Bird Watcher's General Store

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The Cost of Running a Heated Birdbath

Dear Bird Folks,

I’d like to buy my husband a heater for his birdbath, but I’m worried that the cost of running it would increase our electric bill too much. Do you know how much they cost to run?

– Rusty, Milton, MA


This might shock you, Rusty,

I’m not an expert on electricity. (Did you get the pun?) All I know about electricity is that it’s expensive and that I hate it when the power’s out. (Like I’m supposed to get out of the car and open my own garage door. I don’t think so.) In order to answer your question I had to do a little research. The first place I called was my power company. I figured they would have all the answers about electricity. Right? Wrong. I spoke with a very nice lady, but she was clueless. Talking to her about electricity was like asking the CEO of GM about cars. I hung up and called my good friend, Jeff. Everyone has at least one smart friend and I’m lucky to have Jeff as mine. Two seconds after calling him I had all the info we needed, Rusty.

Offering water during the winter is a really good way to attract birds. During last week’s freeze-up there was a line of them waiting to use my heated birdbath. One cold winter’s day, a year or two ago, a local woman brought in a photo of thirteen Eastern Bluebirds jamming into her heated birdbath. I love showing that picture to customers because it actually makes some of them gasp when they see it. People don’t do nearly enough gasping anymore.

I can’t guarantee that a heated bath will make anyone gasp, Rusty, but I can guarantee that the neighborhood birds will be thrilled. Fresh water can be difficult for them to find during the winter. Sure, birds can eat ice or snow in order to get needed moisture, but swallowing hunks of ice on a frigid day has to rob them of precious warmth.

In addition to quenching their thirst, birds also need fresh water to keep themselves clean. Remember, the only thing between a bird’s skin and the elements is a thin layer of feathers. If those feathers aren’t properly maintained deadly hypothermia may be the result. Birds can’t go an entire winter without a proper bath. Only my kids seem to be able to do that.

There are two ways of providing water for birds in the winter. One way is to add a heater to an existing birdbath. However, those add-on heaters can be expensive to run since they often use a much as 200 watts of power. Also, if you lose power (like a lot of people did last week) your birdbath will freeze solid and may crack. The better way is to buy a specially designed birdbath that has a built-in heater. Most of these heated birdbaths, which cost nearly as much as the add-on heaters do, are made of plastic so they won’t crack if they freeze. And since built-in heaters are sized for each specific bath, they often require less energy to run. Our most popular heated bath only uses 50 watts of electricity. Now you are thinking: “Fine, 50 watts is cheaper than 200, but what does an additional 50 watts do to my electric bill?” This is where I needed help from my buddy, Jeff, and Jeff never lets me down.

According to Jeff’s calculations, which are based on Cape Cod’s rip-off electric rates, using a 50-watt heated birdbath will roughly add 24 cents to your daily electric bill. (I won’t bother showing you the formula he used to come up with this answer because it makes my head hurt just looking at it.) Using a 50-watt heated birdbath nonstop, from December through March, will cost you $29.04 for the entire year, or $29.28 if it’s a leap year. So, even during a leap year, the bath will cost less to use than some folks pay for a single bag of sunflower seed. But wait. It gets better. All but the cheapest heaters have built-in thermostats. That means they will shut down and not use any power on a warm day or during the January thaw, which I’m already looking forward to.

Of course, it would be great to have a way of keeping your birdbath ice-free without using any energy at all but so far none of the solar products we’ve tested have done an adequate job. I have also heard of people adding treatments to the water to keep it from freezing. That’s not a good idea. Never add anything to a birdbath that you wouldn’t drink yourself; although my old man used to drink enough “treatment” to keep every birdbath in New England from freezing.

I say get a small birdbath with a built-in heater. It won’t cost that much to run and your birds will love it. One more thing, Rusty. I don’t know how much you like your husband, but if you actually do like him I suggest he only plug his birdbath into an outdoor outlet that has a GFI (ground fault interrupter). These outlets are designed to instantly shut down if something goes wrong, which will prevent your husband from getting a shock, or a permanent perm.