This is a basic guide to artificial incubators and how to choose one. Here are the considerations you should take into account when buying an incubator:
- What to do with the ducklings
- Forced-air or still-air
- Egg turners
- Adding water
- Ease of observation
- Ease of cleaning
- Digital display
Also in this article:
- Can you make your own incubator?
- My incubator reviews
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn a commission if you purchase something through a link on this post, at no additional cost to you.
1. What to do with the ducklings
Don’t buy an incubator and don’t hatch unless you know what you’re going to do with the ducklings.
Unless you keep a “bachelor flock,” you won’t be able to keep the majority of the males. You need at least 4-5 females per drake.
Excess males can be difficult to get rid of, so make a plan for them before you hatch.
The first step in choosing an incubator is deciding how large it needs to be. Larger incubators cost more and take more space, but at the same time, you don’t want to limit yourself too much. Even if you only want a few ducklings, keep in mind that, most likely, not all the eggs will hatch. If you’re trying to hatch shipped eggs, a hatch rate of 50% is considered pretty good. If you’re hatching eggs from your own birds, a hatch rate of 60-80% is good.
Also, if you’re new to this, remember that not only will not all of them hatch, but half of your ducklings will be males. So if you want, say, five female ducks, and you’re hatching shipped eggs, I recommend setting at least 20 eggs.
Mini incubators typically hold up to 7-12 eggs. Here are four of the best mini incubators:
Small or medium incubators hold 12-24 eggs. Here are five of the best medium incubators:
Large incubators usually hold around 40-56 eggs (although there are also incubators that hold hundreds or even thousands of eggs). Here are seven of the best large incubators:
3. Forced-air or still-air
Forced-air incubators (also called circulated-air incubators) have a fan that circulates the air, ensuring that heat is evenly distributed throughout the incubator and bringing in fresh air. They keep the temperature even and stable.
Still-air incubators (also called thermal air incubators) don’t have a fan, so they are hottest at the top and coldest at the bottom. The corners of the incubator will also likely be colder. The air can also be more stale.
Forced-air incubators should give you a higher hatch rate, but they’re more expensive. If you’re hatching valuable eggs or a large number of eggs, the improved hatch rate will probably make the fan worth the extra cost. Controlling humidity can be more difficult in a forced-air incubator, however.
With forced-air incubators, you keep the temperature at 99.5 F. With still-air, the temperature directly above the eggs (place a thermometer on top of them) should be 101 degrees so that the temperature inside the eggs is 99.5.
4. Egg turners
Eggs need to be turned during incubation so the yolk and embryo don’t stick to one side of the shell. Mother ducks do this naturally. In an incubator, you’ll either need to turn the eggs yourself or purchase a turner to do it for you.
Many incubators either come with turners or with an option to include a turner.
Duck eggs usually fit in chicken egg turners.
1. Rocking style
These are the most common. The eggs lay upright in them (small end down), as they would in an egg carton, but the trays rock back and forth slowly, usually doing a complete turn approximately every four hours.
I’ve used both of these turners:
2. Flat style
These turners mimic natural incubation. The eggs lay flat on their sides and the turner makes them roll.
Here’s one on Incubator Warehouse (for Hova-Bators): https:
These incubators come with flat turners:
3. Manual turning
If your schedule allows and you want to avoid costs, you can turn eggs manually. Let the eggs rest on their sides, and mark something on them so you remember which side is which. Every few hours, roll them 180 degrees.
Eggs need to be turned at least three times a day. Five times a day is better.
Either way, it should be an odd number, because during the night, they will have to go many hours without being turned (unless you get up during the night to turn them), and if you turn them an odd number of times during the day, then they will spend the night on the opposite side each night.
If you wake up at 7 AM and go to bed at 11 PM and turn the eggs right after getting up and right before going to bed, you can turn them every four hours (7 AM, 11 AM, 3 PM, 7 PM, and 11 PM) and thus acheive five turnings per day.
Incubators are usually either styrofoam or plastic, with styrofoam being more common.
Styrofoam is less durable, difficult to clean, and non-biodegradable, but it’s the cheapest option. Styrofoam is all right if price is important to you and you’re not going to be using the incubator heavily, but if you plan to use your incubator on a regular basis, I recommend either getting a plastic incubator or at least making sure there’s a plastic liner over the styrofoam bottom.
I have three incubators and they’re all styrofoam. They do start looking used after only a couple hatches, and the one I have without the liner is really difficult to clean. I would definitely consider a plastic incubator if I hatched more often. But there are some very, very good incubators that use styrofoam, so I wouldn’t automatically rule them all out unless it’s very important to you.
6. Adding water
On some incubators, you have to open them to add water. Others allow you to add water from the outside.
You’re not supposed to open the incubator during lockdown, and that’s when your humidity is supposed to be highest, so if you’re struggling to keep it high, you may have to add water frequently.
So being able to add water from the outside isn’t required, but it’s really nice to have.
7. Ease of observation
Who doesn’t like to watch chicks hatch? Especially if you’re new to hatching or have kids, large incubator windows are a big plus.
It’s also useful. I want to be able to see all the eggs to monitor their progress. I have a couple incubators with small windows where it’s difficult to see any eggs that aren’t directly beneath the windows, and it’s a bit annoying.
8. Ease of cleaning
This is a bigger deal than you might think.
For one thing, bacteria in the incubator can infect eggs, so thorough cleaning between hatches is essential.
Also, hatching makes a much bigger mess than you might think. After the hatch, the incubator will be full of shells, gunk, down, and poop.
Plastic incubators are easier to clean than styrofoam ones.
9. Digital display
It’s nice to have a digital display showing you the current temperature inside the incubator. Some incubators will also show you the relative humidity and perhaps even what day of incubation it is.
However, don’t rely on these numbers. The temperature and humidity sensors that come with incubators are often inaccurate, and it’s good to have multiple thermometers and hygrometers anyway.
Most components of an incubator can either be manual or automatic:
An automatic egg turner is probably the most important, since not everyone has a schedule that accommodates manual turning, and it’s easy to forget.
Most incubators have automatic temperature control, but some, such as the Hova-Bator 1602n, don’t. You have to turn a knob, wait several hours, see what happened, turn it more if necessary, etc. It’s guesswork. You have to run the incubator for a day or more before putting eggs in to ensure the temperature is correct. If you have a bit of patience, time, and want to save on money, you might consider an incubator without automatic temperature control, but in general, it’s a feature you want.
Most incubators have manual humidity control, where you add water to troughs of various sizes as needed. Some have a humidity pump that maintains humidity automatically, although you can adjust it as necessary. Not many incubators have this feature, and you can certainly get along without it, but it does make controlling the humidity much easier and give you more peace of mind.
Some incubators will also automatically stop turning the eggs and increase humidity on lockdown. This might be nice if you’re the type of person who might forget to do it yourself, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s pointless, because I want to candle before going into lockdown. I just mark lockdown day on my to-do list app, and then I take the turner out, candle all the eggs, add water, and shut it.
Another handy feature some incubators have is an alarm that sounds if the temperature reaches dangerous levels.
Most incubators cost somewhere between $60 and $450. A fan usually adds about $35 to the price.
More expensive incubators are larger, have more features, and tend to be more reliable. Reliability is vital—you just can’t have your incubator spiking to 105 degrees and cooking your ducklings. But if you’re willing to take the time to learn about hatching and don’t mind doing away with automated features, there are some cheap, simple, and reliable incubators that may be a good option. The 1602n is one example. It has no features, but it’s cheap and reliable.
Can you make your own incubator?
Yes, it’s possible, but challenging. At a bare minimum, you need:
- A well-insulated container that holds in the heat and humidity but also has some ventilation
- A heat source, often a light bulb or heating pad
- An area to place water for humidity (that is inaccessible to the ducklings)
- At least one accurate thermometer, preferably two
- Safe flooring for the ducklings
- A hygrometer—you can check if the humidity is correct by measuring the air cells, but a hygrometer is still nice to have
- A fan to circulate the air
- Thermostat to regulate heat
- An egg turner
Here are a few ideas and how-to guides:
My incubator reviews
Here are the three incubators I’ve had experience with:
This was our first incubator. It’s very popular, well-liked, and claims to be “the world’s best small incubator.”
It’s a styrofoam incubator that holds 41 eggs. You can get it with or without a fan; ours is still-air. You can also get it with or without a turner, either the rocking style kind or the flat IncuTurn turner.
It has a wafer thermostat, which a lot of people seem to trust more than a digitally-controlled thermostat, and manual temperature control. It does not have a digital display or a built-in thermometer or hygrometer, but you can buy a “combo kit” with a separate thermometer/hygrometer. Humidity is manually controlled by filling trays at the base of the incubator. It also has a plastic liner to make cleaning easier. Its two windows are quite small.
From what I’ve heard, it’s generally very reliable.
We haven’t had the greatest experience with it. The first time I used it, I was very new to incubation and was barely monitoring it at all, so I don’t know how much the temperature fluctuated, but half of the eggs hatched, so I suppose it was a success.
The second time, the temperature swung more than I would have liked, between 96 and 102 degrees. We did end up with one gosling, out of eight, although I think the seven failures were due to issues prior to incubation (the goose’s nest flooded).
The third and fourth times we used it were both for late hatchers whose broody moms had abandoned them, so it wasn’t on very long. Both times, the temperature spiked dangerously high, over 104 degrees. We couldn’t get it to go down. We were able to save one of the babies, but the other, presumably, cooked.
The fifth time we tried to use it, it didn’t work at all. Today, I pulled it out again and got it to function, but it still couldn’t hold a steady temperature—there were swings of more than five degrees.
I’m fairly sure the issue is that the wafer has gone bad. Apparently, wafers do that eventually, so you need to have spares on hand. I didn’t expect it to go bad so soon, though.
Like I said, a lot of people do like this incubator and do like wafer thermostats. Just keep in mind that it may go out and you should have a spare wafer.
For its price (it’s less than half as cheap as most other incubators of its size, at only around $65), it’s supposed to be quite trustworthy, although you do have to learn how to control the temperature and humidity. Since you have to wait so long after making temperature adjustments, you may have to run the incubator for several days before you can put eggs in it.
So if you’re looking for something cheap, I think this is a good choice.
Incubator + IncuTurn turner:
Incubator + turner, fan, thermometer, hygrometer, and egg candler:
Little Giant 10300 and 11300
This is a forced-air styrofoam incubator that holds 41 eggs. It has a digital control board with a built-in thermometer and hygrometer. It also has two relatively small windows.
Humidity is manually controlled by filling water channels in its base. One of my biggest complaints about this incubator is that it doesn’t come with a plastic liner. You have to clean the styrofoam. I’ve made quite a few dents and scratches in it while trying to remove eggshell fragments and hardened gunk. The styrofoam stains and is difficult to sanitize.
Even worse, it doesn’t take many dents and scratches before it starts leaking. I haven’t used mine that many times, but several of the troughs started leaking last time I used it.
Some people have found this incubator to be unreliable at maintaining temperature, often having temperature spikes. I didn’t have this issue, even though the outside room temperature was far from stable. It seemed like it maintained a very stable temperature.
It also seemed to measure the temperature and humidity accurately. My brother is a bit of an electronics geek and he says it uses a DHT22 sensor, which he says is quite accurate.
I’ve had some good hatches in it and some not-so-good hatches. I got 17 chicks out of 20 eggs on my first hatch with it—an 85% hatch rate.
It doesn’t cost much more than the 1602n, but it comes with more features and automation. It doesn’t seem to have as good of a reputation as the 1602n overall, but it’s a good option if you aren’t planning to hatch very much.
Incubator + turner:
Hova-Bator Genesis 1588
I’ve only used the Genesis once so far, but I liked it. It’s probably my favorite of my incubators.
In fact, I don’t recall having any complaints. The large viewing pane was wonderful. It has a plastic liner. The temperature stayed steady. The digital temperature control worked well.
Some people hate the IncuTurn automatic egg turn, but I loved it. Rather than holding eggs upright and tilting them, it lets the eggs lay on their side and rolls them, like a mother duck or hen would.
The Genesis is more expensive than some incubators, but it seems to be worth the price.
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