In the May/June 2009 issue of sheep! a letter to the editor called attention to a tragic barn fire in Umpqua, Oregon that killed dozens of sheep and destroyed a costly and much needed barn.
The ways heat lamp-tragedies arise are from (1) being knocked down into dry hay or straw, (2) from straw or hay falling on the heat lamp’s hot housing, igniting and then falling to the floor to catch fire in dry bedding, (3) heat lamp bulbs exploding when wet sheep touch the bulb’s hot surface (or drops of moisture when the sheep shake off), white-hot filament falling into dry hay or bedding.
The main ingredient to make a safer heat lamp housing is a 5-gallon plastic bucket, often available for the asking where baked goods are sold, or from drywall installers. Metal and plastic handles are easily removed using a small pry-bar or screwdriver.
Also needed are a length of chain, some 1-inch mesh welded mesh wire (optional), and some common fenceline bracing wire, say anywhere between sizes no. 8 to no. 11.
Drill a hole in the floor of the bucket big enough to pass the cord through. A flat spade bit, if it has an outer cutting spur will do the job.
The safety chain, if one is used, is attached to the heat-lamp housing using a piece of twisted wire or snap link. The chain is then run through the hole in the floor of the bucket.
Some heat lamps have holes or a rear loop to pass two cross-wires through, which are braced by small holes in the sides of the bucket, just barely big enough for the wire to pass through.
The placing of these holes is first determined by inserting the heat lamp housing into the bucket to determine how far up the bucket to drill them.
Each bracing wire is first bent at one end, slid through one hole, then through the heat lamp housing, then through the hole in the opposite side. Plastic buckets can be mashed a bit so there is room to bend the other end of the wire. Then the other wire is done in the same way, crossing the first wire.
Some growers simply drill a hole in the floor of a plastic or metal bucket and run the cord through it, by which they hang it into the sheep pen. We have seen plastic buckets melt from contact with heat-lamp housings, so cannot entirely recommend that method. Likewise, if there is any fault in the cord, a metal hole could theoretically cause a short with the bucket, though we’ve never seen this happen in practice. The heat rising from a heat lamp gets concentrated to some degree through the hole in the bucket, stressing the insulative material on the cord.
The optional screen over the bucket’s mouth is the welded wire mesh. The easiest way to attach it is to simply bend it to fit the bucket’s mouth. It helps keep wet ewe’s heads from getting into the bucket, and if the lamp should somehow fall for any reason, keeps most straw away from the lamp while the bulb cools down.
Which brings up another matter: Safety chain or no, the heater should be hung in such a way that if it falls, it will unplug itself before it hits anything combustible. The heat lamp should be placed in a corner, and not low enough for the ewe to rub against it. Ideally, a “creep” area will keep ewes away from it entirely, and then it can be placed low enough to do the lambs the most good.