Fixing a broken chicken waterer

One of the foundations of free market theory is that when consumers and producers can both make free decisions, the market will settle on prices and production levels which maximize the benefit to all individuals involved. While this seems to work fine for consumer goods like flat screen TVs and fast food toys, prices go a little crazy for tools which help you grow things and make things.

Case in point: We have a variety of chicken founts in various sizes up to 2 gallons. We’ve avoided buying a larger size because both of our chicken pens have automatic waterer tanks. Unfortunately, when we got the geese this summer we had to buy a 5 gallon fount. Four geese can drink their way through 5 gallons in one thirsty afternoon.

Can someone explain to me why large chicken founts are priced exponentially? We are talking about two blobs of molded plastic. The “design” can be replicated by a 5-gallon bucket and a pan. There’s no packaging. I’m sure there’s no clinical testing to avoid wrongful chicken death lawsuits. What on earth justifies the $50 gold-plated price tag?

In contrast, I recently bought a new carburetor for a small Honda motor for only $18. A carburetor is an extremely complex little device made of cast aluminum. It has intricate machined passages, tiny brass needles, a stainless bowl, valves, springs and levers. It must be assembled with precision in a clean environment, and then packaged and shipped. There were miners, smelters, metallurgists, engineers, machinists, factory workers and more to pay … and all of that for $18.

My only explanation is that the market hates farmers.

You may think I’m on a solitary rant here, but chicken waterers have tried to bite us twice in the last few months. We love our automatic chicken waterers, but after 2 years our first setup failed last week. Water started to trickle continuously out of the valve, even when the bowl was removed. The original waterer packaging had a clear warning that the valve was not just a tire valve stem core and had to be special ordered. I priced the parts from an online supplier: 4 valves @ $1.15 each, replacement tool @ $4.70, and shipping @ $13.40. The total would be $22.70 for valves which look suspiciously like valve stem cores.

I decided to take my chances at the auto parts store.

It’s been a week now and my $0.25 valve is still working fine. I replaced the valve using a $2 tool from the same store. In the picture above, you can see there really was a significant difference between valves: the new valve is red.

This absurdity has given me an idea. If we all want to save money on chicken founts, we need to convince one of the megacorps that the vacuum fount design would work perfectly as a lemonade fountain. (These ideas don’t have to be particularly good: just look at countertop popcorn popper carts.) My prediction: your local big box store would have $5 bathtub-sized “lemonade fountains” within a month.

The market hates farmers.

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17 Responses to Fixing a broken chicken waterer

  1. Lisa J says:

    Isn’t that funny how that works? I’ve had the same exact thought about the founts. I also noticed that when I needed to buy some amprolium that it was more expensive and contained less medication in the chicken aisle than the bag in the cattle aisle. Made by the same company. In the same fancy packaging…a foil bag. Do you think in some instances the companies are taking advantage of the new-found interest in chicken-keeping and tailoring their prices to the urban chicken-keepers? I wonder, having seen chicken coops carried now at Williams-Sonoma…

    • lee says:

      Yes, I think it’s a combination of the small market size and some opportunistic profit taking. Funny that they would charge you more for less medication, but I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The same strategies are used to price soft drinks and … well most things really.

  2. Leigh says:

    The system hates farmers because farmers have the potential to be independent. If we don’t need the system, they don’t make money off us!!!!! Personally, I can’t figure out if they’re pricing everything to try and deter us, or because they assume the real market is hobby farmers, with nothing better to spend their money on than gadgets for their showcase hobbies.

    As usual, great ingenuity Lee, and a well justified rant.

    • lee says:

      It seems the final stage in most capitalistic systems is for a small number of large scale producers to sell their goods to a large number of small consumers. We see this outcome in the mega farms, the music industry monopoly, the consolidated news media, and so forth. I don’t think the system hates small farmers / homesteaders in particular, but the outcome is much the same. Growing or making something on a small scale for only a single consumer (yourself) is pretty much the polar opposite of what the market favors.

      I can’t claim too much ingenuity with this one. I’ve seen it talked about on backyard chicken forums that the valve stems might work, so my post was more of a confirmation that it really does work. If I was feeling very clever, I would have come up with homemade portable geese fount for less than $50. 🙂

  3. Nita says:

    Yeah, it’s a hard profession when you have to buy everything at retail and try to sell your product…and then getting wholesale pricing is so difficult with many companies they force you to buy retail anyway out of frustration.

    We went through this paying too damn much for waterers (metal) and they lasted about two years, then we switched to the bell waterers from Plasson – hmmm the same $20.00 has lasted 16 years and counting this time. The only failure on them has been through negligence 😉 Simple, gravity flow, easy to adjust to bird height – I love them!

    Great fix!!

    • lee says:

      Yeah, I have to admit I use the term “farmer” loosely around here. I can’t imagine trying sell something for a profit at our present scale, especially considering all the infrastructure costs.

      I’ve admired those Plasson waterers online, but I’ve never looked into how they work. If we are talking about the same model, they look fairly complicated and I assumed they needed a pressurized line to work.

  4. Snowbrush says:

    Sounds like it’s time for an increase in egg prices.

    • lee says:

      I have to admit we’ve never tracked all our costs sufficiently to know if we are breaking even on egg sales. I’ve been keeping better records this summer, so that should change with this new batch of hens.

  5. Scrapple says:

    Nice idea on the valve.

    I’d imagine the free market has a hold of this one too, however illogical it may seem. Demand is lower for the larger ones (from a quantity perspective) and transportation costs are higher (wasted airspace in the empty tub). Lower demand and higher transportation costs equate to much higher prices. It might be two molded blobs of plastic, but if you’re cranking out 1 million of the small one and 10k of the large one you’re going to have a lot more capex and labor to spread across the large ones, particularly if you can cram all 1 million of the small ones on a container from China and 10k large ones take up similar amount of space. (all those numbers are made up, obviously, but it makes the point).

    Market dynamics don’t favor small farmers though, that’s for sure.

    • lee says:

      I’m sure you are right that there’s a logical explanation there if you can take into account all the factors. Still, I think someone is taking a healthy profit margin on this one.

  6. our $10 variety broke last week..a large hole developed in the top (under the handle)..but the whole thing is brittle now due to its summer location..

    We need a good winter solution which does not rely upon being heated. I would love to be able to use a version of your automatic waterer but the cold temps would send it to an early (watery) grave..or icy grave at least.

    • lee says:

      Our $10 waterer in the picture above had just broke before I took the picture. (That’s another reason we got the big one.) We used it as a hanging waterer off and on for years, and none of them seem to be designed to handle that.

      Our automatic waterer has frozen solid many times and not been worse for wear. The weak point in the design is really the plastic barrel. Our winters here are so mild that it almost always gets above freezing each day. A skin of ice forms inside the tank, but there’s too much water for it to freeze solid before the weather turns warmer again.

      For your situation, I wonder if anyone has ever built a chicken house with a Trombe wall. You’d have to insulate it and there would be ventilation problems to deal with, but it seems that the right setup could keep a coop above freezing in all but the cloudiest of weather.

  7. Ann says:

    Eric and I were looking at molding a really specialized plastic connector aimed for the high-end audio market. Milling the mold alone would have cost 10K.

    We shelved the project. Maybe we should look at making affordable chicken founts instead…

    • lee says:

      Wow, was the mold milled out of gold? 🙂

      I think that 3-D printers are going to seriously change the small volume market for many products. A decade from now, perhaps I’ll be posting free printable plans for a chicken waterer instead of just complaining that reasonably priced ones don’t exist.

  8. Ali says:

    Must we wait a whole decade? The 3D printer are very cool — saw one in action last year. They need a better name, though. Printer doesn’t do it justice.

    • lee says:

      If you have the money to burn, there’s no need to wait. There are nice consumer machines that can mold plastic for under $2k. Commercial machines that can mold ceramics and metal are still considerably more expensive. My “10 years” comment was just a guess at how long it will take for the price to drop sufficiently that they become common appliances in people’s homes. Whoever makes the first mass-market 3-D printer will come up with a better name. I’m betting on a “replicator” reference. 🙂

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