How Automatic Livestock Waterers Work – Part 1: Refilling Systems

Baby horse drinking out of an automatic waterer

An internet search for “automatic livestock waterers” will turn up an overwhelming number of different makes, models, and styles. A basic understanding of how automatic waterers work can help you sort through the melee and figure out which one will work best for you.

There are two major operational components in automatic waterers: the refilling system, and the heating system. In part 1, we cover the different refilling systems available on the market today.

Float and Valve System

The vast majority of automatic waterers work on a basic float-valve system, much like a household toilet. A float sits on water level and is attached by pulley to a valve that opens and closes the water line. When the float lowers as the water level lowers, it pulls on the valve and opens the water line. When the water level rises back up, the float rises and releases the valve, turning the water flow back off.

This system depends on the presence of a standing water tank. Generally speaking, the larger the watering capacity, the larger the tank. And the larger the tank, the larger the cleaning chore! What’s more, large tanks for livestock waterers are often cemented or bolted into the ground – impossible to detach, remove, flip over, or otherwise clean conveniently. The tank must be cleaned where and how it stands, which is not only difficult but also dangerous to do in the middle of a livestock pen full of thirsty animals.

Furthermore, turning the water line on and off for cleaning can be difficult or impossible, as the valve is submerged underwater or may even be below ground. Even if you did manage to get the water line turned off, you are still faced with the problem of draining the multi-gallon tank. This is simply not a system that is conducive to cleaning!

Nelson’s Patented Balance Beam System

Nelson’s automatic livestock waterers work on a unique, revolutionary refilling system. In Nelson’s livestock waterers, the drinking bowl actually sits on a balance beam with a counter-weight on the opposite end. As animals drink and the weight in the bowl lightens, the beam becomes off-balance and opens the water valve. As the bowl is filled back up, the beam becomes balanced and shuts the valve back off.

Nelson’s system allows for large watering capacity without large tanks – all you ever need to clean is the drinking bowl. Furthermore, there is no submerged or underground water valve you need to worry about getting to – simply turn off the water line by locking the balance beam in place with a lever located just inside the assembly. Then you can remove the bowl, clean it away from the livestock, and return, being sure to put the beam back in the unlocked position. It’s a system that allows for both large watering capacity AND convenient, safe cleaning! You can see how it all works and how easy it is to clean here: Nelson Manufacturing Automatic Waterer Video.

Self-Operated Lever

There is a final refilling system available in a few automatic livestock waterers: the self-operated lever. In this system, the animal actually pushes down on a lever to release water into the drinking bowl. The system is convenient in the sense that there is never any standing – and therefore freezing – water to worry about. The system does not require a heating element and, without any standing water, rarely needs to be cleaned. It is, essentially, a hydrant.

But there are problems with this system. The biggest issue is that it cannot handle large watering demands – if you have any more than just a few animals, this is not the system for you. The other issue is that it encourages playing, leading to breakage or injury. Nelson’s waterers actually discourage playing, because when the animal presses down on the bowl, the balance beam is tilted and the water valve shuts off – no more water! Animals quickly learn to step up to the bowl, have their drink, and step away – no playing or crowding.

In Part 2, we cover different heating systems available in automatic livestock waterers. Even more than refilling systems, choosing the right heating system is critical for hassle-free, year-round watering. Be sure to watch for this next installment!