Dave Vigness’ Heated Water Bucket Project

Although the season for using heated water buckets is just about over, Dave Vigness has a good summer project for you talented, mechanically savvy folks to tackle. Here’s his story:

Whispering Creek Rescue got started in somewhat of a backwards way. We initially contacted a rescue north of us to inquire about a horse, but then the kids got a little older and lost interest and we didn’t go any farther.

A while later we received a call from that rescue inquiring about our need for a horse as they had just rescued almost a hundred horses and didn’t have a place for them all. After a bit of conversation we volunteered our acreage for grazing for a few months. In exchange for allowing grazing for eighteen horses we were allowed to keep two of the rescues. Our first two boys were a yearling and an older abused gelding that has taken us three years to be able to get close enough to even groom.

In doing this we started working with another rescue close to us, and soon realized the joy of horse rescue, but also the amount of work involved. As we came in semi-regularly and were not involved in a lot of the day-to-day operation, we were able to step back and look at both the good and bad of how it was being run. And, as we were going to be starting from scratch we wanted to do things as efficiently and economically as possible.

One of the two most labor intensive daily operations were water and feed. With rescue horses it was quite apparent that feed would be as individual as the horses. Water, on the other hand, was something that I felt could be a whole lot more efficient that hauling hoses and/or buckets around to each stall.

Being in Kansas just SW of Kansas City, I had to take freezing weather into account as well. I did quite a lot of online research into various methods of providing water, both commercial and DIY projects. I found several nice options for keeping large tanks from freezing, and several commercial devices that would be nice, (and also too costly) for an operation just getting off the ground that we were paying for mostly out of our pockets, with almost no donations. Something like a Richie Waterer was out of our budget for the near future.

After looking at both the in-ground concrete waters with a ball float and an in-ground stacked poly barrel system, I was trying to come up with a compromise: something small and inexpensive and yet that would prevent freezing. The five gallon heated buckets were about the right size for our start up operation in carports until we could raise funding for a full size barn, but even some of the small float mechanisms would be accessible to the horses, especially the yearling who had been taught to open or get into anything by a curious mule we had for a few months.

Surprisingly, a change in VISA /MasterCard regulations and a visit to the local carnival a few months later provided me with the solution. I work as an ATM technician to help support the rescue, and a recent change in regulations had given me a surplus of small convenience store ATM’s that couldn’t be upgraded and were sitting around for the next trip to the scrap yard. About that time we had a small carnival at the local park, and watching the dunk tank set-up I noticed a small valve in the bottom to keep the tank full. After looking at it for a while I finally realized what it was! A small diaphragm toilet valve! It was at that point that it all came together; the valve, the bucket, and the old ATM cabinets.

I looked at heated 5 gallon buckets almost exclusively after a local story of a horse being electrocuted after biting an exposed heater in the bottom of a small trough. It had bitten or cracked the heater during the summer months when it was not in use, and was then electrocuted when it went to drink when the heater was turned on in the fall. In researching the heated buckets I found that most, but not all, were thermostatically controlled. That was a must as there was always the chance of a water problem and I didn’t want to take a chance of a horse getting burnt or a bucket melting if the water level wasn’t maintained. Second was the way the handle was attached to the bucket. Some buckets have a large “button” on the side that the handle attaches to and would not allow the bucket to sit down flush in whatever cabinet you choose to set it in. Others, and the style I was looking for, have the handle attached so as to remain under the lip of the bucket, allowing it to sit down flush. In addition, the handle that has the “nub” that follows the pail pour spout also acts as a bit of sorts. When the yearling tried to pick it up out of the stand, he did not appreciate that. . . .

Almost all heated buckets are one shell inside another to protect the heat element. Part of the reason for choosing the heated bucket is the style of heater. Unlike a drop-in element that can get VERY hot, heated buckets use a version of what is on the back window of your car—a long, insulated low wattage heat element wire is run back and forth like the one on your car window, but on a piece of adhesive foil. That foil and wire is then applied to the outer surface of the bucket with a gap in the back and forth runs on the flat back side, where the back of the bucket might be flush against another surface and concentrating the heat on what would be the exposed surface. With the heat dispersed to the point that even in the coldest months it was warm and not hot to the touch I was able to move on from the “keep them from freezing” side of the labor savings, to the “keeping them full” side of the labor savings.

As I mentioned earlier, the heat wrap was primarily on the outer curved portion of the bucket. I know this because in trying to figure out how to mount a fill valve in the bucket I first put it upside down over a 100W bulb and tried to see where the element was. As I said, it was on foil so while I could see kind of where it was at, I just had to give in to my guy urges and take it apart (and yes, that’s exactly what she said, too). After verifying that the bottom of the bucket and approximately 90% of the flat back was free of elements (there was some foil overlap on the back I’m assuming for attaching, but no actual elements ), I began making an automatically- filling heated water station.

One note on the small diaphragm fill valves. I picked mine up at a local farm and ranch store back in the livestock area. When I went to another store to get more for more buckets later, I found that not every store carried them for livestock waterers. After looking at the difference between the ones in the livestock area and the ones on the shelves by the toilet repair section, I discovered the two minor, but useable, differences. On the livestock version, the little tip that feeds up to the overflow tube to keep positive flow in the bowl is left sealed off, and openings are placed along the side seam to allow that water to assist in filling the bucket. I have used both almost interchangeably. The toilet version can be either mounted in the side wall and the tube left off the overflow outlet, or mounted in the bottom as the livestock version and a short section of tube put in place and a zip tie can be used on the tube clip to fasten it to diaphragm area. We only had the curious yearling pull the hose off once. It squirted water straight up his nose! I’m not sure what he was madder at, getting the water up his nose or us laughing uncontrollably at the squeal he made when it happened.

The valve installation was pretty straight forward after a little experimentation. Naturally, I started with a pair of totes from the dollar store to emulate the nested heated buckets to make sure I had it down before I started drilling into expensive buckets. Here it is in a nutshell:

1. Place the valve in the approximate position you want to mount it inside the bucket and mark with a Sharpie pen.

2. Drill a hole at the mark with the same size drill as the pilot bit on your hole saw.

3. From the outside, VERY SLOWLY drill a hole with the hole saw in the OUTER bucket to allow you to get your fingers   around the nut that will fasten the valve to the inner bucket. I used a 2 ½” but that is
just the size I had available. MAKE SURE IT IS THE OUTER SHELL ONLY

4. In the inner bucket drill the hole to mount the valve. You can use either a hole saw or a unibit. I
drilled a 1 1/8” hole with the unibit I used to make knock-out holes for ¾” conduit.

5. Mount the valve using the supplied spacer on the outside to compensate for the difference between the
thickness of the plastic bucket vs. a porcelain tank.

6. Mount into your choice of stand and connect with standard plumbing connections. NOTE: the livestock
versions of the valve also come with an adapter to connect to a garden hose fitting as well as standard plumbing fittings.

Water bucket 9 Water bucket 7 Water bucket 6 Water bucket 5 Water bucket 3 Water bucket 2 Water bucket 1

Water bucket 8

The stand portion of the water station was pretty straight forward. I originally was looking at picking up some short pieces of old culvert from the local dump or DOT. I didn’t care about the condition except they be solid enough to take a kick or two and be at least 4’ long. I originally was thinking about 30 or 55 gallon barrels stacked, but as I lacked the skills to weld them together to get the necessary height to allow for approximately 2’ sticking up out of the ground and at least 2’ into the ground to get below our local freeze line, that was not an option for me. This is where my old ATM cabinets came into use. They were the right height and had the bonus of having an access door already built in. After stripping the cabinets I simply traced the outline of the bucket on the top and then cut inside the line to support the bucket. In my case that was about ½” to ¾”. I flipped it over and cut an access hole for two conduits, a small one to pull an extension cord through, and a larger one to pull a ½” water line through. I recommend poly or PEX just in case it gets near freezing and allows you to use a shark bite type valve to make connections easier.

Then it was just a matter of digging the hole (also know as entertaining the horses), and trenching in the two conduits. On the electric side I purchased an extension cord, 14 gauge minimum, 12 gauge preferred, to feed power out. I ran the extension cord out for the approximate length and then cut the FEMALE end off, leaving the male (pronged ) end in place. Once pulled through, I wired a duplex outlet on the end in a plastic box instead of a replacement cord end. This gave me the ability of plugging the bucket in, and having a place to plug in a thermo cube and additional light bulb for heat down in the cabinet around the water lines if it was needed.

A tip for those not accustomed to wiring stranded wire under screw terminals: instead of stripping the end to put it under the terminal as you would with solid wire, back up the wire an inch and a half like you are going to strip it back, but then, only pull the insulation down just enough to go around the screw terminal. That leaves a “pigtail” of insulation to keep the strands together! Just make sure you don’t have any little strands of wire that slide down with the insulation to cause any problems.

I have been asked several times about using heated buckets being dangerous. My first question back is, are they talking about a bucket with a heater in it or a heated bucket? That usually gets a curious face and gets them thinking about their own question. I explain it to them like this. Comparing a bucket with a heater in it and a heated bucket is like comparing a red hot needle to a pan of room temperature water. One is hot, the other has heat. Sometimes I get some sputters until I ask them to check with the local high school science class students if they don’t believe me. . . and a few actually do!

NOTE: If you have questions about this project, Dave Vigness will be happy to talk to you. His email address is whispering_creek@hotmail.com . If you’d like to help Dave reach his goal of building a barn for his rescued horses, I’m sure he’ll be delighted with, and most appreciative, of any contributions to his barn-building fund.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.