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Dangers of Heat Lamps in the Chicken Coop and Safe Alternatives ft. Division Chief Davidson

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Show Notes

Join Nicole and Division Chief Davidson as they talk about the dangers of heat lamps in the chicken coop and safe alternatives.

What You’ll Learn

  • What are the dangers of heat lamps?
  • How to use heat lamps safely
  • Alternatives to heat lamps

Our Guest

Our guest today is Division Chief of Inspections Brad Davidson of the Pueblo West Fire Department. Chief Davidson is an expert in fire safety and very knowledgeable in fire prevention.

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    Announcer: Welcome to the Backyard Bounty podcast from, where we talk about all things backyard poultry, beekeeping, gardening, sustainable living and more. And now here's your host, Nicole.

    Nicole: Good morning, everybody. Thank you for joining us for another episode of Backyard Bounty. Today, I'm joined by Division Chief Brad Davidson who works for Pueblo West Fire Department and Chief Davidson actually works for the department that I work at, so we've known each other for a while now and he and I have had several experiences in the past with people who have caught their chicken coops on fire. So today we're here to talk to you about chicken coop heating and safety and ways that you can heat your chicken coop if you choose to do so safely. Chief Davidson also has quite a few years of experience in the fire service and really specializes in education and teaching people about fire safety, so I'm really thankful that he agreed to be with us today. So Chief, thanks for joining me on the show.

    Brad: Hey, thank you for the invite and I look forward to helping out with your podcast here, and giving some information out to everybody. If we can help eliminate a fire from their property or to their animals, I think we've done our job.

    Nicole: Yeah, I agree. I feel like if you can save one chicken coop then that makes it all worthwhile.

    Brad: That's right, that's right.

    Nicole: Hopefully more than one. So obviously come the fall and winter people, they want to keep their little chickies or their goats or whatever it may be warm and comfortable in the winter, and so we inevitably end up on a variety of fires, some of them even to the point that has compromised the actual house that the people are living in, not just the chicken coop. So maybe start with the heat lamps, I suppose here.

    Brad: Sure. Well, what you touched on, Nicole, was the chicken coops in trying to keep the animas warm when it starts getting cold. What we've found in the last few years, and especially this last year, we had four different fires during the year that were all caused by heat lamps that were improperly installed and improperly used, from the smallest chicken coop to a very large barn that luckily none of the animals got hurt in but destroyed the horse shelter that they were using. So there are a lot of different types of lamps out there that could be used or people are using and I don't think they're taking the time to take a few seconds, read up on the material what they should be using and using the right light bulbs.

    Brad: What we found in some of our studies and our research of what lamps that should be used is everybody thinks that they can just go to Walmart and buy just a heat lamp and that's good. Well, really they should be taking the time to check of the light bulb, make sure they've got the right bulb, the right wattage, and make sure it is a true heat lamp and not a painter's lamp, which is easily confused. The difference, you can tell, is on a painter's lamp, the socket inside is made of plastic and when you buy the red heat lamps, that's a 250 watt bulb and it actually gives off over 400 degrees of heat, which a little bit of over time and misuse will actually break down the plastic and cause a short in the lamp.

    Brad: Whereas a true heat lamp, the connection or where you screw the bulb into is actually made out of porcelain and can withstand the heat that these light bulbs are given off. So that's something to take into consideration. How they're mounting the lamps, they're buying the ones with just a quick clip where they just squeeze it and stick it on to a piece of wood. Well, those are falling off, maybe due to the wind out in the chicken coop or maybe the animals are maybe knocking it off by accident. So making sure that you have some type of secure linkage on it to hold those on and make sure that the animals can't knock them off.

    Brad: The other thing that we were finding was they were sticking them way too close to the combustible materials. Remember, combustible materials, anything that can burn over some time some type of heat source. So the true standard out there is anywhere from 24 to 36 inches distance away from your straw or any type of bedding that you're using in the chicken coops or the dog kennels or whatever, and making sure that there is some decent airflow. I know you don't want to have a lot of airflow for the cold, but at least to get the air moving in there so it's not concentrating on one little area. So that's just a few things that we've been able to recommend.

    Brad: Then powering the lights, that's important. Making sure that you have the right extension cord. If you don't have any power to your chicken coop or your kennel, and it's okay to run an extension cord if it's used properly, making sure that it's used for an outdoor use, not the little dollar 65 zip cords that don't last very long. Those break down very easily. But if you have a good extension cord that's rated to be outside use and making sure that the connections are covered, make sure there's no moisture that can get into them and make sure that the animals stay out of them. So either use electrical tape around the connections or wrap a little bit of plastic around there to keep the moisture out. So making sure that you have the right extension cord.

    Brad: Now, an extension cord is not permanent wiring, so you cannot buy fire code and safety reasons, you're not supposed to be secure in the wiring to any of the woods so it's out of the way. You want to make sure that it's freely laid on the ground, not a tripping hazard and things like that. So that's just a few things.

    Nicole: And wrap.

    Brad: So other things that we found too is people in a crunch were just putting any type of household light bulb in these heat lamps to try to give some type of heat off. Well, these aren't made for that type of situation. A few times that we've come across a couple of small little fires, we came across the CFL light bulb, which is the compact fluorescent light bulb that you can buy at any household store. They're very inexpensive, $4 to $6 sometimes for the non brand name, and over time when they are left on for long periods of time, they overheat and short out. When that happens the sparks fallout and fall onto usually the bedding that's in there, such as the straw or the hay, and that usually causes a smoldering fire which turns into a big fire.

    Brad: So that's one thing that we want to educate people, is make sure that you're using the right light bulb that's created for the heat lamp and has a low wattage but high heat put out and that will actually help keep your animals warmer and using the right voltage and amperage on your electrical system.

    Nicole: One thing that we'll talk about later is there's also some other different options, generally speaking that chickens probably don't need heat in general, but then there's some enclosed heat panels, something called a Sweeter Heater. Then just a panel heater that is an enclosed heat unit that doesn't actually emit heat. It's a infrared radiant heat, so it warms the chicken's bodies and not the ambient because they're an enclosed unit. There's not as much of a risk of fire danger as long as you have your extension cords installed properly and stuff.

    Brad: Right. What we found, too, with those extension cords were people were plugging them into older outlets, or maybe they were trying to run their own electricity, which they should have a certified electrician run their electricity. So it's properly installed and it's set up to the right breakers. We suggest, too, that if they are going to use some type of an extension cord, maybe to have the ones with the power strip on it so it has an extra protection with a circuit breaker. So if something does happen at the light bulb, it does trip before getting back to the house or garage or whatever it's plugged into.

    Nicole: Yeah, that's a good tip. I know one thing that I've experienced too is with chickens generally comes rodents and the mice seem to have an affinity for the extension cords and they seem to always chew little holes on there and then that exposes your wire and that-

    Brad: Yes, it's always a good practice to inspect your wire every now and then. If you see any bare wires, I would suggest replacing the whole cord instead of just fixing that little area. Sometimes some electrical tape could fix that but maybe replace the whole cord so it doesn't have the chance of breaking down any further or causing any problems that run into your light or to your electrical system.

    Nicole: What about oil heaters? I know that sometimes people think, "Oh, the oil heater's enclosed and it's safer." What do you think about those?

    Brad: The oil heaters, I have not had a lot of experience in fires with them. The ones that I do know that are being used have been used properly. Keeping them away from the combustible materials is the big thing. If they do get tipped over, a lot of times it's by accident. Animals do what they're going to do in their cages or their pens or whatever. But I would suggest if you could have something that's electrical, it's actually a little more safer than the oil burners, but you have to do what you have to do but just do it safely. Make sure you have the clearance around, make sure it's on a sturdy surface so it doesn't have a chance to tip over and make sure there's some type of guard around it so if it does tip over, it doesn't go directly onto your combustible materials.

    Nicole: One thing that I know is common with heat lamps, even if you have the ceramic based heat lamp with the 250 watt red bulb, chicken coops tend to be dusty places. So maybe the chickens ... I always go to the chickens for the example because that's where my experience is, but they might flap around and then cause dust and stuff and then you get pieces of straw or debris and dust and feathers and stuff inside the fixture and then they can start a fire there too.

    Brad: Right, and what the recommended practice is every few days inspect your lamp, maybe wipe it off when it's cool, of course. But wipe it off, keep the dust and the debris off of it and that will help eliminate any type of a spontaneous fire from starting from the dust and the heat.

    Nicole: Have you seen any other creative ways that people have heated animal enclosures?

    Brad: We have. It seems like the biggest one that we've seen is shop lights being used. The older type shop lights, drop lights is what they're referred to, with a hundred watt household bulb in there and they just hang them inside the dog house, is the last couple that I've found. Those overheat from the cold outside, because they're not structurally made to be an outside light bulb and they'll actually overheat and break and blow. What happens is it throws sparks and we end up losing a dog house, which a lot of times a doghouse is either sitting inside of a garage, next to a garage, or on the back porch of a house. Same thing with your chicken coops. If you can make sure if you can keep them away from other structures a little bit, so if there is a fire, you're not endangering the other people as well.

    Nicole: Wasn't it maybe last winter, the winter before, we had one with somebody that had chicks, baby chicks in their garage when the heat lamp fell and it caught their whole garage on fire.

    Brad: Yeah. I know they're trying to keep them outside of the weather and stuff like that, but unfortunately we did lose a whole garage because of that. I think they just needed to take a few extra minutes and make sure it's safe instead of just throwing everything together real quick, giving them some heat and walking away. Remember, in garages, there's not only spontaneous combustion of oil rags and things like that, but you have a lot of flammable liquids. My personal garage, it's probably a death trap if you want to call it that with all kinds of stuff. But we get into a routine of things and we forget to look outside the box a little bit.

    Nicole: Like the time that we had somebody welding with the pool of gas right next to him.

    Brad: Yeah, it's just a little bit of common sense. There are some great articles out there on the internet that you can look up to look at some safety tips and I would encourage everybody to take a moment to bring up some things and look. The Backyard Poultry safety tips was really good. The National Fire Protection Agency, the NFPA, puts out some flyers every few times a year for ... the one that I found was backyard chicken coop safety. It gives you some safety tips on making sure to hang your heaters properly, make sure things are cleaned up, things like that. They have barn safety, things like that, so it's always good just to get on the internet and browse around a little bit for safety tips

    Nicole: We can put links to all those in the description so people can just go right there and find those articles. I know the ones that you showed me, they're really good. They've got a lot of good information in them.

    Brad: Yeah, I think that information will really help everybody.

    Nicole: Well, Chief, thank you for sharing all that information with us. I think that that will really help, especially a lot of first time chicken parents as we approach the winter and they're not really sure what the best way to keep their birds warm. Thanks for sharing your time and your information with us. I really appreciate it.

    Brad: Hey, thank you for allowing me to help out and give this information and I look forward to maybe some other ones down the road.

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    Nicole: Welcome back to Backyard Bounty. So Chief Davidson had to go back to doing chief duties. So for the rest of the episode I'm just going to be going over with you some of the things that you need to know to get your birds ready for winter. What you need to do for the coop, for the birds themselves, for their run, when you need to heat their coop. If you do decide to heat their coop, some additional suggestions on heating it. Then just some other things that I do with my birds that make winter a lot easier. So to start, one thing that I like to talk about is, believe it or not, most chickens, if you have your standard breeds, they do not need heat. If you think about it, chickens are wearing a down jacket. If you've ever noticed in the summer, they get extremely overheated in the summer, but they're also well insulated and able to stay very comfortable in the winter.

    Nicole: A lot of our ancestors, if you will, they raised chickens back in the day. They would put the chickens in the barn or in the coop and they never had electricity or heat out in the chicken coop, and we still have chickens today, so most chickens are going to be just fine down to about negative 20. I live in Southern Colorado, so our winters here don't generally get much colder than about zero or negative 10, but I know of other people that live in much colder areas and it regularly gets down to negative 20, negative 30, negative 40 and they don't provide any heat for their chickens.

    Nicole: Now, that being said, another reason not to heat your coop other than the fire danger that we talked about earlier, is think about how many times during the winter that you experienced a power failure. Maybe it's snowing or it's windy and you end up losing power in your house. Well, if your birds are acclimated to the warmer coops, to their heat lamp, and then all of a sudden they lose power that sudden drop down to those cold temperatures, they're going to end up shocking basically and dying. From that comfortable coop to now all of a sudden negative 20 in the period of an hour or however long, it's not going to end well for them unfortunately.

    Nicole: Negative 20 and it's not so much that that negative 20 degrees, and that's just the number that I'm going to go with because it seems like a good one to use. It's not that that's the concern. The concern is all of a sudden they went from, let's say, 32 degrees to negative 20 or whatever temperatures you want to use. Again, it's that sudden temperature change. As we go into the colder months, it slowly gets colder as we progress from fall into winter so the birds are able to naturally just acclimate to that cold temperature.

    Nicole: Now that being said, there are times when you do need to heat the coop. If you have younger birds, especially if you have chicks, if you have fancy breeds like maybe Silkies or Frizzles or Turkens or maybe some exotic breeds that aren't so well acclimated to the area, if you have large combed birds, especially if they're birds that you use for show, there are times when you will need to heat the coop. That being said, again here in a little bit, we'll talk about some other alternatives and safer ways to heat the coops.

    Nicole: Another way to prevent the need for heating your coop is to properly set your coop up for winter. Now what that really means is preventing drafts, increasing ventilation, and making sure that the birds have a proper roost. So with preventing drafts, you want to go through and maybe seal any cracks. If you have a large door, close the door down to a smaller size door. You want to prevent that cold winter wind from coming in into that coop. A lot of times the birds will go into the coop if it's too cold outside in the run or if you don't have an attached run, and just the body heat, they're able to keep the place pretty warm.

    Nicole: Now with that being said, when you have a large number of birds in an enclosed area due to their breathing and pooping, they do create a lot of moisture, so you need to have a vent that's above the roost to release moisture. Now I know a lot of people say, "Well, heat rises, so if I have a vent up high, I'm also going to lose heat." Yes, you will lose a small amount of heat, but it is important to get the moisture out of the coop. The moisture in the coop is what generally causes things like frostbite on combs.

    Nicole: Another thing that you need to do is make sure that there's a proper roost for your birds. What I like to use is a 2x4, but turned on its side so that the wide part is the part that the birds sit on, and this does a couple things. It allows the birds to kind of huddle up. They can all line up in their little row and get nice and close and conserve heat. But also with that wide part being up, the birds are able to fluff up their feathers and cover their toes well, which prevents frostbitten toes. Now, we talked earlier about the traditional heat lamp and some of the more common ways that people heat their coop in the winter. Personally, I don't heat the coop really ever. There was one instance that I did end up heating our coop and it was only because I had some young birds. They were only about five weeks old and we had one of those weird early storms and it was late in the season to have the birds outside.

    Nicole: So for that situation I did put a heater out in the coop. Personally, I like to use a product, it's called a Sweeter Heater and this is something that I use ... Oh my gosh, I use it all the time. I use it for my brooders in the summer and then if I need to use it in the winter, it's a really versatile product and basically it's an infrared radiant heater. So it's a large flat panel and you can either mount it so that it hangs overhead or mounts on the side. I use it in an overhead fashion. Because it's infrared, it heats the birds, not the coop. So it's not going to make the ambient temperature in the coop any warmer, but any birds that sit underneath it will be able to absorb the heat and it warms them up quite a bit. The great thing about the Sweeter Heater is it's a totally enclosed unit and it's very fire safe.

    Nicole: They've been in business since 2005 and they've never had a fire that's been traced back to their product. It's totally enclosed so that no dust and feathers can get into it. Because it's enclosed, you can wash it, and it also has a snap switch in it so that if it detects a fall, it turns itself off. It's also very energy efficient. A lot of those heat lamps are 250 watts and they are pretty expensive to run. They can cost about $20 a month and I'm not sure where the exact wattage of my heater is. I think it's closer to maybe 20 watts, but that's just trying to ... Don't quote me on that. This is just out of memory, so it's significantly less energy to heat and it's really versatile. Again, we use it for our chicks, but you can also use it for whelping boxes, you can use it for goats and lambs, reptiles. It really has a lot of uses.

    Nicole: For those that might be interested in this Sweeter Heater, I'll put a link in the description. It's really a fantastic product and I highly recommend it. Similarly, you'll also see some panel heaters. I believe K&H makes one. There's also some other common poultry manufacturers that produce those, and same thing. It's a radiant heater and the only thing that I don't like about the panel heaters and that I prefer the Sweeter Heater more is the panel heaters are meant to mount vertically on a wall. So if you think about it, they're not a very large panel. They work by radiant heat so they don't heat up the environment so the birds have to get right next to it. With it being on the wall or a horizontal mount, not a whole lot of birds can really get next to it.

    Nicole: Whereas with the Sweeter Heater, it's an overhead unit so lots of birds can huddle up underneath that and then the birds are closer to each other to conserve heat plus several more can fit underneath it. So the panel heaters are also a safe alternative, but for those reasons I do prefer the Sweeter Heater instead. A couple other recommendations for preparing your birds for winter. One thing that you can do if you have an attached run onto your coop is to wrap the run in plastic. Basically you're making it like a greenhouse. You're wrapping the size and wrapping the top and that's serving to hold the heat in. It lets the light in so it warms the area and it also keeps out the wind and the snow so it makes it for a more comfortable dry environment inside.

    Nicole: Now, keep in mind that if this is something that you're going to do and it snows in your area, that the snow can be extremely heavy, so you'll want to have some supports in place or make sure you go and knock the snow off of it because otherwise you could potentially collapse your run if it stacks up with any decent amount of snow.

    Nicole: If you have large combed birds, another thing that you can do is to slather on Vaseline. The Vaseline creates a barrier from the cold and that is a common approach to help prevent frostbite in large combed birds. Birds also need access to fresh water, which is definitely a challenge in the winter, but hydrated birds maintain body temperature better than dehydrated birds. Everybody thinks that they need lots of water in this summer, but it's almost more important for them to have plenty of water in the winter, so I know that water can be a challenge. What I do for my watering system, for those that don't know, we sell the Columbus Aqua poultry nipples, which is the original one, the original side mount poultry nipple. In recent years there's been a lot of the Chinese ones that have been on the market, but we're the only U.S. distributors of the original one.

    Nicole: So we take a bucket or a similar water container with those side mount poultry nipples and then a submersible heater. For a five gallon bucket in our area, again, it doesn't get too terribly cold. I use an 80 watt bucket heater and it works just fine. Then that's run from an extension cord from an exterior plug on our house, and then I use something called a Thermo Cube and the Thermo Cube is a thermostatically controlled switch. So that bucket heater only turns on when it hits 35 degrees outside and then it turns off when it hits the 45 so it helps conserve some energy because it only runs that heater when it's freezing temperatures outside.

    Nicole: There's also some other options as far as heated waters or if you don't have electricity to your coop or you don't want to run an extension cord. I'll put a link to the poultry nipples, to the Thermo Cube and our blog post about winter water options for those that might be interested. Of course, the birds also need access to plenty of food, but what I also like to do on the cold nights is I'll give them a scoop of scratch or cracked corn in the evening before they go to bed because the corn increases their internal body temperature while they digest. So it's a nice little evening treat for them, so when they go to bed at night, it helps to keep them warm. The last little note here, I see every year people that want to put chicken sweaters on their birds. I cannot stress enough that I really would advise you not to do that. I know that they're cute and everybody thinks that it's going to help keep them warm, but birds keep warm by fluffing up.

    Nicole: You'll see the birds when they're roosting or when it's cold outside, they fluff up and look like little marshmallows and that's because they make the airspace between their feathers and it heats up and it helps to create a little warm air pocket around them. So when you put them in chicken sweaters, they're not able to fluff up like that and create that little warm space. Also, with the chicken sweaters, they can't take dust baths. They run the risk of getting caught on things. If you have a rooster, his spurs can get caught on there. So short of maybe just for a few minutes for a photo op, I definitely don't recommend the chicken sweaters. They definitely don't do any favors in keeping your birds warm.

    Nicole: Well, that's all I had for today as far as keeping chickens warm in the winter and some suggestions in fire safety for heating the coop. I'll put a link to everything that we talked about earlier in the description as far as our blog post about preparing the coop and keeping chickens warm in the winter. So as always, thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Backyard Bounty and we'll see you again next week.

    Announcer: Thank you for listening to Backyard Bounty, a podcast by Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review. If you have a question you'd like us to answer on the show, please email us at [email protected]. Also find us on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube at heritageacresmarket. All the links mentioned in this podcast will be included in the description. See you again next week.

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