Heat Lamp: Keeping Chickens Safe And Warm

Heat Lamp fires claim coops and barns every year, but your’s doesn’t need to be one of them. The infrared heat lamp is easily the most popular heat source for backyard flocks and small farms alike, because running an extension cord and adding a heat lamp is a quick and painless fix. This fix is fine, but there are a handful of things you should know.

Distance

Combustible fuels are everywhere in a coop. At 212 ºF the bedding on your floor will auto-ignite (spontaneously combust). The plywood your coop was built with will auto-ignite (in spectacular fashion) at 400 ºF. Your standard 250 watt infrared heat lamp bulb can reach over 480 ºF, which is enough to make these otherwise inert materials flame up.

When mounting a heat lamp, maintain a 24” minimum distance from everything as a rule of thumb. Keep your lamp away from anything that may melt (such as plastics) and don’t point the bulb at them either.

The majority of the heat is being projected away from the bulb, but that doesn’t preclude the heat lamp fixture from getting hot. Be certain the reflector or fixture is not in contact with anything that could burn. Surfaces such as the ceiling, wall or plastic tub like the one my cheap brooder setup uses should be considered flammable.

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A disassembled painter’s clamp light socket. Clearly not meant to handle a heat lamp bulb.

Cords

Check the cord for cuts, abrasions or pinch marks. Never use a damaged cord for anything. If buying a new cord I’d urge you to spend the money and get a heavy gauge cord like a 12/3 (12 gauge wire, 3 conductors). Your standard cheap 16/3 extension cords are more prone to damage and can’t support as heavy an electrical draw safely, especially over a long cord or multiple cords.

It’s safer to buy a more robust cord than you think you need, such as a contractor grade cord at your local big box store. What’s even better; purchase a length of 12/3 cable and ask a local electrician (perhaps a friend or family member) to add proper electrical plugs to the bare ends. This way you can have a custom length cord, you can avoid linking multiple cords together and it may be the cheaper option.

Connections

If you must connect multiple cables, be sure to shelter or seal connections. I suggest using 3M brand’s “Super 88” electrical tape liberally if you need to seal connections exposed to the weather. Growing up with an electrician in the house has left me a bit picky about electrical tape, but trust me; Super 88 is the best. Leaving your connections exposed to the weather introduces moisture to the connection, which may short the circuit or corrode the connectors. If the connection becomes corroded, resistance will cause the connection to create heat and may cause a fire, or melt the connectors.

Additionally, be sure your cord is plugged into a GFI (Ground Fault Interrupt) protected circuit from your house. Also consider protecting the outlet from the weather if it isn’t already.

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This 250 watt rated brooder lamp fixture is built to handle the heat.

Heat Lamp

Only use a 250 (or higher) watt rated brooder lamp fixture when using a 250 watt infrared heat bulb. Never ever use a heat lamp bulb in a cheap painter’s lamp! I can’t stress that enough. Just because the bulb threads into the fixture does not mean it’s safe to use, and I’ll explain why.

Painter’s lamps are rated to a maximum draw capacity of 100 watts and are usually built with a plastic or sheet metal socket housing (where you screw a light bulb into). This fixture can’t safely support an electrical draw beyond 100 watts, so using a 250 watt bulb in a 100 watt fixture will short out and melt said fixture. This is a sure fire way to burn down a barn, so don’t even try it.

Brooder lamp fixtures are specifically designed to withstand not only the electrical draw, but also the heat that a heat lamp bulb will produce. Quality brooder lamps include porcelain socket housings, drop shields (the wire guard) to protect the bulb from impact, and a heavier gauge cord. Many times the cord is actually pendant cord, which is designed to support the weight and rising heat of the fixture in case it’s hung by the cord (which I don’t recommend).

Brooder lamps are an easy and popular way to heat your chicken coop, but be sure to understand the inherent risks. Be sure your lamp is rated for 250 watts or higher. When used properly, a brooder lamp will keep your chickens warm and safe through the cold winter nights.

Be sure to check out my other cold weather articles, and if you found this article handy; join the mailing list!

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