Build a Solar Stock Tank

When winter rolls around, our reliable solar stock tank will save you money watering your animals and time and effort chopping ice.

solar stock tank

This solar stock tank can save up to $3 per day in electricity costs.


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Typical stock tanks have a large, exposed water surface that loses heat. They also have highly conductive, single-wall sides and bottoms that are in direct contact with cold air or cold ground. If your goal is to design a tank to maximize heat loss, you couldn’t do much better than a typical galvanized or plastic stock tank. By using this easy-to-build solar stock tank, you probably won’t need an electric tank heater to keep your livestock waterer from freezing this winter.  It will provide ice-free water in all but the most extreme winter weather. We used it through two frigid Montana winters, and if it works here, it should work just about anywhere.

The Passive Solar Tank

The livestock waterer is built around a standard galvanized metal stock tank, which is surrounded by a well-insulated enclosure. The south wall of the enclosure is a double-glazed solar collector. Using two layers of corrugated plastic (double glazing) reduces overnight heat loss from the tank. The metal tank wall is just behind the collector glazing and acts as the collector absorber. The sun shines through the glazing onto the tank wall, which heats up the tank wall and the water. The tank wall is painted black to absorb heat from the sun efficiently. The waterer has a lid with an opening just large enough for animals to drink through, and this limits the heat loss from the water surface.

While this design is simple, it’s also efficient.

  • It’s well-insulated. Heat loss is far less than from a bare metal or plastic tank.
  • The solar collector adds heat on sunny days, and the double glazing reduces heat loss from the collector.
  • Solar collectors are more efficient if they operate at a low temperature. The water only needs to be heated to just above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This allows the absorber (tank wall) to run cool, which reduces heat loss out of the glazing. If the tank wall needed to be hot for the system to work, a lower percentage of the heat collected would be transferred to the water.
  • The water provides thermal mass so all of the available sun energy can be effectively stored.
  • The lid further reduces heat loss from the water surface.

We measured the energy consumption of an electric heater in the old tank (a bare, galvanized tank) at 8.5 kilowatt hours per full day during mild winter weather, with low night temperatures about 15 to 30 degrees and daytime highs about 25 to 40 degrees. We estimate the energy use for “real” winter weather is about 30 kilowatt hours per day, which would cost about $3 and result in about 50 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per day!

The solar-heated livestock waterer rarely requires an electric heater. If you get a little ice on the water overnight, it will usually melt later in the day.

A couple of times during winter — when we had several days of temperatures below 10 degrees and not much sun — we needed an electric tank heater to keep the water from freezing. Even in these extreme cases, though, the power used by the heater is greatly reduced, because it’s working less to maintain temperature.

The horses seemed to take the new tank in stride. We thought they might have a problem putting their heads into the fairly small opening, but they took to it with no problems.

Solar Stock Tank Materials

The tank we used for this project was 6 feet long by 2 feet wide by 2 feet high, with round ends. These tanks cost about $100, but you probably already have one if you have livestock. The prices below are estimates for new materials. If you have a scrap pile, much of them could be free. You could also check your local Habitat for Humanity ReStore for inexpensive materials.

If you would be spending $3 per day for an electric tank heater, the solar-heated tank will pay for itself in just two months! The total cost of the solar stock tank was about $183.

3 sheets 3/4-inch exterior plywood, $75 
6 8-foot 2-by-4 studs, $14 
40 square feet 1 1/2-inch rigid insulation board, $28 
2 sheets polycarbonate glazing, $42 
Glazing closure strips, $5 
Black and mis-mixed paint, $5 
1 can polyurethane foam insulation, $4 
Caulk, glue and screws, $10 

How to Build the Livestock Waterer

The insulated tank enclosure is easy to build. It uses standard 2-by-4 lumber and plywood for the enclosure, tough but inexpensive corrugated polycarbonate glazing for the collector, and standard polystyrene insulation board. All of these materials are available at a hardware or lumber store.

1. Build the Frame. The box that encloses the galvanized stock tank is framed with 2 x 4s. Be sure to build the frame large enough to allow for the insulation’s thickness. The frame should be high enough that the lid fits snugly down on the tank’s upper rim to prevent air infiltration. Allow for the height of the insulation under the tank. Use glue — plus nails or screws — for all joints.

2. Cut and Attach the Sides to the Box. Attach three-quarter-inch exterior plywood to the sides and back of the box. Leave the front open for the collector glazing.

3. Cut and Fit the Top and Bottom of the Box. Cut out the top and bottom plywood panels for the tank. Install the bottom at this point. Set aside the top to be installed as the last step. The top has a hole to allow livestock access to the water. Paint and seal the entire box. Caulk all the seams to prevent air infiltration.

4. Install Insulation Board. Cut out and fit the insulation board to the bottom and sides of the tank. We used 1 1/2-inch insulation board between the frame 2 x 4s, plus a second layer of 2-inch insulation board inside the frame,but this may be overkill. If you choose to use the extra layer of insulation, be sure to make the tank enclosure large enough to accommodate the insulation.

5. Install the Glazing. Fit two layers of corrugated polycarbonate glazing to the front opening of the box. Suntuf corrugated polycarbonate is tough, highly transparent, and tolerant of high temperatures. Many hardware stores keep it in stock. Seal the open ends of the corrugations with the foam strips Suntuf sells for this purpose.

6. Install the Galvanized Tank and the Cover. Paint the south wall of the tank black and let it dry. Then place the galvanized tank in the box. This would be a good time to measure for a drain fitting for the tank that lines up with the drain plug on the tank. Stuff the open areas between the foam board and the tank with fiberglass, crumpled newspaper or expanding foam insulation to prevent air circulation. Fasten the cover down using only screws so it can be easily removed. Make certain the lid fits snugly against the tank’s upper rim and the frame. If you want to use an electric tank heater, create a space for the cord to fit through the lid or insulated box. Paint the outside of the box. I found a gallon of mis-mixed paint for $5.

More detailed construction information is available at Build It Solar.

Using the Tank

Some hints on how to get the most out of the solar livestock waterer:

  • Orient the tank so the glazed wall faces roughly south (southwest to southeast is OK). Avoid locating it where it will be blocked from the sun by trees or buildings between about 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  • In cold weather, water will be less likely to freeze if you keep the tank fairly full.
  • Install the tank on a level spot. If you set the tank on a base of washed gravel or treated 4-by-4s, it should last a long time.
  • In summer, you will probably want to remove the tank from the enclosure, or at least cover the solar collector and take off the lid. Otherwise, the warmed water will promote algae growth.
  • You can use the tank enclosure as a miniature greenhouse to grow your tomatoes or other warm-weather plants.
  • You could also connect the corners of the insulated box with bolts so it can be disassembled for summer storage. When you reassemble the box, be careful not to leave any gaps in the corners where air could leak through.

Tank Improvements

The current design of the tank works well, but there are always ways to make improvements.

Glazing Protection. Although the horses don’t seem to be interested in damaging the glazing and the polycarbonate is pretty tough, you may want to protect the glazing if you think your stock will damage it. A hog panel over the collector glazing should do the job.

A Better Lid. A lid design that does a better job of protecting the tank water surface from exposure to cold — and is stock-proof — would be a good improvement. This is the major remaining heat loss, and reducing it would probably eliminate the need for any supplemental heat even under extreme conditions. If you visit the stock tank frequently, using a cover over the drinking opening at night during very cold weather would probably work well.

Insulation Levels. The 3 1/2 inches of foam board insulation on the bottom, sides and back may be overkill. With this much insulation, most of the calculated heat loss is through the collector glazing and water surface. Cutting the insulation down to 2 inches would save money and probably not degrade the performance much.

Eliminate the Solar Collector. If the location for the tank gets little or no sunlight, just use insulation all the way around the tank. This should still reduce the ice formation significantly. The water has a lot of thermal mass and needs to cool from about 50 degrees (typical temperature of water straight from the hydrant) down to 32 degrees before ice will start forming. If the heat loss rate is reduced by using insulation, it will take a while for the water to cool enough to form significant ice.

Use the Tank With a Heater. The tank can be used with a thermostatically controlled electric tank heater in extremely cold or cloudy weather. The tank insulation will greatly reduce the power consumption of the heater, but for most places, the heater isn’t necessary.

If you have questions or ideas on how the tank could be improved (such as improvements to the lid design), join the online discussion.

1/8/2016 6:35:55 PM

I built one using an old bath tub and a couple modifications, worked so good I built a second one,

11/12/2014 12:54:05 PM

I was wondering why surrounding the tank with metal corrugated panels would'nt work to draw in more heat. I may have to give it a try-

9/15/2014 3:39:40 PM

After reading this article a couple years ago, we built three units. One had the wavy plastic solar panel that they describe. I didn't like it because we had to do so much caulking, etc. to seal up the unit. The other two we used clear plexi-glass instead. Two were used for cattle and one for horses. The horses finally cracked the wavy stuff last year. The plexi-glass has held up fine with the cattle. Other differences - we used Rubbermaid 100 gallon tanks - grey plastic - because that's what we had. They have worked fine. We get up to 25 below here in Western Colorado, and have only had to plug in the tanks a few times over the winter. We also built the boxes oversized which allowed up to line them with insulation on three sides - use the hard foam like stuff - cuts easy to size with a razor knife. Lastly, we painted the plywood sides and lid black to help absorb the heat. I have been very happy with these units - they have held up well and I sure like the low electric bill!

2/19/2014 9:20:55 AM

Hi Alaska, The chest freezer sounds like a good idea. I'm surprised you had trouble with the Suntuf -- its polycarbonate (the football helmet stuff). I've used hundreds of sqft of it for several projects and never been able to break or crack it. Another good option which works particularly well in cold climates is the twinwall polycarbonate glazing that most greenhouses use now. It gives you a very impact resistant double glazed solution. Gary

alaska herrins
1/7/2014 10:07:16 AM

I have that clear suntuf plastic on my greenhouse and it randomly shatters like glass when it is cold. Maybe a bad batch, but the stuff I put on the uppers of my barn are also fragile. An errant hoof is going to go right through that. Solar gain in the winter here is nil anyway. I am in Alaska where below zero is the norm for winters and I have been using an old 15 cubic foot chest freezer for the last couple winters with a foam cover that has a drinking hole cut in it. I have only used a 250 watt submersible heater for the last 30 years and it is plenty and cheap. I ran a Kill-a-Watt on it last time we were in the 20 below range and it was 38 cents a day @ 11 cents a kwh. Not too bad and it does not run when it warms up a little. A bonus is in the summer the white tank with its insulated sides doesn't heat up and grow green like the old brown Rubbermaid tank did. And the smooth painted steel cleans fairly easily. You can get these free on Craigs List all the time.

1/1/2014 11:55:02 AM

Hi, Robert, there is one person who tried using heavy canvas to extend the drinking opening vertically downward, and its working fine for him. Explained here: on the 2nd link. Kevin, I think painting the outside of the tank a dark color would help the performance just a bit -- we just used the paint we had on hand. Dan, there have been a lot of people asking about rubber tanks. My only concern is that if the tank is mostly empty (so the water is not cooling the tank wall), and there is lots of sun, the part of the tank wall above the waterline will get very warm -- maybe warm enough to damage the tank wall. But, no one has reported back yet either way on this. I don't think that the lower conductivity of the rubber tank wall would effect the efficiency too much as the thermal resistance of the water film next to the tank wall is in series with the tank wall resistance, and it probably of the same order. Jean, wondering where you live? The tank works well here in SW MT and I've heard from people up in Alberta who are having good results. But, there are times when you get multiple cloudy and very cold days where some ice will need to be broken (at least around here). Gary

robert dupuy
12/31/2013 8:09:01 AM

What if you were to create a rectangular surround that went down into the water for the area that the animal drinks from. This should allow for even less heat to release overnight?

12/31/2013 7:58:16 AM

I wonder why they do not recommend painting the exterior of the tank flat black. Dan, Rubber is a fair insulator and would not allow the water to heat up as much. Jean, Even if the system does not eliminate freezing it should still dramatically reduce power consumption from the back-up electric heater. Then you have to decide if the remaining power draw is enough to justify any additional cost of the Suntank. It looks like the Suntank uses the same principle.

12/27/2013 10:31:31 PM

What do you do to keep the pipe that fills the tank from freezing.My son's farm is in Minnesota and the frost line can go down to six feet.

dan richardson
11/18/2011 3:40:00 PM

Why the use of galvanized tank instead of the black rubber ones?

jean nelson
10/5/2011 8:44:17 PM

Our winters here are really cold and this do-it-yourself-unit did not work, I ended up buying a suntank from pine ranch products.It has worked like a charm. thanks to pine ranch products my watering needs are over.