Wildlife Drinker Basics

Plumbed & Equilibrium Systems


There are generally two categories of wildlife watering systems, the guzzler and drinker.  The difference is that the guzzler is a self-contained, rain catchment system that collects, stores and delivers the water. Whereas the drinker receives its water on-demand from an outside source, such as a plumbed water line.  

To learn more about guzzlers, see Wildlife Guzzler Basics

Our focus here will be on drinkers. The water supply line for a drinker can either be a pressurized water line or a low-pressure gravity feed line from a nearby storage tank.  Since the drinker gets its water on-demand, it doesn’t need the large footprint like a guzzler which incorporates all its own storage. A medium sized drinker for deer and small animals will generally run from 40 or 110 gallons.  However, larger walk-in drinkers are also available.


Drinkers can be installed either above-ground or in-the-ground.  How you install your drinker will let you determine which animals have access to water.  Since a drinker ranges between 16-26” tall, an above-ground placement will let larger animals drink but limit access to smaller animals and critters.  Conversely, an in-ground install will give both large animals and small critters direct access to water at ground level.


If you’re considering an in-ground installation, you’ll gain some measure of protection against freezing water lines and in the drinker itself.  When burying the water line, you’ll also want to include a downhill drain-line for cleaning and winterizing. In many drinkers models, you’ll see that the float-valve is installed under the escape ramp to give is some protection against light freezes as well as curious animals.

When installing a drinker in-ground, keep in mind that large, heavy animals, such as elk, tend to mill around a drinker and compact the soil. This compaction can eventually push the sidewalls of the drinker inward.  To guard against ground compaction issues, consider framing-in the drinker with construction blocks. This will ensure the integrity of the installation in high traffic areas. It’s also helpful to install the drinker about 4” proud of the ground to keep dirt and debris from being blown or kicked into the drinker. See plans for drinker construction block frame at Rainmaker.

Float-Valve System

When you are connecting a pressurized water line and utilizing a float-valve, it’s a pretty straight forward process.  The pressure in this line will usually run between 5-60 PSI and the float-valve will control the flow of water. If it’s greater than 60 psi, you may need to add a pressure reduction valve to prevent damage to the valve. Once you connect the line and adjusted the float-valve, you’re more or less ready to go. Periodically check the float-valve to see if it’s functioning properly.

Equilibrium System

An interesting alternative to using a float-valve system is called an equilibrium system. The concept is that your drinker and storage tanks are all on the same elevation which allows the water level to “equalize” naturally by gravity, thereby eliminating the float-valve.

For an equilibrium system to function properly, you need two things. First, the elevation of the components (drinker and tank) must be the same.  Secondly, the drinker and tanks must have similar depths, otherwise, there will be overflow.

For example, set the drinker and tank at a level elevation.  If your drinker has a depth of 26”, then the connected storage tank should also have a depth of 26”.  If both of these simple criteria are met, the water level within the system will naturally equalize.

So what are the important benefits of an equilibrium system?  Reduced maintenance and dependability. Since the float-valve is a mechanical device, it can potentially fail and in a worst-case scenario, the stored water could be lost. Being able to depend on gravity is reassuring, especially if your system is located in a remote area that’s difficult to monitor on a regular basis.

Many of the very large, walk-in drinker systems in Arizona for mule deer and wintering elk utilize an equilibrium layout because of its dependability. While these massive catchments systems can range from 5000 to 25,000 gallons, the same concept can easily be applied to a more modest 1000 or 3000-gallon system. See AZ Water Developement Standards for comprehensive layout and specifications of large, catchment systems.

More details at setting up an equilibrium system.

Walk-In Installation

Walk-In Installation

Storage Tanks  

I’m a big believer in using polyethylene tanks as opposed to fiberglass or concrete tanks. These tanks are mass-produced, commonly available, recyclable, affordable and non-toxic food grade.  You’ll see that a very common color of these tanks is an opaque natural white.  Try to get a black or green tank as it will block out the UV and mitigate algae growth.  The darker color will also blend into the environment better. If you do get a natural white, you can always spray it with paint that is formulated to adhere to plastic.


Capturing pictures and video clips of wildlife drinker activity are one of the great rewards you can look forward too. It will give you a better sense as to the actual animal activity at your drinker. Take a look at some of the simple, affordable and feature-filled trail cameras available today.  If you have any technical and practical questions, the friendly folks at TrailCam Pro would be glad to help.  

If you have questions or comments regarding wildlife habitat water systems, please feel free to contact us here at Rainmaker Wildlife

Related Articles.  Wildlife Guzzler Basics