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What is a (wet, atmospheric) cooling tower?

A cooling tower is a heat rejection device, which extracts waste heat to the atmosphere though the cooling of a water stream to a lower temperature. The type of heat rejection in a cooling tower is termed "evaporative" in that it allows a small portion of the water being cooled to evaporate into a moving air stream to provide significant cooling to the rest of that water stream. The heat from the water stream transferred to the air stream raises the air's temperature and its relative humidity to 100%, and this air is discharged to the atmosphere. Evaporative heat rejection devices such as cooling towers are commonly used to provide significantly lower water temperatures than achievable with "air cooled" or "dry" heat rejection devices, like the radiator in a car, thereby achieving more cost-effective and energy efficient operation of systems in need of cooling. Think of the times you've seen something hot be rapidly cooled by putting water on it, which evaporates, cooling rapidly, such as an overheated car radiator. The cooling potential of a wet surface is much better than a dry one.

Common applications for cooling towers are providing cooled water for air-conditioning, manufacturing and electric power generation. The smallest cooling towers are designed to handle water streams of only a few gallons of water per minute supplied in small pipes like those might see in a residence, while the largest cool hundreds of thousands of gallons per minute supplied in pipes as much as 15 feet (about 5 meters) in diameter on a large power plant.

The generic term "cooling tower" is used to describe both direct (open circuit) and indirect (closed circuit) heat rejection equipment. While most think of a "cooling tower" as an open direct contact heat rejection device, the indirect cooling tower, sometimes referred to as a "closed circuit cooling tower" is nonetheless also a cooling tower.

A direct, or open circuit cooling tower is an enclosed structure with internal means to distribute the warm water fed to it over a labyrinth-like packing or "fill." The fill provides a vastly expanded air-water interface for heating of the air and evaporation to take place. The water is cooled as it descends through the fill by gravity while in direct contact with air that passes over it. The cooled water is then collected in a cold water basin below the fill from which it is pumped back through the process to absorb more heat. The heated and moisture laden air leaving the fill is discharged to the atmosphere at a point remote enough from the air inlets to prevent its being drawn back into the cooling tower.

The fill may consist of multiple, mainly vertical, wetted surfaces upon which a thin film of water spreads (film fill), or several levels of horizontal splash elements which create a cascade of many small droplets that have a large combined surface area (splash fill).

An indirect, or closed circuit cooling tower involves no direct contact of the air and the fluid, usually water or a glycol mixture, being cooled. Unlike the open cooling tower, the indirect cooling tower has two separate fluid circuits. One is an external circuit in which water is recirculated on the outside of the second circuit, which is tube bundles (closed coils) which are connected to the process for the hot fluid being cooled and returned in a closed circuit. Air is drawn through the recirculating water cascading over the outside of the hot tubes, providing evaporative cooling similar to an open cooling tower. In operation the heat flows from the internal fluid circuit, through the tube walls of the coils, to the external circuit and then by heating of the air and evaporation of some of the water, to the atmosphere. Operation of the indirect cooling towers is therefore very similar to the open cooling tower with one exception. The process fluid being cooled is contained in a "closed" circuit and is not directly exposed to the atmosphere or the recirculated external water.

In a counter-flow cooling tower air travels upward through the fill or tube bundles, opposite to the downward motion of the water. In a cross-flow cooling tower air moves horizontally through the fill as the water moves downward.

Cooling towers are also characterized by the means by which air is moved. Mechanical-draft cooling towers rely on power-driven fans to draw or force the air through the tower. Natural-draft cooling towers use the buoyancy of the exhaust air rising in a tall chimney to provide the draft. A fan-assisted natural-draft cooling tower employs mechanical draft to augment the buoyancy effect. Many early cooling towers relied only on prevailing wind to generate the draft of air.

If cooled water is returned from the cooling tower to be reused, some water must be added to replace, or make-up, the portion of the flow that evaporates. Because evaporation consists of pure water, the concentration of dissolved minerals and other solids in circulating water will tend to increase unless some means of dissolved-solids control, such as blow-down, is provided. Some water is also lost by droplets being carried out with the exhaust air (drift), but this is typically reduced to a very small amount by installing baffle-like devices, called drift eliminators, to collect the droplets. The make-up amount must equal the total of the evaporation, blow-down, drift, and other water losses such as wind blowout and leakage, to maintain a steady water level.

Some useful terms, commonly used in the cooling tower industry:

Drift - Water droplets that are carried out of the cooling tower with the exhaust air. Drift droplets have the same concentration of impurities as the water entering the tower. The drift rate is typically reduced by employing baffle-like devices, called drift eliminators, through which the air must travel after leaving the fill and spray zones of the tower.

Blow-out - Water droplets blown out of the cooling tower by wind, generally at the air inlet openings. Water may also be lost, in the absence of wind, through splashing or misting. Devices such as wind screens, louvers, splash deflectors and water diverters are used to limit these losses.

Plume - The stream of saturated exhaust air leaving the cooling tower. The plume is visible when water vapor it contains condenses in contact with cooler ambient air, like the saturated air in one's breath fogs on a cold day. Under certain conditions, a cooling tower plume may present fogging or icing hazards to its surroundings. Note that the water evaporated in the cooling process is "pure" water, in contrast to the very small percentage of drift droplets or water blown out of the air inlets.

Blow-down - The portion of the circulating water flow that is removed in order to maintain the amount of dissolved solids and other impurities at an acceptable level.

Leaching - The loss of wood preservative chemicals by the washing action of the water flowing through a wood structure cooling tower.

Noise - Sound energy emitted by a cooling tower and heard (recorded) at a given distance and direction. The sound is generated by the impact of falling water, by the movement of air by fans, the fan blades moving in the structure, and the motors, gearboxes or drive belts.

Click here for the simple definition.

Click here for a glossary of cooling tower definitions.

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Cooling Technology Institute

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