Keeping Water Troughs Thawed With or Without a Heater

One equine nutritionist offers tips and asks for your input on dealing with ice in horse watering tanks.
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keeping water troughs thawed; Keeping Water Troughs Thawed With or Without a Heater
Place your water trough in such a way that it receives as much full sun as possible. | Photo: Jennifer Whittle/The Horse

Q. Winter has barely started, and I’m already tired of breaking ice in my horses’ water trough. Is there anything I can do to help stop the water from freezing other than some kind of water heater?

—Via e-mail

A. We all know how important it is for our horses to have ready access to water, but this can pose challenges when temperatures fall below freezing and you’re unable to use a water heater. It’s a lot of, literally, digit-numbing work and sometimes near impossible to break the ice when temperatures fall. There are some things you can try that might help. However, keep in mind that many of these are less effective as temperatures decrease.

1. Locate your trough for sun exposure.

Place your trough in such a way that it receives as much full sun as possible. Many northern areas might not see much winter sun, but placing the tank in a south-facing area will increase the odds of as much sunlight as possible during daylight hours. Also, consider whether a shaded area is a good idea. While some shade, for example the overhang of a building, might offer some protection from cold overnight, it likely means less sun exposure during the day. If you live in an area where the trough will freeze whether it is under some kind of shade or not, I would place it where it will get the most daytime sunlight.

2. Insulate your trough.

Obviously this helps keep the exterior cold out and the interior warmth of the water in. Styrofoam board and/or foil covered insulation works well and can be wrapped around the outside of the trough. What works even better is putting one trough inside another, with a gap of a couple of inches all the way around. Then, place insulation on the bottom between the two troughs and around the outside of the interior trough. Finally, fill any gaps with spray insulation that sets hard. You can also build a plywood box, line it with insulation, and put your trough inside it.

Ideally, the top of the trough also needs to be insulated with just enough surface exposed for the horses to drink. A plywood lid with the underside covered in insulation works well.

Online resources for those living off the grid have useful information about how to build insulated troughs and use passive solar heating to reduce freezing. Some report that this is an effective method down to -10° Fahrenheit.

3. Place a float in the trough.

Floating something in the trough helps in a couple of ways. First, it keeps the surface of the water moving as it bobs about, making it more difficult to freeze. Second, if the horses learn to depress the floating object, it will expose an open area in the ice so they can drink. I have seen this done with soccer balls, but another tactic is to fill an empty two-liter soda bottle two-thirds full with water and 1 to 2 cups of salt dissolved and seal tightly. There is enough air in the bottle for it to float, and salt water freezes at a lower temperature than the water in the trough, so the water keeps moving. These methods receive mixed reviews. Some people swear by them, while others find they don’t work at all.

4. Bury your trough.

If your ground is frozen it is likely too late this year, but digging a hole for your trough and sinking it into the ground might help by insulating it. Again, this is going to depend on where you live and how deep down your ground freezes. I read one account from someone living in North Dakota who used a fence post auger to dig a 12-inch hole several feet deep under their water trough. Apparently the heat rising from deep within the earth helped prevent the trough from freezing.

5. Heat your trough.

Heated Water Trough Safety
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Ultimately, you might need to break down and heat your trough. There are several options, including battery, electric, or propane heaters. But before trying these you could try putting manure under your trough. Composting manure generates heat, and the thinking is that if you have a several-inches-thick layer of manure under your trough, as it breaks down it will help warm the trough.

If you decide to use a battery, electric, or propane water-heating element, be sure to install it safely. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, be sure to keep all cables out of the way, and have no connections near water. Definitely consider having a lid on the trough, as it will not only help keep the heat in but also help prevent your horse from accessing the heating element.

Actively heating your trough in combination with one or more of the above ideas will likely reduce energy costs.

Regardless of what methods you decide to try, you should still work on the assumption that you will need to check water at least twice a day to ensure availability during cold weather.

If you have creative ideas on how to help prevent troughs and buckets freezing, we’d love to read about them in the comments below.

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

6 Responses

  1. With our backhoe we did 4ft deep and as wide and long as the water tank and fill with fresh manure, bank around the sides leaving one area excessible for drinking, even with below zero temps and brutal wind chills our tanks remain ice free, occasionally a thin layer of soft ice on top is easily broken up and removed with a plastic manure fork,
    I maintain 4 -100gal tanks and 1- 150 gal tank all winter pretty much care free, if any cleaning is necessary, usually all is needed is a siphon hose you can find at most any ag store, or any place that carries gas siphon hoses
    Tank easily comes up out of the pocket formed in the manure if a major clean is necessary
    Let your horses heat from their manure work for you

  2. Nest a smaller tank inside a larger, with bottom shims that will bring the smaller rim plywood-thickness above the larger. Cut a plywood rim that just barely allows the smaller one to sit on its rim, but spans the rim of the larger tank. Oil-paint that plywood rim shiny black. Fill the inside edges of the larger tank with any insulating material, but be sure to bag anything styrofoam or fiberglass, so that the larger tank will still be usable. Cut a fitting lid for overnight. We use this in NW CO, need almost no heating. I would add a picture if it were possible here, but no luck posting it.

  3. A lot of good ideas but for several of them I have a question. How do you clean the trough? I use water heaters so I can clean the water troughs as needed.

  4. I use several methods here in Maine to keep my tank unfrozen. I do have an in tank heater, but just plug it in for an hour or 2 in the morning while I am in barn doing chores. I have placed a floating plastic rectangle from a Jaclyn Smith step exercise set in the tank to help keep too much heat from escaping from the water surface. I use this float all seasons, it also helps keep water cooler in summer. The horses just push it to one side or drink thru a hole in the float. I also cover the tank w/ an old insulated horse blanket at night, when horses are in barn. These methods are pretty easy, require a minimum of electricity, and have been working for me for 25+ years.

  5. We use Watering Posts which, I believe, originated in Canada. Installation requires trenching down to place water pipes below your frost line which in our case in Eastern Washington can be four feet but we go five. The watering post is based on the principal of a frost free valve. The animal (we have cows too) pushes on a paddle in the “post” which releases water into the small bowl. Water continues to flow until the animal lets up on the paddle. The excess water flows back down the pipe and exits into the unfrozen ground below. The animals have water to drink which is at the unfrozen ground temperature. In our case that is 56 degrees F in all seasons. Most horses can learn to use it in less than two hours. The advantages; there are no tubs to clean, no electricity used and the water temperature is well above freezing. The disadvantage; in a power outage which shuts down your well pump a generator is needed to keep your whole water system running. We love them. Fewer barn chores and more time to ride!

  6. Clair, I have had good luck with constant flow waterers for temperatures well below zero Fahrenheit or -20 C. Setting up a small petcock valve to spray a tiny stream of water, enough to break the surface tension of the water and plumb a pipe to carry the overflow away through buried pvc perforated pipe used in drain fields works well. Insulating half of the exposed surface area helps too. The added benefit of not having an electrical system short out in the water tank’s heater and dissuade horses from drinking is something to consider. I’ve also found that it’s cheaper to run a little water than it is a lot of electricity.

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