DIY Chicken Waterers

I promised you a bit more detail on my DIY chicken waterers. These are both easy projects, with cheap or scavenged materials.

Let’s start with the more standard version. This gallon sized bucket waterer sits outside in their run and lasts 3-4 days for four birds in wicked heat.

This one works on the same gravity/suction principles as the commercially available waterers. It’s really quite simple. You turn the bucket right side up, fill with water, set a dish of some kind on top, then gripping both tightly, in one deft maneuver, flip the whole lot upside down. The water runs out through drilled holes near the (proper) top of the bucket (bottom when in use), and fills the dish. The holes need to be even with the desired water level, just below the lip of the dish. Meaning, if your dish (I’ve used a terra cotta planter dish) is one inch deep, make your holes about 3/4-7/8 inch from the top of the bucket, 1/4 inch-ish in diameter– it’s not very critical, the water will make it’s way out into the dish because gravity is a law. Why the water stays otherwise in the bucket I’m more hazy on. Something about suction and vacuum. Anyway, you don’t have to understand it, it works.

You can use a larger bucket to last longer between fillings, but I think more than 2 gallons would be unwieldy for the ole flipperoo.

I didn’t want to use the bucket kind inside my coop, because the coop is very small and the access door (that little piece of plywood mid-way down) is very skinny. I had dreamed up an alternative kind of waterer for my last coop in Alaska but never got around to the actually making. It seemed like it would be perfect this time around, since the bulk of the water sits outside.

First of all, are you familiar with that homesteaders’ best friend, the gravity “pump?” It’s a genius way to move water up and over something, even for some distance, so long as the end destination is lower than the start. For example you can use this to empty your kids pool across the yard and onto the lawn (if the lawn is even ever so slightly lower than wherever your pool sits). You have to somehow fill the hose with water, traditionally by putting one end into the water then sucking on the other end until you get a mouthful. So long as the mouthful end is lower than the pool end, gravity and suction will pull the water up over the edge of the pool and out onto the grass. This is also how hoodlums empty your gas tank at night so they can go joyriding on your hard-earned dollar.

As far as chicken waterers are concerned, my idea was to fill a big tote outside to an appropriate level, dunk a length of tubing under until it was full of water, plug the end with my thumb, then up and over the coop wall to a little trough inside, which would be slightly lower than the water level in the outside tote. Because the hose would be full of water, and water wants to flow to the lowest place, it would create a suction and pull the water up and over the coop wall to the inside trough. As the chooks drank the water level down, the trough would continue to fill from that outside tote.

But who cares? you may ask. Well, the point is that that little trough inside which conveniently takes up a mere 6 square inches of space, quite inconveniently can only hold about 2 cups of water. Four hens would polish that off in a couple of hours. By connecting it to the large tub outside, I can effectively offer up a couple of gallons of water, in that same 6 square inches of coop space. Plus, it’s easier to fill than the bucket waterer.

Of course, I am well aware that there exists on-demand waterers which draw off an outdoor water supply. But they’re expensive. This set up cost me about $7, the cost of the big tote and the length of hose. The little ‘trough’ I found in my stray tupperware cupboard. And although it’s going to sound complicated in description, it’s actually extremely simple to set up.

When I originally spawned the idea for my Alaska coop, I envisioned placing the outside tote under the eave of the coop, so that our (copious) Cordovan rainfall would fill it, at least some times (like the times when it was raining cats and dogs and I didn’t feel like going out to fill the chooks’ waterer). I still think this is a stellar idea, but is a bit more complicated since it requires guttering.

Instead, I just haul the hose over every three days or so and fill the outside tote up. Rain or shine.

The disadvantage is that, unlike those fancy on-demand waterers, you do have to clean the trough every day. Chooks love to scratch, and they fling their bedding all over the place in the process. No big deal, I just take the trough out (it hangs from two screws), dump the icky water and swish some clean water around. I ought to keep a brush out there to scrub it with, but haven’t gotten around to that seemingly simple task yet. I just use my fingers to rub the slime off. I’m that kind of girl.

Let it be known, there have been a few blips. First off, it’s imperative that both ends stay in the water. I have… umm, twisty ties… holding the tubing in place. One time I didn’t twist the tie enough, it came undone and the tubing got flipped out of the trough. The tubing then drained the entire tote’s worth of water right onto the floor of the coop. Fortunately it was on the very edge of the coop and didn’t cause a problem.

Also, right after I first installed the whole set-up, we left for an overnight trip. When we came back, it had just stopped working… There were bubbles of air in the tubing, and the nothing was moving. Not sure what happened exactly, but it hasn’t happened again. A fluke?

Anyway, point is, although this system can deliver 3 days worth of water, don’t count on it with your chooks’ lives. If you’re going out of town for more than one night, have someone come check on them. Which you would probably do anyway, right? Just had to say my piece.

DIY Gravity Pump Chicken Waterer


  • Tote or large container of some sort. Shallow is fine, actually it only needs to be a few inches deep, but the wider it is, the more water it will effectively be able to deliver. Don’t use something clear– if standing water gets light, algae will grow. Even more important, it must have a lid to keep mosquitoes out. I meant to cut a notch in my tote’s lid for the tubing to exit, but never got around to it, so I just set the lid on top lightly. Fortunately, the little gap created by the tubing doesn’t seem to be a problem, but if I leave the lid truly askew, the skeeters get in. If you see some weird little creatures swimming around, dump that water immediately! I’m pretty sure they die once they dry out.
  • Flexible vinyl tubing. It’s easy to get, it’s used for refrigerators’ ice makers, among other things. Our teensy little corner hardware store had several sizes. I used 1/4 inch (outside diameter), and I wouldn’t go any skinnier. Bigger would probably be better, but make sure you can plug it with your thumb. The length will depend on your situation (see below), just be sure to get a bit more than you think you need. Any extra can be coiled up in the bottom of the tote, or just cut off.
  • Drinking trough. Any old plastic container could do the job, so long as it’s sturdy enough to drill holes through, and hang up full of water.

Set Up:

First thing you need to do is consider placement. The trough needs to go inside, the tote needs to go outside, and the tubing needs to run in between the two, in a way that can easily be taken down and put back up (while your thumb is plugging the end). In other words, you can’t just drill a hole in a wall to run the tubing through. Capice?

So, install the inside drinking trough as near to your access door as possible. Drill two holes in the container big enough for a screw head to fit through, then put in two corresponding screws to hang it off of. Make sure to mount it at chicken chest level, the higher the better really, so long as they can still get into it comfortably. This helps keep the water clean.

Now, set your big tote outside the coop, also as close as possible to the door. It needs to be up at the same level, approximately, as the trough. It’s the water level that gravity will equalize, so keep that in mind. If you use a very deep tote, like mine, you will just be filling up the bottom 6 inches or so. Any more would be unnecessary, and you will want to change the water out completely once every couple of weeks, so why waste more than you need? I set my tote on top of another tote that I keep the feed in. Then whenever the feeder needs to be refilled, I consider it time to dump and clean the water tote.

Get one end of your tubing into the trough and the other into the tote outside. Don’t worry about water just yet, you need to affix the tubing to both the coop wall and the inside of the tote in a way that can be undone repeatedly. As I mentioned I use twistie ties. In the coop, since my ‘walls’ are made out of woven wire, I just twistied my ties right onto the wire. For the tote, I drilled two small holes well above my guestimated water level and put the twistie tie through the holes. If you are attaching to a solid wood wall, you could staple your twistie ties up. Whatever works. Make sure you put one down right by where the tubing goes into the trough, since that’s the spot most likely to get pulled on by a stray beak.

When you’re ready for water, start by filling the tote up to what you guess is about level with the middle of your trough. I had it easy because I can see my trough from the outside, so I just eyeballed it. But, this ain’t rocket science. Just wing it. You can adjust soon enough.

Now fill the trough up, just by hand. Then remove the tubing from the twistie ties and slowly dip it into the tote, a little at a time, watching to make sure it’s filling with water. Once it’s all under water, shake it around a bit and see if any bubbles come out. When you’re sure it’s all full of water, plug one end with your thumb and (making sure the other end stays in the water in the tote) get it into place in the trough, releasing your thumb when the tubing is fully under water.

Twistie tie that sucker up, then run inside and grab your sharpee and a pot. Don’t take too long. The water will quickly move towards equilibrium. Keep your hose handy and watch the level in the trough. If it goes down, add some more water into the tote. If the trough fills all the way up, and starts to overflow, dip some water out of the tote (it shouldn’t overflow very fast, mine just drips slowly when I’ve filled the tote too much). The speed it fills will depend on the size of tubing you used. Something about surface friction per square inch…

Once you’ve discovered the Sweet Spot, and the trough is full but not overflowing, mark the water level in the tote with your sharpee. Now every time you fill it, you can just fill it to that mark.

If you were setting this up to fill with rainwater, you’d want to drill big overflow holes right at the spot we just marked with a sharpee, otherwise big rains would flood right into your coop via your waterer.

Okay, got that? It sounds just so very complicated once I write it all out that I’m afraid no one will tackle this actually extremely simple project. Never fear, my dears! Once the basic principle is seen in action, it all makes sense.

[One last thing about daily use. When you take the trough down to clean it, unless you live somewhere that moisture is a problem, you can just leave leave the tubing hanging down, dripping. That way it stays full of water and you don’t have to do the whole dunk and fill process again. If you were concerned about moisture, you could stick a yogurt container in there to catch the dribble while you clean out the trough. Then when you hung the trough back up, you could just pour the accumulation in…]

Good luck! Let me know if you have any questions.

6 thoughts on “DIY Chicken Waterers

  1. Oh wow awesome!! Thanks for the idea! As soon as we get chicks again I will have to hook this up :) Thank you for sharing such a wonderful idea.. might even run the hose from the tote on the side (cut a small hole in the side, so the top can stay on) :)

  2. The water stays in the bucket, because for water to come out, air needs to go in to fill the space. Once the water level is higher than the holes you’ve made, no more air can get in the bucket, so no more water can come out :)

  3. Genius. I’ve hooked up both systems for trialing and I am pleased with the results so far. It can get very dry here (Queensland, Australia) and watering the chooks is a daily task. Also the presence of a poisonous introduced species the dry skinned cane toad means that standing water containers can become contaminated. These small dish solutions are ideal. The water is elevated and can’t house the toads but my chooks can get a drink anytime they like and no moving parts. Brilliant.

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