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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review of the Brower Top Hatch Incubator- Its beauty is its simplicity!

Hatching chicks is a tough job on the best of days.  Man simulating nature has always been a challenge as the number of variables run into the thousands.  To mimic the natural hatching conditions of a real broody hen, poultry farmers have spent hours, days, and generations observing those moody, ornery feather dusters and collecting data to hand over to the engineers and manufacturers. 

Personal ideas on shape, color, and design are usually up to the individual designer.  These are usually broken down into two categories; industrial hatching and hobby hatching.  Industrial hatching incubators are quite large and are designed to hatch out hundreds of chicks per unit, with a limited amount of human interaction.  The electronics that run these units are top of the line, highly accurate and can be adjusted to specific calibrations.  They also come with astonishing price tags, which should be as no surprise, as they are the backbone of the poultry business.  They are certainly out of price range and scale for the backyard poultry family, hobby farmer, or small flock owner.

The market is full of smaller scale egg incubators by numerous companies:  Brinsea, Little Giant, Hova-Bator, GQF Manufacturing, RCom, Brower, Yosooa, Farm Innovators, Incuview, Arksen, Fall Harvest, and on and on.  There are of course the homemade incubators and the no name generic brands.  Whether they are still air incubators or move the warm air with a small fan; are fully automatic, or manual; inexpensive or high end; or hold 6 eggs or 48, their basic parameters are all the same.  They keep the set eggs at a relatively constant 99.5'F and at 40-50% humidity for the needed 21-25 days. 

I have a small homesteading flock, which I classify as 12-24 birds.  I currently have 15, but have comfortable room in the Station coop for 20-25.  I would like to add a few more hens and in the future I will have the need to replace the older ladies.  I certainly prefer to use a broody hen, but honestly, they go broody at the most inconvenient times and have a need to either be VERY protective of their eggs and young, or space needs to be made for them to brood and raise the young around the other flock mates.  I see broody hens as the easy route for more offspring.  Kind of like grand parenting, play with 'em, sugar and wind them up, and send them home.  A broody hen does all the work. You just have to sit back and watch.

I have chicken breeds that are extremely uncommon for this area.  In that vein, they are in high demand for showing and for their colorful egg production. 
I could hardly ask a broody hen to sit on 24 eggs, and then snatch the day old chicks from her.  An incubator is the logical replacement.  (Clarification: we'd have to snatch the chicks because we've had neighbors ask us to help them start a flock. Otherwise, the mother hen does a great job of raising and protecting her brood. -Doc)

Anyone that knows me, knows that I do not part with money readily and without doing a great deal of research.  I knew what I wanted and what I didn't.  I wanted it to be able to hold at least 24 eggs, be easy to clean, easy to use, and wouldn't cost me an arm and a leg. I was not impressed with the incubators readily available at the two local farm supply stores.

  Both were Styrofoam, which can be notorious bacterial Petri dishes if not carefully cleaned and sanitized.  I worried that the inexpensive materials would leach over into the electronics portion of the product and accuracy and stability would be an issue.  Both were quite inexpensive, less than $50, and could be upgraded for more money to add egg turners, trays, fans, and hygrometers.  By the time you add all of those goodies, you may as well go up into the next tier of products.

The next tier are those seen in many poultry keepers catalogues.  They are made from plastic and can range in price from $75 dollars to over $400.  Even within this they can be broken down into what items are included.  The most simple of the models have digital thermostatic controls or manual temperature controls, but you are turning the eggs on your own.  Every time you open your incubator, you loose both heat and humidity.  I was NOT interested in turning eggs three times a day.  Increased handling of the eggs increased the MIS-handling of the eggs.  Not only can they be accidentally dropped, but the humid warm conditions of the incubator are a breeding ground for any yuckies that are found naturally ON the egg and can be transferred to YOU, or bacterium that you introduce TO the eggs from your own hands.  You'll be washing your hands and equipment enough when you candle your eggs, turning them multiple times daily, simply increases the risk.

That brings us to temperature and humidity control.  I had the need to be able to monitor it and adjust it.  As much as I love technology, as we all do, I simply do not trust the accuracy of items on the market.  The more complicated the machine, the more likely something will go wrong, and the way things are assembled today, you cannot simply replace the part that has gone bad. Add to that the cheap manufacturing processes we all deal with, and a digital console that SAYS it is holding 99.5 and it is really 103', and you've got a problem.  We've all encountered it in our daily lives.  I'd rather not deal with it when little fluff butt lives are in the balance.

That brings us to size.  The need to hatch a varying number of eggs was a must.  Most incubators that held 24 eggs and more were little more than glorified, cramped, electric egg cartons that tipped the eggs from side to side to rotate them.  Filled with eggs, there was little room for chicks to move once they hatched out.  Newly hatched, exhausted, clumsy chicks were forced to climb and trip other hatching eggs while they dried, before they were removed to the brooding box. And even with the expensive models, there were upgrades to be had for money.

In extensive searches, I came across several models that were possible and then set out to read reviews that were posted and then even more reviews on backyardchickens.com. Just when I was about to settle, I stumbled upon a little known model, the THI-30 Brower Top Hatch.  Now I have seen their old farm models on Craigslist, the massive metal drum looked quite industrial.

From a Very OLD  Sears Catalog
I knew nothing about them; how they ran, how good they were, or even if they still made or supported them.  I can't even tell you how many variations on the chicken incubator there have been over the years.  There are movies about that.  Two I can come up with off the top of my head are "The Egg and I", and the "Ma and Pa series".  If you've never seen them, and you're chicken people, yes, you MUST watch them.  The only thing that has had more variations on a simple theme has been the mouse trap.

Once I found out that the giant mystery drum on Craigslist was called a Brower, I did a search.  Low and behold they still made them.  Now they are made of modern materials.  The drum is a heat resistant heavy duty plastic that can not only be taken off the turner, but can be totally submerged in water for cleaning, and even run through the dishwasher for sterilizing.  The base unit holds the temperature control, the electric fan motor and the electrics for the electric light.  The electric light screws into the base and is surrounded by a conical plastic guard.  The drum slides down atop the light and the base unit, and the groove in the bottom of the drum is aligned with the turning wheel on the base.  The screen liner is then set over the bulb and into the drum base, and the turning spokes go on top of that.  The lid is a clear plastic that makes looking in on the eggs, the hatching process, and the chicks easy.  It also has 4 holes which can be left open for circulation or closed to hold heat and humidity.  The heat of the unit is supplied by a 60W standard candelabra light bulb. 

The temperature control is easy enough.  You must plan ahead at least two days.  I start the unit up and let it run and stabilize. I added 1.5 cups of HOT water into the drum base and turned the unit on.  I needed to work my way up to 99.5'F.  To do this you turn the control knob slowly CLOCKWISE to increase the heat, and counterclockwise to lower the heat.  The knob controls the thermostat.  When the thermostat reaches the temperature it is set at, it switches OFF the light.  When the temperature drops below the set temperature, it turns ON the light and keeps it on until the set temperature is reached, and then it switches OFF again.  While the temperature is in equilibrium, the light will flash ON and OFF continuously.  If the light is OFF and stays OFF, either your power is OFF OR your bulb has burned off.  My until is still using the same bulb after 7 weeks of continuous use.  (I still have spare bulbs in the house.)

Overall it is an outstanding little-known gem in the world of modern incubators.  Sure, it had some negative reviews online, but as we all know, you are more likely to hear from those that have a complaint than those that sing praise.  As compared to other incubators, the proportion of negative reviews is actually lower with the Brower.  Customer service is also outstanding.  Parts can be had, if needed, instead of buying a whole new unit.  Questions are also promptly answered.  So let's go on with the good and the bad- what I could change if I could wave a magic wand.

It is easily set up.
It cleans and sanitizers easily.
Parts are available if needed.
Great customer service.
You know it's on if you see the light.
Gentle rolling turning of the eggs, just like a mother hen. 
Easy to fill water reservoir.
Simple easy to understand comprehensive instruction.
Holds up to 48 hen eggs.
Cost less than $150.  qcsupply.com
Takes up little space.
Great viewing top.
Can also be used as a brooder area for a short time. (Has tall sides.)
Mesh keeps chicks away from the water.
VERY quiet. (My hard drive on my computer is louder than the unit.)
You have control over the temperature, which allows you to run a cool down phase if you wish.
Depending on which side of the turning spokes go in first, you can turn and hatch small or large eggs.

What I would change......
I think all units would benefit from coming WITH an insulation blanket.  I made mine with a long narrow strip of bubble wrap, a narrow long strip of industrial ironing board fabric, and two long elastic bands to hold it all on.  This allows the heat produced by the bulb to be held at a more consistent temperature for a longer period of time.  It did make a HUGE difference.

The temperature control knob is really hard to see.  A black knob surrounded by a black base, with a simple cross slot for a screw driver becomes invisible.  When you do learn where it is (under the drum, in the shade, on the side) since the knob is a solid color with no markings, you have NO IDEA how far you have turned it to help narrow down the temperature setting. Small turns can make a big temperature change. 
To solve this, I marked the knob, which is flush with the unit, with a small bit of chalk, rubbed on with my finger.  This allowed me to see that the dot was, say, at the 3 o'clock position, and I just turned it to the 9 o'clock position.  When this set of chicks is out of the incubator I will mark a dot with a dab of fingernail polish or whiteout or white paint for a permanent reference point.

The cone doesn't go high enough on the bulb.  They say chicks cannot get to it.  Mine did.  After hatch, she stepped up on the turning rails and caught her balance by tossing her wing out against the bulb. I would make the cone taller.
  Next hatching, I'm going to try using a small tomato paste can, with both ends off, and vent holes punched in it.  This will also help with the horizontal light pollution that is inherent with this design.

The turning spokes.  I wish they came out for lock down and hatching.  They aren't a concern during lock down, but at hatching, the stumbling new chicks don't pick up their feet to walk.  Their feet go under the rails and then they trip.  How they don't break their legs, I'll never know.  IT DOES come OUT.  You MUST remove it to clean the empty drum before storage and the next hatch. 
HOWEVER, it does NOT come out easily.  I would NEVER take it out with eggs IN the drum.  You just have to wrestle too much to fight it out.

The temperature holds relatively steady.  I had a problem with my first base (which was IMMEDIATELY resolved with customer service).  The temperature spike to 104' and I lost two dozen eggs.  I noticed the light hadn't turned off for a while, and I have no idea how long it was like that before I caught it.  Luckily, these were my own eggs, of which I have plenty to start over. 

The light is your heat source.  A good thing and a visual validation to the operation, or not, of your unit.  It can, and WILL drive you insane.  We originally had it in the dining room, which is next to the living room.  The constant blinking in the corner of my eye drove me batty.  First I tried putting low tack black painters tape around the outside edge.  I still had light blinking on the ceiling, but at least it wasn't in my eyes, at eye level.  I finally decided to move it to our office, which is still high traffic for peep peeking, but out of sight. ( I am keeping my eyes open for a red 60w candelabra base bulb for after hatching.)

The light bulb is also advertised as being able to be used for candling.  Don't bother.  The amount of light pollution around the bulb blows your night vision.  In fact, I put a circle of foil to protect my eyes from the bright direct light of the bulb when looking in on the eggs.  I use a cold light LED flashlight with a bit of pipe insulation around the end.  The soft insulation creates a light seal around the egg, focusing all the light in the egg.  This is ridiculously important with Maran eggs.

New Hatchling making good use of the thermometer/hygrometer.

The unit comes with a small thermometer.  Throw it away.  It is simply wired to the card.  Mine slipped easily up and down several millimeters so who KNOWS what the temperature actually was.  Temperature and humidity are something that EVERY incubator has issues with.  Not holding them, or obtaining them, but MEASURING THEM. The margin error in these products is far too high.  I am thrilled that this unit actually doesn't have either built in!  That sounds odd, but it actually makes sense.  When you purchase a unit with a thermometer, or hygrometer, or both, built in, you EXPECT them to be dead accurate.  More than likely they are off quite a bit.  But you are stuck with them.  So what could be seen as a negative, I believe is a positive.  You can quite readily find hygrometers and thermometers in stores and online, and testing them and calibrating them is quite easy and directions are readily found online.

See there is nothing major there.  Nothing that cannot easily be worked around.  There are much larger complaints about other units, which can silently fail, stop supplying water, stop tipping eggs, or give false digital readings.

So here's the big questions:

Would I buy it again?  Would I recommend it to others?

YES! In the blink of an eye and without hesitation!!!  Its ease of use, ease of cleaning, visibility and maintenance just make egg hatching easy!  And you cannot beat the price for what it returns to you.
Our French Blue Copper Marans

1 comment:

  1. wow. Hard work but so rewarding.. They are adorable..