Winterize the Animal Watering System

Frozen and busted PVC watering lines.

Back when I built the chicken coop, I knew the most annoying part of keeping animals would be keeping the water filled and clean. Food is easy. Fill up the feeder once every 3-5 days and let them do their things, but the water has to stay clean to keep disease, flies, and dehydration at bay. Putting out a dog bowl of water works, but its dirty in 10 minutes and chickens walk in it, quail try to take baths in it, and rabbits poop in it, so that didn’t work for long.

I heard about these little metal and plastic nipple waterers that are similar to what youd see in a petstore hanging on the side of the gerbil cage, but they attach to PVC pipe and can water a number of different animals. So I decided to get some of those and create a system that would store water elsewhere and then run it into each of the animal pens, and then in each pen they would have access to a couple of the hanging nipple droppers. At first, I used a 5 gallon bucket, but in the heat of Texas summer that drains fast. We’ve got 5 chickens, 7 rabbits, and 30 quail, so that barely made it a day. So below I am going to outline our most recent setup for watering everything, and then I’m going to outline how it broke when it froze last week and how its now been winterized to prevent freezing.



Required Parts

For the watering reservoir, I went to my local feed store and bought a $40 food safe 55gallon plastic barrel and painted it black. Its solid, thick, lightweight, and clean.

The waterers are Saddle Style Oasis Poultry Water Nipples – I got a 10 pack. Make sure to get a few extra.


How to Build

The end of the run – looping back to run toward the reservoir.

The setup is as follows:

  1. The reservoir was painted all black to blend in a bit more than the bright blue that it came in.
  2. I built a stand for the reservoir to sit up on just outside the door to enter the chicken pen. It has to be up high because the whole system is powered by gravity, so the outlet at the bottom of the reservoir needs to be as high up as the tallest nipple waterer. If it’s lower, there will always be unused water at the bottom that cant get out and you lose some capacity. (I’ll try to make this clearer in the drawings)
  3. I drilled a hole towards the bottom of the barrel just big enough to put a 3/4″ pvc male connector through from the outside to the inside. If you can’t find an actual “bulkhead” fitting, youll need to make one. Its pretty simple. Essentially, its to mating pvc fittings but on each side of the barrel, you’ll need a rubber oring sandwiched in between. (Fitting-Oring-Barrel-Oring-Fitting). Then seal it all up with some silicone caulking.
Cementing PVC
If you haven’t cemented PVC together before, it’s really easy, but potentially messy, so wear some gloves. Start with the purple primer. Pull out the little ball applicator and run a ring of purple primer around the lips of fittings and the outside edge of the long pipe. Basically anywhere they will make contact. This stuff is slightly caustic and begins to melt and soften the edges of the PVC to make it seal together better, but it will also make your skin peel. Its not too painful, but it is annoying. Immediately after, even before the purple is completely dry, grab the applicator for the clear cement and run it around the inside edge of the fitting a couple of times. This stuff dries fast, so be ready to connect your pipe into the fitting immediately after putting the cement on. Press the pipe into the fitting and twist back and forth until its all the way seated. 
  1. From there, connect a long piece of 3/4″ pvc and cement it in, and begin running the pipe around the upper edge of the pens, cementing in pieces as you go, using 90 degree elbows where you need to keep the run up and out of the way. Try to keep the whole run mostly level and at the same plane all the way across. This allows even distribution of water and elimates low places where water can get stuck and become moldy over time. Originally, I used some T joints to save time and to create places where extra waterers could hang, and these work great in the summer, but this is where a majority of issues happen when it freezes and Ill explain that in the next section. For now, just trust me and stick with 90 degree elbows if you can.
  2. The original design snakes its way through the chicken, female rabbit, quail, and then male rabbit pens, and ends with a simple cap. If you’re not afraid of it freezing, feel free to end the run and call it a day.
  3. The little yellow plastic nipple waterers need to have a 3/8″ hole drilled for them underneath the PVC at the point you want them to hang. Drill that out, and then I like to apply a small amount of the PVC cement to the connection so that they wont eventually leak. These waterers last a good while, but over the last three years I’ve started to replace the bottom part. They are cheap, so its not a big deal, but you can save yourself some headache by cementing the top part in.

Watering line running through the quail pen. Notice the old pipe that has burst and is laying on the bottom of the cage.

This setup works really well, and my 50 gallon reservoir can literally last for weeks in the spring and fall, and nearly a week in the summer. Note: In camping books, I’ve read that water begins to be undrinkable after 20 days of being stagnant, so I will flush and refill if the water hasn’t been emptied by then.

The problem with this setup became apparent just a few days ago, when things got really cold all of a sudden and we had our first freeze of the year. Some of the parts of the system that were further away from the reservoir began to freeze up and the expanding of the ice inside the lines caused the PVC to fail and burst, which became apparent a few days later when it warmed up again and all the water immediately drained out and everyone was left with no water. It was also 2 days before my wife and I were leaving town for 2 weeks so I had to scramble to get this put back together. On to the winterizing:

  1. I repaired all the burst sections with new pipe and recreated the original design.
  2. At the end of the run, I cut off the cap and continued to add new pipe and retraced the whole first line back to the reservoir. The new line runs just a few inches off to the side of the first line, but doesn’t have any waterers drilled into it. Its purpose is to form a long loop of water back to the reservoir.
  3. The new line connects back to the reservoir in a newly drilled hole and bulkhead fitting, done in the same manner as the first, and sealed with silicone caulking.
  4. Water inlet/outlet, Aquarium Heater, and Aquarium Pump in the bottom of the reservoir. Notice the flow of water coming out the water outlet.

    Here’s where the magic comes in: In the reservoir, I put a 100w aquarium heater and a small, 160gph fountain pump threaded onto the new inlet into the aquarium. It uses small hose clamps to attach the pump to a plastic fitting by a 3/8″ length of tubing, and then that fitting screws into the 3/4″ PVC female end piece. I wasn’t sure if a pump this small would be able to push enough water through this much pipe (my setup is roughly 16′ down and 16′ back up again to the reservoir, but everything is roughly at the same level height-wise, so it worked out ok.)Pumps are measured in output by “head”, which is measured in feet above the top of the pump. So if a pump can push 160 gallons per hour out the pump at base level, it may be only to push out 100gph at 1′ of head, or 50gph at 2′ of head. If you have planned out your setup to maintain a constant level down and back again, you should still get really good flow, even with a low powered pump. Water doesn’t have to be flying around the track, it just has to be moving slowly. In fact, I think too much pressure could push water out of the waterers, so be careful of that.

  5. Both the pump and the heater are wired into a thermocube switch, which is plugged into an extension cord and connected back to my outdoor outlet that everything else is plugged into in the garden. (The watering timer, pond pump, and the lights on the fence). The thermocube switch monitors the ambient temperature and will supply power when the temperature drops below 40 degrees, so the heater and the pump will begin to simultaneously heat the water, and circulate the water through the system, when the system is in danger of freezing.

So unless you live somewhere where its so cold that the water could freeze in the 45 seconds it takes to make a round through the piping, you’re going to have a solid supply of fresh, nonfreezing water for your animals all winter long. And if you live somewhere much colder, you could beef up the system in one of three ways.

  1. Don’t use the thermocube and just allow the aquarium heater to stay on all the time. This way, the water is warmer when the temperature starts to drop and its not already 40 degrees when it cuts on.
  2. Get a larger aquarium heater. A 100w heater is rated for 25 gallons, but that’s assuming its inside and trying to keep the water liveable for fish at 70 degrees. I figured it would be ok for just trying to keep the water outside from freezing, but it will likely be working overtime in the coldest parts of the winter. A 150w heater is rated for 40 gallons, a 200w heater for 50 gallons, and a 300w heater for 75 gallons, so get what you think you will need. If my 100w heater turns out not to be enough heat in the dead of winter, I will update this post.
  3. Get a stronger/faster aquarium pump. 160gph is pretty small. Tabletop fountain level small. Any larger sized pond pump could easily increase the speed and vigor with which water pulses through the system. For instance, I could have used the 600gph pump I have as a fountain in the small pond nearby, but I thought that would be overkill.

Likely, your best bet for colder weather is getting a larger heater, but you can always start small and get a second one later. They are not very expensive.

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