A couple of years after I resumed keeping chickens, I started thinking about how cool it would be to hatch my own chicks. I researched incubators and was shocked at how much they cost, so researched how to make my own. With design help from HWA, here is what we came up with.
I started with an Omaha Steaks cooler. This is important because there are grades of styrofoam and the Omaha Steaks coolers are much thicker and sturdier than your standard styrofoam. I’ve never ordered from there, but I put a post on Freecycle looking for one and had two people contact me, so I ended up with two for….free.
For the heating element, I used a ZooMed heat mat. I already had this because I also keep snakes but….they range in price from about $10-35 depending on size. I use one that takes up as much “real estate” in the bottom of the incubator as possible. The nice thing is that these come equipped with their own power cord so there is no wiring to do. Simply make a hole in the side of cooler big enough to slip the cord through. While you are at it, make more holes in the opposite side to allow for good ventilation (details below).
The thermostat I also had already. This thermostat is completely awesome because is designed to keep a herp habitat at a precise temperature and it does it very well.
For a fan to keep the temperature uniform, I bought the fan made by Little Giant. It is really easy to wire with a couple of wire nuts. I first tried using the fan from an old PC but could not get it wired so that it would run.
A thermometer and hygrometer report the temperature and humidity in the incubator. I’ve spent a small fortune on these over the years. What I can tell you from my experience is FORGET DIGITAL. They are notoriously inaccurate. What you want is a plain old analog readout. Conveniently, analog is far cheaper than digital. Calibrate the hygrometer using the salt test.
Finally, we need a dish to hold water (provides humidity) and a mesh cover (prevents chicks from drowning). I went to the dollar store and bought a set of two wire baskets (2/$1). I also bought a couple of cat food bowls ($1/each). The wire baskets fit perfectly over the cat food bowls.
Okay, now that we have all of the component together, here is how they go together.
To start, place the heating pad on the floor of the cooler, and slip the power cord out through the hole in the side. Place the fan on the heat pad and slide its power cable out through the same hole. Having the fan just inside the larger hole allows it to draw in fresh air. (You can see the probe here sitting on the heat mat.)
Here is the outside of the cooler. I used a bolt to attach a small plastic basket to the side, that holds the thermostat, and keeps the cords contained. You can see the wire nuts I used to attach the fan to a power cord I cut off a non-working appliance. This is the only wiring required and is so easy a kindergartener could do it 🙂
Next add the water container(s) and cover with the inverted wire basket(s). Although perhaps not completely necessary, I inverted wire baskets over my water dishes, to provide a solid base for the hardware cloth which comes next. The goal is to create a platform on which the eggs sit and to protect hatched chicks from falling in the water or injury by the fan.
The H-cloth is not attached to anything; it is rigid enough that it sits on the wire baskets, creating the “platform”. There is a 1/4″ gap on all sides of the hardware cloth as if it fit too snugly it would be difficult to get it in and out. Also, leave room for the thermostat probe since it needs to sit at egg level.
Next add the rubberized mesh shelf liner, again making sure to draw the probe up to sit on top of it. Note that I cut it slightly too large. This allows me to tuck it in around the sides so that the chicks have no way to get a leg stuck in that 1/4″ gap between the hardware cloth and the sides of the cooler.
Here is the opposite end of the cooler. Note the large hole, and several smaller holes. The smaller holes were made using a pencil – the sharp tip allowed me to just push the pencil right through the styrofoam. The larger hole is sized to fit a cork, in case I ever need to plug a hole. (That hasn’t happened yet.) By placing the ventilation holes on opposite ends of the cooler, the fan is able to draw in fresh air on one side and vent it out the other.
Now for the lid. You can see where I cut out the large “hole” in the lid. You can also see in this picture just how thick the styrofoam is! I purchased the picture frame from the thrift store in order to get a piece of glass that would fit, and then I cut the hole and “picture frame” to fit the glass.
When the incubator is running, I place the cut out Styrofoam piece over the glass. This helps to keep heat in, and keeps moisture from condensing on the under surface of the glass. When I need to peek in, I push it to the side or remove it altogether.
Omaha steaks cooler: FREE
Heating mat (Large): $20.99
Cat food bowls: $1/each, $2.00 total
Wire baskets: 2/$1, $1:00 total
Hardware cloth remnant: (nil)
Rubberized mesh shelf liner remnant: (nil)
Thrift store picture frame for the glass: $2
Total cost: $102.66
I was fortunate to have the most expensive components already on hand but, even if buying everything new this makes an incubator that performs well for low cost. I know others have used hot water heater thermostats; these are cheaper at around $10 but more difficult to program and users report difficulty maintaining consistent temperatures. The fan is optional but I found it invaluable for maintaining a consistent temperature throughout the incubator. The heating element is certainly more expensive than a light bulb, but creates a more consistent heat, and there isn’t the concern about eggs that are too close to the light bulb incubating at a higher temperature than those further away.
My first three hatches in this incubator were 90%, 100% and 100% successful from my own eggs.