Adding insulation to heated water tanks

A winterizing tip to help keep your cattle watered

It is that time of the year when we find ourselves fighting the cold weather to provide water for our stock. Many ranchers and farmers use heated water tanks to increase water consumption for stock/horses while reducing or eliminating the battle with ice and wasted water. Unfortunately heaters are expensive to operate and are not infallible in sub-zero temperatures. With a bit of innovation, and a few recycled materials many of us have laying around the barnyard, it is possible to increase the efficiency and reduce sub-zero freeze up of these tanks.

These heaters are thermostatically controlled to maintain the temperature of the water to a pre-set range above freezing. As air temperature drops the heating element is activated for longer periods and more often. The first place the owner notices the impact of colder weather is the increase in the electric bill. As temperatures continue to drop tanks begin to freeze as a point is reached where the heaters can no longer offset the cold air temperatures.

Adding insulation

Many of us have bought tanks with drain plug heaters or added the heaters to tanks ourselves. Most of these tanks are made of single layer material, either galvanized metal or plastic. These non-insulated tanks are where efficiency and freeze up become an issue. If you have ever noticed the snow melted away from the tank, you are losing a considerable amount of energy from the tank and are at risk of sub-zero freeze up. Simply by creating a dead-air space of an inch or two (2.5-5.0 cm) between the tank and outside temperature the amount of energy required to keep the water warm is dramatically reduced.

The following process can be applied to both small individual tubs and larger tanks. Small tubs (16 gallon/60.56 litre) use smaller heating elements (approximately 200 watt) and are most susceptible to freezing at temperatures below 0 F/-18 C.

Once the tubs and insulation are assembled, trim away some of the excessive spray foam insulation and apply paint to the top edge, which helps to protect the foam.

Once the tubs and insulation are assembled, trim away some of the excessive spray foam insulation and apply paint to the top edge, which helps to protect the foam.
photo: Michael Thomas

Materials needed

Used cattle supplement tubs (blue tubs in photos) work great to provide an outer jacket for these small tubs. You will need a couple cans of expanding insulating spray foam, some waterproof filler material (Styrofoam packing peanuts work great), and a can of all-weather spray paint.

Assembly steps

Clean the inside of the livestock supplement (blue) tub.

  1. Drill a hole on the side of the supplement tub, near the bottom, just large enough to allow for the heater’s power cord.
  2. Drill a series of small holes, about a foot apart, in the side of the supplement tub near the bottom to allow any moisture that accumulates within the jacket to escape.
  3. Next apply expanding spray foam to the inside bottom of the supplement tub in a spiral pattern from the outside edge to the centre.
  4. Allow the spray foam a few minutes to expand to its limit and then carefully insert the water tub into the supplement tub, drawing the power cord for the heater unit through the hole in the bottom supplement tub as you go. Centre the water tub in the supplement tub as it settles into the foam. It works best to allow the water tub to nest in the foam, allowing a small space between the bottom of the water tub and the supplement tub.
  5. Next, insert the filler material (Styrofoam peanuts) loosely into the void between the water tub and the supplement tub.
  6. When you have filled the void to within about six inches (15.24 cm) of the top of the supplement tub, apply more spray foam, a layer at a time, until you reach the top of the supplement tub. Allow the spray foam time to cure.
  7. Using a sharp knife or thin-bladed saw, trim away any excess foam material that has expanded above the supplement tub.
  8. Apply two to three coats of all-weather spray paint to protect the foam and allow it to cure. The newly insulated heated water tub is now ready to begin giving you electrical savings and less headaches on cold days.

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