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Water Buckets for Cold Weather

Many people living in colder climates have trouble keeping the stall water buckets from freezing in unheated barns. They're forced to constantly break the ice forming on the water's surface at least once a day throughout the cold winter. To attempt to solve this problem for barn owners, manufacturers have created products over the years to keep the water from freezing. The two most common products seen are insulated buckets and electrically heated buckets.

Insulated buckets
Manufacturers don't guarantee that insulated buckets will never freeze because they can't. That doesn't mean the buckets don't work well. There are just too many variables. But a little physics explains the limit of any insulated product.

Insulation of any kind limits the movement of heat. The more insulation you have, the slower heat will move through that insulated area. So, the water in a simple steel bucket is going to freeze the fastest whereas the same amount of water in a less heat-conductive bucket (e.g. styrofoam) will remain liquid much longer. BUT, heat will continue to move the walls of an insulated bucket until equilibrium is reached. The flow of heat from the water to the cold cannot be stopped, only slowed. For any level of insulation, the colder the temperature, the faster the heat will move to it. The longer the water stays in any below-freezing air, the more likely it is to freeze. And the colder the water placed into the bucket initially, the less heat it has to lose to freeze.

So, to get practical use of an insulated water bucket, do the following:

  1. The larger the R-value (resistance to heat flow) of the bucket, the longer the water will remain liquid in a freezing environment. This usually means the thicker the insulated bucket walls, the longer the water won't freeze. Therefore, buy a bucket with enough insulation that the water should remain liquid in your climate for at least 24 hours. Selecting a bucket designed for an even longer period than this is even better because it provides some additional insurance if the days/nights are colder than usual or you can't refill the bucket within 24 hours;
  2. Fill the bucket to within an inch or two of the top. With more water in the bucket, it will remain liquid for a longer period of time due the greater amount of heat present in that water;
  3. Put tap-temperature (usually around 50 - 55°F) water in the bucket when filling it — NOT colder water. If you use heated water, it will remain liquid even longer. But with copper plumbing, more lead will leach out of the solder and into the water as the water temperature increases; and
  4. Make sure to remove the prior day's water and replace it with fresh tap water each day. That will remove water that has cooled down even further and bring you back up to tap water temperature.
Insulated buckets properly chosen for the amount of cold in your area and properly and timely refilled should work well.

Electrically Heated Buckets
Electric buckets generate their own heat. As such, they don't have the time limitations of non-heated insulated buckets because the heat is replenished. Electric buckets are also insulated so as to keep your electricity costs of using this product lower. The insulation slows the leakage of heat away from the water, so you don't have to supply as much heat electrically to keep the water from freezing.

When buying a heated bucket, buy a good one. It'll be more expensive, but the chance of an electrical fault electrifying the water is less with a good quality bucket. That risk is the only problem I have with electric buckets — they can fault and shock your horse(s). Fortunately, most of the manufacturers of these buckets take extra precautions, such using thicker electrical insulation around the bucket to reduce the chances of this happening. If you're considering getting electric buckets and want to get some idea as to what they'll cost to run, read Electricity Costs for Heated Water Buckets.

You can also buy bucket heaters for existing water buckets, but I don't like that approach. This is especially bad with metal buckets which don't insulate well and can provide an even better electrical path to your horse. The heaters I've seen don't appear to be thick enough to stop a horse from biting through and into the electrical conductors. There may be better ones, but I've not seen any to be able to recommend them.

And whatever you do, DO NOT use a glass aquarium heater for your horse's water bucket. Horses are rough eaters at best, and can easily break such tubes. That will cause them to drink water containing broken glass as well as electrocute themselves when the heating element is touched by the water.

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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