An Introduction to Automatic Waterers

Do you really want to wrestle with frozen hoses? Here’s what to know about automatic waterers.

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An Introduction to Automatic Waterers
Automatic waterers can relieve many of the headaches associated with tanks and buckets. | Photo: Courtesy Nelson Manufacturing

Because do you really want to wrestle with frozen hoses?

After scrubbing out algae and insect larvae and dragging hoses to fill stock tanks almost daily during summer, horse owners now get to look forward to winter water woes. Those consist of breaking ice out of buckets sometimes multiple times daily, wrestling with frozen hoses, and replacing failed heaters.

Those owners well-familiar with these inconveniences, along with the trudging back and forth between warm house and cold barn, only to have gloves and hands soaked and chilled by the time the watering is done, could be looking for a reprieve this season.   

It might be time to think about automatic waterers. They can relieve many of the headaches associated with tanks and buckets. But, as with everything, they pose pros and cons. Let’s explore them.

In a Nutshell, the Benefits

  • Automatic waterers offer several benefits for caretakers and their horses. Among them:
  • You can save time.
  • You don’t have to fill, lift, and lug buckets.
  • You don’t have to fill large-capacity stock tanks.
  • You don’t have to wrestle with or thaw hoses.
  • Water stays cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
  • Water stays cleaner.
  • You aren’t wasting precious resources when water in stock tanks evaporates in dry climates or hot weather, or when gallons get dumped for cleaning.
  • If they’re heated, you don’t have to worry about breaking ice.

Concerns and Things to Know

Things can go wrong with any product, including automatic waterers. Therefore, check for a good warranty before you buy. Automatic waterers have been around for a long time and have evolved tremendously. These days, many problems owners encounter can be blamed on the nature of our beasts and our own habits. Among their common objections:

Waterers require daily attention. “Automatic waterers tend to be out-of–sight, out-of-mind,” says Kevin Kline, extension horse specialist with the University of Illinois in Urbana. But they shouldn’t be.

“Horse owners need to pay close attention to them,” says Kathy Anderson, PhD, extension horse specialist with the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. “One good rule of thumb is that if the horse is looking at it (rather than drinking), then you should also. Generally there is something wrong with it.”

Some horses, for example, are very good at dirtying their water supply. “We had one horse whose waterer had to be cleaned daily, as he had a bad habit of backing into it every day and defecating in it,” she says.

Bridgett McIntosh, PhD, assistant professor and extension equine specialist with the University of Tennessee, strongly recommends checking waterers daily to ensure each is functioning properly. Have a backup plan in case one does stop functioning.  

Some waterers don’t have safe edges. Most modern automatic waterers feature smooth, round edges for animal safety. However, older waterers could pose problems. Kline says it’s important to check for sharp edges that might injure horses. He recalled one horse that cut his tendon at the hock when he ran into his waterer’s metal edge.  

You might need a meter to track water intake. McIntosh advises that if water intake is a concern because a horse is sick or weather conditions are extreme, purchase a unit with a meter. If a metered waterer is not an option, she suggests using buckets or troughs until the need to monitor intake passes.

Waterers don’t fit all situations. Automatic waterers might not suit all needs. Because they are permanent fixtures they might not accommodate, for example, some rotational grazing situations.

Setup means added expense and work. Setting up an automatic waterer involves digging a trench, running and hooking up power and water lines below the frost line, and installing pipes, gravel, and concrete pads (to prevent mud around the unit). Some property owners might not have the proper installation equipment and must rent it or hire someone to do the work.

Problems can occur if you don’t follow the manufacturer’s directions. Nearly 95% of the problems people have with waterers can be attributed to a common cause, says Tom Dowd, customer service supervisor for Nelson Manufacturing: “People don’t read the instructions,” he says. “If they set things up the way we recommend, they should not have problems.”  

To help with proper setup, several manufacturers now offer online videos that guide customers through the installation process.

How to Teach a Horse to Drink from an Automatic Waterer
Photo: Courtesy Ritchie Industries

So Many Choices

Today’s marketplace offers a variety of automatic waterers at several price points, from about $300 to $800.

Ruth Peterson, marketing manager for Ritchie Industries, says the company’s Stall Fount series provides “individual stalls with a constant supply of water in flush (to the wall) or corner mount options. Each unit is available in heated and nonheated versions.  

“For the outdoors, we manufacture waterers that can withstand the dry, hot temperatures of the South with little water waste,” says Peterson, “to units that feature overall heat coverage for the extreme cold of the North.”

She says the insulated casing keeps the waterer energy-efficient enough that some energy companies have offered rebates for its purchase. “Ritchie automatic waterers often pay for themselves from energy savings alone (over what a corded tank heater uses), as they cost only pennies a day to heat,” she notes.

Because many customers have 20-plus-year-old units, Peterson says Ritchie keeps its current or upgraded parts interchangeable with older units to ensure continuous use.

Among the choices from Nelson Manufacturing is its economical 900 series waterer for stall use. It has a no-rust cast aluminum housing and an impact-resistant plastic drinking bowl with a removable drain plug, so you can empty reservoir water for cleaning.  

Nelson’s 300 series includes two models with stainless steel or aluminum housing. These feature a rust-free flip-top stainless steel drinking bowl with a gravity-actuated water valve to replenish water while the horse drinks. A thermostat-controlled immersion-style heater is available for freeze protection.

The company’s 700 series is comprised of eight models with three mounting options in aircraft-grade aluminum or stainless steel. These nonsiphoning (allowing free flow of water without overflowing) waterers feature a water valve that eliminates the toilet tank-style floats or paddles that Dowd says can stick or bounce up and down. Options also include a heater that never touches water or metal and a water consumption indicator.  

“They’re very efficient,” explains Dowd. “For the 730 model, at 0$deg;F, if it runs 10 minutes an hour and your electric rate is 14.5 cents per kilowatt, that’s a little over 18 cents a day.”

Nonelectric Offerings

Some owners have concerns about mixing water, electricity, and horses. For them, the marketplace offers nonelectric alternatives.

The Bar-Bar-A automatic waterer, for example, operates much like a freeze-proof hydrant (that in which the valves are installed far enough below ground that freezing does not occur). Only 20 psi of water pressure is needed to send water flowing to the unit, says David Anderson, director of product management.  

Electricity is not needed because the unit either fills or drains based on the pressure a horse applies to a paddle at the top. It does not hold any water.  

“Anything electric can malfunction or develop a short in the workings,” Anderson says. “Heating elements that people put in their water tanks, for example, are notorious for shorting out. The short can be so mild that human hands cannot detect it. But horses are extremely sensitive to electricity and will avoid any water that has even the slightest buzz of electricity.”

Horse owner savings by not having to use electricity can be significant, says Anderson. He estimates that heating elements dropped into water tanks tack about $40 a month onto electric bills, and automatic electric waterers cost $5 to $15 a month.  

He notes that his nonelectric units also reduce the amount of water used: “There is no evaporation because there is no standing water.”  

The Bar-Bar-A is designed to be self-cleaning, he notes. A filter inside the unit catches any hay particles from the horse’s mouth. When the horse comes back to drink, the filter pushes the particles back up into the bowl and they are consumed. The give-and-take pattern cycles throughout the day, keeping the system clean.  

Most of the unit is made of polycarbonate and has no sharp edges, he says. The paddle is submerged into the drinking bowl so the horse cannot contact the edges, which are smooth and rounded.

Anderson says one of the things that makes his product unique is that after the unit is buried in the ground, any maintenance, including the annual task of cleaning the filter, can be conducted at ground level. “The customer does not need to dig up the unit,” he says.

Getting Horses Accustomed to Waterers

Some horses might play in them. Some might be afraid of them at first. But most people report few problems getting horses to drink from automatic waterers.

“Watch timid horses closely to be sure they learn how to use the waterer,” says Anderson, who initially provides a bucket of water alongside the waterer, but gradually removes it to encourage the horse to learn to use the automatic one.

“If horses are unaccustomed to covered ball-type water systems,” says McIntosh, “you may have to remove the ball for a few days until the horses are used to drinking from the unit. While the ball reduces debris, the trough can still become contaminated and should be checked and cleaned regularly.”

Helpful Hints

Now that you’re familiar with your automatic watering options, the benefits they offer, and challenges they pose, here are some source-provided and approved tips to keep in mind when choosing or installing a unit:

  • Select water systems indicated for use with horses. Some waterers made for other types of livestock might have holes or trough sizes too small for horses.
  • When choosing a waterer, check for maintenance needs. Some might need to be cleaned every day, others every three days in summer to prevent mosquito breeding, and some are self-cleaning.  
  • Provide enough waterers for your herd. Check with manufacturers regarding recommended number of head per waterer.
  • Install waterers on nonslip concrete pads surrounded by heavy-use footing to prevent mud and erosion from high animal traffic.  
  • Install a step in the concrete pad around the waterer. Horses are less likely to defecate in the waterer with their hindquarters raised.
  • Install stall waterers at equine chest height to ensure horses can drink with a comfortable head position and to help keep the waterer free from manure and debris.
  • Install individual shutoffs for water lines and electric lines in case of malfunction.
  • Because these are permanent fixtures, proper positioning is important. Make sure you don’t place waterers near structure overhangs where rain or snow melts might land.


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