First a confession: I am a gadget-project type of guy, meaning I tend to make things using the best design I can think up despite the overall cost. I always like to re-use something I already have laying around, but I also derive personal satisfaction in producing something that fully solves most or all the shortcomings of whatever it was I was using previously.
That being said, I got tired of cleaning out the water fount. The chooks like to take dust baths and no matter what I did, they would manage to kick debris into the fount. The fount also seemed to take up a lot of space in my chicken tractor, not to mention that if I moved the tractor I would have to take the fount out and then put it back in. An attached, enclosed watering system is what I really needed.
So, I came up with a simple PVC waterer I call the Water Cross. It uses 2" PVC pipe and fittings, a water nipple, and an immersible aquarium water heater. It is attached to the hen house, so moves with the coop, and is also filled from outside the coop.
The Water Cross is attached to the hen house with three pipe hangers and holds almost exactly one gallon of water. This is enough for about one week for our four hens. I did not want too much water capacity as I thought it would cause the water to go stagnant and scuz up in the summer heat. The water fill is outside the coop for convenience.
While I used a Brite Tap nipple waterer in the original design, it tended to freeze up in temperatures starting in the mid to low 20's. I think this was due to the narrow neck in the Brite Tap that isolated the water in it too far away from the heat source. I therefore modified the design by getting rid of a the Brite Tap altogether and tapping a nipple directly into a piece of clear PVC and placing the aquarium heater right above it (please see pictures at the end of article). I put a clean out plug at the end of this tube to allow insertion of the heater and also to clean the waterer when needed.
I used a 50 watt aquarium water heater that is fully immersible (not all are). It is set on its highest heat setting and plugged in to a thermocube, so it only comes on in near freezing conditions. The heater I bought also will cut off if run dry to keep it from burning out if the waterer is empty for some reason. Since I am such a gadget nerd I bought a one foot piece of clear PVC so I can see the heater and also monitor water level when it gets low.
I cut a slot at the top of the Water Cross for the heater cord to pass out and also allow use of an end cap to keep out dust. The small gap where the cord exits is the only hole necessary to allow air into the waterer.
So, the Water Cross has eliminated my daily fount cleaning chore. It is also attaches to the coop tractor so moves with it, is filled from outside, and has anti-freeze protection. It should also be fairly easy to clean when necessary because of the removable filler and heater end caps. You can very easily customize this design to fit your coop and water capacity needs. Here is a list of items used on this waterer and some prices:
2" PVC Pipe Schedule 40 (one 10' piece)
2" Clear PVC Pipe Schedule 40 UV rated (one foot piece) - $7.81 + shipping, FlexPVC.com
BriteTap Waterer - $29.95 + shipping, chickenwaterer.com (deleted in design update - replaced with one water nipple purchased on ebay)
Hydor THEO Submersible Aquarium Heater 50W - $20.79 with shipping, Amazon.com (upped to 100w in design update)
Thermocube - $12.50, Amazon.com
(1) Cross Tee, (1) 45 Elbow, (3) End Caps, (1) 90 Slip Elbow, (2) Adaptors, (1)Threaded Plug, (3) Couplings, (3) pipe hangers.
Ok, so this may be the world's most expensive chicken watering device, but I hope this still gives you some ideas about an attached watering system for your chicken tractor!
Design Modification Update -
I've had this water in use since last winter (2013) and it has been great - I can fill it from outside the coop and it only needs a flush and cleaning every month or so, if that. 2014 report: Since my design change (as can be seen in the pictures below) the waterer has stayed completely ice free. When the weather first dipped into the mid-teens during our stint with the "Polar Vortex", the nipple did freeze just enough to keep it from working. Once I unjammed it, it has not re-frozen, even though we have had repeated nights as cold or colder than the first one. I think what happened is as the temperatures dipped, the nipple, which always leaks enough to have a drop of water at the tip, froze before the heater kicked on. Then, the 50 watt heater did not have enough oomph to unfreeze it. I am going to eventually replace the 50 with a 100 watt heater. That should do it. I probably should have started with the 100 watt heater in the first place - it was almost the exact same price as the 50 on Amazon. I think this brand of heater goes all the way up to 300 watts, but the heater length increases as you go up in wattage, so that needs to be taken into account when doing this design. Those of you with chicken tractors will probably like this design since it is attached to the coop.