Addition to the Coop

_DSC9979I kind of feel that keeping chickens is a fairly thin-veil for needing to build things out of doors.  It is an excuse to fire up the earth auger, drill holes into the dirt and put in supports and fence posts.  It is an excuse to use power tools – drills, impact drivers, pneumatic nailers, miter saws, and so on.  In the end, however, we get a nice structure that can be home to a one or a few birds.

To say we overbuilt this coop-addition is probably spot on.  Insulated 2×4 construction, ventilated, concrete floored, and complete with a winch-powered liftable roof.

We never really intended to make another coop structure.  The converted dog house (beyond/next-to this new coop in the photo) was thought to be enough.

Earlier in the year, at the end of spring, we placed our last-of-the-season orders for meat birds.  Along with the fifteen cornish roasters, we added a silver laced polish chick to the order.  Melissa is fond of the white polish we had included with an earlier order of egg layers.  We figured, we would deal with getting her acclimated to the rest of the flock when the time came.  She could be brooded with the cornish roasters in the garage.

IMG_0663A week into September, the silver laced polish, now named Agnes, was injured.  We had introduced her to the greater flock a few days prior.  She is not the most cunning chicken; she ducks her head and runs straight into things — namely, other, larger, more aggressive hens.  She got stuck in the fence once, which resulted in the other hens pecking at her.  By the end of September, she was effectively a house chicken.  We brought her into the house to recover.  She had been pecked on at the base of her tail feathers, and had also gotten cut up by getting stuck hardware cloth covering one of the windows.  Missing lots of feathers, having cuts and pecks all over, she took up residence in a modify dog crate in the dogs area in the house.

Chickens are dusty creatures.  And they poop…a lot.  And their poop smells.  Agnes was on the mend, and we were tired of the dust and smell (even though we cleaned her cage twice daily, the general area still smelled).

Agnes needed her own coop.

We started with scoping out how to build on to the existing coop structure.  The only free-of-obstruction side was the east side.  The south side has the green roof-covered run area, the west side has the covered run exit into the main chicken yard area, north has the man door entrance to the main coop structure.  East side it was.

Two support posts sunk into the ground, secured with concrete.  The insulated-plywood-on-each-face base was next.  Insulated walls, complete with an opening out of the front for a chicken door, were next.  Tile backer board with concrete poured over the top, then the insulted and hinged roof was built.  Roof vent and shingles followed with cedar shake siding (to match the existing coop) rounded out the bulk of the build.

We could have stopped there, but the roof proved to be a bit over built, and because of the weight, impossible for Melissa to lift.  The roof needs to be liftable to get into the coop for cleaning, and, once Agnes starts to lay eggs, we will want to retrieve them.

I noodled on the problem for a couple days.  Hand crank winch – like the ones used to pull a boat onto a trailer?  No, I need something with a bit more control when letting cable or rope out to lower the roof.  I imagined losing my grip on the crank handle and having it whip around quickly as the roof dropped.

_DSC9978Hydraulics crossed my mind, but, a bit over kill for this project.  I would need a reservoir tank for hydraulic fluid, pumps, and possibly more power than what we have available at the coop (remember, the coop is solar powered).

Garage door springs and other sorts of assists crossed my mind, too.  The winching idea kept coming to mind.  Maybe a 12 volt winch could be a solution.
We started to investigate winches.  Price seemed to be driving factor at first — what’s the cheapest winch on the market that has received decent reviews?  A number of winches fit this criterion.  A bit more reading and research revealed that many entry level winches have power in (pull), but no power out (push).  We needed both power in, to lift the roof, and power out to lower the roof back down.  A bit more reading, and having a brake on the winch would be ideal.  No brake, and the load of the lifted roof might just pull the winching cable back out.

Brake. Power in. Power out.

These were the must haves for the project.  Superwinch’s UT3000 model fit the bill.  We also probably ended up spending almost as much on random pieces of hardware – heavy carabiner clips and chain for a safety line, threaded long anchor eye bolts, steel quick links, self-tapping lag bolts, a couple pulleys, and so on.

The pulley system we arrived upon puts an anchor near the outer corners of the roof.  Looping through the two pulleys, the end of the winching cable is attached to the existing coop structure just above the east side’s window.  The winch is mounted at the upper, outer corner of the existing coop structure.

Main Street Project – Northfield, MN

A few of us took a half-day of vacation from work and headed 45 minutes south, to Northfield, MN.  Northfield is home to St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, but it is also has a pretty interesting integrated farming endeavor called the Main Street Project.  We visited two sites, one with meat chickens, and another which used the manure from the chicken operation to fertilize rows of hazelnuts, popcorn, elderberries, onions and black beans.


(Videos courtesy of Alex M.)

Product Review: Cozy Hen Waterer

Outer Pail with Insulation


A reader in Minneapolis, MN, asked me if it would be possible to give a bit more feedback on the Cozy Hen Waterer.  I thought that I could spin that into a more complete review of the product.

The waterer, manufactured and sold by Neora Inventors, LLC, consists of two nested buckets.  Lining the outer bucket is a couple layers double reflective bubble insulation; at the bottom of the pail are two strips of styrofoam insulation to position the inner pail and the chicken nipple correctly.  There is also a piece of reflective bubble insulation that is placed on the lid of the inner pail.

The chicken nipple assembly hangs about 1.½” out the bottom.   There is also a length of light-gauge chain on the bucket’s handle; chicken nipple to the length of chain, the unit is around 21″.

Inner pail with rubber grommet and heater suction cups on bottom

The outer bucket measures about 10″ tall and, at the lid, about 9″ in diameter.  The inner pail measures 7.½” tall, and at the lid, 7.½”.  The inner pail also holds around ¾ of a gallon; there is a length of shoelace attached to the pail that forms a sort of crude handle, as well.

More Details.  The basic concept of the waterer is to isolate the water from the elements.  It does this with the use of insulation and the clever encapsulation of the nipple with an aluminum pipe.

Neora Inventors’ website states that, when using the 15W aquarium heater in the pail, the nipple temperature will only be 8° cooler than the bulk of the water.

All the parts (minus the pails)

Review.  We haven’t verified the temperature measurement claims, but during our coldest stretches over the last month – around -9° F – the nipple stayed ice free; when tapped, liquid water was released.

For the most part, the waterer in conjunction with the 15W heater does what it Neora claims: it uses less electricity than a conventional fount, as well as keeping water ice-free and free-flowing.  Minimizing electricity consumption, for us, was actually nearly as important as providing the chickens with liquid water.  This might not be a huge concern for those with a coop with electricity from the grid.  This was discussed in a bit more depth in the previous post.

Chicken Nipple

There are a couple minor design-related items that could be unnecessary or simply in need of another iteration.  First, the inner lid contains two holes; one for the power cord of the heater to exit, and the other hole appears to be for refilling the pail.  In the picture, above, the inner lid is in the lower right corner.  The heater cord hole is on the right side.  The hole on the left, in my opinion, could be eliminated and a single hole be used for cord exiting and refilling.  Second, the hole in the inner lid insulation, because of evaporation, ice forms on the underside of the outer lid.  Eliminating this hole in the insulation would remove a place for heat to escape.

We had questions about how quickly the chickens would pickup the using the nipple – having only used a more traditional fount since we received them as day-old chicks.  The hens turned out to be quick studies and realized soon after the new waterer was placed in the coop that this was now the dispenser of water.

As to the long-term, post-winter use of the waterer, it is still an unknown.  I really like how wood chips and poop do not end up in the water as with a normal waterer that is placed near the ground; at the same time, the water requirements for the chickens will increase once we are into the summer months, as well as when we add more birds this spring.

_DSC7054Verdict. Small flocks (below a count of 8 to 10) in a coop with minimal ambient temperature control (such as our coop) could benefit from a Cozy Hen Waterer.  Assuming the aquarium heater can last several seasons, the cost savings on reduced electrical consumption compared to a high-wattage heated waterer, may allow for the unit to pay its own way (to an extent).

Aside from the two design comments, above, about extra holes, the only remaining point that should be mentioned is the cost: $75.00 (includes heater).  It maybe reasonable to think that with the possible research and development that went into their current/final design, that $75 is likely a good deal.  But, if you ignore any cost savings on electricity (the heater was $12.50), paying $62.50 for a ¾ gallon insulated pail might be a tough sell for some people.



Cold Weather, The Coop and Heat Transfer

_DSC6863-2A few weeks ago, we bought a new waterer for the coop.  There was nothing wrong with the current waterer other than being an energy hog.  Throughout December, we struggled with keeping the coop’s battery charged enough power the waterer.  The waterer’s 100 watt heating element was just too much. Think of it like this: the waterer’s draw (outflow) on the battery is greater than the solar panel’s ability to recharge (inflow) the battery.

\(Outflow > Inflow\)

_DSC6854-2The new waterer, branded as Cozy Hen Waterer, is from Neora Inventors, LLC. From a cost perspective, it was expensive.  Around $70 for the waterer, a hanging chain, and a heater.  The waterer consists of two buckets – one ¾ gallon bucket nested within a larger pail. Inside the larger pail, there is a layer of thin insulation.  The outer pail is only used as a convenient way to capsulate the inner pail in insulation.  The water, contained in the inner pail, is able to get out to the chickens byway of a chicken nipple (pictured to the right).  The other interesting bit of engineering is the encasement of the chicken nipple in an aluminum pipe.  The pipe extends into the water pail by several inches.  This is subsequently encased in a bit of insulation with an outer shell made of a PVC plumbing part.  Finally, inside the water pail, there is a 15 watt aquarium heater.  It will keep the water at around 77°F.

The aluminum pipe is clever because of what it allows: heat transfer.  Although not entirely analogous (it is a pipe and not a rod), you could get a sense of the heat transfer by using a partial differential equation (Partial Differential Equations for Scientists and Engineers is also a good place to look).  There are actually several energy-flows going on in these coop-systems if you think about it.

The heat is transferred from near the center of the water pail down to the chicken nipple byway of the aluminum pipe.  This allows for the nipple to stay mostly ice-free on those -20°F days.

A bit of welding - the new waterer needed a bracket to hang on.
A bit of welding – the new waterer needed a bracket to hang on; rebar scraps that I had laying around.

If you recall from a previous post, the first-replacement waterer had a thermostatic switch that kept the water at 35°F.  In my mind, that seems like a valid temperature for water – it would minimize the energy consumption.  The new waterer with the aquarium heater and its 77°F temperature seems, on the surface, like it will use too much energy.

But, there are a few things that make the new waterer-system much easier on the consumption of electricity.  First, the larger waterer has 1.⅔ times the surface area as that of the new, insulated waterer.  More surface area results in faster transfer of energy from the warm water to the cold air.  Second, and this is likely the most important factor, the new waterer is insulated.  Top, bottom and sides – it is all insulated.  The one direct exception is the chicken nipple area, but that has the aluminum pipe to assist with heat loss (with the assumption that the heat transfer from the water + pipe is greater than the heat transfer from the end of the nipple to the air).

The more I have thought about the larger waterer and how it appears to be inefficient, the more I kept thinking of its design in comparison to the new waterer.  The larger waterer has the heating element on the bottom – the three gallons of water sit on top of the element.  This means that only one side of the element in contact with a surface that has water touching it.  That other side is hanging out in the air; sometimes, well-below-zero air.  What is the likelihood that the thermostatic switch actually switches off for any significant length of time?

A better design would be have the heating element have more contact surface with the water.  Perhaps, instead of being encased in a disc in the base of the waterer, the element would be a more rod-shaped protrusion from the base into the center of the water  reservoir.  Secondly, insulate, insulate, insulate.  The choice of insulation material is possibly debatable – the new waterer uses foil covered bubble insulation – this might be sufficient; it would certainly be better than nothing.

Solar Coop – Update II

_DSC6362 - 2015-01-25 at 16-14-33 - Version 2Since writing the first update on the solar panels on the chicken coop, we had quite the cold snap.  Along with the persistent cold, there was persistent cloud cover and strong winds.  The combination of cold weather meant the battery for the coop had diminished capacity and the cloud cover meant that there would not be enough solar irradiation to fill that reduced capacity.

Each night, I would disconnect the battery from the system and lug into the garage; connecting it to a battery charger for the night.  We also brought the chicken’s waterer into the house to prevent the need in the morning of having to thaw the water. In addition to the routine changes, I removed two things from the electrical-mix: the electric timer and the ammeter. With the battery’s stored energy being consumed so quickly and the water and battery being brought in at night, it did not seem like the timer was needed at all. The ammeter was removed because it stopped working in the sub-zero cold.  Subsequent tests, while it has been warmer outside, show that the meter still works; it just does not like the cold.

We have since made it through that cold spell, and have been in a pleasant middle ground of nice amounts of sun, above freezing day-time temperatures – several days in a row, and light amounts of wind.

With the warmer stint of weather, the battery has been under lighter duty. Even when the solar charge controller has been indicating that the battery is not strong enough to power the inverter, the next day’s sun will be more than enough to give the battery a good charge.

Being a curious, amateur scientist, I wanted to know a bit more about why a lead-acid battery appears to be quite poor at being able to provide energy when the ambient temperature is very low.  This inability to provide energy is quite noticeable and prevalent in colder regions during the winter.  For those who are familiar with starting a car while in the depths of a cold winter – think of how the car’s starter seems to struggle to turn the engine over.  It’s a battle between cold lubricants with a higher than normal viscosity and a lead acid starter battery with diminished capacity.  But, why does cold cause this diminished capacity.

With my day-job being at a university, and I am surrounded by academics and researchers, my first thought was to look into published research on batteries or modeling batteries.

The first paper I found was A mathematical model for lead-acid batteries co-authored by Dr. Ziyad Salameh – Dept. of Electrical Engineering, UMass Lowell, Margaret A. Casacca (student), and William A. Lynch (student).  The paper was published in the IEEE Transactions on Energy Conversion, Vol. 7, No.I, March 1992.

Aside from equations and a mention of a BASIC program that was developed (but this program is nowhere to be found in the paper), the main take aways from the paper are list of five factors that effect a battery’s ability to store energy; for the most part, the list of things is obvious.  (1) State of charge, (2) battery storage capacity, (3) rate of discharge, (4) environment temperature, and (5) shelf-life or age.

(This list is originally from the Complete Battery Book.)

We can say that our battery is fully charged (state of charge is 100% at the on set), has a capacity of 110 amp-hours, the waterer has a draw of at most 10 amps (this is likely not constant as the waterer will turn on when the water is below 35 degrees, and turn off when it reaches a temperature above this), the shelf-life or age is basically “brand new”.  Temperature is likely the deciding factor.

Looking at how temperature effects capacity, you can see that as the temperature drops, the capacity drops, as well.

Capacity vs Temperature

Assuming this graph is true (there is no documentation or available analysis), at our coldest, the battery is likely to be running at a bit over 60% capacity; meaning, we’ll only get about 66ah from it.  The inverter will shut off when the voltage drops below about 12.10V; according to another battery university article, this likely means the battery has about 50% capacity remaining.  This could roughly be translated into a capacity of 33ah at our coldest, and about 55ah at optimal temperature (which we won’t have until sometime in late May).

Now that I have some numbers that better explain the observation of why didn’t the battery last more than 8 hours on the coldest day, I still want to know why does this happen.  Why does ambient cold have such an effect on lead-acid batteries?

The short answer is internal resistance.  To understand this, you first need to know a bit about how lead-acid batteries work.

A course offered at the University of Colorado Boulder‘s Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering department has a great set of lecture slides (or here) explaining how lead-acid batteries work.

The gist of how lead-acid batteries work are electrons drifting or flowing from the negative terminal – most often made of lead (\(\ce{Pb}\)) – to the positive terminal – most often made of lead dioxide (\(\ce{PbO2}\)).  The two terminals are submerged in an electrolyte solution.  This is usually in the form of sulfuric acid (\(\ce{H2SO4}\), where, in solution, it takes the form of aqueous ions \(\ce{{H^{+}}+{SO4^{-2}}}\)).  As you draw electricity from the battery via the positive terminal, electrons flow from the negative terminal to the positive terminal.  How easily or difficult the electrons can move from negative to positive terminals in the internal resistance.

I think of what happens with the electrolyte solution and effect of cold temperatures on it is sort of like what happens to honey when it is chilled.  It is not quite analogous but I think it gets the point across.  If little droplets of honey are running down a piece of glass and you suddenly cool the glass, the honey will begin to run much slower.

Similarly, as the electrolyte solution cools, the ability for electrons to drift efficiently to the positive terminal decreases.  The decrease in electron flow results in less power to be consumed – in our case, by the inverter and waterer.

So, what can be done be to keep batteries from losing their capacity in the cold?  Some of the documentation that I read suggested gently warming the battery to keep it from getting too cold.  This might be possible if we added another electricity generator – like a wind turbine.  We would have to build a better storage place for the battery, too.  We can’t really put the battery into the coop (where it is noticeably warmer because of sheltering from the wind as well as the use of deep-litter) because lead-acid batteries generally need venting (there is a small amount of oxygen and hydrogen released from batteries).  In addition to the idea of keeping the batteries slightly warmer (which, I will admit, I’m likely not going to do), adding capacity seems like a more viable option.  This is done by simply adding additional batteries in parallel.  With the idea of adding in a wind turbine, I have already been thinking of adding additional batteries.

To wrap things up, I just hope that the recent temperature bounce-near-and-around-freezing continues.  The battery likes not being choked by the cold; nice amount of sun – the adequate sun light we have been receiving has had two benefits: the battery is able to be recharged successfully, and, equally important, the chickens have begun laying eggs once again.


For a better look at the specifics of the chemical reactions that occur within a lead-acid battery, check out this page.

Buckets of Chicken

Blood in the SnowThe sun was out and there was a fresh spring-like smell in the air.  Water dripped from the barn roof into a puddle near the door.  The cows, near the barn, were slurping from their trough – the ice in it was melting.

I rotated and rolled the large cook’s knife I held in my hand; the rivets through the handle and tang were still cold.

I lifted the knife up; a quick and heavy downward swing of the knife, and I felt the heel push into the chopping block below.  A slight forward movement with the knife on the block, and the rest of the blade was in contact with the surface.

One down, ten more to go.
List of Butchering TasksI flipped the now headless bird into the snow; the carcass flipped and jumped; I knocked the head into a bucket – wiped the blood from the knife, and walked to the coop to get another bird.

Walking back from the coop, the headless bird now lay motionless; the snow in front of the chopping block starts to take on the appearance some twisted form of a snowcone.

Two down, nine more to go.

We ended up dividing the lot into two batches.  Six birds and five birds.   With each batch, the process was the same.  Two to three headless birds in a 5 gallon pale – I’d walk up to the farm house from the coops – buckets in hand.  Scald, pluck, scorch the remaining fine feathers with a torch, remove feet, remove oil gland, remove trachea and neck skin, gut, since and chill. Repeat.

This was the first time that I witnessed the scald method.  Usually, when cleaning fowl, the carcass is too small, as with ruffed grouse, to really warrant going beyond the breast meat, or, the skin just seems far too greasy, as was with the ducks we had the last summer – in this case, I skinned the ducks.   The pigs we helped butcher a few years ago, we opted for skinning instead of scalding.  Rabbits, squirrels and deer are all skinned, too.

The killing turns out to be almost the easiest part (assuming you are not bothered overly much by the removal of life); the plucking is messy – feathers stick to your hands, and the removal of the entrails is slippery – there is quite a bit of fat on chickens.  There is water involved at both ends of the uncomfortable for hands spectrum – hot for scalding, and icy-cold for chilling.

IMG_0003 - Version 2 - 2015-01-18 at 12-20-32By late afternoon, the carcasses were chilling in tubs of ice water; we had cleaned up the work area in the farmhouse’s basement; the entrails that some consider edible were in the farmhouse freezer and the buckets of soggy feathers were out of the house.

On the ride home home, I found myself mulling over the sensorial aspects of the day’s task.  The red snow, noises made by headless carcasses, and smells.  I had given my mom a call – knowing that she, during her quixotic-commune days, had butchered chickens, as well.  She asked me, “What’d you think of the smell?”  I thought for a second or two, and replied, “It smelled like yellow.”  I knew she wasn’t referring to the smell of burnt feathers from the scorching, she was thinking of the bird itself – freshly plucked and at the point where you have started to clean out the cavity.   It has a yellow smell to me.   My mom knew exactly what I meant.  That’s the best way I can describe it.  I’m curious what others describe the smell as – leave a comment below.



Solar Coop: Followup (One)

It has been a couple weeks since my father-in-law helped install the solar panels onto the chicken coop.  Since then, I have modified a few things, added this or that, or replaced a component or two.

The first thing to get replaced was the waterer (or fount).  The existing one we had was a carryover from the coop in Proctor; it was not keeping the water free of ice on the two days we have had that were below freezing in that last two weeks.  I picked up a new waterer/fountain (I bought the new one at Mills Fleet Farm for much less than what it is listed for on – this one has a built in thermostatic switch that turns the heating element on at 35° F.

Looking at the reviews on this particular fountain, many of the complaints revolve around how the unit is filled.  There is a rubber plug on the underside that can be removed or you can simply remove the entire base.  I can see where the complaints of having to “flip” the unit after filling are coming from, but this style of waterer is all we have ever used.  I went with this model because it was the lowest watt-use fountain (100 watts) that I could find, and it could be hung.  All of the metal waterers that I have come across use a heated metal base.  I could imagine, with this setup, having ice-free water, but having all sorts of debris in the water from the chickens kicking bedding around in the coop.  In addition to the new waterer, I added in an electric timer.  This is a bit of an experiment, but my thinking is that water, when surface area is minimized, is a relatively good retainer of heat.  If the heated-waterer is adding heat to the water now and again – when the temperature is below 35° F – it will use less of the battery reserve than if only relying upon the thermostatic controller in the waterer.  That is my thesis, at least.  It is difficult, however, to control variables in the experiment when things like the ambient temperature keep going well above freezing, or there is not enough sun to charge the battery.

About a week into the experiment of solar panels on the coop, I noticed the battery was not holding a charge for very long.  It was not a new battery, but, I thought it should have been lasting more than 24 hours with little to no draw on the battery.  The sun had hardly been seen over this time period, but the solar panel charge controller was registering enough charge from the panels to attempt to charge the battery.  I installed a ammeter/watt-hour-meter inline between the battery and the power inverter.  I wanted to see if there were phantom load being drawn.

DSC_6164 - 2014-12-24 at 11-50-50 - Version 2 - 2014-12-24 at 11-50-50With no real sign of phantom loads, I replaced the battery.  This will be a bit of an experiment, too.  A few of the solar-related forums and articles that I read through had recommendations on using AGM batteries, but the cost – usually two to three times more than a conventional lead-acid battery – is a bit much for me at this point.

That last bit of modifications that I have made were to solar panel mounts.  I raised the panels to a steeper angle.  In my travels around the Twin Cities metro-area, I kept an eye out for solar panels on MNDOT equipment (traffic cameras and information signage, for example) that is located on roadsides and in ditches.  The angle that is used on much of their equipment looks to be around 40° to 45°.  I raised the height by about 8″ or up to an angle of about 40°.

I think all we really need now is freezing weather and some sunny skies.

DSC_6165 - 2014-12-24 at 11-59-06 - Version 2 - 2014-12-24 at 11-59-06