An automatic door is indispensable if you’re not always there to let your backyard chickens out in the morning and close them in at night to secure them from predators. Some people are handy enough to make their own automatic chicken doors, and you can find all manner of instructions on the internet — some ingenious, some flaky, and some downright dangerous. Not everyone has the skill, or the time, to tinker. Luckily, skillful designers now offer ready-built doors that work right out of the box.
Once you decide to install an automatic chicken door, some of the things to consider are its size, its source of power, and how it’s triggered to open and close. Regarding size, consider both the pophole size and the overall frame size. A 12-inch wide by 15-inch high pophole is ideal for most chickens, guineas, ducks, and lighter breeds of turkeys and geese. A smaller opening is suitable for bantam chickens and lighter-breed chickens or ducks, while a larger size is needed for heavier geese and turkeys. Our 11-inch wide popholes work fine for Royal Palm turkeys and Bourbon Red hens, but when our Bourbon tom matured he had to be coaxed into squeezing through the pophole.
The overall frame size may not be important for a full-size henhouse, but can be a significant issue for a narrow coop or one with low overhead. The table below lists pophole sizes and overall frame dimensions for the doors mentioned in this review.
Some automatic chicken doors are designed to be plugged into a standard 120-volt household outlet. If you opt for a plug-in model, install the outlet either outside the birds’ living area or at ceiling height to prevent birds from landing on and possibly dislodging the plug. You’ll need to ensure that the electrical cables are long enough to reach the outlet. Protect the cables from curious birds by enclosing them in a wall-mount snap-cover wiring conduit.
Plug-in doors use an adapter that converts 120-volt AC household current to 12-volt DC current. This feature allows the same door to be battery operated. If you are off grid, or your coop has no electricity and you’re tempted to (unsafely!) run extension cords from your house to your coop, a battery is the better option. Like a wall plug, the battery should be located outside the birds’ living area or up on a small shelf near the ceiling where birds can’t roost on top of it.
You might choose to use a rechargeable battery, or you might opt for a solar charger. Some of the door manufacturers offer a solar battery charger as an option, which is ideal for off-grid use or for pastured birds in portable housing.
This table lists pophole sizes and overall frame dimensions for the doors mentioned in this review.
Automatic chicken doors are triggered by either a daylight sensor or a timer. A daylight sensor automatically opens the door at dawn and closes it at dusk. The sensor must receive light during the day — ideally on a west facing wall (toward the setting sun) — and be in the dark at night. A security lamp or back porch light, or even a light shining through the coop window at night, can cause the sensor to think it’s daytime.
Opening and closing times can be slightly adjusted by placing the sensor where it gets more sun — so the door opens a little earlier and closes a little later — or more shade — so the door opens a little later and closes a little earlier. Some doors have a mechanism that allows additional adjustment.
If this adjustment is not enough for your situation, most automatic chicken doors have a timer option that lets you program what times you want the door to open and close. A disadvantage to using a timed evening closing is that you have to constantly reset the time as daylight hours lengthen or shorten throughout the year. On the other hand, the ability to delay opening with a timer is handy if you have chicken predators lurking at dawn waiting for the door to open, or you want to keep your birds in until they finish laying. Ducks are especially notorious for hiding their eggs if not confined during their morning laying hours.
The grand-daddy of automatic chicken doors is the German-made VSB Doorkeeper. The pull-cord VSB Doorkeeper comes in three sizes to accommodate every backyard flock owner, from keepers of the smallest chickens to those keeping turkeys or geese. The operating mechanism, enclosed in a weather resistant plastic box, is a reel that winds up a length of fish line to lift the door open at the rate of 1 inch per 5 seconds and closes the door by feeding out the line at the same rate. The system comes in components that must be assembled, which isn’t difficult once you decipher the instructions.
The door itself consists of sheet aluminum that rides in aluminum tracks. Doors come in three pophole sizes: 9-inches wide by 13-inches high; 12-inches by 15-inches; and 13-inches by 20-inches. Trying to save money by making your own door and tracks, as several people have suggested online, will void the control unit warranty.
The control box is powered by four AA batteries, which is a nice feature where electricity isn’t handy. However, when the batteries run down the door stops working without warning, so the wise chicken keeper changes the batteries on a regular schedule. Doing so involves removing the four screws that hold the control unit cover and pulling out the battery compartment, which is loads of fun in freezing weather. A good way to avoid dead batteries is to remember to put in fresh ones at the same time you reset your clocks for the twice-annual time change. On the other hand, if you’re handy at reading installation wiring specs, you can remove the battery holder and convert the unit to 12-volt DC.
The control unit comes in two options. One is designed for outdoor installation and has a built-in daylight sensor. The other is designed to be installed inside the coop and includes a daylight sensor on an external cable. A cabled sensor is available separately, which is good to know in the event your dairy goats chew up the first one. (Now how do you suppose I know that?)
An optional timer is available that lets you program the opening and/or closing time if you aren’t happy with the daylight sensor’s slightly adjustable dawn-opening and dusk-closing times. You can, for instance, set the timer to open the door late in the morning but close at whatever time the light sensor detects sundown. The timer is powered by two AA batteries and a single timer can handle up to three VSB doors.
In the event your coop doesn’t have enough vertical space to mount the control box directly above the door, you can get a pulley (also called an idler) that lets you mount the box to one side. Using pulleys to divert to the direction of pull also lets you operate more than one door with the same control unit. One controller can handle up to 7 pounds of direct pull, or up to 13 pounds where a pulley is used.
The pull cord is 0.45 mm fish line which, according to the manual, has a service life of 10 years. We never had a cord last that long, and replacement cords are not offered. You might not want to wait until the cord fails before you buy a spool of fish line.
As the cord winds into the control box while the door is opening, the reel knows to stop winding when it hits a tiny seed bead held by a knot in the cord. Without the bead, the reel will continue trying to wind the cord until the batteries go dead. So whenever you replace the cord you have to remember to reapply the bead.
I frequently hear people complain that a cord-lift door is easy for a raccoon to open. We have used a VSB door for more than a decade and, with plenty of hefty raccoons on the prowl here, none has ever lifted a closed door. If you’re concerned, though, you can deter raccoons from lifting an outside door by placing a channel (similar to a side track) at the bottom for the door to slide into when closed.
For an inside automatic chicken door, simply make sure the door closes slightly below the pophole opening.
Maintenance involves keeping the door sill clear of debris, especially in winter when the door bottom might stick to tracked snow or frozen poop. Icy weather also can cause the door to stick to the side rails, which usually can be worked loose by slapping the door’s face with a flat hand.
The VSB Doorkeeper is manufactured by AXT Electronics and may be purchased directly from Germany online or by calling 0049.36.91-72.10.70. It is imported by Pottting Blocks Co. dba Cheeper Keeper and is offered for sale through Amazon.
If you are familiar with the old-style cord-pull Poultry Butler automatic chicken door, forget everything you know about it. That model has been replaced by a new screw-drive model, in which a long, half-inch diameter screw (also called a worm) is turned by a small motor. The screw passes through a little block, fastened to the back of the door, that’s threaded to match the screw’s threads. As the screw turns in one direction, the block rides down the screw to close the door. When the screw turns in the opposite direction, the block rides up the screw to open the door.
A screw-drive mechanism is a lot more reliable and durable than any cord-drive mechanism. And, because the screw is always engaged, the wiliest raccoon wouldn’t be able to lift the door.
The Poultry Butler comes in two different styles, with the door sliding either up and down or sideways. The vertical model is available in two sizes. The Standard size accommodates a 9-inch wide by 13-inch high pophole. The Large model covers an 11-inch wide by 15-inch high pophole. The Horizontal model — designed for use where limited vertical space is insufficient to accommodate an upward sliding door — fits a 10-inch wide by 13-inch high pophole . All models are 2.5-inches deep.
This door is mounted by screwing two attached mounting bars to the wall inside the coop. Unfortunately, the mounting bars are fastened to the frame with only short, thin nails, and as we applied screws through the bottom bar, its nails popped loose from the frame. So we substituted L-brackets, screwed to the door frame and to the wall, which also improved the frame’s rigidity.
A gap between the doorway’s landing strip and the pophole sill is intended to prevent a build-up of debris, which is not a bad idea. However, our guinea fowl have a way of getting themselves into all kinds of trouble without trying. Worried one might get a leg caught and break a bone, we filled in the gap with a piece of lumber to create a solid step.
All Poultry Butler models are constructed of plastic lumber, PVC, and galvanized steel and come with both a daylight sensor and a timer. The timer, which also serves as the control center, has an internal battery backup; should the power go out, you won’t have to reset the clock and any programmed settings.
The furnished control cable is only 3-feet long. If you want to install the control in an area other than where the chickens live (and stir up dust), an optional 15-foot control cable is available.
The door plugs into a standard 120-volt outlet and the furnished adapter converts the current to 12-volt DC. Opting for the 15-foot control cable lets you plug into an outlet outside the chicken area, or inside up near the ceiling, where chickens can’t land on it. Not long after we installed the Poultry Butler one of our chickens smashed into and broke the adapter, whereupon we switched to the longer cable. For use where power is not readily available, you can operate the door on a battery by replacing the power supply with your own 12-volt rechargeable battery and, should you so desire, a 5-watt 12-volt solar panel.
Maintenance of the Poultry Butler involves keeping the sill free of debris, washing the door track as needed with soap and water, and lubricating the track. Also periodically wipe dust from the screw-drive shaft and lubricate it with a light multipurpose oil.
The Poultry Butler is made in the USA and is available online — where you can also find a complete list of replacement parts — or by calling 724-397-8908.
Incredible Poultry Door
The Incredible Poultry Door has a screw-drive mechanism enclosed in a heavy-duty frame, with the control panel built into one side. The door is designed to cover an 8.5-inch wide by 10-inch high pophole.
This automatic chicken door’s all-in-one design makes it easy to install in about 30 minutes, with no complicated instructions to decipher. You just fasten six mounting brackets to the door frame with furnished screws, mount the frame to the inside coop wall using your own screws (the type of screws you need will vary with the construction of your coop), attach the cabled daylight sensor to an outside wall, and plug the 12-volt adapter into a standard 120-volt wall outlet. The electrical cable is long enough to reach ceiling height.
When first plugged in, the door will automatically open and close, then stop where it should be for the current time of day (open in the daytime, closed at night). A green status light glows steadily to let you know the door is powered and flashes while the door is opening or closing.
A gap at the bottom of the door, between the doorway’s landing strip and the pophole sill, is intended to prevent a build-up of debris. Concerned one of our rambunctious birds might slip into the gap and injure a leg, we removed the landing strip. The frame is so solidly built that removing the strip did not affect the door’s structural rigidity.
The door takes about 30 seconds to open or close, and on closing exerts about 10 pounds of pressure. If a bird happens to be in the doorway trying to make up its mind whether or not to go inside, it has plenty of time to move. If the bird stubbornly remains in the doorway, the closing door will reverse and open. Whenever the door encounters such an obstacle, an alarm beeps and a red LED light flashes. The door will remain open and the warning signals will continue until you come along, remove the obstruction (if it’s still there), and push the reset button.
If no one is available to reset the automatic chicken door, it will remain open all night long — not good when predators are on the prowl! The recommendation is to leave a light on inside the coop illuminating the pophole, so at night you can see from a distance whether or not the door has closed. That’s fine unless you’re using an automatic chicken door because you’re away or, as in our case, the coop is not near your house. We’ve never experience a jam, but if it should become an issue we would add an alarm that transmits to the house.
The only other maintenance issue involves the possibility that snow or ice might clog the door track in cold weather. Lightly spraying silicone or furniture polish on the track before the arrival of stormy weather makes ice easier to remove. Scrape off snow or ice with a non-scratching plastic scraper, such as one you would use to de-ice your car window.
Despite being made in China, the Incredible Poultry Door is super-well constructed. It comes from Fall Harvest Products which doesn’t sell direct but offers a list of retailers on their website, or you can order by calling 508-476-0038.
The Pullet-Shut automatic chicken door is unique among pophole doors in being hinged at the side, like an ordinary door, instead of sliding. And its compact frame size makes it ideal for a coop that’s too small to accommodate a sliding door. Constructed of sturdy aluminum, it fits a pophole opening 11-inches wide by 15-inches high. The basic door is available hinged to open either to the right or to the left.
The manufacturer recommends installing the door to open outward, which prevents a determined predator from being able to push it in during the night. Since the open door sticks out at about a 90-degree angle, any large animals sharing the chicken yard, like our dairy goats do, might rub against it. The recommended solution is to install a backstop to prevent damage to the door.
My husband and I felt certain that one of us would eventually bang into the open door or trip on the backstop while carrying drinkers, so we installed the door to open inward (which also makes goat-rubbing a non-issue). Our pophole is in a corner of the coop, so the door opens against the adjacent wall. It’s been used that way for a couple of years, and we’ve not had any issues with predators trying to enter the closed door.
An inwardly opening door is less subject to icing up in winter than one that opens outward. Where winter weather is severe, a small awning would protect an outside-mounted door. Since electronics tend to get sluggish in cold weather, a clever built-in temperature compensation circuit gives the motor a little extra oomph to keep the door running smoothly when the temperature dips.
The Pullet-Shut can be operated using any 12-volt DC battery. Available as an option is a handy 5-amp hour 12-volt battery and trickle charger that uses standard 120-volt household current. Should the power go out, the door continues to run off the battery, which recharges when the power goes back on. A fully-charged battery lasts about a month. We like the trickle feature so well, we bought a second unit to power a different 12-volt appliance on our farm.
For an off-grid coop, you can get the same system with a solar panel. The panel needs two hours of full sunlight per day, on average, and will not recharge a battery that’s been drawn down.
Once the automatic chicken door is hooked up to a fully-charged battery, you can program the door to operate at certain hours, or you can get the optional daylight sensor. A little known feature (because it’s not in the manual) is a built-in time delay that tells the sensor to open the door as much as 90 minutes later in the morning and/or close 90 minutes later in the evening. We learned of this feature after some smart predator took to hanging around the coop waiting to nab the first chicken out the door. Setting the time delay to open the door after the sun is fully up immediately stopped the problem.
One minute after this door closes for the night, it reopens for 10 seconds to let in any tardy bird that might have missed the connection. In case a bird happens to be standing in the doorway at closing time, the door shuts gently enough to avoid injury.
The aluminum door turns on a brass pivot pin inserted into a small hole at the bottom of the door. Accumulated dirt and debris will cause the pin to bind, bending the door out of shape. We solved the problem by drilling the hole one size larger. A better solution would be to insert a brass or other non-aluminum metal bushing into the hole and insert the brass pin into the bushing, which then could be easily cleaned and lubricated.
The door’s operating system is fully enclosed inside a protective plastic box, with no external switches to get clogged with a coop’s inevitable dirt and dust. The controls are accessed by means of a provided magnet that is used not only to program the door but also to open or close it at any time without otherwise disrupting the programmed or daylight sensor cycle.
Although the Pullet-Shut is easy to install and easy to use, the installation instructions don’t always distinguish between sensor mode and program mode, making setup appear much more complicated than it actually is. With the pophole cut to size, in less than an hour my husband and I had the door screwed in place, plugged in, and working flawlessly. After having wrestled with the complex directions, we looked at each other with an incredulous, “That’s it?!”
Maintenance is as easy as installation: Periodically check the battery voltage, occasionally clean the battery contacts and daylight sensor, and twice a year lightly grease the door’s bottom brass pivot.
The Pullet-Shut automatic chicken door is made in the USA and is built to last. It is available online or by calling 512-995-0058. The website also has videos that demonstrate installation and operation.
Originally published in the April/May 2014 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.