If you have used them before, then you know what they are and how they work. If you haven’t tried one, let me offer my endorsement. First, here is a picture of one of my heaters:
A plate heater is basically an upside down heat plate that provides ambient heat. The two most popular brands are Brinsea and Premier. I’m not familiar with the Premier, how hot it gets or exactly how it works, so my opinion is based solely on the Brinsea.
The plate gets to 95 degrees, you can place your hand on it and it doesn’t burn. Chicks get warm by snuggling under it, where they actually come in contact with the plate. As the chicks grow, you raise the plate, and the plate works as long as the surrounding temperatures are above 50 degrees.
I brood hundreds of chicks every year, and I can’t tell you how much of a difference these plate heaters have made. First, and most importantly, is the great reduction of fire risk. Having a hot red bulb hanging a couple of feet from a box of tinder is concerning, especially if you are brooding in your house or barn. The second most important reason is the power the plates consume, they require 1/12th of the power required to run a bulb, 22 watts for a plate heater versus 250 watts for a heat lamp. That may not be a significant amount if you are brooding one or two batches of chicks a year, but if you are running 4 or 5 brooders constantly, it adds up. Many first time chick owners also keep their brooders too hot with the lamps. Chicks need the heat, but won’t die without it for a short time, and you can kill them by keeping them too hot. If chicks are constantly running around, bunching up against the walls to try and get away from the heat, then the brooder is too hot. You should always have an area that isn’t under the light that the chicks can go to to cool off. Content chicks will spread out in the rings of light, usually at the edges. With a plate heater this isn’t a concern, they can self regulate.
The thing that surprised me, though, was the drastic difference in the behavior of the chicks when I started brooding with the plates. How would you like a hot red bulb shining in your eyes 24 hours per day? Looking back on it now, the chicks were always more skittish and agitated, like they were constantly on edge. The plate heaters are almost like having a mama hen, the chicks go to them for comfort and warmth, and they are able to walk away and cool off when they want. If you have watched a mama hen with her babies, you know that she isn’t sitting on them all the time. She leads them around teaching them how to scratch for food and find water, and when they start crying that they are cold she settles down and warms them up again. Warm, cool, warm, cool, and on it goes until they no longer need her for her warmth.
Plate heaters act much the same way, the chicks are able to warm themselves when they want to, and when they aren’t under them they are acclimating themselves to the outside temperatures. The chicks are much more calm, much more happy, and most often come scrambling out to meet me when they hear my voice. Calm chicks grow into docile adults, and I have a plate heater in each of my brooders now. I still have heat lamps in my barn brooders, but they are hung high just to keep the barn warm in the winter. The chicks still get their heat from the plates.
If you want happy, healthy, calm chicks, then I highly recommend looking into a plate heater