How to Choose an Incubator

Choosing the right incubator for your particular need not be a daunting task, my advice is to make a quick list of what you require before spending what is likely to be quite a chunk of money. You can buy one or build your own. Self building is easier than you might expect but I would steer you away from the fire risk that is light bulbs in polyboxes.

Can you borrow one to test before you buy? Or is hens really your first choice? For me the most important part is the large clear plastic dome that covers my hatching eggs, I get a clear uninterrupted view of the eggs and the hatch.

Don’t buy a large incubator with the idea of adding eggs at intervals (cyclic hatching), unless you are using a separate hatcher, better to buy 2 smaller ones and do batch incubation. I can set up to 27 eggs every 4 days although I do have a large incubator that takes nearly 300 eggs, my overall hatch rate declines considerably when eggs are stored more than 7 or 8 days.

There is no real order for what you need to consider whilst choosing an incubator so I have started with cost and then type. Some people might be more bothered by the number of eggs that fit in the machine and others by the level of automation, everyone is different.

Bear in mind that egg quantities differ depending on where you are in the world. In the UK hatching eggs are generally sold by the dozen or half dozen and when I have imported egg from Europe they normally arrive in 10’s.

Money - how much can you afford / want to spend. There are many different models and variants to incubate your hatching eggs and each model is slightly different having different levels of functionality, automatic turning or not. At its most basic an incubator is for keeping the eggs at 100F in controlled circumstances. They can cost from tens of pounds to thousands and yet all perform the same function basically. I have used 11 different incubators over the years including one I built myself.

The least expensive incubators are Polystyrene or Styrofoam models and the current crop of cheap Chinese imports. They hold up to 60 eggs at a time, which is probably more than most people will ever need to set for a hobby.  These inexpensive incubators are manual turn, have manual temperature control and humidity. The real pity is that the least expensive incubators and hence those most likely to be purchased by keepers new to the hobby are also the most difficult to use.

Incubation is incubation, and your eggs should not be affected one way or the other by how much you paid for an incubator. They do, however, absolutely need proper conditions for hatching.

How many eggs? This is probably immaterial as most manufacturers make machines of different sizes in their ranges so if you take the brinsea range for example you can incubate from 10 to 570 hen’s eggs.

Type of Eggs – Want to incubate Goose eggs, or quail, make sure your incubator can fit them easily with room to spare or that they have the right size egg trays included in the purchase.

An Octagon Incubator made by Brinsea:

brinsea-octagon-40-advance-automatic-incubator.jpg

Keep your incubator away from direct sunshine, radiators, doorways or other areas where the temperature will change up as well as down. Power outages are also something you may wish to consider.

From the basic still air incubator where you turn eggs manually 3 times per day, set the temperature and add water if you need to, into a reservoir to provide the correct humidity, to the fully automatic incubator that can set temperature and humidity for the right species with the press of a button, we look at the things you might want to consider before you invest some money and buy an incubator.

Still air or forced air incubator? There are 2 main types of incubator. Still or forced air. The difference is simply a fan and that in a forced air incubator the temperature is 1.1F lower than a still air incubator. This is because is there is much less of a temperature gradient in the forced air incubator, the fan circulates the air around the incubator which keeps the temperature constant in all parts of the incubator. The temperature can be measured anywhere within the airflow.

This is a newly hatched guine fowl keet hurdling about in my Maino 77 incubator.

Guinea-keets in my maino incubator

In a still air incubator, there is no fan, the heat stratifies (forms layers) inside the incubator so the temperature is different between the top and bottom of the incubator, warmer at the top and cooler down by the eggs. Contrary to popular belief there is little difference in the hatching success between a properly configured still and forced air incubator, although they can be more difficult to set up.

 From my own records the difference is less than 3 %. Care has to be taken when setting the incubator up, the temperature at the centre of the egg should be correct for the species being incubated. The temperature at the height of the top of the hatching egg is what is usually measured with a correction being applied according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Ease of cleaning. You need to clean and sterilise your incubator between hatches, or use a separate hatcher, since bacteria multiply incredibly quickly at incubation temperatures and it is doesn’t take much for your eggs to go bad and even explode leaving a mess and even more bacteria over your remaining good eggs.

Don’t dunk or swill incubators, they do not generally mix well with water and solvents often dissolve plastics. Wooden incubators can often be difficult to clean but thin plastic may up the running costs by not retaining the heat properly.

Rcom incubators are easy to clean and a dream to use, they even save the settings after a power cut. they have a price tag to match their quality.

r com incubator

Very important to have a clean incubator and after you see the mess a hatch can make you may want to start using a separate hatcher. Hatching eggs is great fun but cleaning up afterwards is a bit more of a chore. Apart from the mess that is made during the hatch which is mostly bits of shell and membrane stuck to various surfaces and you will find that as the chicks dry out, there is a lot of fine fluff that gets into every little corner, behind every little bit of mesh that stops you from putting your fingers in the fan (in forced air incubators) and everywhere else that is inaccessible.

3 Manual, semi or fully automatic control? There are various levels of control available.  Generally the cheaper the incubator the more you will have to do yourself, like humidity control or egg turning. Hatching eggs need to be kept at the right temperature and humidity, as well as need to be turned at regular intervals to stop the developing embryos from sticking to the inside of the shell. Temperature is set and regulated pretty well on most incubators but humidity can be hard to get right and keep at the right level, especially with variable weather and seasons.

It is a good idea to label and mark egg even if you use automatic egg turning incubators. If the eggs aren’t turned they will not hatch, even if they develop the membranes will stick and the chicks won’t emerge. The yolk contain fat and tend to float upwards and stick to whichever is the top of the egg.

Can you adjust the temperature or add water from the outside of the unit. This is my chicktec incubator, of which I now have 7. they can be adjusted easily, are fully automatic and you can add water easily through the vent at the front. 

egg set in a chicktec incubator

Manually turning eggs is impossible if you work full-time as eggs should be turned at least 3 times a day (always an odd number so they don’t sit on the same side every night). 5 times is better but more than that is pointless as opening the incubator so often will affect the temperature stability. If you do use a manual incubator, set an alarm for the next turn immediately after turning your hatching eggs as it is very easy to forget them over the few weeks you’ll need to turn them. Turning eggs for 17 days can be quite a chore so it is best to get one with a turner especially if you are at work when eggs need to be turned

Some incubators like the Brinsea Octagon range turn eggs automatically by slowly rocking the whole incubator backwards and forwards continuously. Other incubators can have moving floors underneath egg trays or metal bars that slide back and forth, rolling the eggs that sit in between or some that tilt the eggs backwards and forwards in trays. There are many different designs of incubator on the market so this is more of a personal preference. In my experience there is little difference in the results between the types and I have never had any reliability problems with any turner in quality machines.

In Conclusion - I have owned both the very expensive types and the very cheapest Chinese cheap incubators from eBay at £39. You may be taking a risk with cheap imports as they probably do not meet western safety standards.

The success rate with most has been surprisingly similar for most models I have had as the modern thermostat is very accurate. All of these factors will influence mostly only the cost of the incubator and the amount of work you need to do during the incubation process. It’s all very well getting the top of the range but we all have a budget to consider and it’s usually this that dictates what you can actually get. Whatever you decide upon, bear in mind that Mother Nature does a far better job and unless you’re in a hurry to hatch, maybe it’s better to get yourself a good broody hen who can take care of all of these things and look after the chicks. I would not be without my incubators or broody hens. They both have their uses at different times.

Good luck choosing an incubator - this is the selection of incubators I use.

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