Building an automatic chicken waterer

Before we left on our recent road trip, we wanted to have a system in place to water the chickens so the neighbor who would be collecting the eggs wouldn’t have to deal with our problematic hanging waterers. I’d been planning such a system for some time. All I can say is, “We should have done this sooner!”

First, I built a stand for the water tank. The new waterer would be gravity fed, so I needed a bit of elevation. We might also want to mount the waterer inside the coop, so the tank stand needed to be high enough to feed into the coop, but low enough that we could collect rainwater off the coop roof (ala pile of o’melays). This stand is just under 3′ tall. The ends and top are stand-alone units that bolt together. I nailed on the side braces because I ran out of bolts. (Everything but the 4×4′s was scrap material.) It’s probably overbuilt, but 55 gals of water isn’t light.

The water tank was another recycled food-grade 55 gal drum. We buy these from a local honey distributor for $16 each (ours were both used once to transport molasses). They are really sturdy. I’ve read that car wash businesses get their soap in similar drums, so you might take that route to get some free drums. Near the bottom we drilled a door-knob sized hole and installed a plastic bulkhead fitting. The hardware store is painfully proud of these (about $20 each), but they provide a reliable seal between the tank sides and a 1/2″ threaded fitting. We added a ball valve with hose threading to complete the water source.

The waterer itself is a Little Giant Automatic Bird Fount. It’s fairly expensive for a brass valve and a plastic bowl (like most things related to livestock), but they are durable and well designed. The bowl removes for cleaning with a quick disconnect and the valve shuts off when you do this instead of running continuously (clever). With the bowl removed, two nuts adjust the spring tension and ultimately the water level at which the weight of the hanging bowl and water closes the valve. I attached the waterer to a 16″ plastic riser, and built a wood mount for it which hangs from a rail on the tank stand. The waterer and tank connect with a short length of garden hose. I prefer garden hoses for easy of reconfiguring things. The chickens were immediately attracted by the red-colored bowl, and quickly accepted it as a water source.

C.R.A.P. Waterer/Feeder

The rail-mounted design of the new waterer matches the rail-mounted chicken feeder I previously built. I like the concept enough I’ve assigned it a name: Chicken Rail Accessory Platform [CRAP]

The concept is simple: by installing a rail of a fixed design at a fixed height, various waterers, feeders, mineral feeders, etc. can be hung and repositioned as needed. The waterer I just built can be mounted inside the coop (with the hose threading through a small hole in the wall) and it will be at the correct height. We can build a narrow feeder for oyster shell or mineral salt and mount it on a similar-height rail on the water tank. If anyone wants to try out CRAP at home, I’ve provided a simple plan drawing below. All measurements were scientifically selected completely at random. They seem to work for me. Other measurements would work just as well.

Edit: Robin tells me my drawing is unclear and needs some explanation. I’m proposing two different install heights based on where you will mount things. Over solid ground, such as outdoors or a regularly cleaned coop, I’m suggesting 9″ from the ground to the feed/water level. This seems to be a good height for the chickens to eat/drink at without wasting food. If you are using a deep litter system in your coop like us, then I’m suggesting 12″ from the floor. This provides an average of 3″ litter to bring the chickens up to about the same height. In practice, this means that at one end of the feeder the floor will be bare and at the other end there will be 6″ litter, but the chickens don’t seem to starve either way. The front lip of the rail in our coop is mounted at 40″ off the floor. The front lip of the rail on our water tank stand is 37″ off the ground.

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59 Responses to Building an automatic chicken waterer

  1. Ali says:

    You two are so clever!

    I so love this idea…. BUT will it work in freezing weather? Currently we use galvanized waterers which in the winter sit on a warming unit that keeps the water from freezing. On occasion when for some reason it was not working, the water froze pretty solid in the bowl, and even in the whole container.

    I would love to use this, or even a nipple watering system, but wonder about keeping it from freezing. Ideas?

  2. lee says:

    Hi Ali, you are completely right. Freezing weather would probably crack the tank on our new chicken and pig waterers. This is either a 3-season system or a watch-the-weather-closely system. Our average low temperature in the Eugene, OR area never actually falls below freezing, but we can have spells of 10° lows like we did last winter for a week.

    For the pigs I’m thinking about a short elevated stand which would hold a base heater in place. (Not sure if they get too hot and would melt the plastic.) For the chickens, we’d have to drain the tank, but the waterer could get moved into the coop with a 5-gal supply, and a radiant heat lamp would keep the whole thing from freezing. Last year I had to carry warm water out and thaw out our hanging plastic waterer. It never cracked, but it wasn’t a fun job for a week stretch at a time.

    • i think the idea of the fish tank fitted close to the out let would keep it from freezing to a point….a very cold point.. :)
      maybe a short line wrap from there to bowl..

    • Deb says:

      In the winter we use the small over the rail livestock feeders mounted on the wall about 9″ up. In the morning we tip them upside down in the sun to empty by solar heat and gravity. We put the spare set in during the day filled with warm water and repeat at supper time. If those haven’t emptied by morning it takes a bare minimum of the warm water we have brought out to loosen the ice. Works slick for us.

  3. John E says:

    brilliant! I love the way you’ve worked in coop roof runoff for supply, and an auto-gravity system for the chickens. One thing I can’t place though is the “Little Giant” waterer…I googled it and only found a company that makes pumps for pools/wastewater/etc, with no mention of this model. Could you be more specific on the part/model/url for the device? Thanks! And thanks for posting a pictorial and explanation of your ingenious system.

    John
    Madison, WI

  4. Ron says:

    Very nice, I like it. My approach so far has just been an inverted 5-gallon bucket sitting in a garbage can lid. But the last two nights, the birds decided to poop like crazy in there, in spite of the board for shielding such things…

    I did buy some nipple waterers a while back, and I plan to hang the bucket with those in the bottom. Then, sink a submersible aquarium heater in the bottom… people on backyard chickens seem to have good luck with that setup in winter. We can get some fairly long stretches of freezing weather here.

    Ron

  5. lee says:

    John – Your right, it does seem to be a little hard to find online. Here’s one supplier, but we got ours from the local farm store. (Our exact model is “2500 Little Giant Poultry Fountain”.) I had looked at them several times before buying, but I was happy to see that Karl seemed to like them too.

    Ron – I’m afraid I lack your talent for doing things on a shoestring. Most of my projects end up like this one: a little overbuilt and overbudget. Sturdy yes, worth the ultimate time savings … hopefully?

    I’ve also looked at the chicken watering nipples, but I was a little worried our birds would be too dumb to figure them out. They promptly proved me wrong by learning to drink out of the drippers for the fruit trees. Ha ha

    Thanks for mentioning an aquarium heater! That sounds like a great solution to prevent freezing. (I wonder how low a thermostat setting you can get?) I really wanted an immersion heater of some sort, but most of them for livestock watering are too big to fit through the two ports on the barrels.

    • danny says:

      the little giant is available thru the murray mcmurray hatchery catalog. they also have a website. i like this waterer, very ingenius. great work

    • Jasmine says:

      What about wrapping the tank in the stuff they put around water heaters? Or perhaps enclosing the tank with walls and a roof and stuffing straw in there?

      We have some pretty serious winters here and this will be my first year with chickens :)

      -Jasmine
      Northern, Wyo

      • lee says:

        Insulating the tank would help if you have brief freezes, but if you have long stretches of cold weather like I imagine in northern Wyoming it’s not going to help much. We always end up hauling warm water out daily when it freezes here. (The tank has frozen solid before but never cracked.) The other option is a heated font or to put the waterer in a partially heated space.

  6. Mark says:

    You didn’t say how the water gets into the bowl. Do you have to manually release water into it with the ball valve, or does it somehow automatically fill the bowl with water as the water level drops? Or do the chickens do it somehow?

  7. Leigh says:

    What an excellent idea. Thanks for sharing the particulars. Of course, this is a job for Dan. If you try the aquarium heater let us know.

  8. lee says:

    Hi Mark,

    The ball valve is there so I can take it apart (or re-purpose the barrel) without losing all the water. The automatic water refilling is provided by the Little Giant water fount. The brass stem is a spring-loaded gravity valve. When the water bowl is empty, a spring holds the bowl up and the valve open. Water trickles into the bowl and as it gets heavier it pulls down on the spring and eventually closes the valve. The system is pretty sensitive — the bowl stays about 1/2″ away from full all the time.

  9. John E says:

    Lee – perfect, thanks for adding that detail! Our next head-scratcher is how to create a screen or cover so they don’t poop into the water – make them poke their head into something for the water, and keep the rest covered! Love the site, John.

  10. lee says:

    Hi John,

    We are fortunate that our chickens don’t really like to stand on things. I suspect this is because we give them so few opportunities to do so (most things are anti-chicken-sloped). They could certainly roost on parts of the water tank stand though, but they don’t.

    That said, I’ve seen a few waterers that incorporate the ‘stick-your-head-in-and-drink’ concept. Premier sells one, although it’s a vacuum waterer, not an automatic one. I’ve also seen a few home-built versions online using 5 gallon buckets with some holes cut in them. There’s lots of opportunities for automating these, such as by adding one of those float-activated shut-off valves for livestock tanks.

  11. Benita says:

    That’s pretty ingenious – but asking people if they “want to try CRAP at home” left me with the giggles. I know, second grade humor and all, but it is funny!

    Did you make the bowl red on purpose or was it just the color you could get?

  12. lee says:

    Ha ha, I’m glad to see someone thought my second grade humor was funny! That expression was one of the more tame phrasings I debated between. When I decided to name the chicken rail thing, I told Robin I needed an awful acronym to go with it.

    Yeah, red bowls were the only option. I believe there is a conspiracy between poultry water fount manufacturers to associate red with water. Our quart-size chick founts and our hanging vacuum founts both have red bases too. I approve of this conspiracy.

  13. monique says:

    we use the same watering fountain with a similar ball-valve/tubing set-up. We have a similar climate to yours and in the winter I wrap heat cable (from the plumbing aisle at HD) around the base of my 5-gallon bucket and all down the tubing and valve and secure it all with electrical tape. It is kind of a pain to do every fall and take apart every spring, but having thawed chicken water every winter morning makes it worth it. I’m not sure I have any pictures to illustrate though.

    • we used one at deer camp. but used the one w /thermostat that cuts on an off..never have to touch it…plug it an forget it….they’re great. they make some for big tanks.

  14. lee says:

    Thanks for the suggestions. I hadn’t thought of using heat tape, but I suspect it would use quite a bit less electricity than the heat lamp I was considering. I may try that as well. There are definitely more fun things to do first thing in the morning than freeze your hands while trying to thaw out a watering fount.

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  16. Lynn says:

    Awesome watering system! We need to make of these!

  17. lee says:

    It’s been really nice! The only disadvantage is that we forget to check on the chickens now, sometimes for a couple days, because there’s no risk of them running out of water. “Did you check the eggs last night?” “No, did you?” “Um, I don’t remember doing it the day before either!” Doh!!!

  18. Joe Amore says:

    Is it best to have your waterer in the coop or the yard? My coop that I am going to build will sit off the ground 30″ and it will have a yard underneath along with another yard attached to it.

    • lee says:

      As long as your chickens have continuous access to water, I don’t think it matters. Our chickens have a coop, but we never close the door so they are fine with it being out in their yard. I prefer it in the yard, because waterers tend to leak and get the litter in the coop wet. I also think it makes them go outside and forage more. If we locked them in their coop each night, I’d keep a waterer in there so they wouldn’t be denied water until they were let out in the morning.

    • Calvin says:

      All 8 of mine are in the air about 26 inches and I used 1/2 ince hardware cloth to stop any snakes from being able to get to the eggs etc.
      As far as the waterer is concerned, I ran a 1/2 inch pvc pipe to it from the well (I’m in the country) instead of a tank and NEVER fill anything myself. Forgot to mention, you can get the waterer a LOT cheaper from Jeffers Poultry supply. They are under $20.00.

      • lee says:

        Thanks, that’s a good tip on the supplier. Running a pipe would definitely be a little more convenient. I like the tank for two reasons though. 1.) We can move it to a new location when it’s empty. 2.) No risk of a pipe breaking in the winter when we aren’t home and it causing our well to run continuously.

        • Calvin says:

          Sometimes, I forget about freezing. Shouldn’t because I grew up in NC where it did a lot in the Winter. Am in southern Georgia now and although it may freeze its never enough to burst pipes. And as you noted mine cannot be moved just piped 6 more pens and am about to order the needed waterers for them.
          I had some questions about the waterer when first ordered it and spoke with JR at Jeffers, he contacted the company that makes them and got back to me, both a call and an e-mail. I am VERY satisfied with Jeffers. Believe I have found a new supplier of all my poultry needs. Good luck my friend.

          • samnjoeysgrama says:

            I am in the mountains West of Pikes Peak at 8500 ft. Our frost depth is 7 feet (I couldn’t believe it but got that from two different well drillers and a plumber). We also have bobcat, coyote, fox, cougar, large eagles and bear who think chicken dinner sounds lovely. It is a challenge, but rewarding to have chickens. One of our best additions was solar charged electric fence around the yard at differing heights, as well as motion activated lights and music. We call it Chick-catraz.
            Heat tape is great. I have it as well as a roof dam de-icing tape that both work on thermostats and do a good job. You can buy the roof dam tape by the foot at Ace. Neither get hot enough to melt most plastics.

      • Jeffers Poultry supply has saved me a ton over the years. i love em..

  19. darrell says:

    A cheaper bulkhead fitting can be found in the electrical section of the big box stores. Look for water tight box connectors.

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  22. TOMMY MCDONALD says:

    I have multiple elevated bird feeders with watering stations that have a height requirements, due to the cats and wild animals that need a water source. I am modifying to allow for a water overflow to a central point and repump back using 75 watt panel as the power source.

  23. Nice invention the chicken really likes your ideas. Even you left them they will not be hungry or starving to what you’ve made for them. It’s really interesting and its good to market it. Great job.

  24. Scotty says:

    I live in Wisconsin and to avoid freezing I use an aquarium pump that I hooked up to some pvc with an end cap and some holes it also aerates the water and prevents any stagnation…and the sound of running water is kinda soothing

    • lee says:

      That seems like a good idea. When I was a kid, our property had a spring-fed pond and the water almost never froze in winter because of all the movement. On the plus side, aquariums pumps are probably more reliable in long term use than aquarium heaters.

      • and rebuild able (is that a word) i’ve rebuilt em..i went thu the guppy thing with my lil girl….try 6or8 10gal an 4 29′s…they are tough…you also got a point if it’s moving it will hardly freeze..

  25. What a fantastic idea, thank you for sharing it. We have a unused rain barrel that we used to catch water from our roof but no longer needed it. I know now what it’s next life is going to be.

    Happy Spring to you!

    Rachelle

    • robin says:

      I hope it works out for you. We still love this waterer and think it was one of the best animal equipment upgrades we’ve ever done.

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  27. Sara Carlson says:

    This is awesome. I have always hated those tiny waterers. I will show the hunny this and hopefully get started. New blog follower here. ! LOVE THIS SITE!

    • lee says:

      Thanks! We now have two automatic waterers in almost continuous use around here, and I’m working on plans for a mobile version.

  28. Scott says:

    Great set up! I’ll have to try it.
    I had a suggestion for others that might use a 55 gallon barrel. Instead of having to install a bulkhead fitting you can flip the barrel upside down and use one of the bung holes. Most have threads for a 1/2″ fitting built into them. A little plumbing tape on any threaded parts keeps it from leaking. The bonus is that the barrel empties to the last drop instead of the 1/2″ or so below the bulkhead fitting.
    I had a rain collection set up done this way with one downspout sized hole cut into the bottom (now top) of one barrel. The rest of the barrels were filled through the bung holes at the top (now bottom) of the barrels because I was able to run pvc piping and t’s from the first barrel to the rest.

    • lee says:

      That’s a good idea Scott. I’ve seen people install the barrels sideways so they could use the taps in the bungs, but upside down would make much better use of the available volume. If you cut a large hole in the top, it would also be easier to clean the barrel occasionally. I might have to try that if we build another.

  29. Larry says:

    Hi,

    Does anyone have an idea and how to heat chicken water using a propane heater of some kind? We live in Alaska off the grid and can’t use electricity if we leave to go visit the kids for 2 weeks. It can get minus 20 to minus 35 in our part of the state. The chickens winter in our unheated green house. Thanks for any help.

    • lee says:

      I would imagine that a propane radiant heater aimed at the waterer would work in the short term, but I wouldn’t want to leave a setup like that running if I was away. You might want to try posting this sort of question on a backyard chicken forum.

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  31. Olivianne says:

    I am considering using this for my chickens, great design, do you think it will work with broody hens?

  32. Eli says:

    This is a great idea. I have been looking for a good design to keep the water flowing form my growing flock. This will work great during the summer month. any suggestions to making this winter-friendly? Heated equipment?

  33. Jim says:

    Your a lot like me with the “overbuilding” idea. But I always figured if it was worth doing then it was worth doing right. You should see the chicken duplex I built that started out as a chicken tractor. And being a carpenter I’m always bringing scrap and leftovers home from work so my coop is built with all leftovers including most of the fencing which is chain link from an old dog lot we didn’t use anymore. I like your water idea and will definately be building one for my coop but i think I’ll build it outside the coop and just run some guttering from the hen house roof to the barrel, with the watering bowl on the inside to keep the chickens from roosting on the barrel and frame. Wish I could post a picture of the coop, you would get a kick out of it.

  34. Gordon Deisting says:

    I live in Alberta Canada,I use a plastic water tank with a 60 watt light bulb underneath the tank,(I used a trouble light with a metal guard and then hang underneath not to touch the ground or the tank) which has been enclosed to keep the heat from the bulb in and the cold out.Then I use a old heavy quilt to cover the tank,drape over the whole works.That in turn keeps the water from freezing.then also I use a garden hose connected to the tank ,down to a Calf waterer so that way the water is gravity fed.then I use a short heat tape wrap around the hose then the water is free flow for the chickens.Well I’m not afraid of fire for I made proper from the start.Then when the temp drops out side I use hot water to fill the tank and it stays warm for a few days longer than normal.chickens love the warm water in the winter.But also I built my chicken coop and insulated it,with a large double window pane facing the south and straw on a dirt floor.I never worried about frost.My feed for the chickens is there also,screened off from the chickens with water tank in the same area.But I never use a floor, just open ground then that way the coop stays warm in the winter.The chickens have water and feeder also roost,and also a nest box.And eggs all winter long.Also I feed them lettuce and other things as old bread and other greens.You treat them good you get a good return in turn.

  35. Laurie Viets says:

    I love this site and the sharing of information. I live in Colorado and just started keeping chickens in Berthoud. My coop is quite a ways from the house, the water freezes hard in the winter, and it is a chore to haul water for 25 chickens 2 or 3 times a day during a cold spell. What I did for the summer was mount a rain barrel on a stand in the coop and gravity feed water from it into one of the Little Giant auto-waterers. The barrel has a garden spigot tap for doing this, and it’s easy to set up with the waterer from Murray’s. (You can buy these spigots from Lee Valley if one does not come with the barrel.). For winter, I’ve put a thermostatically controlled trough de icer in the barrel, and now, instead of hauling water, I draw off cool water from the barrel to fill my other, not-so-automatic waters. All this works great, but I would like to have something like a 5 gallon bucket waterer that can be heated with either a light bulb from below – or a bird bath de icer. I think nipples will freeze on our coldest days, so I am leaning toward a more traditional design, one that can be filled from the top with a hose from the barrel spigot. BTW, no one mentioned using a thermocube to turn water heaters on and off at preset temperatures. These are handy for use with heat lamps, light bulbs, de icers and the like, and many trough heaters and de icers have thermostats built in. These cut down immensely on energy consumption and could have protection from overheating. Not cheap solutions, but maybe worth considering. I found the CRAP design most useful and am looking now for a waterer plan that can use the de icers I have. Any suggestions? To No Electricity: have you considered a solar panel with battery to power a heat source? Couldn’t draw a lot of current or heat a very large volume of water, though. Sounds like a project.

  36. Bill says:

    Great design, but put it under a down spout and I would use a white RV hose, there are to many leaching chemicals in a green hose, ever get an upset stomach drinking from a green hose? Not pleasant!

  37. jim says:

    An old toilet tank makes for a good constant water level supply as well.

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