Frozen watertanks or troughs can be the headace of any cold area farmer or even pet owner and getting scalded by boiling water is just as tiresome. So, we are going to go over some of the steps you can take to midigating the issue of water frezzeing and keeping the sledge hammer at bay. These are both low cost options as well as some of the more standard practices for many folks. The methods covered are based on essentially two theories of keeping water from freezing:

Theory 1 – Keep it moving/Use basic knowldege

As most of us know when water is moving it very often has a much harder time freezing and when it does, it is usally thin and easily broken. (With the exceptions of a few rivers here in Alaska) This is why methods of keeping things moving in the watertank can be a great way of ensuring access for livestock and animals.

Option 1:

A basketball, tennis ball, or other non-sinking object bobs and floats around in the water, agitating the surface and making it difficult for an ice skin to form over the top of the tank. Plus there’s an added benefit in really cold weather! If an ice skin does manage to form, the floating object creates a weak spot in the ice that your horse can more easily break by pushing down on the ball to create a drinking hole.

Be careful that the object you use isn’t imparting a funny flavor to the water or scaring your livestock away from drinking deeply. If you don’t see livestock comfortably approaching the trough, stay with them and use treats and kind words to show them that the new floating objects are safe to drink next to.


An old cowboy trick is to fill milk jugs, or other sealed plastic containers, with salt water and place a few in the stock tank. Saltwater has a lower freezing point than freshwater and tends to stay liquid even in the coldest weather.

In fact a water to salt mixture of about 3:1 won’t freeze until around -5 Fahrenheit. That’s the cold! So a saltwater bottle can easily last all night in the single digits without freezing.

Option 2:

Purchase a water circulatory systems designed to keep water motion moving and circulating. Most of what you’ll find at your local farm store is run on batteries but you can also hook them up to solar power. This is can then paired with a good rubber tank that has thicker walls or having insolated walls.

A double walled storage container is a popular solution for increasing thermal insulation. Double walls are used in ice chests, thermoses, and even in our homes. Sandwiching insulating materials in between these 2 walls also add an extra level of protection. So why not use the same practice on your winter water troughs? Simply Place your water container within a slightly larger one and pack the empty space with animal safe insulative material…there is plenty around.

Wood shavings, hay, straw, and even manure can be used in between the double walls and provide your water with extra thermal protection. If your outside container is made of black rubber, even better. The black rubber will absorb solar heat and give you an added advantage over mother nature. Some livestock owners even use old tires to encase their waterers. Just make sure your insulative barrier does not prevent your animals from reaching the inner water trough.

Option 3:

If you see any ice forming on the surface of your water trough, remove it as soon as possible. Ice crystals act as seeds and will encourage more water to freeze if left in the trough. Removing ice and refilling will help your liquid water last longer. During the winter time, there is a noticeable temperature differential between sunlight and shadow. Relocate your troughs so they receive as much full sun as possible. Depending upon your hemisphere, be aware of the direction and angle of your winter sunlight. Consider using a black trough that can absorb and retain radiant heat from the sun during the day. Larger volumes of water self-insulate and take much longer to freeze than smaller volumes of water. If you are using buckets for water, consider switching to a larger volume tank. For some areas, simply filling your trough to the brim before temperatures drop may be enough to keep your water fluid.

Option 4:

Some other none motion but still not electirc options to consider is to keep watertanks near each other to make a gathered heat area. Grouping your troughs close together within the pasture or enclosure creates a “heat island.” As livestock gather together to drink their body temperatures combine to create a warm spot around your water sources. Placing water troughs together will also provide them with additional insulation from the cold. This will also save you time and energy as you make fewer trips to check on water sources. 

Option 5:

Before the ground freezes, dig down below your typical frost line and create a space for your trough. Partially burying your trough can help keep it fluid even in sub-freezing temperatures. This enables you to capture geo-thermic heat rising from the earth and provide additional insulation and prevent your water tank from freezing. Creating a windbrake is also a part of this method that work together. Livestock naturally try and find ways to gather together and stay out of the winter wind. Building a 3 walled windbreak around your water source will entice your warm-blooded animals to congregate and find relief from the wind. This wind-break will now become the heat island mentioned earlier. Also, make sure the open side faces in the direction of the sun so you are not shading your water tank too much.

Theory 2 – Heat it up!

This tends to be the most straight forward of options as it can be plugged in and operational without any real issues. You can utilize built in heated buckets, electric water heaters, and propane heaters when poweroutages are a concern. Make sure though if you are using an electic water heater and it is not built in to use a metal watertank for saftey. Heated blankets wrapped around the tank is a great way warm it without worry of your animals touching any heating elements.

If all of these still don’t seem to fit you watering needs you can always turn to an automated water system so that water is only avalible when requested by the animals and not sitting out in the open.


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