Thursday, September 4, 2014

Incubators, brooders and the Inca Lori 10

Anyone who is seriously interested in breeding shamas should consider getting an incubator and a brooder.  Even if he intends to let the parents hatch the eggs and raise the young, having the incubator and brooder will provide peace of mind in the knowledge that essential equipment will be readily available for those times that the parents may abandon the eggs or chicks. 

When I decided to breed shamas many years ago, I bought a Brinsea Octagon 10 incubator with auto-turn cradle.  It was purchased in Singapore from Brinsea's authorised distributer, Asby Pte Ltd, which is owned by SB Ang ("Asby").  

I have bought all my incubators, brooders and accessories from Asby. In all the years I have known him, he has always been extremely helpful and customer oriented.  I can go to him with any question I have regarding his products and he will always try to help.  Even when a model is no longer in production and spare parts for it are not available, Asby will try to see if the parts from a later model may be suitable. A manufacturer that has the good fortune to appoint a distributer such as Asby has secured a business "partner" who will generate goodwill for the brand.

Coming back to the Octagon 10 - it is a small incubator with a capacity for 10 poultry eggs. My machine performed its intended function except for one small quirk.  The egg tray fitted too tightly into the incubator shell and each time I inserted or removed it, there would be a slight jolt, depending on how carefully the operation was performed. I was always concerned that the eggs would be damaged though there was never any mishap.

Nevertheless, having to be overly careful each time the incubator is opened or closed is not something that I look forward to.  After using the Octagon 10 for many years, I replaced it with the Octagon 20.  This incubator works very well and many shama eggs were successfully hatched in it.  I still have it.

Together with the Octagon 10, I purchased a Brinsea still-air hospital cage or brooder. It was a simply constructed enclosure that was sold with 2 types of sliding doors.  There was an acrylic door that could be closed to retain heat and humidity in the brooder and also a wire-mesh door which was probably intended for the brooder to be used as some sort of cage.  

The temperature in the still-air brooder could be accurately controlled but the brooder did not come with any device to generate humidity or to regulate it.  It was left to the user to make his own arrangements. I did so by placing 2 large trays of water on the floor of the brooder.  Over this, I fitted the supplied wire-mesh door, which proved to be a secure base on which I could place additional trays of water (with or without sponges).  By this method, the relative humidity ("RH") could be controlled over a wide range. I became very familiar with the still-air brooder.

Eventually, I also purchased the Brinsea TLC-40 brooder.   It has a fan located at the centre of its ceiling that blows quite a strong current of air downwards. I have never come across any complaints about this but I was uncomfortable about having a strong breeze blowing directly on to the chicks.  To remedy this, I taped a large piece of plastic just below the fan to deflect the breeze towards the rear wall and away from the chicks.  I also placed trays of water (with or without sponges) below the rear wall to enable the air to blow over them.  Asby did provide me with a Brinsea humidity module.  I tested it but never really used it with the Octagon 20 as I preferred to rely on the trays of water.

In my idle moments, I may while away the time trying to think of ways to improve aspects of my shama breeding and keeping.  This invariably leads me to visit the Internet to see what I can learn.  Amongst the things that I may look up are the brands and models of incubators and brooders and the reviews and comments of users.

I often visit the falconry and parrot forums for whatever insight I may get on breeding birds.  There is always an active discussion going on in the forums on the merits and demerits of various brands of incubators and brooders.  I found out that the Grumbach incubators are generally reliable but there may be pockets of uneven temperature in the incubator.  
The Lyons Turn-X is an old favourite with senior members of the falconry forum who have made modifications to improve its use but the online comment was that it was over-priced for what it did.  A brand that received favourable comments was A.B. Newlife, which is from the UK. Unfortunately, there is no distributer for it in Singapore.

Rcom is a brand of incubators and brooders from Korea. I never tried the incubators but I did get an Rcom brooder from Asby.  It has all the bells and whistles that any breeder could wish for.  However, the big “fault” with the model that I purchased was that the RH could not be increased over 55%.  Apparently, the brooder was designed for parrots for which an RH of 55% is sufficient and the built-in computer software program would cut-off the humidity once it reached this level.  I must emphasise that this “fault” was with an older model Rcom. The specifications of the present models state that the RH is adjustable from 40-70%.

Amongst the reviews and comments on forums, I came across the reviews of the Inca 100 incubator from Israel.  The simplicity of the design attracted me.  There was a somewhat unfavourable review of it regarding manufacturer support and problems with the incubator but the post was in 2008 and I felt that there should have been improvements since then. The review can be read here:

The other comments and reviews of the Inca 100 that I came across on the parrot internet forums were generally positive.  As Asby is the local agent and I trusted Asby to stand by the products he sells, I had no hesitation in buying the incubator.

When I received the incubator and tried it out, I noted that there might be a concern regarding the turning of the eggs which are placed between rails. The rails gently travel from one side of the incubator to the other and back again, rolling the eggs as it does so. With the larger parrot eggs there would be no problem but the shama eggs are quite small and there was the possibility that the narrower end might get stuck under the moving rails and be damaged. To temporarily resolve this, I placed a thick cardboard on the floor of the incubator and considered getting a piece of glass to raise the height of the floor between the rails.

I mentioned my concern to Asby.  He checked with Inca who seemed to have known of the potential problem.  They responded immediately that they had an acrylic board that would raise the height of the floor between the rails by 6mm.  I ordered the plastic board and the problem was resolved. Its price was about US$45.00.  

Nowhere on the Inca website or in its manuals is there any mention of the problem that could arise if small eggs are incubated in the Inca 100 or that Inca could supply the board. As the board is essential for incubating small eggs, it would have been nice if Inca could have included it with the incubator.  Alternatively, Inca should have made known to its distributers that the board is available so that they can order it with the incubator.

After successfully using the Inca 100, I purchased the Inca Lori 10 brooder through Asby.  I had expected that the humidity of the brooder could be controlled as with the incubator.  This was not so.  Even with the sliding cover of the water container being fully opened, the RH was about 55% and this is nowhere near the humidity required for brooding softbill chicks in the tropics  In fact, even if the water container was completely removed from the incubator, the RH would still be about 55%.  To increase the RH, trays of water needed to be placed in the brooder and I did this.

Notwithstanding the above, I was generally satisfied with the performance of the Lori 10.  The main reason for this was that the digital temperature readout was very accurate.  However, I felt that using trays of water to achieve the required humidity was too primitive and used up valuable floor space.

Subsequently, when I decided to get another incubator and brooder, I informed Asby that I would buy the Inca incubator and brooder if the RH of the brooder could be improved.  The maximum RH that I required would not exceed 80% and I asked Asby to see if Inca could achieve this at a temperature of 37.3C. If this could be done, I would also wish to modify the existing Lori Brooder and I requested Asby to import the parts and undertake the modification. As usual, Asby was helpful.  He said that he would contact Inca and see what could be done.

On August 11, I received this email from Asby:

Hi David, 
By adding a sponge (or Blotting paper) in the water container
Temp 37.3CRH 80.3
SB Ang

Attached to the email were 3 photographs provided by Inca of the temperature, RH and their suggested modification.  The last photo is shown below:

I was disappointed. The proposed "modification" was not much different from what I was already doing with trays of water and could not be considered an improvement.  In fact, the insertion of a sponge or blotting paper in the water container would prevent the cover from being closed and this would make it more difficult to adjust the humidity. I requested Asby to ask Inca to try to come up with something better.

On August 13 Asby wrote to me

Dear David,
Inca has another solution for raising the RH by adding a small Fan on the water container as per the photos attached.
With this addition you could control the RH by opening and closing the glass lid on the water container.
They are making more tests for this option.
If this idea meets your expectations, they will find a way to connect this Fan to 12V.
SB Ang

I was happy that Inca was taking the trouble to propose a modification and replied to Asby on August 13 as follows:

Hi Asby,
Two things. Can the cover of the container be slid back to the full extent when it is in the brooder? Can the fan be easily removed so that the container can be washed?

I followed up with another letter to Asby later on the same day:

Hi Asby,
Inca's suggestion that there be a small fan attached to the water container (or close to it) is a really good idea.
Arising from Inca's suggestion, please request Inca to consider the alternative proposal below:
1.  Suspend a platform by rods attached to the ceiling of the brooder so that the platform is several inches below the centre fan.  The platform will be permanently affixed to the ceiling.
2.  The water container will be placed on the platform and should be approximately the same size as the fan.
3.  The water container should have a lid to control the humidity.
4.  The water container can be removed at will for cleaning.
An additional benefit of the above method is that the air from the fan will be dispersed and will not blow directly onto the chicks.
Best regards,

The following day, I received from Asby, a copy of Inca's response to my suggestions.  I must say it surprised me. It read:

August 14
From: Aviva Vishnia
Subject: Re: Inca Brooder Humidity

Dear SB Ang,
We thank you for your suggestions but it is not practical.
DMP allocated hours of engineering to find the best solutions for
increasing the humidity in the Brooder for your request.
Unfortunately we could not invest any more time in it on our account.
Kind regards,

So that was it.  The manufacturer was not prepared to help. Inca didn't bother to say why my suggestions were not practical or if it was prepared to make the modification that it had earlier suggested. What seemed clear was that Inca would not support its products and resolve a customer's genuine problem. Inca's attitude seemed to be that the rectification of the problem was none of its concern.   I was reminded of the unfavourable review that the Inca 100 had received back in 2008.

I was left to my own devices.  I could either try to make the modification myself or continue to use trays of water and sponges. I decided to take the brooder to my local hardware shop to see Mr. Kuah and ask for his help. I explained what I wanted.

Mr. Kuah immediately pointed out that it was not practical to insert screws into the metal plate of the brooder.  He noted that it was a heated plate and there are electrical wires entering it.  He advised that if screws are drilled into the heat plate, the wires might be short circuited.

Mr. Kuah suggested an alternative and very practical solution. He would remove the existing 4 screws that attached the fan to the heat plate and replace it with slightly longer screws.  This would enable a 3mm thick acrylic plate, with a laser-cut hole in the centre for the fan, to be affixed to the base of the fan. A platform could then be attached to the acrylic plate to hold the water container.

Below is a photo of the modification that my local hardware shop proposed and made to the brooder.  The total cost was about US$30.00.

Initial trials with the modified humidity module of the Inca Lori brooder have been extremely positive.  By opening or closing the sliding cover of the water container, the RH can be varied from 55% to well above 80%.  The humidity module is very efficient and does not need frequent topping-up with distilled water which I use to reduced mineral deposits on the fan and sensor.   Even sliding the cover open a few millimetres will result in an appreciable increase in the humidity within the brooder.

A feature of the Lori brooder that is not mentioned in the Inca literature and that I had not noticed until after I had made the modification, is that the movement of air in it is different from the Brinsea, Rcom and presumably other brands as well.

In the Brinsea, warm air blows from the overhead fan directly on to the chicks.  The Rcom has a slightly better system in that the fan is located in the side of the brooder, some distance from the floor so that the air blows over the containers with the chicks. The air flow is also not as strong as the Brinsea's.

The air flow of the Lori brooder seems to be unique.  Rather than blow out air, the fan sucks air from the brooder in the nature of an "exhaust fan".  The air is then spread over the top of the heat-plate before gently descending and reaching the chicks. It seems to me that the Inca brooder has a superior moving air system.

To test the effectiveness of the modified Lori brooder, I transferred one newly hatched shama chick from the Inca 100 to it.  I needed to be sure that the brooder would work well and in accordance with my aim that the chicks that are incubator hatched and raised in a brooder must be as healthy and strong as those hatched and raised by the parents.

For this to happen, 2 conditions need to be fulfilled. The environment for raising the chicks in the brooder must be at its optimum and the quality and quantity of the food must be right.  The chicks spend only about 4 days in the brooder.  After this time, if they are doing well, there is no longer the need for a brooder and they should be taken out.

Below is the photo of the chick on the morning of the 4th day. It was doing well.  At hatching, it would have weighed below 2.5 gms. I do not know the actual weight as I had not weighed it. At 4 days, it weighed a whopping 17 gms.  On average, it had doubled its weight every day.  All indications so far are that the modified brooder is working well.

After taking out the 4 days old chick from the brooder, I did not place other chicks in it.  Instead, I have spent some idle time experimenting with various sized containers to try to determine the ideal size of the humidity module.

Initial conclusions are that the module will be even more effective if the size of the water container is reduced by about 40%.  The apparatus holding it can also be correspondingly reduced in size. Amongst other benefits, I think the result will be reduced obstruction of the air flows in the brooder.

I have some ideas to improve the humidity module to increase its efficiency and make it aesthetically more pleasing.  There is no hurry, the present setup is working well and I would like to see if there are hidden problems that will come to light with continued and prolonged use.

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