The Ultimate Guide to Automatic Waterers

What is a Waterer?

Water-what?  Water-er?  …. Is that even a word?   Uh, well.. yes!  While it definitely doesn’t roll off the tongue, Merriam Webster defines waterer as follows: a device used for supplying water to livestock and poultry.

The term waterer is commonly used in farming, ranching, horse, cattle, and livestock communities to refer to a device that provides water to animals.  More often than not, waterer implies some type of automation.  These can also commonly be called automatic waterers.

This material is intended to serve as an educational guide covering the wide variety of watering options available to animal owners and some of the features and considerations related to watering animals.

Topics Covered

  • History of Stock Tanks and Automatic Waterers
  • Types of Waterers
  • Waterer Features
  • Waterlines
  • Cost of Automatic Waterers
  • Automatic Waterer Installation Costs
  • Common Repairs with Waterers
  • Dangers of Watering Livestock
  • Climate Specific Considerations
  • Grants, Rebates, and Incentives

History of Stock Tanks & Automatic Waterers

Automatic waterers have only recently become widely popularized over the last century. However, people have been watering their animals since humans domesticated livestock and other animals. So what came before the automatic waterer? 

The first watering source available for domesticated livestock and horses was natural water sources such as streams, ponds, and other types of naturally occurring, fresh water. In the early days of ranching in the United States, cattlemen would move their herds along to different water sources depending on the season. This is much like the natural roaming patterns of many livestock and other animals found in the American West, like bison. However, with the advent of barbed wire fencing, cattlemen and their herds stopped migrating and instead became relegated to one area, sometimes an area without a naturally occurring water source. So, cattlemen would have to create a man-made water source on their land. They painstakingly dug holes and created dams to provide water for their animals. These were primitive forms of stock tanks – rainwater and surface water would fill these artificial reservoirs.

Troughs are another watering method that has been used since the beginning of animal husbandry.  In the 1800’s and early 1900’s (prior to the advent of automobiles) you could find public troughs around town to water horses. Before steel and galvanized troughs were used, they were made out of wood. However, corrugated iron was created in England in 1829 and soon, troughs and stock tanks were no longer made of wood, they were now produced using corrugated iron. Then, galvanized iron tanks were patented in London in 1857. Galvanized troughs and tanks are still one of the most widely used vessels for watering animals today.

Around the same time, in the 1850’s, cast iron pipe was also invented and private utilities and municipalities were able to develop large scale storage and water distribution systems for the first time. However, because these systems were so new, they were mostly used in more densely populated areas at first, so surface water collection and shallow wells were still the main source of water collection in farms and ranches throughout the US.

The next major development in livestock watering was the advent of the automatic waterer. The first automatic waterer was patented in 1902 by Wayne C. Wright in Amarillo, TX. His design married together a galvanized stock tank with a reservoir, a pump, and a float-valve. A float-valve was installed in the tank to determine the water level. Once the water level dipped below a predetermined point, a pump would be activated and water would run through a pipe from the reservoir above, filling a tank on the ground for the animals to drink. This automatic component allowed the tank to stay full for the livestock and horses.

Another patent for an automatic waterer was filed 10 years later in 1912 by the Louden Machinery Company.  Founded in 1867, based out of Fairfield Iowa, and specializing in barn and stable equipment, Louden Machinery Company is credited for the invention of the first “automatic drinking cup”, or what most today would recognize as an automatic waterer.  This design was different, instead of filling a large tank for the animals to drink from, only a small bowl was filled, sized specifically to fit a cow’s nose.  

William Louden and the Louden Machinery Company filed the first patent with the United States Patent and Trademark office for their “Louden Automatic Watering Bowl” in 1912.   These individual automatic watering bowls included a paddle that the cow depressed to fill a small basin.  “William Louden indicated to Albert Neller, his pattern maker, that the automatic watering bowl should be cupped in such a way as to fit over a man’s knee.”  The paddle rotated up and out of the bowl to allow easy access to scrub away algae and debris that accumulated, as water did not drain from the bowl of this early design.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and this has never been more true than in rural settings where supplies and resources, like labor, can be sparse and conditions can be arduous.  This setting has spawned countless inventions and variations of automatic waterers since their inception in 1912.

Even more patents were filed in the early 1900’s and thousands upon thousands have been filed since.  Patents cover virtually all the features listed in this content including patents surrounding nose pumps, float-valves, heating elements, techniques to insulate or bring ground heat up, solar power, frost-free techniques, and much more.  There are several types of automatic waterers on the market today and they continue to become more innovative to solve the problems of modern farmers, ranchers, and animal owners.

Types of Waterers

Horses drinking from a natural water source.

When it comes to watering, your options can be broken down into three main categories:  natural, manual, or automatic.

Natural

Natural sources of water include all naturally occurring sources of water such as a pond or stream.

Manual

Manual describes methods that typically require filling (bucket, trough, tire tank, etc), or manual labor.

Automatic

Automatic waterers are intended to provide water and operate year-round with little to no labor cost or time.

Waterer Features

Whether by nature or by necessity, the equine, cattle, and livestock community is a creative and resourceful bunch.  For the purposes of this guide we have outlined all the individual features of different watering systems.  It is common for individuals and manufacturers to combine different watering features together.  Whether looking at DIY designs or surfing the web pages of any waterer manufacturer, you will see different combinations of these features utilized to deliver water to animals.

Some of these features may be more prevalent in colder climates, as it can be more difficult to provide fresh, clean water in freezing temperatures.

Insulation

Insulation is a very common tactic to combat both cold and heat.  The material and sophistication for what can qualify as insulation is broad.  A very basic insulating tactic could be something simple like a wind block stuffed with hay around it to keep a cold wind from freezing a trough of water.  There are many designs that incorporate a foamboard box around a horse trough.

The sophistication and effectiveness greatly improves from there.  You can find insulation inside virtually every watering device if you look hard enough.  Common examples include insulated buckets as well as insulated automatic waterers.

Electricity

Potentially the most widely used tactic in cold climates to combat ice is by using electricity.  There are many, many options when it comes to electricity.  Often the quickest, easiest, and highest energy consumer is putting a heater in a stock tank.  Those familiar with stock tank heaters know they come in a variety of shapes, colors, durability, wattage, and other features.  Some are made for buckets, some for small tanks, and some for large tanks.  One noteworthy point – given that stock tank heaters can consume a lot of energy, they typically end up being the most expensive method used to water when the following costs are considered: the cost of the stock tank heater, the cost of the electricity used by the heater (this is by far the largest cost in this equation, particularly when factoring in the number of winters this will be used),the cost of stock tank itself, the amount of time spent filling tanks with water, and the amount of time spent scrubbing algae out of tanks.  Common wattage amounts for stock tank heaters are often between 1,000 watts to 1,500 watts.

Electricity is a common feature of automatic waterers that are intended for installation in climates that experience freezing temperatures.  Typically a heating element of some type is connected to an electrical line and this produces heat to prevent the water from freezing.  There are many strategies and options available that utilize this basic principle.  The style, shape, wattage, and technology of heating elements available in automatic waterers often vary, not just by manufacturer, but also by the individual product lines within the manufacturer.  Wattage amounts in automatic waterers include 250 watt, 325 watt, 400 watt, 500 watt, 700 watt, and 900 watt.

When considering a product that requires electricity, it is wise to consider the costs that go along with it. This includes installation of the electrical line, purchase of the electrical line itself, hiring a certified electrician to ensure correct installation, and often the most expensive of them all, the ongoing cost of the electricity used to heat the animals’ water.

Automatic waterers often combine insulation and various heating strategies to operate year-round in cold climates.

Heat

This is typically the purpose of electricity (but not always).  However, there are other methods to draw, create, or produce heat, which can be used to prevent water from freezing.  This includes everything from sun exposure to propane gas or some other type of flammable material (wood or other),  intended to burn and produce heat.

Flotation Balls

Flotation balls are typically used in combination with a float-valve and are commonly combined with other features such as insulation and electricity. These balls are buoyant and are designed to float on top of the water level and close off the water from the outside elements.  During the cold winter months they can serve to keep cold, freezing air out and maintain the water temperature above freezing. In the summer, it can keep heat and flies out.

To operate, the thirsty animal depresses the floating ball to access the water underneath. In extreme cold temperatures, water dripping from exiting animals muzzles can cover the floating balls and lead to freezing.  It is also common that these units will have some type if minimum head count (or minimum use requirements) to remain frost-free throughout the winter.

Solar Power

A common desire is for a solar panel to power a stock tank heater and keep a stock tank free from ice all winter.  A primary issue with this is that the amount of power that affordable solar panels can produce is less than the amount of energy a typical stock tank heater requires.

Another common issue related to solar configurations is water-flow rate. If you are using solar to power a pump, you’ll need to determine the amount of water needed for watering your animals per day. For example, if you have 10 head of cattle you’ll need up to 200 gallons per day in the heat of summer. 200 gallons of water in a 12 hour day means they will need 16.67 gallons per hour or 0.27 gallons per minute.

This is not to say solar cannot or will not work.  However, when used, it is often combined with many other features in this list and typically will still not be a fit for harsh or extreme cold environments.  In addition, if you live in a location where the sun doesn’t shine frequently and consistently, then you may need energy storage (batteries) which requires additional costs.

Float Valve

A float valve is what refills a toilet after flushing.  A float valve is designed to automatically refill a water basin.  These are often inexpensive and, as such, are widely used.  With this type of water valve, an item that floats is attached to an arm which directly connects to a water valve.  When the float arm lowers to a certain point, because water is being removed from the basin, the valve opens and refills the basin.  As the basin fills, the float arm puts the valve into the off position, thus preventing overflowing.

Ram Pump

A ram pump is a very simple machine that uses hydraulic physics to deliver water from one area to another using stored momentum. Starting with non-pressurized, standing wRam Pump Diagramater the pump is fed by a drive pipe and a drop in elevation. The ram pump uses a stop-and-waste valve and an empty chamber in parallel to build pressure and momentum. The forward moving water is driven to the next destination. This could be a hydrant, trough, etc.. Typically, this system will have low pressure and minimal water flow. Also, the harder the waterline, the better it will work. Using galvanized steel will yield better results than ABS or PVC because they will absorb the shock waves. This option is only viable if you have a natural water source on your property. 

Ground Heat

Throughout most of the U.S., the ground below the frostline (typically about 3 to 5 feet below the surface) holds a fairly constant temperature in the 45 degree to 50 degree Fahrenheit range.  Many systems take full advantage of this by installing a culvert below the water source in a vertical position to allow the ground heat to come up and provide heat to the water.  Depending on recommendations, the vertical pipe could be anywhere from 4″ to 24″ in diameter and anywhere from a couple of feet to 10 feet or more in length.  The pipe will end when it’s around flush with ground level so the water source can sit on top and still be comfortable height off the ground for animals to drink.

This is a common practice in DIY stock tank setups as well as some premium-priced automatic waterers.  These automatic waterers may or may not require (or recommend) electricity in conjunction with this ground heat method, depending on many factors including the brand, model, and specific climate related considerations.

Frost-Free

Every waterline in the world that operates normally throughout the winter months is buried below the local frostline, that’s how they keep from freezing.  Below the local frost depth (or frostline), the temperature remains above freezing year round.  When dealing with watering, frost-free means that the water drains back below the frost line after use, thus remaining “frost-free” because there is no water remaining above the frostline to freeze.

frost free watererThe frostline depth varies by region, but is often 3 ft. to 5 ft. deep.  The frost depth will vary largely based on two primary factors: the first is location – it’s colder in the north than the south. The second is elevation above sea level – it’s colder at higher elevations.  In Michigan, a 3′ to 4′ (36 to 48 inches) frostline is expected; however, 1,000 miles to the south in Georgia, a frost depth of 0.5′ to 1.5′ (6 to 18 inches) is realistic.  When you travel even further south towards costal areas, waterlines will be buried to protect them from damage and to cool the water by keeping it underground and out of the sun, instead of burying them to keep them from freezing like they do in northern areas.

Utilizing this fact, frost-free hydrants and waterers will typically utilize some type of rod that extends to a valve located below the frostline.  When a mechanism above ground is activated, it calls water from a valve located below the frostline and brings it up above ground level. In the case of automatic waterers, the activating mechanism is most frequently a paddle or flapper of some sort.  For traditional frost-free yard hydrants, this is a simple handle that lifts to activate.  After every use, any water remaining drains back down through the unit and down below the frostline.  After draining, the only water remaining in the unit will be in the activating valve.

This is how the common frost-free yard hydrant works.  When the handle is closed to the off position, the water remaining in the fill pipe drains back down, typically out of a weep hole, and into the earth.

A defining feature of the frost-free waterer is that there is never any standing or stagnant water in the water basin when it’s not being used.

Moving Water

It has to be colder to freeze moving water than to freeze stagnant water.  There are endless creative ways to accomplish this.  For instance, windmills have been used to pump water from a well, which can then perpetually fill some type of water tank.  The moving water endlessly overflows the water basin and this helps to mitigate freezing.

Larger bodies of water will also be much slower to freeze solid on top than smaller bodies (or buckets or troughs) of water.  Another well known method of moving water is a propane bubbling system that is set in a pond or lake (still water).  The air or gas bubbles rise to the surface and increase the severity of conditions required to freeze completely over top.  There are many varieties and DIY variations of this concept online.

There are probably thousands of other methods not mentioned here that involve moving water to mitigate freezing and/or keep the water fresh.

Portability

There are situations where portability is desirable.  Rotational grazing, where animals are frequently moved between pastures can be one of these situations.  Another is when people may be leasing or renting a property and do not want to invest in a permanent solution that they cannot take with them.  In addition, when the owners and animals themselves are on the move, portability can be useful, such as when they are attending shows, events, or even camping.

For these instances manufacturers do make portable units.  Most often, they are designed to be connected to a common garden hose and they typically come with the correct fittings to connect right out of the box.

Nose Pump

With these systems, water is often held in some type of basin below the frostline.  There is a “pump” located near the water source and the animals will then push on a lever or “pump” water into a basin for drinking.  These can be hard, or impossible, for smaller animals to activate.  Typically these will not be used where you expect calves or to water animals under 400 lbs.

Wind Break

Regularly included in DIY type applications is constructing some type of wall or wind break around the water source will help lessen freezing winds.  This may also encourage your animals to huddle around the water source, thus providing some level of body heat as well.  This will vary widely depending on many factors.

Concrete or Stone Basin

A feature sometimes used, typically when watering larger herds (over 200 head of animal), is to create the base or basin out of stone, concrete, or something similar.  This can be helpful when there are lots of animals pushing toward the water source.

While this material is very sturdy and a great fit in the right setting, costs will typically run higher than a standard automatic waterer.

If purchasing something from a manufacturer, shipping, transporting, and installation become considerations when dealing with large, heavy blocks of stone.

If building, construction costs include wood to build the concrete forms and costs of the concrete itself.  Then, there still needs to be a water source of some type, which may or may not be automated, depending on designs.

Water Meters

With a bucket or trough, monitoring water intake is pretty straight forward.  Is there water gone (presumably consumed by the animal)? Or is the bucket or tank still full of water?  With the advent of the automatic waterer, checking water consumption may not be so straight forward.

There are lots of horror stories of animals not drinking out of what appears to be a healthy water source for a number of factors.  A possible scenario where animals won’t drink their water includes electrical current being present in the water due to stray voltage.  This can take many forms and is often elusive to identify and correct.  Another possible scenario may be that the water has become foul tasting due to algae or bacteria growth.

Regardless of the cause, one tactic used to identify water or waterer issues or failures is to use a water meter to determine if animals are drinking.  Some manufacturers may offer a water meter as an add-on purchase and some may include it as standard with the unit itself.

However you slice it, water meters serve one simple function and that is to measure water.  If the solution you are interested in does not offer a water meter, you can easily purchase and install a water meter (from any manufacturer) on the water line that leads up to the automatic waterer.    A quick Google or Amazon search will provide you with lots of options.

Waterlines

For any type of automatic watering device, tying into a waterline at some point is just about guaranteed.  This might mean digging down to an existing line and connecting directly to it with some type of connector or fitting.  Or, it could mean installing an entirely new line from your well house across three pastures to where you want, but do not currently have, water.  This distance you need to travel from Point A (have water now) to Point B (installing waterer) will directly affect the length (amount) of waterline needed.

The two primary classifying features of waterlines are size (diameter) and material.  For almost all standard applications, meaning the types of water lines that feed homes and barns, 3/4″ to 1″ is standard, with 3/4″ being the most common by far.

On occasion, 1/2″ line may be installed for single or light use applications.  It is common 1/2″ line is used on the interior of a home.

For industrial applications, including farms and/or ranches that have above average water consumption needs for irrigating crops, perhaps with a center pivot, or watering hundreds or thousands of animals, water lines can and do get much larger.  Any size from 2″ to 8″ could be considered common, and some lines can get much larger (36″ and beyond).

The most common materials used for waterlines and fittings include PVC, CPVC, metal (copper, galvanized steel, brass, iron, etc) and PEX.   Copper pipes are often used to connect underground service lines.  Copper pipe is considered strong, resistant to puncture, and corrosion.   Copper pipe can also be expensive.  PEX is gaining popularity, as it has many advantages including the ability to stretch around corners, being cost competitive, and user friendly connections. It is also worth considering the rigidity of pipe material. Harder metals can also lead to “water hammer” or noise heard through the piping in structures also connected to the lines.

There is not usually a definitive “right” or “wrong” answer when deciding what type of material to use for your water line.  When connecting to an existing water line, what is currently in the ground will often influence what makes the most sense if adding on to the line.  Talking to local resources can be a wealth of information.   This can include excavators, contractors, and the local pipe supplier.  Preference, regulations, and requirements will vary by region.

As it relates to this article, speaking in general terms, if providing water to ten or less automatic waterers or ‘outlets’, a 3/4″ waterline is usually sufficient and appropriate.  If the project or needs surpass that, consider consulting a professional about the specifics of the project and capabilities of the water supply.

Pressurizing Waterlines

The vast majority (likely 95% to 98%) of pressurized waterlines in the United States and Canada are pressurized by one of two methods.  In rural areas, the most common method to provide pressurized water to both home and farm is through the use of an onsite well.  In city or settings closer to a population density, it is common there will be a pressurized water line provided and maintained by the local municipality.

Both of these methods typically aim to keep water pressure between 45 psi to 65 psi.  Obviously, it is possible for any water source to fall outside this range, but this is where most equipment (like residential faucets, dishwashers, washing machines, and virtually all home appliances) are designed to operate properly.

Another method is the use of a drop pressure system.  Essentially, as water travels down in elevation, it gains pressure.  There are many variables that control exactly how much pressure is produced, but one primary factor is the distance the water travels down in elevation.  More elevation drop = more pressure.  That being said, pressure drop systems are notorious for having low pressure.  While entirely technically possible to design a system that produces good pressure, the realities of many factors including but not limited to the contour of the land, amount of water available to feed the system, cost of materials to produce they system, this is rarely a viable option.    A setting where this may work, is if you have a pond or lake next to a large elevation drop.  Without sufficient water supply and water drop, these systems often produces less than 10 – 15 psi.

Cost of Waterers

The pricing below is intended to paint a general picture and not provide of any type of offer or intended to reference any specific product(s).

Buckets are relatively inexpensive and range anywhere from $4 to $20 for a nicer one.   Want a heated bucket?  How about $40 to $80.

Stock tanks come in a variety of materials; Galvanized steel is the most common and they are also available in a variety of plastics and similar material.  Stock tanks typically range in size from 30-1,500 gallons.  Prices follow this wide curve – expect anywhere from $150 to $1200 depending on materials and sizing.

Automatic waterers; Also a huge range of pricing here.   This category encompasses such a huge array of styles, quality, manufacturers, climate considerations, and more.

On the price-competitive end, one can typically find an electrically heated automatic waterer utilizing a float valve at your local farm store in the $200 to $300 range.  These are frequently “double-sided” allowing one to split a fence line and provide water on both sides.

Increasing in price and frequently quality from here are the automatic waterers that range in price from $400 to $900.  This probably encompasses roughly 80+% of the automatic waterers available on the market today.  The number of waterers available in this price range are likely in the thousands, when considering all of the brands, styles, models, accessories, and options available.

Rounding out the top end are high head count / high-volume waterers.  These are most often larger units that are designed to water large herds of animals.  These units are often $1,000 and above. When watering 100 or more animals, these options may prove the easiest and most cost effective strategy.

Automatic Waterer Installation Costs

Installation will vary from simple to complex.  On the simple side are buckets and tanks.  To “install” you simply set them on the ground and fill them with water.

With automatic waterers, moving dirt to connect to the existing waterline is practically inevitable.  Often times installation of an automatic waterer will require installing a new water line to the location where you want to provide water.  If there is already water at the location, digging down to find and splice into the water source will be required.  Automatic waterers require a water supply line to operate.

An important fact to keep in mind; with automatic waterers, it is likely that the cost of the installation may exceed the cost of the automatic waterer itself.  This is why it is easy and common to end up watering with a stock tank and, where needed, maybe a heater.  Stock tanks are relatively inexpensive and easy to setup, but in the long run will often prove to be the most expensive watering method available when factoring in time spent filling containers, scrubbing and cleaning algae, electricity costs (where applicable), and occasional tank/equipment replacement.

Below are some of the most common costs incurred when installing automatic waterers or even updating a non-automatic water source.  Please note, this list is simply a compilation of potential costs.  Specific requirements and costs will vary depending on the type, brand, and model, feature set of the watering solution you choose.

  • Excavation: Moving dirt is expensive and this is commonly the largest big ticket item of the entire project.  This cost can vary greatly depending if you are splicing into and existing waterline and installing something at that exact location, or if you need to trench 1/4 mile across the pasture to the fence line.   However, just knowing the distance and/or amount to excavate is only part of the equation.  Other important factors include how deep does the trench need to be and what type of ground/material is being excavated.  Digging through soft dirt is easy.  Digging through hard dirt is, well, hard.  Digging through rocks can be somewhere between difficult to impossible depending on the type and size.  And in extreme circumstances, solid rock might be present.
    • While it may be possible to get a general idea based on hypothetical scenarios, the only truly accurate method to determine excavation costs is to get a couple of quotes from local professionals.
  • Materials Costs
    • Electric Wire:  For units requiring electricity, an electric line needs to be purchased and installed to operate the unit.
    • Grounding Rod: Most electrical units will require a grounding rod be installed in accordance with National/Local electrical code.
    • Cement:  Many automatic waterers require that a concrete pad be poured in order to set the waterer on top of a level surface.  This is particularly common when installing a product that utilizes a float valve. Depending on the size, location, and quantity of cement needed, mixing pre-mix concrete from a bag onsite in a wheel-barrow might suffice, or for larger projects ordering a cement truck may be less expensive.
      • Concrete Forms / wood frames:  Pouring concrete on the ground will not typically yield the desired result.  This is why wooden frames are built to contain the wet cement to the desired shape.  These forms require wood and labor to construct prior to pouring concrete.
    • Rock / gravel:  This is a common material used for water drainage.  Washed rock can be placed under a frost-free waterer to enhance drainage and promote proper operation.  Rock and gravel is also often used above ground surrounding a waterer or stock tank to help mitigate mud build up or eliminate mud puddles in locations where there is high animal traffic and water.
  • Professional Fees:  This is the cost of the electricians and plumbers.

 

Operating Costs

This section addresses what to expect in years 2 through 30.

  • Time:  Time is probably the most commonly overlooked and discounted real cost of any watering solution.  Sure, it’s possible to get a bucket for $5… but who is going to fill it with water 2-3 times per day.  Likewise, a trough can cost less than $150, and doesn’t need filling every day…  but someone should scrub the algae out and clean it on occasion.  All these things take time and translate to money.
    • Cleaning and Scrubbing:  All solutions that have standing water will tend to grow algae and collect debris.  Keep in mind that automatic does not automatically mean no cleaning!  If looking to get away from scrubbing algae, look for solutions that do not have standing water.
  • Electricity Costs:  This is one of the biggest hidden costs when automating watering.  This biggest offender, by far, is the stock tank heater.  With common wattages typically above 1,000 Watts, plugging a stock tank heater in can cause electric bills to sky-rocket.  By how much will depend on the wattage of the element and how much the heater is on or off during any given month.  It is common that a single stock tank heater can increase an electric bill by $100 per month or more when left to run continuously.
    • Extension Cords, & Tank Heaters:  For stock tanks using a heater, an extension cord will need to be purchased.  Electrical cords run across the top of the ground and left in the open around animals and equipment are notorious for being stepped on, run over, chewed on, and broken.  The same is true of stock tanks heaters.  Expect occasional replacement if using them.
  • Repair parts:  Just like fencing, vehicles, and all other machinery around the farm and ranch, waterers will require repairs from time to time.  A good strategy to minimize your exposure to costly repair parts is to choose a high quality waterer and try to avoid designs with overly complex designs and excessive amounts of repair parts.
  • Professional Fees: This pertains to hiring plumbers and electricians for repairs beyond one’s abilities.

Common Repairs With Waterers

A good common sense rule of thumb to keep in mind is that nothing lasts forever.  All watering methods generally will require maintenance over time.  Almost all manufacturers of reputable brands sell parts to service their equipment.  This includes internal and external components.

One factor to consider is what resources are available to troubleshoot and repair alternative watering options.  Also, what would a typical repair look like?  Are parts available?  What does it cost?  Is it something you would be comfortable doing on your own?  How often should you expect to perform this service?  The answers to these questions will vary by waterer and complexity type.

Let’s start with what is the most widely used:  buckets and troughs.   Clearly, these are susceptible cracking, breaking, and/or corrosion over time.   How long a bucket or trough lasts is influenced by many factors like the materials used in construction, regional climate conditions, whether a horse chooses to stomp their hoof inside of it, or if an axe or sledge hammer punctures it while breaking ice.

The “fix” to a leaky bucket is like to buy a new one, as waterers get more expensive and complex, the repairs can too.

With electric waterers there is the possibility a heating element could stop working and water freezes;  Or the heating element stops regulating the temperature and makes the water too hot, discouraging adequate intake.  There is also a risk of electric shock talking about heating animal water with electricity.

With virtually all automatic waterers there is the possibility of a water valve malfunction.  With animal activated waterers there is the possibility of breaking or bending paddles or flappers.

Filters clogging can be a common maintenance item on many automatic waterers.  Filters come in many different shapes and configurations.  Given that many watering animals are on a well system, having some level of debris in the water can be an unavoidable reality for some.  It is common that many automatic waterers will have some type of filter to help remove particles or debris from the incoming water line.  It is helpful to know if there is a filter, how do you access it, what is the cost, and how often should you expect to service it.

Electricity outages can be a common jumping off point for further repairs.  If electrical outages are something that you contend with on occasion, consider what steps need to be taken to recover from such an event.

Stuck, broken, or malfunctioning float valves are frequently easy to identify as this will usually directly affect the presence, or potentially abundance, of water.  Like most repairs the urgency, time required, and cost of this type of repair will depend on many specifics, most likely including what brand and model of automatic waterer you are servicing.

Regardless of what watering method is deployed, it is good to think about what could go wrong and what plan of action will be followed in that event.  Even being aware that a manufacturer has a troubleshooting and repair section on their website and knowing where and how to access it can be a huge help.  Like almost all equipment, it is not uncommon that some may keep a small selection of the most commonly used repair parts on hand.  This is more likely to occur when operations have 5 or more of the same type of waterer in use.  Having quick access to the most used / needed parts can prove helpful in emergency repair situations.

Dangers

The big scares that accompany automatic waterers include:

Overflowing Water: Having an automatic waterer that does not automatically shut off can cause big problems… from flooded fields, to high water bills, or and empty well, or maybe a flooded barn, or worse!  Nobody wants to deal with this, but it is a possibility anytime you’re dealing with water.  It can even happen on the manual methods when the hose gets left running filling the stock tank… for 3 days!

No Water: Possibly worse than overflowing water, could be the exact opposite, no water at all!  This is why virtually all sound animal management programs recommend checking the water supply daily to ensure proper operation and uninhibited access to water.  However, no water is a possibility when dealing with pretty much every type of watering method.  Water lines can freeze, parts can break, streams can freeze or run dry, it seems just about anything is possible.  Many will make a habit of checking water daily when feeding.

Electric Shock:  This can be considered a worst case scenario when talking about automatic waterers.  Electric shock can range from non-threatening to electrocution.  The most obvious and arguably sad results in immediate animal deaths.  At other times, whether through the waterer itself, a malfunctioning component, or potentially stray voltage,  a ground fault can electrify the water source. Worn wiring or faulty wiring can lead to the electricity meeting the water or metal components on the waterer itself. Even a ground fault can cause enough discomfort for your livestock that they will refuse the water source, even after the issue is rectified.  This is why it’s important to follow all manufacturers recommendations and have all electrical work performed by a licensed professional, as mistakes in this category can prove deadly.

Algae, Contaminants, or Toxins: This is much more common in stagnant water.  Ponds and stock tanks can be most susceptible to this, depending on conditions.   Potential sources of trouble could include things such as manure, fertilizers, pesticides, or similar running into a water source.  Natural water sources can develop blue green algae in the right conditions which can prove harmful to animals.

Viruses and Disease: Things like West Nile Virus can be more prone to spread when there is a high concentration of flies.  Certain conditions may allow this situation to proliferate more than others.  Removing standing, stagnant water sources is often recommended where this is a concern.

Broken parts: Virtually every watering method will require some type of maintenance, fix, repair, or part over time.  How and where parts are available is worthy of consideration.

Climate Specific Considerations

Watering in a desert climate such as Arizona will be different that watering in more northern regions such as the Dakota’s and Canada.  Because of this, it is common that different regions will have common or preferred watering methods that may not be relevant or applicable in other areas.  Here we will briefly explore some of the most common climate related considerations:

Hot / Extreme Heat: 

Heat, hot water, algae, bacteria, and foul tasting water can develop together.  When water is sitting stagnant in the sun in a hot climate, it tends to grow algae and bacteria.  Common remedies include frequent cleaning, shading the water to keep temperatures down, adding gold fish to eat the plant growth, chemical treatments such as bleach or specialized products, or avoiding standing water altogether.

Troughs and buckets tend to be very common in areas where freezing temps are mild or non-existent.  In these settings, stock tanks of all makes, shapes, and sizes are common.  Standing water does have a tendency to invite all types of animals like birds and rodents, and these additional animals can contribute to contaminants in the water source.

In hot climates the primary concerns surround:

  1. Clean water.  Warm water in good sunlight tends to grow algae.  This can cause foul tasting water, and in worse case scenarios, this can lead to toxins in the water.
  2. Cool water.  Keeping water at an appropriate temperature for consumption.  Water consumption will decrease when water becomes too hot, which can lead to dehydration.

Cold Climate / Freezing Temperatures

Strategies and approaches to watering animals in cold climates range widely.  Some do nothing and expect animals to eat snow for their hydration needs.

Most aim, at a minimum, to ensure there is drinking water available daily.  One strategy is to refill buckets or troughs from frost free yard hydrants as needed.  Often, this includes breaking off the top layer of ice in watering troughs.  Studies show providing water at a minimum of 40 degrees F will result in increased water intake when compared to water just above freezing.

For systems that utilize an automatic waterer float valve or have standing water, the most common strategy is to heat the water to keep the water from freezing solid and becoming undrinkable.  Common heat sources include electricity, propane, and ground heat.  These all come with their own sets of risks, installation requirements, and costs.

An alternate strategy is to keep all water below the frostline when not in use.  This is known as frost-free.  In frost free waterers, when an animal is done drinking, all water drains below the frost line, eliminating the need for a heat source to operate in freezing temperatures.

Other regional factors that influence preferences include:

  • Is ground water easily accessible (pond, stream, spring, etc)
    • Chemical or manure run-off
  • Are electrical outages common?
  • Excavating considerations such as bedrock or large boulders, high ground water, and high clay content in soil can influence preferences.
  • Prevalence and severity of mosquito-spread diseases
  • Presence or absence of local grants, rebates, or incentives.

Grants, Rebates, and Incentives

Altering and improving watering strategies can have very positive impacts on energy consumption, water conservation, limiting potentially harmful run-off, and much, much more.  Because of this, there are countless grants, rebates, and incentives surround automatic waterers as well as water and land management and conservation in general.  Grants available through a myriad of local and national organizations.  Below are listed some of the most common providers.  If these entities do not have a program that fits your project needs and goals, they may be able to recommend someone that does.

  • Water Conservation Agencies
  • Power Companies
  • National Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS for short.

We will briefly focus on the NRCS, as this is agency is essentially nation-wide.  The NRCS is an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture that provides technical and financial assistance to ranchers, farmers, and other private landowners and managers. Its mission is to improve, protect, and conserve natural resources on private lands through a cooperative partnership with state and local agencies.  

While its primary focus has been agricultural lands, it has made many technical contributions to soil surveying, classification, and water quality improvements.  The financial assistance is authorized by the Farm Bill, a law that is renewed every five years.

These programs are aimed at the conservation of resources including soil, water, plants, animals, and wildlife.  

If installing automatic waterers that eliminate the need for electricity, reduce or eliminate pollution associated with watering animals, provide a higher quality of water for animals by eliminating stagnant or standing water, and mitigate water usage there may be grants available through a local NRCS agency.  The term frequently used in this agency for automatic waterers is “two-ball waterer”.  This term is mis-leading, as per NRCS interpretations, it is used to describe any waterer that could be used to split a fence line, whether it has one or two “holes” is effectively irrelevant.   It is not uncommon, that qualifying projects will receive assistance in both the cost of the hardware and materials, but also with the cost of installation. 

If interested in getting started with the NRCS, it is simple:  

  • Go to:  https://www.nrcs.usda.gov 
  • Click on “NRCS State Website” in the bottom right
  • Select your state
  • Select “Financial Assistance” in the top right corner

 This is a great starting point to see what programs are currently available through the NRCS.  Of course, the best and most certain way to determine what grants are directly applicable is to reach out directly to your local NRCS field agent and get them involved to ensure you take full advantage of all they have to offer.

You can find the contact information for your local NRCS office at https://www.nrcs.usda.gov > “State Websites” in the top right corner.

Photo / graphic credit to:  https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/newsroom/features/?cid=stelprdb1193811

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