Bringing power to the pasture

Whether you need to water five bulls on pasture before turnout or 500 head of cows grazing corn in winter, solar powered pasture-watering systems offer a flexible and reliable year-round water source for Western Canadian producers, says a long-time manufacturer.

Technology and equipment has improved over the years, making it possible to produce watering systems that work with a just about every water source there is, says Jason Wright, owner of CAP Solar based in Olds, Alta.

“And as more producers are looking at developing year-round grazing systems, a solar-powered water system can provide a year-round, trouble-free, relatively low-maintenance source of water, whether it’s next to the farmyard or 10 miles from the nearest power pole,” says Wright. “Systems can be sized to supply water for everything from a few head of horses to a 500-head cow herd.”

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Solar powered watering systems certainly aren’t a new concept. CAP Solar was a pioneer in business, launching some of its first systems to the market more than 30 years ago. Design of the insulated and non-insulated water troughs, electrical and pumping equipment and remote monitoring of watering systems has evolved over the years. Technology has even greatly reduced the cost of the solar panels themselves. The Alberta Solar Energy Society recently reported a solar panel module cost about $75 per watt in 1977; today that cost is about $1 per watt.

CAP Solar makes a range of portable and permanent solar-powered watering systems. The simplest portable system might involve a solar panel that powers a floating pump in a dugout or pond that pumps water into a nearby summer-season trough. They have also designed portable systems completely self-contained on a skid. A trough supported by a steel frame, with solar panels mounted overhead can be easily dragged from one pasture to another.

One of their most popular systems is a year-round permanent, fully-insulated tank system that can be connected to almost any water source.

“The tanks can be positioned over a drilled or cased-well, or used with a wet well which receives water from a nearby dugout, or connected to a pressurized water pipeline system,” says Wright.

The heavily urethane-insulated circular tanks are eight feet in diameter and can be outfitted with up to four water bowls or drink tubes, depending on the number of animals to be watered. The bowls are mounted around the outside edge of the tank.

At the centre of the tank is a 36-inch diameter cap where electrical connections and a submersible pump can be inserted into the water source below. Once sealed, the tank remains virtually ice free, due to the geothermal heat of the ground below the tank as well as heat from water circulating through the system.

A common installation for CAP Solar is to position a tank on either a cement or well-packed gravel pad over a standpipe of the water source. Many producers place the tanks over drilled wells. The majority of the wells are 100 feet deep or less, but CAP Solar has installed several systems over wells 250 feet deep, and the system can be designed to work with drilled wells up to 500 feet in depth.

Wet well systems involve extending a three or four inch pipe from the bottom of a dugout into a 24 inch diameter upright cribbing or stand pipe. The cribbing is often a galvanized culvert, a large diameter double-walled drain tile or a fibreglass tube.

Whether it is a drilled well casing or wet well cribbing, a submersible pump is inserted through the top cap of the tank.

While solar panels collect the sun’s energy, CAP Solar watering systems come with rechargeable battery storage, holding enough energy to power the watering system from three to five days. “Let’s face it, we are going to run into cloudy, overcast and foggy days” says Wright. “The batteries will carry the system when the sun isn’t shining. If we run into overcast days, and perhaps the sun comes out for only four or five hours, often that is enough to recharge the batteries.”

As a further backup to overcast days, CAP Solar also offers an optional adaptor feature so batteries can be hooked up to a gas-powered generator.

“It is an option we’ve found that producers really appreciate,” says Wright. “We can run into stretches, particularly during those short daylight days in winter when it is cloudy or stormy. On those occasional stretches producers can simply plug in their generators, just leave them running for the day and know if they have 300 or 400 head of cows out grazing swaths the watering system is running. It is fairly simple and provides peace of mind.”

One other relatively new option that improves management of solar power pasture watering systems is a satellite-based tank monitoring system. The unit can monitor power levels and water supply at a tank installation and alert the producer’s smart phone if something isn’t working.

“This is a particularly useful feature if you have a watering system in a remote area, it’s not handy to get to, or perhaps the producer is trying to get other field operations done, they don’t have feel like they have to run out and check a watering system everyday,” says Wright. “With a monitor installed, that operates off of satellite signal and not cell phone service, it doesn’t matter where the watering system is they can get an alert if there is any problem with the system. Some producers have wondered if it is really necessary and then they’ve come back to me and said the monitor has really changed their life in the sense the system is easier to manage and gives them peace of mind.”

CAP Solar, with largely a western Canadian market, and some sales into the U.S. Midwest and internationally, says designs, materials and technology have improved over the years to improve the operation, durability and longevity of the watering systems.

If a producer has a pressurized waterline and is just looking for the year-round features of the water tank, the tank itself costs $3,300 complete. The cost of tank connected to a solar powered system, with batteries will range from $8,000 to $10,000 depending on the number of water bowls, pump size and solar panels needed. The satellite monitor costs $1,700 for the monitor plus $39 per month for the satellite service (although the monthly fee only applies to the months the service is used.)

With all components in place, the tank will be capped. The 36-inch diameter core will capture and hold thermal heat from the ground and water.

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