Did you know that you can make your own naturally freeze-resistant water buckets, troughs, or ponds using natural materials you already have on your farm? This might sound a little crazy, but compost is a surprizingly effective way to insulate buckets. Everyone knows compost heats up- it’s part of the decomposition process and the reason that compost piles and manure heaps tend to remain snow-free even when the garden or barnyard is covered with snow. Prepared in advance of winter weather or thrown together at the last minute, this method has been surprisingly effective through several winter emergencies on our farm. Read on to learn more.
Using Compost to Keep Water Thawed
In this post, I’ll be showing you how one very, very cold winter in Missouri when an ice storm cut power to our farm for a week, we improvised a way to provide drinkable water to our herd of 3 horses while temperatures hovered below freezing. When downed trees toppled power lines and cut electricity, all of our winter housekeeping was put to the test: no bucket heaters, no stock tank deicers, and not even the option to haul a frozen hose into a warm indoor laundry room to thaw out before the next watering!
TIP: when you don’t have a heated place to keep your hoses thawed out and usable, watering horses can get difficult. There are two ways to keep hoses thawed in freezing temperatures without electricity: 1. you can drain your hose after each use, or 2. you can actually store your hose in a large trough filled with water – if the water stays thawed, your hose will stay thawed, flexible, and usable.
How to Build a Compost Heated Bucket or Trough
Manure can be used to keep water thawed, but naturally raises questions about how to keep the drinking water clean. Read on and these instructions will show you how.
1. Find nesting containers
Find two water containers that fit within one another, with lots of space to spare between the two. Two matching 5-gallon buckets technically fit inside one another, but leave no gaps between- we need containers that leave plenty of space- such as a 10-gallon bucket inside of a muck bucket, or a 100-gallon tank inside a 150-gallon tank. Rusty or leaky old metal stock tanks (cheap buys at summer farm auctions) work great for the larger vessel.
2. Fill with Manure or Compost
Fill the bottom and sides of the larger stock tank with a 50/50 mix of very fresh manure and fine plant matter. Hay or straw work- and this is a great way to use up any hay or straw bales showing signs of mold. If you are in a winter emergency and need this to keep your water thawed without electricity, use still-warm manure and don’t break up the natural clumps of manure.
If you have a compost pile already heated and compost, dig to the center of the heap and use the existing compost mixed with fresh components to speel natural heat production.
3. Insert Smaller Bucket
Place the smaller bucket or tank directly on top of the fresh manure/compost mix and press down to seat the bucket in the compost.
4. Fill Gap between Trough Walls
Fill the sides, between the two water containers, about half-way up the sides with more of the manure/compost mixture. Pack densely, but not overpacking (oxygen is a part of the natural composting process)
After the halfway point, fill the remaining gap between containers with clean straw (or woodchips, if no straw is available). This step is very important in order to prevent contamination of the clean water with manure or debris.
5. This bucket warming process works in two ways:
Immediately, warmth from the fresh manure is insulated and held in. Clean water placed in the bucket, along with the layers of buckets and straw, hold in that heat, helping to keep buckets from freezing.
If Left Undisturbed: Through this process, you’ve just built a tiny, self-contained compost pile. If left to sit, natural heat from bacterial growth and decomposition will build quickly- peaking in heat production at about 3-4 weeks.
If you are in a winter emergency, depending on temperatures you may need to repeat the process of insulating a bucket with fresh manure daily. The combination of still-warm manure insulated by straw and double buckets can, in our experience, prevent buckets from freezing overnight even in temperatures in the low teens.
Burying a Stock Tank
Using the heat of the earth is another way to naturally raise the temperature of a horse pasture’s stock tank, reducing or eliminating dependence on electric bucket heaters. Water troughs buried or partially buried in the ground freeze more slowly, making it easier to keep the water thawed and/or the ice layer thin enough that your horses are able to break the ice to drink when needed.
You can partially bury your trough during the months when the ground nearby is thawed, or you can mound dirt up around the edges to create less effective, but still helpful, insulation. If you bury your trough, remember to make sure a raised lip remains above ground, to prevent dirt from being kicked into the water, and make a plan for cleaning the trough out. (A buried trough may need to be pumped out and/or lifted for periodic cleaning)
In a winter emergency, you might even want to heap snow around the outside of your trough, packing it well into place, to help provide an extra layer of insulation.
One of my most popular posts on this blog is about how to build a DIY above ground pond, but whether your pond is above ground or in ground, compost can be one way to insulate it from the freezing and thawing cycle that can be so damaging to garden pond plants, fish, and pond materials.
Pond bases dug out and lined with 3-4 inches of fresh compost materials can expect a slightly higher water temperature for 12-18 months after the compost placement. Your local county extension office should be able to help you with compost “recipes” with nitrogen balances that will heat up quickly or create a long, slow release of heat as the compost breaks down. As a bonus- when you eventually remove your pond for cleaning or liner replacement, you’ll have rich, soft compost to cart to your garden or ready to plan directly!