Energy Free Water Fountains

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 From 1990 to 1993 PAMI compared 3 energy free livestock water fountains and 4 electrically heated ones. Here's what we found.
Note: All prices are quoted for 1993

Do energy free fountains work?
Energy free fountains come in a variety of styles and offer different combinations of features. In PAMI tests, only 1 fountain didn't measure up in a Canadian prairie winter. Average temperature during the test period of 22 weeks was 12F (-11C), with average temperatures as low as -15F (-26C) over a 4 week period.

Energy free water fountains do work in cold prairie winters, but certain critical conditions must be met.

Here' s a checklist:

They must be properly designed.
Find out where the fountain was manufactured. Some are designed for milder winters, but can't be relied on during sustained periods of cold.

They must be properly installed.
Close attention to proper installation will help ensure trouble free operation. See the Installation Tips.

They must be properly maintained.
You'll want to do daily checks on the fountain, especially in extreme cold. Animals are sloppy drinkers, so run off from their mouths tends to freeze up the drinker lids. Routinely chipping this ice away helps ensure an uninterrupted water supply to your animals. See the Maintenance Schedule.

They must be properly adjusted.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions to properly adjust the water level in your particular fountain.

The fountain must be properly sized.
A properly sized water fountain for your herd is important. Too few animals drinking from a fountain that is too large can lead to freeze up. See the energy free fountain sizing guide.

The fountain must be used regularly.
If livestock are removed, the water supply must be shut off, and the valve and water bowl drained to prevent freeze up.

The ground water temperature must be warm enough.
In PAMI tests, the ground water came from a well and the temperature remained constant at around 45F (7C). Dugout water or other sources of surface water would likely be colder, and may be risky.

How do they work?
Energy free fountains are closed, insulated containers filled with water. The walls of the containers are constructed of double walled, durable plastic. The space between the walls is filled with insulation, acting like a thermos in that they slow down the cooling of water.

Energy free fountains use available heat (called geo-thermal heat) from the ground below the frost line. Ground water enters the fountain through a float valve assembly at ground temperature, usually about 45F (7C). Ground water acts as the fountain's heat source. The water slowly cools, but as an animal drinks from the fountain, warmer ground water replenishes the fountain. This continual exchange of warm water for cold provides heat to offset the effects of cooling.

Are energy free fountains cheaper to operate?
While energy free fountains may save you money on power, they tend to cost more than heated fountains to buy.
The purchase prices of the energy free fountains tested by PAMI ranged from $475.00 to $930.00, while heated fountains ranged from $280.00 to $475.00.

Energy savings ranged from $24.00 per year when compared to the most efficient heated fountain, to $100.00 per year compared to the most power hungry fountain. These savings are based on energy costs of 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour. If you live in a region with higher energy costs, the savings would be greater.

The energy graph below gives a projection of costs for energy free fountains versus heated fountains for a 5 year period, including the initial purchase price. This graph assumes energy rates of 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour, excluding the cost of heat tape on the heated fountains. Based on these costs and assuming a heat tape is on for half of a 6 month season, energy costs for heat tape would add about $9.00 for an average winter.
Energy free fountains may be cheaper to install since you don't need to trench in power lines.

Fountain fact
Energy free fountains have less algae build up and supply cooler water than heated fountains during the summer.

Cost/time graph for energy free versus heated water fountains

Can I replace my heated fountain with an energy free unit?
You can, but you'll still need to wrap the water supply line with heat tape, and maintain the ice build up on a daily basis.

Most heated installations have smaller heat riser pipes and less insulation, hence the heat tape requirement.

If you don't have insulation between the ground and concrete base, faster cooling may occur.

Will animals learn to drink from energy free fountains?
PAMI's tests were conducted using young bulls. Approximately 150 animals used the energy free fountains. (See the fountain sizing guide.) Animals need to learn that pushing down on the floating lids or lifting hinged lids (depending on design) gives access to water.

Only one animal had difficulty learning how to access the floating drinker lids. This animal was moved to another pen where it encountered no difficulty drinking from a heated fountain, but you may not have this luxury. Giving this bull a little assistance probably would have solved the problem.

PAMI did not test the fountains with other types of livestock.

Energy Free Fountain Sizing Guide (based on manufacturer's recommendations)

10 gal (45 L)
12 gal (55 L)
35 gal (160 L)*
* Fountains in this size range should allow access by up to 4 animals at a time.

Fountain fact
Cool down tests on 1 energy free fountain showed that it could go unaccessed for about 20 hours at -4F (-20C) before freeze up was imminent.

Installation tips
1. Ground riser pipes should be at least 14 in (360 mm) in diameter. One manufacturer recommended an 8 in (200 mm) riser. This was too small and the unit froze up twice.

2. Some tests have shown a benefit to insulating the top 3-4 ft (1 m) of riser pipe. If you do, it must be insulated with a material that does not absorb moisture.

3. Make sure the water supply line does not touch the sides of the riser pipe.

4. Insulation between the concrete pad and the ground will help slow down cooling. Make sure the base is level so that float valves and floating lids function properly.

5. Install drainage tile that slopes away from the bottom of the riser pipe if your soil is poorly drained. This will ensure adequate drainage of water that may collect from the fountain overflow pipe.

An energy free fountain maintenance schedule.
Clear ice build up from drinker lidsClear ice build up around baseInspect unit for damage caused by animals
Ensure lids are moving freelyCheck water levels
Check float for proper operation
Clean out debris

Keeping out the cold
Most energy free fountains separate into 2 pieces - top and bottom half. The type of joint between the two pieces can dramatically affect cooling characteristics. Look for a lapp joint. A butt joint can let in too much cold air.

Energy free maintenance tip
In case of a power failure, keep livestock away from the fountain so they can't empty it. If this has already happened, some hot water will help thaw the ice and the float valve.

Never use an open flame to thaw ice.

Fountain fact
Keeping your energy free fountain water bowl clean and free of debris will help ensure proper operation and a healthy water supply. Also, debris caught in float valves can cause valve leakage resulting in wasted water.

In depth information
Detailed information on the PAMI Water Fountain Studies can be obtained (at cost) in the following reports:

DP0990- Field Study of Electrically Heated and Energy Free Automated Livestock Water Fountains

DP2791- Effects of Three Ground Riser Pipe Designs on the Performance and Operation of Energy Free Water Fountains -1

RP0292- Effects of Three Ground Riser Pipe Designs on the Performance and Operation of Energy Free Water Fountains -2

The financial contributions made by the following organizations are gratefully acknowledged:
  • Canadian Electrical Association
  • Energy, Mines and Resources Canada
  • Manitoba Hydro
  • Ontario Hydro
  • Horned Cattle Association of Saskatchewan
Equipment and services contributed by the following partners are gratefully acknowledged:
  • Franklin Equipment
  • Hawkeye Steel Products
  • Hurst Equipment Limited
  • Miraco, a division of Ahrens Agricultural Industries
  • Superior Precast
  • Weather Master Systems Inc.
  • The Manitoba Bull Test Station
Note: For more information, contact PAMI at 1-800-567-PAMI or 306-682-2555.
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For more information about the content of this document, contact Darryl Slingerland.
This document is maintained by Nicole Huggins-Rawlins.
This information published to the web on February 15, 2002.
Last Reviewed/Revised on November 14, 2012.