My Smart Chicken Coop
After visiting his friend’s house last year, my son came home especially excited. His friend’s family kept chickens in the backyard and now my son was hoping perhaps we could too! I thought this could be a great father/son project, so much to my wife’s angst, I agreed.
One of the first things we had to address was figuring out how to look after the chickens on top of our busy life and weekends spent away. In short, the chicken coop had to be as maintenance free as possible.
Around the same time, IBI’s CEO, Scott Stewart, announced the firm’s transformation to a technology-driven design firm. This meant that we would be leveraging technology to support smarter and more efficient design practices. This made me think about my chicken project and how there must be a way to use technology to manage our coop.
Off to Google I went!
Hacking the Hen House
It turns out that the world of backyard chicken coops is alive and thriving on the web. Lots of people have great ideas to offer, but surprisingly, few utilize smart technologies.
So, I made a list of the things I needed for the coop and my thoughts on how these things might be managed with technology:
Food and water: A large feeder and water supply will last a few weeks without refill. No need to use technology.
Cleaning: This will be addressed by a removable floor that can be taken out from the coop to clean and remove waste. Again, no need for technology.
Light: Chickens need at least 14 hours of light for ideal egg production- after all, there is no biological reason for chickens to lay eggs when days are short and it’s too cold for their chicks to survive. Because I live in Ontario where the winters are cold, I needed to set up a smart timer to automate the heat lights. Ideally this would sync with daily dawn and dusk times.
Temperature: Chickens need a temperature minimum of 11˚C for maximum egg production (same logic as with the light and to keep their water from freezing). In order to maintain a stable temperature above 11˚, I needed a heater- preferably one that I could monitor and adjust remotely.
Door: Chickens like to roam outside of their coop in the day, but need to be sheltered from predators at night. I wanted the coop door to automatically open after dawn (ideally once they have laid their eggs) and close after dusk (when they are back in and roosting). This would keep predators out at night and warmth in during cold weather. Chickens instinctively go back into the coop at dusk so all I needed was a smart timer to automatically open and close the door based on the time of day.
Monitoring: Ideally I wanted the ability to remotely monitor the chickens when away.
Hatching the Idea
Aside from food, water, and the physical cleaning of the coop (all of which is fairly infrequent), I believed that technology could help simplify coop maintenance. To do this I needed to purchase an IP webcam to monitor the coop, as well as a few Wi-Fi smart switches, including one that is temperature controlled. All of these items were available online for less than $5 each. Next I needed to develop the “triggers” which would initiate an automated reaction from the switches. These are the triggers that I developed for the switches (note, via my smartphone I can monitor the status of the switches, or manually control them):
- If it is 2 hours before dawn, then turn on the lights;
- If it is 30 minutes after dawn, then turn off the lights;
- Note, ideally I want to calculate the daylight length and then determine how many hours before dawn to turn them on (still working on this).
- If it is below 10˚C, then turn on the heat;
- If it is above 12˚C, then turn off the heat.
- Coop door (I used an electric car window opener with limit switches):
- If it is 1 hour after dawn (i.e., after the chickens had laid the eggs), then open the coop door;
- If it is 30 minutes after dusk, then close the coop door.
Then, to implement the logic controls for the switches, I used a number of free apps/services on my smartphone. These included:
- eWeLink: A smartphone control app that allows users to control devices which are connected to home appliances and electronic devices via Wi-Fi. I used this service to control the temperature activated switch for the heater and also to manually control the light and door.
- Stringify: Allows users to create triggers and actions. This site has over 500 partners that provide triggers related to their equipment (e.g., smart thermostat, appliances, lights, electronics, etc.), or services (e.g., weather, news, email, text, etc.). The ones I used for the chicken coop are:
- Weather Underground: Set triggers to control the door and lights based on daily sunrise and sunset times.
- E-mail: Set a trigger to receive an email when either the lights or doors changed states.
- Google Sheets: Set a trigger to record every time the heater turned on or off so I could see the total time that the heater was on (this was simply to play around with the app and wasn’t really needed).
- IFTTT: stands for “If This Then That”. In other words, if a certain event or trigger occurs (“this”) then the app will trigger something else to occur (“that”). I used this service to act on a trigger (“this”) and prompt the smart switches via eWeLink (“that”). My triggers were temperature and time of day.
Smart Chicken Coop 2.0
My chicken coop is now up and running with three happy chickens laying 2 to 3 eggs per day (I like to say 2.5 eggs per day but that always leads to more questions).
Some of the key lessons learned include:
Backyard eggs are way better than store bought eggs.
Integrating smart technologies is not as complicated as it seems. Half the struggle is trying to understand the terminology and logic, but once you start to figure things out its pretty easy.
Smart technologies don’t necessarily need to cost a lot. The technologies I used cost below $50 in total and there are no ongoing operating costs, aside from electricity.
There are a lot of cool smart technologies and services that are relatively unknown to the public – most of which are free.
Due to the physical coop construction costs (not the technology), the overhead cost for each backyard chicken egg is high. However, every day or two when I collect my eggs, I comfort myself (and my wife) by knowing that today’s eggs are cheaper than yesterday’s!
And finally, what starts as a father/son project doesn’t often end as a father/son project, especially when Dad gets carried away with the smart technologies!
Now, a final challenge for my chicken coop: I need to figure out an automated way to get the eggs from the coop to the house – perhaps a vacuum tube or drone – any ideas welcome!
John Perks is a civil engineer working from IBI’s Waterloo and Hamilton offices. He grew up in beautiful Victoria, BC, and moved to Ontario to attend the University of Waterloo in 1984. John was an owner of PEIL which was acquired by IBI Group in 2007. John works on a diversity of projects including land development and municipal infrastructure renewal, as well as leading IBI Group’s environmental noise practice.