Overwintering Chickens in Subzero Temperatures

Poultry waterers can freeze solid in the cold, so what can you do?

Some poultry keepers don't heat the water then break it out when they are frozen and fill the water up.  Chickens, and especially laying hens require fresh drinking water 24/7, so the time in the day the water is frozen, they are deprived of this.  It takes one day for each hour a hen is without water for her to recover fully.  Some will never lay the same again, there can be permanent damage, so poultry needs water all the time.

You can buy special heated chicken and poultry waterers from pet and poultry suppliers.  These tend to be plastic which does not last as long on the farm.  The freezing and thawing and then the additional heat from the heat trace and UV exposure can shorten the lifespan on a poultry font.  Once brittle and cracked, they are difficult to repair, and once leaking are useless.  If the waterer lasts longer than the heating wire, then it is difficult if not impossible, to repair or replace the coil.

Having a separate summer chicken A metal chicken poultry watering trough winterized and good to minus 30 degrees CelsiusCredit: Skeffling Lavender Farmwaterer and a winter one that has to be stored in the off season means you have to have a storage spot where they will not be damaged in the interim.  We avoid this by using the same metal waterer for both seasons.  

There are a few ways to winterize and heat your waterer yourself.  For safety and simplicity they all involve using electricity.  Some people put a lightbulb in a tin under the water, and these do work to keep the water liquid in frigid temperatures.  I am leery of placing an incandescent light bulb so close to wood shavings or straw bedding.  Also being below the chicken water equipment, it is possible water can leak onto it, shorting the wire.  Another down side is that the waterer generally has to be placed on the ground.  Anyone who has chickens knows they will have bedding and shavings kicked into it very quickly. 

We have a simple 10 minute adaptation to do to the hanging metal water founts in the autumn and  it gives us great results all winter down to about -30°C.

What you need to winterize your own metal poultry waterers?

Just 3 things and 10 minutes!

You will need

Supplies for winterizing a poultry and chicken waterer for freezing weather

  1. A clean metal galvanised waterer 2 gallon to 5 gallons in size.  The 2 and 3 gallon waterers will hang, the 5 gallon sits (on a breeze block or  cinder block).  Do not use a plastic waterer, it may melt.
  2. A length of plastic coated waterproof water pipe heating cable available at the hardware store.  Generally these will not use any electricity til the sensor reads a temperature drop below 5°C.  To get the right length for your waterer and  lowest temperatures, see below.

  3. A roll of good quality electrical tape, cheap tape is not very sticky especially in the cold.

What length of heat trace?

This depends on the size of waterer and your lowest winter temperatures and is based on our freezing Ontario winters.  This is assuming there is no wind or draft and the waterer is in an unheated, uninsulated chicken coop.

  • 2 gallon waterer down to -30°C needs 6 foot pipe heating cable
  • 3 gallon waterer down to -20°C needs 6 foot pipe heating cable
  • 3 gallon waterer down  to -30°C needs 9 foot pipe heating cable
  • 5 gallon waterer down to -20°C needs 9 foot pipe heating cable
  • 5 gallon waterer down to -30°C needs 12 foot pipe heating cable

You can put more than that on, it will increase costs, but may be necessary for the Prairies and down to -60°C.  Generally poultry houses are heated in those locations, so I think 12 foot is the longest cord you would ever need. 

There have been only a couple of occasions we have had these freeze up so the birds couldn't drink, and we had forgotten to plug the cable in.

How to winterize your own metal poultry waterers

This takes Less than 10 minutes and gets faster with practice.

By trial and error we have found the quickest and best way to wrap the waterer to keep the water liquid even at the coldest temperatures.  If you don't get this right, you can bring the waterer in and re-wrap, but it's easier on you and the chickens if you get it first try.

  1. Do this in a warm place with room temp electrical tape and a room temp waterer.  If you try this outside in the cold, the tape will not stick very well and may only stay on a short time, then you'll have more work to do.
  2. Take the top off the base. The lip of the base will get in your way otherwise.
  3. Unwind your heating cable and make sure Starting the taping process when winterizing on a chicken waterer with pipe heating tapeCredit: Skeffling Lavender Farmthe black plastic sensor dot and thermostatn ear the plug is facing inwards toward the waterer as you follow along the trace to the other end and hold it against the metal.
  4. Rotate the waterer so the slot that holds the base on is visible on your side.
  5. At the bottom of the waterer, tack the end of the heat trace onto the outside to the right of the that slot.  The electrical tape can go on the inside of the waterer top if necessary.Set and wrap your pipe heating wire where you want it then tape it.Credit: Skeffling Lavender Farm
  6. Gently wind the heat trace wire around the waterer keeping it flat against the  metal, do not tape it yet.
  7. Wind the first revolution around the very bottom of the side of the water fount until you get back to the slot.  
  8. Move the pipe heater cable above the slot and leave a border of about 1 cm there.  See photo.  Keep tape one side of the heat trace (with 1/2 to 2/3 of  the tape width on the metal and 1/3 to 1/2 half on the heat trace.Credit: Skeffling Lavender Farmwinding the wire over the heat trace cover, unevenly, with the most of the heating wire in the bottom half of the water fount top.   If you do not go around the base as close to where the water will be in the trough or if you wind evenly over the whole drum, the bottom can freeze.
  9. When happy with the position of the heating wire you can tack the plug and sensor end to the water with tape.  This isn't 100% necessary as you Make sure the pipe heating trace's temperature sensor is facign the chicken watere metalCredit: Skeffling Lavender Farmbegin to tape one side of the heat trace (with 1/2 to 2/3 of  the tape width on the metal and 1/3 to 1/2 half on the heat trace.
  10. Repeat for the other side of the heating cable and make sure the sensor is secure and taped facing the metal.  Rub the tape down tight with your nail to get a good bond.
  11. Fill base with water, put the top back on, hang on a sturdy hook so the waterfilled trough it is at chicken breast height.  Plug in. 

It is safer to have any electrical wires, extensions etc coming from above to reduce risk of fire.  Always be very careful with electrics and not overloading them in your chicken barn or hen coop.  Seek professional advice if you are concerned.