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Published February 15, 2011, 11:24 AM

Liquid form, with the aid of alternating current

TOWNER, N.D. — It always gets warmer after a cold spell. Of course, that cold spell could last five or six months in some parts of the world. This winter, in North Dakota, the cold shifts from tolerable to intolerable about once a week.

By: Ryan Taylor,

TOWNER, N.D. — It always gets warmer after a cold spell. Of course, that cold spell could last five or six months in some parts of the world. This winter, in North Dakota, the cold shifts from tolerable to intolerable about once a week.

Even when it’s intolerable, like 25 degrees below Fahrenheit, we still tolerate it. We don’t have much choice in the matter. But thanks to all our modern conveniences, we can tolerate it pretty darn well.

Water is one of those things that is a lot easier to manage when it’s above, say, 32 degrees. Cattle like to have a little something to wash down their hay in the winter and, in my country, water is the cheapest input we’ve got for their daily diet.

‘Hard water’

It’s not so easy to keep it in liquid form in the winter, but we don’t have to dig deep to get it and it’ll flow as fast as you can pump it. But if it sits still in a water tank for awhile when it’s 25 below, there’re some issues.

That’s when we start to appreciate our rural electric cooperatives. And the co-op board members who have to balance the books appreciate us when we plug in every possible 1,500-watt warming device we can find in the farm supply store to keep our water watery.

We hardly have to swing an axe any more to break ice. Just stand by the electric pole, lean on our retired axe handle and watch the meter spin around and around.

Keeping it liquid

I’ve got sinking heaters that sit on the bottom of the tank and floating heaters that swirl around like a toy tugboat on top of the water. I’ve got a 20-gallon tub for the barn with its own internal heater and a plug-in cord. I refuse, however, to buy a heated dog dish. If the lion can lay down with the lamb, the dogs can drink water with the cows.

I also have an open loop geothermal heating system on a pasture tank where my cows water in the winter. Open loop geothermal means I just let the water run all winter, overflow and sink back into the ground. But it does the trick, and the cost of running the pump to constantly circulate the 50-degree water is about the same as plugging in a couple thousand watts of electric heat.

I like the idea of using free heat from the ground, but sometimes it’s hard to get enough of that heat to keep the pipes from freezing on my tanks where the water line comes up through a section of culvert that serves as a heat riser.

That’s when I get another cord and send a good old 100-watt light bulb down the culvert. Throws off a fair bit of heat and works wonders. There’s always a little risk of fire, but the way I see it, if a good fire gets going, it melts the water line and the hole in the water line acts like a cheap emergency fire sprinkler. I thought about going with a compact fluorescent bulb that doesn’t get as hot, but then you’re back to frozen water pipes.

So far, so good this winter. Whenever we’ve froze up, we were able to fix it in short order with 5 gallons of warm water and a little propane torch.

Combined with a lot of electricity, we should be able to make it to May.

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