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February 10, 2010

Farm Design Part Six: Utilities Make The Barn Go Round

Metal conduit isn't recommended for new barn constructions, according to article 547.5 of the 2005 National Electric Code. Photo courtesy of Hayward Designs.

Check back every Wednesday through Feb. 24 for our continuing series on Farm Design, sponsored by VirginiaCountryProperties.com.

Every farm should function like a well-oiled machine, and machines need power. Electricity provides the power for all of your barn’s needs.

And when it comes to planning and installing electricity for your barn, an expert opinion is of the utmost importance.

“I don’t recommend doing your own electric for safety reasons,” said Debra Corr of Exclusively Equine Properties. “Electricity can be the scariest or the best thing in your barn.”

Knowing Your Codes

The NEC (National Electric Code) is the go-to guide for safe wiring. While wiring codes can vary between states, counties and even towns, the NEC is used as a template for all projects that require electricity. Some states require a licensed electrician to install all your wiring, while others allow you to do everything aside from the actual hook up.

It’s important to speak with your local inspectors before building to determine how to organize your electrical service.

“The electrical system of your barn can be as extensive and sophisticated as your needs, desires and budget allow,” said Tom Gumbrect, a master electrician who specializes in horse barns. “There are minimum standards [for electricity and plumbing], however, and they differ in horse barns from other types of construction. Proper planning will ensure that these standards are met, with no unpleasant surprises lurking.”

Water Wheels Or Power Lines?

The first step in getting power to your project is determining how the electricity will reach your barn.

“I look at how remote the location is, whether it’s going to need its own service or if it’s going to come from another building, and if it’s going to run underground or overground,” said Gumbrect. “Sometimes the utilities play into the actual location of the barn. It could cost $5,000 to put it here, but $35,000 to put it there. That’s why we like to come in during the planning stages.”

Today, most utilities run underground to the barn, and excavation for utilities can be expensive. It’s important to plan for your future needs as well as your current ones, so you only have to dig once. This includes things like providing spare and/or oversized conduits to upgrade electrical service in the future or running the wire for video monitoring.

Another consideration for barns is to have an emergency generator installed in case of power outages.

Gumbrect said that while any certified electrician is technically qualified to install electricity in a horse barn, many electricians aren’t familiar with agricultural building codes. Because of the unique environment of a barn, many “normal” electrical practices, such as bare light bulbs or an uncovered electrical outlet, are actually prohibited in agricultural buildings.

Special Codes For Horse Barns

Based on the 2005 National Electrical Code, which is the most recent code adopted by most municipalities. Local codes may supercede. Final interpretations of applicability of codes always lie with the Authority Having Jurisdiction, which is the local inspection authority.

  • Metal Conduit isn’t recommended due to the corrosive atmosphere of horse barns (Article 547.5).
    “Most publications and old horsemen push metal conduit, but the temperatures, moisture, and ammonia content of the air in barns causes deterioration in the conduit and fittings,” said Gumbrect.
  • Vapor-proof casing is required on all light bulbs and fixtures to prevent the barn environment from damaging the fixtures. The casing also prevents animals from making nests in the fixtures, which reduces risk of fire (Article 547.8).
  • All the switches, outlets, fixtures and wiring boxes should be weatherproof, dust tight and corrosion resistant (Article 547.5B).
    “Within the barn, power outlets should be designed and laid out so that the only time an extension cord will be used is to power an occasional portable tool or appliance,” added Gumbrect. “Anything that uses electricity and occupies a dedicated space needs to have an outlet within reach of its factory installed cord.”

Under The Lights

As mentioned in the first article of this farm design series, lighting is one of the most important considerations when designing your barn.

“Lighting will consist of vapor proof fixtures that completely enclose, seal and protect the lamps within the fixture,” said Gumbrect. “Lighting is laid out so as to illuminate the sides rather than the top of the horse. The vet and farrier will appreciate that. Even though lighting in the center of an aisle makes it look bright to the casual observer, efficient lighting that is pleasant to work under requires placing fixtures closer to the sides.”

The amount of light you need depends on the space and what you plan on doing there. Barn materials will reflect light in different ways as well. For example, dark materials such as black rubber mats or dark wood will absorb a lot of light, whereas lighter materials will reflect it.

There are several different options when it comes to lighting, but the three main types of electric lights are incandescent, fluorescent and high intensity discharge. They differ in how they produce light, how efficiently they operate, and the color of light they produce.

  • Incandescent – These have a classic light bulb shape and aren’t very efficient—six percent of the electricity goes to light, and the rest goes to heat. Incandescent bulbs are more likely to cause fires if not protected correctly with vapor proof fixtures, especially if dust or cobwebs are in contact with the bulb itself. These bulbs burn out more quickly (20-40 days of continuous light), but are cheap and easy to replace. They produce the truest light.
    • Quartz or halogen bulbs fall into this category. Quartz lamps last longer than bulbs but cost more. Quartz lamps are often enclosed in a polished aluminum fixture that focuses the light in one direction. Oils, salts and other contaminants from your hands can cause hot spots on quartz bulbs, which can damage the bulb. Quartz lamps should never be operated without the glass cover securely in place. These lamps are a good choice for lighting barn aisles, stalls and small turnouts.
  • Fluorescent – These are the coolest, most energy efficient and most popular. Bulbs cost more than incandescent but last much longer. Fixtures are generally about four feet long and hold two to four bulbs. The color of the light varies depending on the type of phosphors used in the lamp. Fluorescent bulbs work better at 50 degrees or warmer and are slow to start in cold weather. Instant-start fixtures are available.
    • Compact Fluorescent Lamps or CFLs provide long-lasting, energy-efficient lighting. They are expensive but often provide energy savings. However, some CFLs will not fit in fixtures, they may not light in temperatures colder than 50 degrees, and they can affect the accuracy of colors.
  • High Intensity Discharge – These were originally designed for the outdoors (think street lamps). Some types of HID lamps have the longest life of any type of light. They are the most efficient light sources to run, but the most expensive to buy. These lights need several minutes to warm up, so they are not well suited to areas where they would be turned on and off frequently. Most often used in arenas.

Making Water Work

While plumbing your own small barn can be a relatively simple process, in most cases it’s a better idea to hire someone who knows the ropes. Proper plumbing requires cutting and fitting pipes to run through walls, which can be difficult. Like electricity, it’s important to determine from where you’ll get your water. If you’re connected to city water, you should find out where the shutoff valve is located. If you’re on a well, you may want to tap into the house’s existing water lines and pressure tank. But you’ll probably want separate pressure and hot water tanks in the barn.

Preventing Problem Pipes

In cold climates, it’s important to know where your frost line is. Even inside an enclosed building, pipes should extend below the frost line. If frost reaches buried water pipes, they can burst, and locating and repairing broken pipes is expensive. If a pipe bursts in the winter, it may be impossible to fix until spring.

You can protect pipes by applying pipe insulation or heating cables. Pipes should always be installed on the warm side of insulation.

  • Pipe insulation conserves heat from the water running through the pipes. It comes in several forms such as fiberglass, aluminum bonded with foam, or polyethylene. All joints and fittings should be covered in addition to the pipes. It may not offer enough protection if the temperature drops below 20 degrees.
  • Heat cable is a more positive way to prevent broken pipes. It plugs into an outlet and keeps the pipe at about 35 degrees. Using too much insulation may cause the cable to overheat, which could cause a fire. Aluminum foil around plastic pipes can help distribute the heat better. Heat cable should be installed in the fall, before extreme cold. Never use heat cable on a plastic pipe that doesn’t contain water, and never use it on a garden hose!

Other Water Considerations:

  • Hot Water Heater – This is a luxury many barn owners will happily invest in, especially for wash stalls and utility rooms. The options include a standard tank-type water heater, which stores a certain volume of hot water at all times, or an “on-demand” water heater, which heats the water by passing it through copper tubes. Be sure to install a pressure relief valve with either heater to prevent pipes from bursting if the system malfunctions. Hot water access should be centralized so you only need one heater for your barn. Consider putting your wash stall, tack room and/or utility rooms in close proximity.
  • Toilet – Installing a regular toilet takes careful planning, and it may be necessary to hire or consult a plumber. A composting toilet (also known as biological, dry or waterless toilets) may be a better alternative, but check your local codes before making a decision. Some areas prohibit composting toilets or mandate how to dispose of the waste.
  • Automatic Waterers — Some owners will employ the use of automatic waterers, which should be installed during construction, not after.
    “Everything with water has to be heated, so it’s definitely a consideration when it comes to auto-waterers,” said Gumbrect. “Sometimes they have extra wiring involved, but from our standpoint, they aren’t a big deal.”
    If you install automatic waterers, each unit should have its own valve in case of breakages. If manual watering is preferred, spigots should be placed about every fifty feet, or about the length of a manageable hose.
  • Emergency Water Storage – Since a horse needs about 10 gallons of water per day, not having access to water is a serious problem during emergencies. Consider backup electricity for water pumps as one option. If you use tubs to water, keep them freshly filled as often as possible. If you have a natural water source, have it tested regularly so you know it is safe to use if you need it. A cistern located uphill from the barn can also provide water during power outages since gravity will pull the water down from the tank.

Drainage Options

Wastewater will need somewhere to go, and often you will have more than one way of handling it.

  • Open Drain – These aren’t legal everywhere, so check your local code! Directs the wastewater down the nearest hill and to natural low areas. Requires minimal materials, no electricity and lasts indefinitely. Make sure you have enough of a slope, otherwise the soil can become saturated over time, and stagnant water could collect.
  • Dry Well – If local regulations allow, you can run the wastewater into a seepage pit or dry well. This is an area where water collects and slowly absorbs into the surrounding soil. In some areas, you can purchase ready-made units, or you can build your own.
  • Septic Tank – A buried concrete or steel tank that holds wastewater. Pipes bring water in one end, and it leaves the tank on the other end and goes into a drain field. This is the most common method of drainage.
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