By: Adam Jones, Kentucky NRCS Grazing Specialist 
Three reasons to use solar powered watering systems include:

  1. First, using solar power for pumping water from springs, shallow wells, ponds or creeks to watering troughs results in environmental and conservation benefits. These include reduced erosion, less pond and creek bank damage, and cleaner water by reducing contamination from animal waste.
  2. Secondly, financial and labor savings results from not installing water lines all over the farm that can freeze or leak. If you have had a water line leak, usually you don’t find out until the water company calls or you get a large water bill! If you are adding water troughs or relocating water troughs, at several dollars a foot of installed water line, it does not take long for the cost to add up.
  3. Lastly, the convenience of a solar system is that you can have water where you need it and when you need it. Any cistern, pond, spring, well, or stream can be a water source. With some fence, you can keep livestock away from the solar panel and out of the water source and provide the water where you need it. You can put a water trough in a fence line and provide water to two fields from one trough. If your home uses municipal water, but still has a well, you could use the well to water livestock and lower your monthly water bill. During a drought, you won’t have the worry of a municipality limiting the water to a farm. Farmers take pride in being self-sufficient, and there is value in being able to water livestock through outages of electricity or municipal water supply.

How does a solar panel work?

A thin layer of silicon is sandwiched between electrically conductive layers. The solar cell is made up of two of these “sandwiches”. The photons or particles of sun light, knock the electrons off the silicon atoms. The electrons flow through the conductive layer and together with lots of other electrons become direct current. Multiple solar cells together in series form a solar panel. The electrical current does “work” and then the circuit is completed when the electrons return to the solar cell.

Solar water systemDiagram courtesy of:

What parts make up a solar water system?

Components of the solar water system include: Photovoltaic cells (solar panels) and frame assembly, an electrical controller, an electric-DC powered pump and pump motor controller, pipeline and water trough. The electrical controller switches the flow of electricity on and off as needed. The electricity powers a DC submersible pump which fills the water trough. A float switch signals the electrical controller to turn off the flow of electricity to the pump. A good location for a solar panel is an area free of trees or buildings that would cast a shadow across the panel. When assembling the solar array, face the panels due south to capture the maximum amount of sunlight.

The most common question that I get is “What happens when it is cloudy for a couple of days?” Solar panels will produce some electricity on cloudy days and to minimize this issue, use a large livestock trough, or pump into one trough or tank and gravity flow the water to a second or third trough to keep a 3-4 day water supply at all times. The second most common question is “What financial assistance is there for solar systems?” The Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund (KADF) can assist in the cost of a solar powered livestock watering system through the County Agricultural Investment Program (CAIP). The CAIP Investment Area, and on farm water practice, has water source enhancement/development and water movement categories which include solar powered livestock watering supplies. The Kentucky Division of Conservation State Cost Share Program can help with some of the components of the solar powered watering system. Contact your local conservation district- or extension office for more information on these programs.