by Randy Graham
In 1931 the Hudson Manufacturing Company of Minneapolis obtained a patent for an improved chicken watering device “adapted to store water and automatically feed it to a drinking pan.” It consisted of a metal sleeve that “telescoped” over a metal water reservoir and was held in place by a pin on the reservoir locking into a slot on the sleeve. Water from the reservoir trickled into a “drinking pan” to keep the pan full as the water was consumed by the chickens.
If you have chickens you probably are using, or have used, one of these metal double-walled watering founts. All in all, it was a very nifty and ingenious invention.
But over the years I’ve said some pretty hateful things about these nifty and ingenious devices. Typically, I buy one at my local farm store, and it works great for a while. But without fail, it reaches a point where it starts to overflow and creates a quagmire of wet and smelly chicken litter on the floor of my coop.
That’s the point where my tradition has been to conduct a little funeral ceremony by saying a few appropriate words over the defunct fount. This is followed by the “flinging ceremony,” where I pitch it into the nearest dark corner of the coop.
And then I go out and buy a new one.
I could never figure out why the founts would always eventually fail, but one day after a few beers and some deep mulling, the answer finally occurred to me. Before I share my epiphany with you, let me first say a few words about the physics behind how these founts work. Yeah, I know. Physics. But please stay with me. This won’t be too wonky, and I’ll even throw in a magic trick.
So, here’s the problem: These water founts have a reservoir of water over a water trough. When they don’t work, the water just flows and flows and flows out of the hole in the bottom of the reservoir until the water trough overflows and the fount is sitting in the middle of a huge swamp of soggy pine shavings mixed with chicken poop and general scum from the coop floor.
And then the chickens all excitedly gather around and drink it because filthy water mixed with floor scum is apparently the ambrosial nectar of the gods if you’re a chicken. The question is, why does this only happen when the fount is broken?
Logically, water flows down, so you would think that the water would always flow and flow and flow out until the reservoir was empty. To explain why the water doesn’t flow and flow and flow, I give you the magic trick.
Get a playing card and a glass whose opening is smaller than the card. Go to your kitchen sink and run some water into the glass, then put the card over the top of the glass. Hold the card in place with your hand and flip the glass upside down.
I suggest you do this over the sink in case something goes awry. Make sure that the glass is completely upside down and the card is parallel to the floor and then remove your hand from the card. If the water comes pouring out at this point, then something went wrong.
Don’t blame me. You were doing this over the sink, right?
But if you did everything right, the card stays magically in place and the water magically remains in the glass. Only it isn’t magic. It’s physics—the same physics at work with the water fount.
Here’s the deal: There is something pressing up on that card; it’s air pressure. We’re surrounded by a whole lot of air. A whole ocean of it that covers the entire planet; the atmosphere. And all that air is heavy. It’s pressing with a weight of 14.7 pounds on every square inch of your body and everything else, including the card under the glass. You’re not aware of it because it is pressing from every direction with the same force. In the case of the card, the force of the air pushing up on the card is greater than the force of the water in the glass pushing down, so the card stays in place.
Now imagine that you drill a tiny hole in the top of the glass. Suddenly, air has a way to get into the glass and the force of the air pushing down from above becomes the same as the air pushing up from under the card. When those two forces cancel each other out, the only force left is the weight of the water. Then the water comes pouring out of the glass and hopefully you’re still holding it over the sink.
This, of course, is why the water fount fails. Somebody has drilled tiny holes into your water fount. Find out who that person is and keep them away from your coop!
There. Problem solved.
Actually, holes do form over time without the intervention of an evil saboteur with a drill. They form at the weak points along the seams and especially at the rivet points where the handle is attached at the top. That’s why the manufacturer usually tells you, in very fine print on the label, never to hang the fount by the handle or carry it by the handle when it’s full of water. You should carry it only by the handle on the inside piece. The handle on the outer sleeve should only be used to pull the outer sleeve off the inside piece.
So, fixing the fount is simply a matter of plugging the holes. I went to my friendly local lumber yard and bought a small tube of silicone caulk, and a cheap disposable foam brush. I used a scrub brush and some detergent to clean up all my defective founts, allowed them to dry, and then applied a thin bead of caulk to the side and top seams of the inside of the outer sleeve and then squirted a generous amount of caulk in the top where the handle attaches. Finally, I used the brush to spread the caulk into a thin film.
After they dried overnight, I filled the founts with water, and they all worked like new. Using aquarium silicone caulk guarantees that the caulk doesn’t contain mildew inhibitor or other toxic components. But in fact, that’s just an extra bit of caution since the outer sleeve that’s getting the caulk has no contact with the water, so there’s really no issue with anything in the caulk leaching into the water.
The chickens, by the way, if they had thumbs, would give a “thumbs-up” to this solution!