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Water, water everywhere: How to install an automatic watering system

By Dr. Mayes Mathews

Don't you hate it when someone comes up to you and says that the water tub in the back pasture is totally empty, or that the young colt has upset his water bucket again? Dehydration, colic, visits from the Animal Control Officer, or even worse - a feeling of overwhelming guilt when you realize that you have let down your trusting pet once again. All of these are real concerns when water is not there when your horse needs it the most.

With about 50 horses on hand at Stonehouse Stables, filling water buckets and tubs was no small chore. It took more than four hours per day to hook up hoses and fill tubs and buckets. And with labor costs, including fringe benefits, running more than $13 per hour, it made sense to consider automating the whole watering process.

Payback Biz Whiz

Businesses often use a procedure called Payback Analysis to help evaluate major purchase decisions. The procedure looks at how long it takes to pay back the initial cost of a proposed purchase. The payback funds may either come from anticipated savings or the funds may come from projected future revenue. The idea is the same either way. If there are several desirable choices, the strategy is to choose the alternative with the quickest or shortest payback.

The Payback Period is simply the Initial Cost of the proposed purchase divided by the either the anticipated savings or the projected revenue.

For example, stable owner Tom Collins is thinking about buying a set of clippers that will let him save the fifty dollars he now spends each time he wants to have his horse trimmed. He has located three different clipper sets and each has some unique features that result in various amounts of savings that he can expect per month, i.e.: different blade replacement rates, battery life, maintenance requirements, etc. To proceed, he assembled the following data:

Supplier Initial cost Savings per Month Payback Period - Month
XYZ Co. $170 $11 15.5
QTRIM $140 $8 17.5
Western Brands, Inc. $150 $14 10.7


Using the Payback Analysis procedure would result in Tom's selecting the $150 set of clippers because they have the shortest payback period of 10.7 months.

With about 50 horses on hand, filling water buckets and tubs at our stable was no small chore, It took over four hours per day to hook up hoses and fill tubs and buckets. And with labor costs, including fringe benefits, running over $13 per hour, it made sense to consider automating the whole watering process.

The cost of the materials to do the job was about $3800. We could do the installation ourselves. Payback Analysis showed that a period of seventy-three days, a little more than two months of hand watering at four hours per day, would pay back the cost for the complete automation. No need to delay or budget for this one. The potential savings and other benefits were too great to delay or ignore.

Knowing the required payback period needed for an alternative a is a simple but powerful decision making tool for owners of stables of any size.

A Payback Analysis favored immediate complete automation of stable watering. No need to delay. The potential savings and other benefits were too great to ignore.

The basic plan

Two water wells were in place at two different locations and were already producing an adequate water supply. These wells were to be connected to a perimeter water supply loop that went around the whole barnyard. Anti-siphon valves were to be installed at each pump to prevent accidentally drawing water out of the perimeter loop, back into the water supply. All farm water needs were to be supplied automatically from takeoff spurs from this perimeter loop. The barnyard was adjacent to four pastures and three paddocks. It included three barns as well.

A powered ditch digger was rented and used to cut a four-inch wide, one-foot deep trench around the perimeter of the barnyard. Trenches were cut from the perimeter loop to the paddocks, pastures and barns.

A trench must be deep enough to prevent a water line from freezing in the winter. Local building codes prescribe a minimum depth, called a frost or freeze line. At our stable, the frost line is six inches deep, but we went deeper to protect the line from other potential breakage.

We used one-inch PVC SCHD 40 (Poly Vinyl Chloride) pipe and valves for the perimeter loop. Joints were cleaned with an appropriate primer and then "welded" using transparent PVC cement. Since approximately 1,500 feet of PVC pipe was to be installed, we elected to buy pipe with a built-in bell on one end, thereby eliminating the need to purchase a connector fitting for every joint. Joints required only a light coating of primer and cement on the inside of the fitting, with primer and a heavier coating of adhesive on the exterior. We then simply slipped one pipe into the other and twisted the joint a quarter of a turn to ensure a good seal.

Four one-inch ball valves were installed to segment the perimeter loop. This way, should a break occur, the break could be isolated and the remainder of the automated water system could continue to be used until the break is repaired. A 1x1x3/4-inch reducing tee was installed at each takeoff point for each barn and automated water site.

At or near each takeoff point, two 3/4-inch ball valves were installed at the fence line, inside the barnyard. One ball valve feeds water into a 3/4-inch check valve and then on to the automated water device. The other ball valve feeds water to a nearby frost-free valve. We set the ball valves in a commercially available valve box.

Also, a 12x12x1/4-inch metal plate was fabricated. This plate, placed over the top of the buried valve box, prevents a wayward horse from stepping through. The metal plate also helps us find the valve box after the grass has grown. We use a rod or a magnet to find the box in an emergency. 

Frost-free valves may be obtained from Southern States dealers. These valves drain out the residual water in the valve and pipe when the water flow is turned off. That way, the properly installed frost-free valve will not freeze. If the automated water device somehow is damaged, the corresponding ball valve may be closed and the frost-free valve may be connected to a hose. The hose may then be used to temporarily fill a stock water tank--also available from Southern States.

Automatic waterers

We discussed our watering needs with Kevin Nuckols, assistant manager of our nearby Southern States store in Gloucester, Va. He told us Southern States carries a wide range of sizes of waterers. Also, they offer a variety of heated or energy-free models.

Eventually we elected to install three different models: the Behlen Insulated Horse Pasture Model, the Tarter Electric Waterer, and the Miller Galvanized automatic stall waterer. PVC, waterers, hydrants, repair parts, hoses and other supplies are available through your Southern States dealer.

The Behlen Insulated Horse Pasture Waterer has an automatic pressure fountain fill valve and should supply up to 25 horses. The heavy insulated poly body helps to keep water cool in the summer and warm in the winter. In colder climates you may need to add an optional infrared heater during winter months. Except for a skim of ice after cold nights, our unheated pasture waterer has never frozen. There seems to be enough ground warmth captured under the shell to prevent any freezing of supply lines and valves.

The Tarter Electric Waterer was selected for paddocks and one-half-inch Quest pipe was used to go from the takeoff point ball valve to the waterer. Quest pipe can tolerate freezing and is therefore a better choice than PVC for this application. These waterers are made of polyethylene and should provide strong, corrosion-free service for many years. Because we have these paddock waterers installed on the fence line, they need to have a heating element to prevent freezing.

The Miller Galvanized automatic stall waterer is used in all three of our barns. Originally, we used PVC pipe but found that it becomes brittle and breaks easily when exposed to freezing conditions. Accordingly, we have now shifted to Quest pipe in one barn and will eventually swap out the existing PVC entirely.

Since our barn piping is exposed, we must drain down the automated watering system during freezing conditions. Although rarely done, draining is a better choice than letting the pipes break. The Miller waterer has an adjustable float that lets you maintain a constant water level. The easy-to-clean bowl has a large drinking area.

Maintenance and repair


All of these waterers have proven to be relatively foolproof and easy to repair. All are extremely reliable with excellent part support. We do have to drain down our barn systems in freezing weather, as we used PVC pipe in exposed areas. But this inconvenience is relatively minor when compared to the tremendous saving we have realized over hand-watering.

Nothing is horse-proof, and for this reason we keep a spare paddock and stall waterer on hand. We also keep spare parts to let us repair the float valves for these waterers. For the pasture waterer, we keep a spare pressure valve on hand, as fine silt may eventually clog the controller. After installing the spare, we clean and reuse the pressure valves. We do clean all waterers on a regular basis. But that is also a lot less trouble than cleaning buckets and watering troughs.

Smaller stables

Kevin Nuckols also suggested that small farms might purchase one of several sizes of stock tanks carried by Southern States stores. The stock tank could be automatically filled from a hose fitted to a Southern States Dare-O-Matic float (non-siphoning) float valve. And he also suggested fitting the stock tank with a J.L.Williams P-10500 cleaner and refill that uses non-toxic 100 percent natural safe for animals beneficial bacteria to keep tanks clean and clear while reducing unpleasant odors.

The amount of savings we have experienced through automation is tremendous. The horses benefit from having water where they want it when they want it. Our boarders are happy that their animals are well cared for and we are delighted with the fine Southern States support Kevin gives us as we continue to use and appreciate the benefits of this installed watering automation project.

Mayes D. Mathews, Ph.D., is a business and computer information systems professor with Saint Leo University. He also has taught hydraulics and pipeline design at the U.S. Army Quartermaster School at Fort Lee, Va. He owns and operates Stonehouse Stables near Williamsburg, Va., with his wife, Cheryl, and daughter, Tara (

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