How to choose a poultry incubator

I have been hatching my own eggs for about 12 years now and during that time I have used several different types of incubators in all different price levels. When you begin hatching eggs, choosing your incubator is very important. Most people decide purely based on price but I believe you should chose the style you prefer and then find one in your price range.

Looking into an incubator to decide which to buy to hatch chicks

The cheapest incubator you can buy (that actually works well) is about $45 and it's a still air Styrofoam model that holds around 40 eggs. The most expensive incubator you can buy is a fully automatic cabinet model that costs around $2,500 and holds a little under 600 eggs! 

As you can see, there is a lot of room between these 2 styles and that's what we are going to discuss today. Lets talk about everything incubators: still air, forced air, hygrometers, thermometers, turners and hand turning.

Related reading: Learn about incubation & hatching, terms and definitions

The different types of egg incubators

There are two types of incubators. Forced air and still air. Still air means there is no artificial air flow inside the incubator. Forced air means that the incubator has a fan inside it to circulate the air. It's important to know what kind of incubator you have because the temperature requirements are different for each one.

With a still air incubator the heat element gives off heat but the incubator tends to be warmest at the heat element and coolest furthest away. Heat rises so the air at the top of the incubator is slightly warmer than the air at the bottom. Generally the heat element is at the top of the incubator also.

In a forced air incubator, the fan blows the air all around effectively mixing it up so the air temp is consistent throughout the entire incubator.

During incubation, a forced air incubator should be kept at 99-99.5° F. In a forced air incubator you can measure the air temperature anywhere inside the incubator and it will be accurate since the air is circulating. 

A still air incubator should be kept at 101-102° F at the top of the eggs. Since the heat is coming from above and heat rises, the eggs are warmer at the top than at the bottom. I've had the best hatch rates with forced air incubators.

Related reading: How to incubate eggs and hatch chicks.

Also make sure the incubator parts line up perfectly and close securely. (not chunks missing from the Styrofoam, magnetic closures on doors etc.) It's very important to keep the air inside the incubator stable as even one degree difference can terminate the embryos.

choosing an incubator, Styrofoam

Air vents are essential in incubators

All incubators should have vent holes. Allowing fresh air into the incubator is essential. This allows oxygen to come in and the carbon dioxide produced by the developing eggs to go out. This is very important! 

I once wrapped my Styrofoam still air incubator with blankets because it was losing heat. I stabilized the temp, but covered the air holes and almost all of the eggs just quit developing, most likely from lack of oxygen. Eggs need oxygen during development!

Thermometer and hygrometers in incubators

You'll need to add a thermometer and a hygrometer inside your incubator unless it has one installed. Even then, you’ll want to check its accuracy with an additional thermometer and hygrometer before your first hatch! It's simple, just place a reliable thermometer & hygrometer inside incubator for 24 hours and compare the readings with the installed device.

A hygrometer measures the humidity level inside the incubator. Humidity is very important during hatch. Keep your humidity between 40-50% for the first 18 dates of incubation. Raise the humidity to 65% for the last 3 days off hatching.

To raise humidity in the incubator, add water to the water reservoir of the incubator. You could also add a piece of wet sponge. To lower humidity, open the air vents or briefly open the incubator to allow some air out unless your incubator is currently in lock down. 

Only open the vents while in lock down to prevent the chicks from becoming shrink wrapped.

Egg turner or hand turning

Many incubators have egg turners. Eggs are placed pointed end down in the turners, kind of like when you put them in an egg carton. The turners will rock back and forth on a pre-set schedule. Some turners allow you to choose a number of times the eggs will turn each day, others are already programmed. 

If your incubator does not have an egg turner, then you will have to lay the eggs on their side and turn them by hand. I turn my eggs 3 or 5 times a day. Always turn them an odd number of turns each day. 

Obviously, the eggs will not be turned while you're sleeping. By turning them an odd number of turns during the day, it’s insured they will rest on opposite sides each night You do not want them resting on the same side 2 nights in a row. To ensure the eggs are turned fully, I use a pencil to write an X on one side and an O on the other.

Eggs must be turned during the first 18 days of incubation to ensure the chick develops properly. If the egg is not turned often enough, the developing embryo can stick to the shell membrane causing abnormal growth.

Most incubators with built in tuners are more expensive than ones without, so you’ll have to decide if you want to hand turn eggs or prefer having them turned for you.

Incubator size and egg sizes

Incubators come in various sizes. I have a small plastic one that holds only 10 eggs, others that hold 20 or 40 and a cabinet incubator that holds a whopping 380! Obviously, the average person does not need a 380 egg incubator and thankfully most models come in various sizes! 

If you’re only hatching a few chicks here and there, then one of the 20 egg sizes incubators are a good choice. 

If you have ducks, geese or other large fowl that you want to hatch eggs from, you’ll also need to take that into consideration. An incubator that fits 10 chicken eggs might only fit 7 duck eggs and 5 goose eggs.  

I started out with a Styrofoam still air incubator. I added a turner a few months later. I switched to Brinsea incubators a year or two later and have never looked back. 

I like when my incubators take care of everything for me. There are far less hatching mistakes. The temperature never spikes or drops. I don’t have to put multiple thermometers and a hygrometer inside to make sure everything is staying stable. It’s just a much easier hatching experience.

There are other companies that make fully automatic incubators like Farm Innovators. I feel like I can’t speak on them though, since I’ve never used them. 

Actually, I doubt anyone has used every type of incubator out there and I definitely wouldn't trust a review on a product the reviewer hasn't actually used for several hatches! Once you decide what kind of incubator you want, ask for reviews from chickens keepers, check online reviews and do your homework on make and model.

Hopefully that helps you to pick the right incubator for your flock! Happy hatching!

~L

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