so making a larger fount is possible, but it won't be portable after about 12 gallons.

Ducks and geese drinking from a traditional chicken waterer called a fount.

These type of chicken waterers are made from metal as well as plastic. Since metal is unaffected by UV radiation, this is my choice for regular outdoor use. It also can be banged around a bit without breaking and can have heat applied to the bottom to prevent water from freezing.

The photo above right is of my young ducks and geese using a metal 9-gallon fount. Ducks and geese can contaminate chicken waterers with peak efficiency. They like to splash around in them and sift the water with their bills, and often their bills are filled with food which immediately contaminates the water.

Automatic chicken waterers - these consist of float arrangements and on-demand systems with valves and often a pressure reducer. The float is automatic, filling a small trough or cup with water whenever it gets low. The on-demand valve systems require activation by the chicken's beak before water is dispensed.

Just remember that any of the chicken waterers that use floats and valves and pressure reducers will be prone to a bit more trouble when it comes to maintenance. Even what appears to be perfectly clean water can have enough silt and minerals in it to cause a float or valve to hang up.

A trough can also be used as a chicken waterer for your flock.

Troughs - are like the name implies, a shallow trough that fills with water so multiple chickens can drink at the same time. Such arrangements can be continuous feed, set up on a timer, or provided with a float arrangement.

With any of the designs that place water in a trough, cup, saucer or dispenser, it's important to make certain the devices are level. Otherwise, when they fill up they spill over and waste water. This will create a mess, increase water consumption and make more work for you.

Chicken nipples are something rather different in the world of chicken waterers. They're a small stainless steel device pressed into a plastic housing. The nipples are supplied by gravity fed water. When a chicken pushes on a small stud, water runs down the stud so the chicken can drink.

Chicken nipples (left is threaded in, right is pressed in) allow you to create your own style chicken waterer.

The big advantage of chicken nipples is they allow you to create your own watering system using a bucket, tub, tank or barrel as the reservoir, and a header made of plastic pipe. Nipples spaced along the underside of the pipe create drinking stations for your flock.

Here a young bird takes to drinking from the chicken nipple.

I've done some testing with a 5-gallon bucket and chicken nipples to see how my birds took to it, and I must say they work great and the birds have an easy time getting to their water. The only trick is to make sure the nipples are within reach of your flock.

I've created my own homemade chicken waterer using chicken nipples, and I think it works great. It was a sizable project, but it allows me to almost forget about water for my chickens, except twice a year when I fill and maintain the system. And, the time it takes to fill the tank and maintain the system is a matter of minutes.

Without a doubt, my chicken waterer project won't be something that most will want to undertake, so let's continue with our discussion of the problems associated with more traditional chicken waterers and what we can do to address them. I'll give you a peek at the mother of all chicken waterers at the end of this article.

The Challenges

The three basic challenges that face any of the chicken waterers encompass temperature, wind, and animals. Let's look at these to see how each might affect the watering system for our chickens.

Hot days aren't a big challenge for any chicken waterer.

Temperature - hot and dry conditions make chickens drink more, and water open to the environment will evaporate more quickly. In cold temperatures, water will freeze unless you have heat applied to the water sources.

Dust and dirt kicked up or blown into a chicken waterer can foul the water quickly.

Wind - whether it's cold or hot, the wind can accelerate evaporation, lap water out of the saucer at the base of a fount, and blow dust and contaminants into the water. Here in Wyoming, we have plenty of wind and dust, so keeping traditional chicken waterers clean is a big challenge.

Animals - our chickens are the biggest challenge in this area. They poop anywhere, including right in the waterers. When they drink, whatever is in their mouth will often drop into the water and that will spoil its freshness. Also, they don't mind scratching up the soil and flinging it right into their own source of water.

They don't call 'em bird brains for nothing.

Wild birds don't drink much, but they add to the poop in the water offered to your flock when using traditional chicken waterers.

Other animals are usually not a problem because they are generally excluded from the area where chickens are kept, except for birds which seem to get in just about everywhere. Birds don't drink much, but we certainly don't need more poop from other feathered contributors that are able to perch above the water and spoil it.

Overcoming the Challenges

Let's look at how each of the issues of wind, animals and temperature can be overcome when using chicken waterers.

The problem of animals is largely solved by installing shields. You'll probably never get rid of birds that want their share of fresh water, but you can keep your chickens and other birds from pooping in the water by overhanging shields or installing the waterers under a shelf or other overhang that allows roosting but offers no direct path for animals to drop waste into the water.

Shield your chicken waterers behind a fence to reduce dust and other contaminants blown by the wind.

Wind can be addressed by barriers and baffles. Using scrap pallets or a type of shadow box fence can be quite helpful in slowing down the wind and the dust that moves with it.

Moving the source of water inside the coop or to a more protected location can also work. Once the chickens find where their water is located, they'll be happy to go get it, so don't worry if it's a bit of a hike, as long as it's something they can get to in all weather conditions, especially deep snow.

Keeping the source of water indoors can be a bit inconvenient, especially if you're using founts because they're heavy to move indoors once they're full. It also means the water mess is inside instead of outside, so depending on your situation, this might not be ideal.

High temperatures are just something we have to live with. There isn't anything we can do about that. Chickens will demand more water and evaporation rates will be higher, so you just have to provide a bit more water. Generally, higher temperatures are the least troublesome when it comes to chicken waterers.

Low temperatures are the biggest challenge and can be handled in several ways. Let me present the ways that I know of, and provide what I consider to be the pros and cons of each.

Cold weather will be your biggest challenge when it comes to chicken waterers.
  • Heater bases under metal founts - effective, but expensive and they can be short lived. I've had one last a year and another go for many years. You can also make make your own.
  • Heating the indoor area where chicken waterers are located - expensive and wasteful, but some folks do it. Don't heat the chicken coop because of concerns about the effect of cold on chickens...they're very cold hardy. Heating the water source is much more efficient.
  • Heat tracing water lines that supply watering cups, troughs and automatic waterers - effective, but heat tape must be protected from animals. Enclose the water supply line and the heat tape inside a PVC pipe for maximum protection and retention of heat.
  • Place heat sources under the troughs and automatic waterers - wiring must be protected from the constant pecking of chickens, and heat must be "captured" and concentrated on the trough or water dispenser.
  • Use of ground source heating to keep water temperature above freezing. This requires an underground reservoir or a heat exchanger buried deep in the ground to extract the natural 40 degree to 50 degree F temperature of the earth. It also requires a pump and possibly a timer, so that adds to expense and complexity.
  • Keep the water moving - effective but a little costly, and this promotes evaporation as well. Most effective if combined with ground source heating to reheat water that has been cooled from exposure to winter temperatures. In any event, a pump is required.
  • Solar heating of water with a drain back system so water doesn't freeze in the solar heater during the night. Effective, but just as complicated as ground source heating, and it only works on sunny days.
  • Paint water founts black on the side exposed to the sun to enhance heat absorption - useful as a supplemental heat source, but it won't address cold temperatures at night nor cold temperatures on multiple cloudy days. Note, the side not exposed to the sun should be pained white to minimize heat emitted out of the fount. Unfortunately, the black paint will enhance emission of heat from the fount when the sun isn't shining...there's nothing you can do about that. Here's more information about using the sun to heat up thermal mass and how one might store it in a thermal battery.
  • Aerate the water - useful as air dissolved in water makes it less prone to freezing, but this is likely as energy intensive as using heaters but probably not as effective.

There is no easy solution to keeping chicken waterers from freezing. Any way you look at it, you'll have to expend resources for heating or circulation or insulation because a few days at below zero with no sunshine will freeze up even the most robust and protected of passive systems. And then, your waterers will likely be destroyed by the expanding water as it freezes into a solid.

My Solution to the Woes of Chicken Waterers

As I mentioned above, I built my own large year-round water supply for my chickens. It's perhaps one of the largest chicken waterers on the planet, but I did it for several reasons:

  • Requires only a couple fillings each year
  • A large 275 gallon reservoir provides great thermal mass to resist freezing
  • Large reservoir provides plenty of extra water for periodic flushing of the lines
  • It can go months without any attention at all
  • I tend to be excessive in all matters

The photo below shows the chicken waterer tower during the final stages of construction. As you can see, it's about the same size as the coop that sits at ground level behind it.

The mother of all chicken waterers holds 275 gallons of water and can supply my flock of 10 birds for one year without the need to refill.

I've built a page that overviews how I created my homemade chicken waterer. If you're looking for more detail, here's a link to articles on my blog that discuss some of the hows and whys of creating this all season chicken waterer.

Done with Chicken Waterers, take me back to Backyard Chickens

Keeping chickens in fresh water can be challenging. You have to deal with wind, dust, chickens kicking up dirt and crapping in their water, and freezing temperatures as well. And, the local wild bird population will help foul the water with their wastes too. It can be challenging.

In the event you're looking for more help than I'm offering here, below are additional resources that might be of interest to you.