(first appeared in the April 2014 issue of The Equiery)

Q. Who were the happiest Maryland horse farm owners this winter?

A. Those with heated automatic waterers!

85% of Equiery Readers LOVE their Automatic Waterers!
12% don’t care…and 3% hate them.
As “The Polar Vortex Winter of 2014” drew to a close, The Equiery surveyed its readers about their automatic waterers – and the results were interesting!

Q. What brand of automatic waterer(s) do you have? Check all that apply.
Answer Options Response %
Miraco MiraFount
No brand; poured concrete above-ground cistern style livestock waterer

What is the most important thing we learned? Equiery Readers LOVE their Automatic Pasture Waterers–particularly in a brutal winter!

Of the survey participants who have automatic pasture waterers, 77% of them are heated.
The reasons people do NOT heat their pasture waterers:
• 79% find it too expensive and/or complicated to do so
• 31% don’t trust electricity and water combined (many of these readers have waterers designed to not ever freeze, such as Bar-Bar-A)

In the majority of cases, the waterers were either installed by a plumber (38%) or by someone on the farm (owner, manager, worker), also 38%. Apparently, some people didn’t realize that this was something a plumber could install so check out this article on 5 things you did not know a plumber could do, just in case there’s another service you need and you didn’t realize your plumber could do it. An excavator installed the waterers only about 7% of the time. (The remaining percentage is “don’t know.”). When it comes to projects like this, if you are going to take it upon yourself, looking into something like excavator hire in Sydney would hopefully make all the difference when it comes to getting the job done. The same goes for wherever you are located, as there are always tools and professionals out there willing to give you a helping hand.

The manufacturer’s specifications were followed by 97% of the respondents when the waterers were installed. A little over 3% modified the waterers to suit their particular applications.

Most waterers were considered to be moderately difficult to install. However, except for cistern waterers, the complicated installations moniker was reserved for Nelsons.

Use & Maintenance

60.4% of survey participants have Nelson waterers

60.4% of survey participants have Nelson waterers

We learned that our readers are very brand loyal. Even the waterers that had problems this past winter, readers almost universally blamed it on the extreme weather and not the brand or unit.

We learned that 94% of the respondents maintain their own waterers, regardless of whether or not they rated maintenance as “easy to moderate” or “moderate to complicated.”

Of the 20% of the respondents who have had to contact the manufacturer because of a warranty problem, 92% of them were satisfied with the resolution. There was no concentration within one brand.

All of the brands were rated “easy to moderate” for maintenance except the Nelsons, which were rated “moderate to complicated” (although most were, as with the others, self-maintained). One Nelson owner commented (in a sentiment that seemed to be shared by others): “My experience is that they require substantial maintenance with items such as water control valves leaking, filters clogging, copper components developing pinhole leaks due to acidic water, heaters burning out, thermostats malfunctioning, etc. I would estimate that of my 25 waterers, on average, at least one a month needs parts-and parts are exorbitantly expensive.” However, 92% of Nelson owners would recommend them!

A Winter for the Record Books
Q. Did you have any problems with your waterers this past winter?
A pretty even split: 56.3% said no, while 45.4% said yes. But as we noted elsewhere, most everyone, no matter the brand, seemed to hold responsible the extreme conditions or substandard installation, and not the brand itself. Moreover, a lot of people also suggested that installing a water softening system could lead to fewer issues. Correspondingly, in case you were not already aware, a commercial water softener works by using the process of ion exchange to create soft water. Essentially, inside a water softener is a vessel of resin beads. Hard water passes over the resin beads which extract the hard minerals (calcium and magnesium) and replace them with harmless sodium ions. Any scale is therefore taken out of the water which leaves the water softened. This process can often prevent future plumbing issues that are typically caused by a build-up of minerals.

If you had it to do it over, would you do anything differently?
About 35% said they would not do anything differently, except to maybe have installed more of them or to have installed them sooner!

If you do not have automatic waterers, why not?
Answer Options Response %
Too extravagant or expensive to purchase, install and/or maintain. 66.7%
Don’t trust that my horses will get enough water. 16.7%
Don’t trust electricity and water. 14.6%
Never had them, so never thought about having them. 6.3%
Our horses have access to constantly flowing streams. 6.3%

But the remaining 65% did say they would do some things differently.

Here are some of the Winter of 2013/2014 lessons learned, either about waterers or water lines:
“My property does not have any way of turning off outdoor water-just the well pump, so if anything goes wrong or if a pipe froze between house/barn/waterers I would have to turn off the whole system. I hate that.”

“Pipes supplying water froze in single digit temps and subzero wind chills.”

“Supply line froze.”

“Put waterers in a more accessible place for ease of cleaning and checking. (They are up a hill.)”

“Wrap supply line with heat tape.”

“Hire a more competent contractor or a plumber, like plumbers in Tucson, to install the waterers.”

“Make sure waterer is on a separate circuit!”

“Install more waterers at the same time-we only have one outside. The reason we didn’t install waterers in all our pastures was the expense.”

If you were going to install automatic waterers, what brand are you most likely to use?
Answer Options Response %
Don’t Know 30.3%
Nelson 43.8%
Ritchie 7.9%
Miraco MiraFount 6.7%
Bar-Bar-A 7.9%
Hoskins 1.1%
Concrete cistern style 2.2%
Other (please specify) Varnam

“No other than two waterers were run off of one electric line and after the fact I was told that they should have been different lines. It pops the circuit breaker on rare occasions.”

“Some horses like to ‘play’ in the waterers-maybe building up the concrete pad so the waterer is higher would prevent them putting their feet in them.”

“I would have put in a better base.”

“Bury the water lines deeper and insulate in the bottom of the waterers.”

“I should have purchased the waterers sized for draft horses versus regular horses.”

“Better installation. The interior of the units should be thermally heated rather than just set on a concrete pad.”

“Make sure you have a backup plan in place: a large tub or trough with a heating element.”

“I would make sure the excavated water line paths were filled in more securely. The loose soil washed out in the heavy rains and left trenches that had to be filled with gravel.”

“Should have installed concrete pads, more internal insulation, heat tape, etc.”

“Individual shutoffs for all waterers, electric and water.”

“Maybe should have made the fence a little higher over the waterers, since I have gotten larger horses.”

“Make drainage field larger.”

“Probably build run-in around it to protect from wind and extreme winters like this one.”

Unexplored Benefit of Automatic Waterers – Labor Savings
We did not have a survey question exploring the amount of labor saved by replacing water troughs with automatic waterers, but nevertheless many of our readers remarked that they felt that the labor savings is substantial.

“You might add inquiries regarding the time savings and task eliminating that people experience who have automatic waterers. Notwithstanding that this winter was brutal, and not withstanding the large expense in maintaining my Nelsons, I wouldn’t trade my waterers for the opportunity to hammer ice and refilling several times a day on really cold days.”

“I can only say that the boys never hesitated to use them and I never had to lift one bucket of water!! SO HAPPY!!”

And the winners are…
NELSONS – 60% of Readers Surveyed
Nelsons are used by 60% of our readers surveyed. Now, we cannot tell you if Nelsons are the most widely used because they are the best, or if they are the most widely used because they had the best marketing. But what we CAN tell you is that 97% of our readers surveyed would recommend Nelsons or install them again. Readers uniformly agree that Nelsons are best left to a professional to install. However, for maintenance, it is about evenly split between a very handy farm person or a professional. And while a very small minority hate Nelsons, those that hate them, really hate them.

Ritchie: 15% of Readers Surveyed
Miraco MiraFount: 14% of Readers Surveyed
Bar-Bar-A: 14% of Readers Surveyed
Bringing up the rear: Equuspring, Hoskins, Varnan, Behlen, Solar BT Suntanks

Equiery Readers & Clients Speak Out!
“Get the MiraFounts…they are absolutely the best…virtually maintenance free and no electricity needed. Have used them at Oatland since 1994 and now the ranch I’m on in Mississippi has them installed in the pastures. Do not get Ritchies or Nelsons for fields!”
– Chrissy Keys Heard, former owner, Oatland, boarding/lessons

“My girlfriend got the Nelsons last year and she loves them. We have troughs, but I am thinking of getting one in the Thoroughbred field, which is lower than our other one. The reason is when trudging down that hill to turn on the hydrant, there is usually ice or that hydrant may actually freeze. This would eliminate the danger to me on foot and as the waterer is dug deeper, it should not freeze either. Cost though with plumbing is a little high. I was quoted about $3800 last year for the works: one waterer installed with the electric hookup and water hookup and cement fitting. It is probably overall a good thing.”
– Cheryl London, private farm

“I had them once, but never again. Hard to keep clean, tendency to have mold, etc.–maybe someone else has had better luck! I think they are a lot of work–especially when some horses find out how to flood the area. They can also plug up–not a fan!”
– Didi Bierbauer, Windcrest Training Farm

“I have the type of automatic waterer that is ground water driven into a concrete tank. The overflow/outflow is piped underground to a stream downhill. Ours was a cost-share project by the previous owners and is about 30 years old. Pretty low maintenance; however, it is dependent on ground water and dries up during drought, so a backup trough is needed. I have had a Nelson waterer sitting up in my hayloft for about 8 years because I haven’t been able to decide where to put it.”
– Nancy Carter, Dove Hill

“I have Nelson waterers in my stalls as well as in the fields. I have no problems with them other than that we have acidic water and the Nelson waterer has a short copper tube in its system, which periodically gets eaten through by the acidic water. Replacement of the copper tube requires replacement of a tube and hose part, which costs about $12. Problem is that having the part installed can be somewhat expensive if you have to use a company in the business. I know a fellow who does it as a side business, which will save you 2/3 of the cost a company would charge. Of course, you can learn to do it yourself. If you don’t have acidic water, then I know of no problems with the Nelson. I have used these waterers for the past 12 years and other than the foregoing, have experienced no difficulties. It takes just a few seconds to clean the stainless steel dishes.”
– Stuart J. Friedman, P.C., Finer Points Training Farm

“Yes we have Nelsons in the stalls, none in the fields. Mine are old, but I have a new one not installed yet. The new ones are better.”
– David Goodman (private farm and small animal vet)

“No, I don’t have automatic waterers-and I wouldn’t. A friend had them at her barn, the kind that the horses push a lever to get water. Problem was the lever sat in the sun all day and was very hot to touch. The bowls were small so the water was HOT and the horses didn’t drink.”
– Beth Barritt (former boarding/training barn manager)

“I have Nelsons and have had very few problems with them. The heating element will need to be replaced periodically.”
– Rod Cameron, Springbreeze Stable

“We have two Nelson waterers that we obtained as part of a stream buffer project some years ago. Nelson is still the best. However, the waterers are only as good as how well they are installed. Waterers and installations are expensive and should only be done by professionals and in accord with Nelson specifications. Otherwise, you will have problems. We rely on frost-free hydrants and small water heaters (500w).”
– Mike Krome, Persimmon Tree Farm (training/lessons/boarding and recognized by Governor for Farm Stewardship & Save the Bay practices; Westminster)

“I still have around 80 automatic Nelson waterers on the farm. I know a lot of people who have given up on Nelsons, but the key is to make sure you have someone get their doctorate in Nelson waterers and repair. If you need a waterer that you can just leave alone year after year, this is not the waterer for you. There’s preventative maintenance and then there’s repair. I’ve had this brand since maybe 1985, so frankly, I don’t know any better. Do I recommend them? Yes, but I don’t know enough about what else is out there.”
– Suzanne Quarles, Some Day Soon Breeding & Training Farm

Obligatory Disclaimers!
First, although 73% of the survey participants said they had automatic waterers, we know from earlier surveys that the vast majority of our readers do NOT have automatic waterers-at least 65-70% of our readers who own or manage horse farms do NOT have automatic waterers. Clearly, when we emailed out the survey link, the majority of those motivated to participate were those who have waterers and wanted to share their experiences.
Second, 98% of the participants either owned or managed a horse farm. Approximately 2% of the participants did not, but filled out the survey anyway. We don’t think that the 2% is going to sway the results that much.
Third, this survey was limited to pasture waterers, not stall waterers. We will tackle that subject in a future survey.
Fourth, we did not address the problems of waterers in time of droughts or scorching heat. We will tackle that subject in a future survey.
Last, this is not a scientific study. This is a survey of a subset of our readers who we were able to reach via email and social media. While it may not be scientifically valid according to academic standards, we think our readers and our advertisers will find the results very interesting and very useful.

To the Test: Nelson vs. MiraFount vs. Bar-Bar-A
By Crystal Kimball, publisher

When husband and I decided this past summer to bite the bullet and install automatic waterers, I of course turned to our clients and readers to find out which brands they preferred. When I was younger, I had boarded or worked at farms with automatic waterers but that knowledge was now over 20 years out of date.The results of that first informal survey were not surprising. We learned that the vast majority of our readers do not have waterers, and of those that do have waterers, Nelsons still dominate. However, the first survey produced the same results as the March survey: Nelsons are high maintenance, requiring a very handy farm person or a professional to maintain. But those that have them, love them.Beyond Nelson, the field, as we saw again in our March survey, is fairly evenly split, with Ritchie, Miraco MiraFount and Bar-Bar-A dominating.So we decided to do our own comparison test. We were installing waterers in three different pastures, so we selected three different brands.

Because of their dominance, we decided to install one Nelson. We selected the largest insulated model (ostensibly designed for draft horses) with the heater.

We thought the theory behind the Bar-Bar-A was interesting. The Bar-Bar-A functions similar to a frost-free hydrant, with no standing water, eliminating the need for a heater. The horses learn to push a paddle to get water, and the water is always fresh, as there is never any standing water.

It was a toss-up between a Ritchie and a MiraFount, as the designs are similar, the reviews were similar and the customer service seemed similar. The Mirafount won out because of esthetics – we just thought it looked a little nicer than the Ritchie.

Equipment Costs
Bar-Bar-A and freight: $384.00, purchased directly from Bar-Bar-A with a neighbor who was placing a very large bulk order.

Miraco MiraFount L’il Spring 2800GR, with heater, heat tube and freight: $572.60, purchased through Sweizer Supplies.

Nelson NHW 760-24SH 16″ diameter x 25″ height, pad-mount with heater and freight: $764.22, purchased directly through Nelson.

Order Process
NELSON: We ordered direct from Nelson, which is the only option. Relatively easy process, and everything arrived in less than one week. Asked for a list of certified installers, which Nelson does not have, but it does maintain a list of installers that they like, and our plumber was on the list.

MIRAFOUNT: Ordered through Equiery client Sweizer’s. It arrived quickly but was the wrong color–not Sweizer’s fault, as the order was clearly correct. Replacement arrived quickly.

BAR-BAR-A: Ordered through neighbor who had ordered close to two dozen from the manufacturer and was receiving a discounted rate. Waterer arrived quickly, but with no maintenance instructions.

Installation Costs
Installation costs will vary dramatically depending upon distance from sources (such as well or electrical junction boxes); type of installation (impermeable surface aprons, permeable surface aprons, no aprons) and whether labor is handled in-house or contracted out.

We contracted for all installation (excavating, trenching, gravel, piping, 2 concrete aprons, stone dust, electrical, plumbing).
Total installation costs (rounded off): $9,800.
NOTE: The total costs for the Bar-Bar-A installation was less than $1,000 because we were able to use an existing water line, we did not need to run electric and we did not need to install a concrete apron because of the location.

Installation Process
Bar-Bar-A was the easiest and fastest to install as it needed no electricity. It also needed no concrete, but that had more to do with where we placed it (on top of a hill).

Because the other waterers were going in bottom pastures in which standing water and erosion are a challenge, concrete pads with 6′ aprons were poured. (NOTE TO SELF: Don’t do ALL the concrete work at the same time, because then there is no where to put the horses while the concrete cures, which can take up to 10 days!)

Once the concrete had set, the MiraFount went in quickly and easily.

Meanwhile, the Nelson installation got held up because the concrete guys (who have supposedly done this before) did not install 3/8″ bent threaded rod or carriage bolts into the wet concrete, and the plumber had to go with option B in the Nelson installation guide, which is to use stainless steel bolts and drill holes into the concrete. Unfortunately, such bolts have apparently become as rare as hens’ teeth, so that was another day of delay, over the weekend in which we had our first hard frost, and no heater in that lower pasture.

It would have made life easier on the plumber if the concrete guys had not only installed the bolts, but had also left the center of the pad, about 2′ worth, level. Installation guide calls for shimming and caulking. Plumber used grinder saw instead to make a level rim into which to set the Nelson.

Sunday, November 24 was the first day in which the temperature did not rise above freezing (high temp was 30, low temp was 23) and the MiraFount froze. After plumber and husband tested everything, turns out that the heating element was bad, perhaps had a short in it. Sweizer quickly replaced it.

Equine Learning Process
At the time of installation, we had three horses and two mules on the property: one old Thoroughbred, one old Morgan, one old “American Warmblood,” one old mule and one young mule. All adapted quickly to all three waterers. It took about three days for them to learn how to use the Bar-Bar-A paddle. (Yes, you can teach an old horse a new trick, and yes you can lead a horse to water and make him drink, if he is thirsty enough.)

And apparently, horses have some ability to process linear logic, as a basic “if this, then that” consequential process. “If I push down on this lever with my nose, I am rewarded with water to drink.” The warmblood apparently reasoned: “If I push down with my nose and get water, then maybe if I slam my foot on it, I will get even MORE water!” At first, we could not figure out why the Bar-Bar-A had so much grit and dirt in it that it was clogging up–until we saw the vandal slamming his foot on top of the waterer. Now, if he had a small, petite foot like the Morgan or mules, he might have been successful in getting water, as his foot would have fit into the bowl. But his platter-sized foot is bigger than the bowl, and so he just kept slamming the unit in frustration. THAT’s not good.

Because we were doing this study, we installed all waterers exactly in accordance with the manufacturers specifications. However, some Equiery clients who specialize in warmbloods have installed the Bar-Bar-As higher than manufacturer’s recommendation, and this is one of the reasons why they have done that. And they are quite happy with their Bar-Bar-As.

We have contacted Bar-Bar-A about this design challenge, and they will work on a resolution with us after the weather turns.

We needed to adjust the bowl/weight mechanism on the Nelson after the initial installation, but it has worked fine since.

Winter Performance
All waterers did well this winter. Any problems were farm owner errors!

And because we had heated automatic waterers in the pastures, during one of the really frigid stretches that did not involve snowstorms, we found it more practical to leave the horses out, because the stall water buckets were freezing up, but outside they had wonderful, free flowing tepid water and cozy run-ins with plenty of hay. (We also left up our Kool Kurtains on the run-ins over the winter, and the horses LOVED how cozy it made their sheds.
They would only leave their sheds to get long, long drinks of bathwater-temperature water and then run right back in.)

All three waterers, so far, seem to clean fairly easily.

Where we are today
Of the three brands, based on installation, equine adaptation, brutal winter performance, and maintenance, husband leans more towards the MiraFount. As far as I am concerned, the horses are equally happy with the Nelson and the MiraFount. That said, four out of the five equids on our property approved of the Bar-Bar-A, so I am not discounting the Bar-Bar-A yet. By ignoring the manufacturer’s installation recommendations, warmblood horse farms seem to have had great success with the Bar-Bar-As, so I look forward to working with the company to find a solution that the company can then perhaps include in future specifications.

We may change our mind about all the brands. It has not been a full year yet. We have not dealt with scorching heat, drought or falling leaves. So stay tuned!