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    Brooding Chicks: Radiant Heat vs. Heat Lamps

    Authored by Gail Damerow

    Chick brooders are generally heated by one of two kinds of heat sources: radiant heat or heat lamp. Radiant heat comes from electromagnetic energy and does not involve light. A heat lamp produces light by being heated. In other words, it’s basically a fancy light bulb. Which is better - radiant heat or heat lamp? Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

    Radiant heat panel

    The chief disadvantage to a radiant heater is the cost. It is considerably more expensive than a light-emitting bulb. But it has many significant advantages:

    • More energy efficient, therefore cheaper to operate
    • Lasts longer
    • Won’t easily break or shatter
    • Produces uniform warmth without hot spots
    • Emits no light, letting chicks rest at night

    However, chicks do need daytime light to find feed and water. Using an infrared heater therefore means you also need to provide light, at least during the daytime.

    The most common type of radiant heater is a flat panel. It is initially the most expensive brooder heating option. But because it is the most energy efficient, it is the least expensive to operate. Over the long run, therefore, it is considerably cheaper than other options.

    A properly cared for panel heater may last indefinitely. It’s the safest option as well, because it doesn’t get hot to the touch. It won’t burn chicks or their keepers and doesn’t present a fire hazard. The sealed panels are easy to wipe free of chick dust and other brooding debris.

    Panels intended for brooding chicks come in various sizes to accommodate brooder size and number of chicks —for instance, 20 chicks, 20 to 25, or 35 chicks. And they have a built-in height adjustment feature.

    A radiant heat panel directs heat only beneath itself, giving chicks in a small brooding area the flexibility to move away to maintain their comfort level. And when the ambient temperature is warm enough that chicks barely need heat in the brooder, simply turn off and lower the panel heater. The panel will trap the body heat of chicks sleeping underneath, keeping them cozy warm.

    Light bulb option

    For a small batch of chicks, a common light bulb works fine as a brooder heat source. Light bulbs suitable for brooding are either incandescent or halogen.

    Incandescent bulbs emit some 90 percent of their energy in the form of infrared radiation, or heat. Although standard incandescent bulbs are inexpensive to purchase, they don’t last long. The average life expectancy for a bulb in continuous use is about 6 weeks (about 1 and a half months).

    Incandescent floodlights are more expensive than standard bulbs but can last for nearly 4 months of continuous use. For brooding purposes, select floodlights designed for outdoor use.

    Halogen bulbs are incandescent bulbs that produce more light per unit of energy than normal incandescents. But they also produce more infrared radiation and therefore get a lot hotter. Yet a halogen bulb is at least 10 percent more energy efficient than a regular incandescent bulb. A halogen bulb should last approximately as long as an incandescent floodlight.

    To get the maximum life out of a halogen bulb, do not touch the glass with bare hands. Your fingerprints will shorten the bulb’s life. Also avoid jolting the bulb while you’re screwing it in or adjusting the fixture. And never adjust a fixture while the bulb is hot.

    What is the right light bulb to buy for brooders?

    There are a few options for bulbs. Keep in mind that no bulb is complete without the proper fixture setup. 

    Incandescent bulbs

    • Inexpensive
    • Shorter bulb lifespan (about a month and half)

    Incandescent floodlights

    • More expensive
    • Longer bulb life (about 4 months)
    • Purchase floodlights marked for outdoor use

    Halogen incandescent bulbs

    • 10% more energy efficient
    • Should last as long as a floodlight bulb
    • Emits more heat, raising bulb-handling and heat protection awareness

    Avoid these bulbs for brooders

    • Compact fluorescents
    • Shatter resistant or safety coated bulbs, bulbs coated with Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)

    Bulbs to avoid

    Compact fluorescents are not suitable as a brooder heat source, because they are more energy efficient and therefore produce less heat. But they are perfectly fine for use as auxiliary light in conjunction with a radiant heater.

    Above all, avoid shatter resistant or safety coated bulbs. Such bulbs are coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). They are sold under several brand names, the most common of which is Teflon.

    The safety coating encloses the glass to prevent shattering should the bulb break. But when the bulb heats up, the PTFE emits a gas that is lethally toxic to birds. Chicks in a brooder heated with a shatterproof lamp will die quickly.

    PTFE bulbs come in a variety of forms, including heat lamps, floodlights, and rough-service work lights. They absolutely have no place in a coop or brooder. Neither should they be used anywhere the brooder might be kept, including inside your house or garage.

    Brooder heat lamp

    An infrared heat lamp, sometimes called a brooder lamp, is basically an incandescent light bulb that emits less light and more infrared radiation than a regular incandescent bulb.

    The advantage over a radiant heater is the substantially lower price. Disadvantages include less energy efficiency, shorter life, and the possibility of breakage. Arguably the worst disadvantage is that it gets really hot, and if it falls onto something flammable (like brooder bedding) can easily start a fire.

    Heat lamps come with either red or clear bulbs. A white lamp may last for up to 30 weeks (about 7 months) of continuous use. A red bulb is more expensive, but should last about 6 weeks (close to a month and half) longer. And the red glow discourages chicks from picking at each other. To preserve long life, observe the same handling precautions as for a halogen bulb.

    Setting up bulb fixtures properly

    Heat lamps and light bulbs get extremely hot. They must have a fixture that can withstand the high heat, and keep people and birds away from the hot bulb. Must-have features include:

    • A porcelain socket that won’t melt or catch fire (as a standard plastic socket might)
    • A reflector that directs heat toward the brooding area
    • A wire guard safety cover to prevent contact with the hot bulb and to avoid starting a fire should the fixture fall against a wall or into brooder bedding
    • A secure method to attach and adjust the fixture

    Most fixtures have a clamp for securing the fixture. However, a clamp could knock loose if someone is careless, or a chick is clumsily learning to fly. Therefore, a good practice is tie the clamp securely in place to keep it from slipping. Never hang a lamp by its cord — that’s unsafe.

    Make sure the fixture you use has the same wattage rating as your bulb. A 250-watt infrared heat bulb, for instance, will put out more heat than a fixture rated for up to 150 watts can handle. The inverse — using a bulb with lower wattage than the fixture rating — is not a problem.

    How to position brooder heater

    Whether you choose radiant heat or a heat lamp, avoid positioning the heater directly above the feeder and drinker. You don’t want to encourage chicks to bed down on or in the feed and water.

    In a brooder with limited space, position the heater at one end. That should allow enough room for the feeder and drinker at the other end. In a roomy brooder, the best place to position the heat source is in the middle. Space feeders and drinkers around the outside of the heater’s range so the chicks can come and go as they please.


    Gail Damerow has written many books about chickens. Those available at Tractor Supply include Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, Hatching and Brooding Your Own Chicks, The Chicken Health Handbook, and more. Visit Gail’s blog at gaildamerow.com


    More about raising chicks

    Interested in raising baby chicks? Learn about the proper nutrition, shelter, brooding, and other basic needs necessary to provide the best care for your chicks.
    Gail Damerow gives us the details on hatching eggs - whether you plan to purchase eggs or collect and hatch from your own flock.