How can I keep livestock water from freezing?

Answer: There are several ways to keep watering tanks open and storage tanks from freezing. Each livestock watering situation is unique, so you’ll need to tailor a solution to your site, weather, and terrain. Following are some ideas.

1. Pump water into a large, enclosed storage tank at a higher elevation. You should insulate the tank in some way, bury it, or mound dirt up around it. If the tank is exposed, paint it black to absorb the sun’s heat during the day. From the storage tank, run a buried line to supply the watering tanks by gravity and control this flow with a float valve. You may want to use a thermostatically controlled float valve that opens when temperatures drop below a certain point. You can position some of these valves so that they direct water around the outside of the watering tank to keep water open for stock. You can also pump water into the storage tank during the day, so that it will continuously trickle into the watering tank at night and on cloudy days. The watering tank will need an overflow drainfield.

2. If a storage tank is not an option, you can use a solar pumping system to fill the watering tank directly during the day. Make a small hole that allows the tank to drain slowly at night to keep water moving.

3. You can use large heavy-equipment tires as watering tanks. These help keep water open since they are black and absorb heat from the sun. They are also flexible enough not to crack if freezing occurs. These tires are often free for the taking and they are very tough and can take abuse from animals.

4. Much of the heat loss from a watering tank occurs at the surface of the water. You can reduce this heat loss considerably by placing an insulated cover over a large part of the surface area of the tank. Provide openings around the edge where animals can drink. You can also insulate the sides of watering tanks with insulation material, sawdust, or wood chips. Partially burying a watering tank, or berming it with earth, takes advantage of the ground’s warmth to prevent freezing.

5. Another way to make use of underground warmth is to install a culvert with a sealed bottom under the tank. You can circulate water from the culvert into the tank with a separate small-wattage solar-powered pump. This system requires a battery bank to allow for night use. You’ll need to put the batteries in a non-freezing area, perhaps on a platform above the water level in the culvert.

6. You can use a special in-tank propane heater to keep water from freezing.

7. Innovative producers have experimented with building solar-heated air or water collectors on their tanks. A system such as this uses the sun’s heat to keep the tank from freezing.

8. Another way to use propane is to run a ¼-inch copper tube from the regulator into the water tank and crack the propane valve open slightly, just enough to allow small bubbles to flow from the tube. The bubbling action will keep water open at the spot it emerges from the water. A propane tank will last over a month if used in this manner. The livestock waterer should be placed where the propane can disperse easily by wind so to prevent an accumulation of propane gas. A propane bubbler can be constructed from materials acquired at your hardware store for about $90. If you have an old propane bottle, you can have it filled and save about half that.

Materials list and approximate cost:
20-pound propone tank new, $60 to 90
Regulator, $10 to $15
Adaptor fittings (2), $5
Copper tubing, ¼-inch length cut as necessary

Adaptor fittings go on each side of the regulator and connect the bottle valve to the regulator and the regulator to the tubing. The fitting from the bottle valve to the adaptor will have a large, reverse-thread male gas fitting on one side (to match the internal threads on the bottle valve) and a tattered pipe thread fitting on the other side. The pipe thread will be a male thread, ¼ or 3/8 inches in nominal pipe size. The adaptor fitting that connects the regulator to the tubing will be a ¼ or 3/8 male pipe thread on one side, which corresponds to the female threads in the regulator. The regulator will have an arrow pointing in the direction of flow stamped onto the regulator body. On the other side of the fitting will be a ¼ or 3/8 inch compression fitting to connect to the tubing (depending on the size of tubing you choose).

It is advised to construct a protective device to cover the tank and shield the tubing, to keep livestock from trampling and damaging the bottle, regulator, or tubing.

A variation on item 5 above is to use an insulated livestock waterer in the manner suggested by Alberta Agriculture. They have tested low-input, energy-free livestock water-delivery and heating technology that relies on geothermal heat to keep water open during cold weather, as low as -15° F. For a report on the construction, use, and maintenance of this system, see the publication Energy Free Water Fountains.

Here are some additional resources that you should find helpful:

Freeze Protection for Livestock Watering Systems
This ATTRA publication offers several suggestions for keeping water open in winter.

Solar-Powered Livestock Watering Systems
This ATTRA publication gives an introduction to solar-powered livestock-watering systems, including discussions of cost, components, and terminology, as well as some suggestions for designing and installing these systems.

Field Study of Electrically Heated and Energy Free Automated Livestock Water Fountains, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
This report presents summary findings of tests to assess the dependability of energy-free water fountains under Western Canadian winter conditions,

Build it Solar, a Renewable Energy Site for Do-it-yourselfers
Website includes resources for heating water for animals, including solar-heated tanks.

MiraFount Livestock Water Systems
Manufacturer of energy-free livestock watering systems.

Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply
Source of MiraFount products.

Note: the mention of brand-name products, manufacturers, or retailers is for educational purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by ATTRA, NCAT, or USDA.