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Cooling Tower Fill

The fill within the cooling tower is the critical thermal component. In wet cooling towers or
hybrid towers it is the medium over which the hot water is distributed as it is being cooled. Its
primary function is to provide an environment for efficient heat transfer.

Over the years, advances in fill technology have led to advances in cooling tower
efficiency. The earliest fill material was simple, wood lath splash bars. With splash fill, the
exchange area for cooling is provided by water droplets, and heat exchange occurs on the surface
of these droplets. Due to surface tension, these droplets are nearly perfect spheres therefore this
type of fill does not provide maximum possible surface area. Current splash fill is primarily
various shapes of extruded PVC, and is still used for projects with major fouling
concerns. Significant improvements in evaporative heat transfer efficiency were realized with
the invention of film fills.

Film fill consists of flat or formed sheets to provide a surface upon which water and air come in
contact for heat exchange. Cellular fill stretches droplets of water into a thin films as the water
proceeds vertically downward through the cells, thereby maximizing the surface area and
permitting the available crossflow or counterflow air to cool the entire droplet more
rapidly. Film fill creates a very large surface area on which the hot water disperses itself as a
thin film that interacts with the air traveling through the tower, thus achieving the specified
cooling. Film fill is more compact than splash fill and can thereby be more cost effective. Film
fill is used in both counterflow and crossflow cooling towers, from small air conditioning
applications to the large natural draft towers serving power plants around the world.

Development of new film fill especially for use in cooling towers has received great
attention. Most of this attention has been motivated by one of the following: the desire to repack
older towers with modern fill to achieve colder water; the desire to remove an existing asbestos
cement fill media; or the desire to remove diagonal-flute fill modules that have fouled.

Upgrading from wood splash bars to cellular film fill results in a major increase in cooling tower
efficiency. Whether it be counterflow or crossflow configurations, change to high-efficiency
film fill can result in improvements to as much as 15F colder water. Care must be taken when
selecting fill to insure that fill is chosen such that it is appropriate to the water quality of the job
and will not foul.

In the mid-1960’s, film fill began to appear in commercial sized counterflow and crossflow
cooling towers. The early film fills, made of treated asbestos paper, were eventually supplanted
by PVC film material. PVC film fill offers greater thermal performance than asbestos paper as
well as being more durable and environmentally acceptable.

By the 1970’s, PVC film fill was available in large industrial counterflow towers. Fundamentally, high
efficiency film fill produced towers with lower total evaluated cost than comparable crossflow
towers. The relatively shallow film fill area allowed significant reductions in the hot water inlet height,
which reduced necessary pumping power. Both fan horsepower and plan area of the counterflow towers
tended to be less than the comparable splash fill crossflow designs; thus, the film fill counterflow towers
were very cost competitive for industrial projects.

During the 1980’s over 70% of the new and replacement industrial cooling towers were film fill
counterflow design. Additionally, well over 90% of the new commercial cooling towers
employed film fill in either crossflow or counterflow designs.

Crossflow film fills are significantly different from counterflow film fills in appearance and in
their application. Crossflow fill packs are commonly assembled by hanging individual sheets
closely together into the fill modules. The fill sheets, which extend the full height of the module,
can be up to 12 feet in height. Individual sheets feature closely spaced indentations molded into
the surface to enhance thermal performance. Crossflow film fill sheets often include specially
designed flutes formed with the sheet, which function as inlet louvers and drift eliminators when
the sheets are positioned into packs.

In contrast to the crossflow sheets, counterflow film fills generally employ sheets with sinusoidal
corrugations molded into the surface. Packs, between two and six feet deep, are formed by
gluing individual sheets together in cross corrugated fashion. The packs are either bottom
supported or hung from support tubes in the cooling tower. Drift eliminators, which are separate
from the fill packs, are positioned above the water distribution system.

Crossflow film fills are commonly applied at higher water loadings than counterflow film fills,
even up to 30 gpm per square foot of fill plan area. A benefit of the greater water loading in
crossflow fills is that the flooding action of hot water in open spaced, crossflow film fills retards
the rate of biofouling compared to cross corrugated counterflow film fill designs.

Most new applications today use the high efficiency film fill, but in some cases it is necessary to
continue to use splash fill. For applications where the cooling water is relatively dirty, splash
fills can be used to prevent fouling.
With respect to drawing air through the tower, there are three types of cooling towers:

 Natural draft, which utilizes buoyancy via a tall chimney. Warm, moist air naturally rises due to the density differential to the dry,

cooler outside air. Warmmoist air is less dense than drier air at the same pressure. This moist air buoyancy produces a current

of air through the tower.

 Mechanical draft, which uses power driven fan motors to force or draw air through the tower.

 Induced draft: A mechanical draft tower with a fan at the discharge which pulls air through tower. The fan induces hot

moist air out the discharge. This produces low entering and high exiting air velocities, reducing the possibility

of recirculation in which discharged air flows back into the air intake. This fan/fin arrangement is also known as draw-

through. (see Image 2, 3)

 Forced draft: A mechanical draft tower with a blower type fan at the intake. The fan forces air into the tower, creating high

entering and low exiting air velocities. The low exiting velocity is much more susceptible to recirculation. With the fan on

the air intake, the fan is more susceptible to complications due to freezing conditions. Another disadvantage is that a

forced draft design typically requires more motor horsepower than an equivalent induced draft design. The forced draft

benefit is its ability to work with high static pressure. They can be installed in more confined spaces and even in some

indoor situations. This fan/fill geometry is also known as blow-through. (see Image 4)

 Fan assisted natural draft. A hybrid type that appears like a natural draft though airflow is assisted by a fan.

Hyperboloid (a.k.a. hyperbolic) cooling towers (Image 1) have become the design standard for all natural-draft cooling towers

because of their structural strength and minimum usage of material. The hyperboloid shape also aids in accelerating the

upward convective air flow, improving cooling efficiency. They are popularly associated with nuclear power plants. However, this

association is misleading, as the same kind of cooling towers are often used at large coal-fired power plants as well. Similarly, not all

nuclear power plants have cooling towers, instead cooling their heat exchangers with lake, river or ocean water.

Categorization by air-to-water flow


Crossflow is a design in which the air flow is directed perpendicular to the water flow (see diagram below). Air flow enters one or

more vertical faces of the cooling tower to meet the fill material. Water flows (perpendicular to the air) through the fill by gravity. The

air continues through the fill and thus past the water flow into an open plenum area. A distribution or hot water basin consisting of a

deep pan with holes or nozzles in the bottom is utilized in a crossflow tower. Gravity distributes the water through the nozzles

uniformly across the fill material.


In a counterflow design the air flow is directly opposite to the water flow (see diagram below). Air flow first enters an open area

beneath the fill media and is then drawn up vertically. The water is sprayed through pressurized nozzles and flows downward

through the fill, opposite to the air flow.

Common to both designs:

 The interaction of the air and water flow allow a partial equalization and evaporation of water.

 The air, now saturated with water vapor, is discharged from the cooling tower.

 A collection or cold water basin is used to contain the water after its interaction with the air flow.

Both crossflow and counterflow designs can be used in natural draft and mechanical draft cooling towers.

Some commonly used terms 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. Drift can also be reduced by

using warmer entering cooling tower temperatures.

 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. It may be noted that higher TDS (total dissolved solids) concentration in solution results

in greater potential cooling tower efficiency. However the higher the TDS concentration, the greater the risk of scale, biological

growth and corrosion.

 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.

 Approach - The approach is the difference in temperature between the cooled-water temperature and the entering-air wet bulb

temperature (twb). Since the cooling towers are based on the principles of evaporative cooling, the maximum cooling tower

efficiency depends on the wet bulb temperature of the air. The wet-bulb temperature is a type of temperature measurement

that reflects the physical properties of a system with a mixture of a gas and a vapor, usually air and water vapor

 Range - The range is the temperature difference between the water inlet and water exit.

 Fill - Inside the tower, fills are added to increase contact surface as well as contact time between air and water. Thus they

provide better heat transfer. The efficiency of the tower also depends on them. There are two types of fills that may be used:

 Film type fill (causes water to spread into a thin film)

 Splash type fill (breaks up water and interrupts its vertical progress)

 Full-Flow Filtration- Full-flow filtration continuously strains the entire system flow. For example, in a 100-ton system, the flow

rate would be roughly 300 gal/min. A filter would be selected to accommodate the entire 300 gal/min flow rate. In this case, the

filter typically is installed after the cooling tower on the discharge side of the pump. While this is the preferred method of

filtration, for higher flow systems, it may be cost prohibitive.

 Side-Stream Filtration- Side-stream filtration, although popular, does not provide complete protection, but it can be effective.

With side-stream filtration, a portion of the water is filtered continuously. This method works on the principle that continuous
particle removal will keep the system clean. Manufacturers typically package side-stream filters on a skid, complete with a

pump and controls. For high flow systems, this method is cost-effective.

Properly sizing a side-stream filtration system is critical to obtain satisfactory filter performance. There is some debate over how to

properly size the side-stream system. Many engineers size the system to continuously filter the cooling tower basin water at a rate

equivalent to 10% of the total circulation flow rate. For example, if the total flow of a system is 1,200 gal/min (a 400-ton system), a

120 gal/min side-stream system is specified.

Cooling towers are a very important part of many chemical plants. They represent a
relatively inexpensive and dependable means of removing low grade heat from
cooling water.

Figure 1: Closed Loop Cooling Tower System

The make-up water source is used to replenish water lost to evaporation. Hot water
from heat exchangers is sent to the cooling tower. The water exits the cooling tower
and is sent back to the exchangers or to other units for further cooling.

Types of Cooling Towers

Cooling towers fall into two main sub-divisions: natural draft and mechanical
draft. Natural draft designs use very large concrete chimneys to introduce air through
the media. Due to the tremendous size of these towers (500

ft high and 400 ft in diameter at the base) they are generally

used for water flowrates above 200,000 gal/min. Usually these types of towers are
only used by utility power stations in the United States. Mechanical draft cooling
towers are much more widely used. These towers utilize large fans to force air
through circulated water. The water falls downward over fill surfaces which help
increase the contact time between the water and the air. This helps maximize heat
transfer between the two.

Types of Mechanical Draft Towers

Figure 2: Mechanical Draft Counterflow Tower Figure 3: Mechanical Draft

Crossflow Tower

Mechanical draft towers offer control of cooling rates in their fan diameter and speed of
operation. These towers often contain several areas (each with their own fan) called cells.

Cooling Tower Theory

Heat is transferred from water drops to the surrounding air by the transfer of
sensible and latent heat.
Figure 4: Water Drop with Interfacial Film

This movement of heat can be modeled with a relation known as the Merkel


KaV/L = tower characteristic
K = mass transfer coefficient (lb water/h ft2)
a = contact area/tower volume
V = active cooling volume/plan area
L = water rate (lb/h ft2)
T1 = hot water temperature (0F or 0C)
T2 = cold water temperature (0F or 0C)
T = bulk water temperature (0F or 0C)
hw = enthalpy of air-water vapor mixture at bulk water temperature
(J/kg dry air or Btu/lb dry air)
ha = enthalpy of air-water vapor mixture at wet bulb temperature
(J/kg dry air or Btu/lb dry air)

Thermodynamics also dictate that the heat removed from the water must be equal to
the heat absorbed by the surrounding air:

L/G = liquid to gas mass flow ratio (lb/lb or kg/kg)
T1 = hot water temperature (0F or 0C)
T2 = cold water temperature (0F or 0C)
h2 = enthalpy of air-water vapor mixture at exhaust wet-bulb temperature (same
units as above)
h1 = enthalpy of air-water vapor mixture at inlet wet-bulb temperature (same units
as above)

The tower characteristic value can be calculated by solving Equation 1 with the
Chebyshev numberical method:

Figure 5: Graphical Representation of Tower Characteristic

The following represents a key to Figure 5:

C' = Entering air enthalpy at wet-bulb temperature, Twb
BC = Initial enthalpy driving force
CD = Air operating line with slope L/G
DEF = Projecting the exiting air point onto the water operating line and then onto the
temperature axis shows the outlet air web-bulb temperature

As shown by Equation 1, by finding the area between ABCD in Figure 5, one can
find the tower characteristic. An increase in heat load would have the following
effects on the diagram in Figure 5:
1. Increase in the length of line CD, and a CD line shift to the right
2. Increases in hot and cold water temperatures
3. Increases in range and approach areas
The increased heat load causes the hot water temperature to increase considerably
faster than does the cold water temperature. Although the area ABCD should remain
constant, it actually decreases about 2% for every 10 0F increase in hot water
temperature above 100 0F. To account for this decrease, an "adjusted hot water
temperature" is usd in cooling tower design.

Figure 6: Graph of Adjusted Hot Water Temperatures

The area ABCD is expected to change with a change in L/G, this is very key in the
design of cooling towers.

Cooling Tower Design

Although KaV/L can be calculated, designers typically use charts found in
the Cooling Tower Institute Blue Book to estimate KaV/L for given design
conditions. It is important to recall three key points in cooling tower design:
1. A change in wet bulb temperature (due to atmospheric conditions) will
not change the tower characteristic (KaV/L)
2. A change in the cooling range will not change KaV/L
3. Only a change in the L/G ratio will change KaV/L

Figure 7: A Typical Set of Tower Characteristic Curves

The straight line shown in Figure 7 is a plot of L/G vs KaV/L at a constant airflow.
The slope of this line is dependent on the tower packing, but can often be assumed to
be -0.60. Figure 7 represents a typical graph supplied by a manufacturer to the
purchasing company. From this graph, the plant engineer can see that the proposed
tower will be capable of cooling the water to a temperature that is 10 0F above the
wet-bulb temperature. This is another key point in cooling tower design.
Cooling towers are designed according to the highest geographic wet bulb
temperatures. This temperature will dictate the minimum performance available by
the tower. As the wet bulb temperature decreases, so will the available cooling water
temperature. For example, in the cooling tower represented by Figure 7, if the wet
bulb temperature dropped to 75 0F, the cooling water would still be exiting 10 0F
above this temperature (85 0F) due to the tower design.
Below is the summary of steps in the cooling tower design process in industry.
More detail on these steps will be given later.
1. Plant engineer defines the cooling water flowrate, and the inlet and outlet water
temperatures for the tower.
2. Manufacturer designs the tower to be able to meet this criteria on a "worst case
scenario" (ie. during the hottest months). The tower characteristic curves and the
estimate is given to the plant engineer.
3. Plant engineer reviews bids and makes a selection

Design Considerations
Once a tower characteristic has been established between the plant engineer and the
manufacturer, the manufacturer must design a tower that matches this value. The
required tower size will be a function of:
1. Cooling range
2. Approach to wet bulb temperature
3. Mass flowrate of water
4. Web bulb temperature
5. Air velocity through tower or individual tower cell
6. Tower height
In short, nomographs such as the one shown on page 12-15 of Perry's Chemical
Engineers' Handbook 6th Ed. utilize the cold water temperature, wet bulb
temperature, and hot water temperature to find the water concentration in gal/min ft 2.
The tower area can then be calculated by dividing the water circulated by the water
concentration. General rules are usually used to determine tower height depending on
the necessary time of contact:

Approach to Wet Bulb (0F) Cooling Range (0F) Tower Height (ft)
15-20 25-35 15-20
10-15 25-35 25-30
5-10 25-35 35-40

Other design characteristics to consider are fan horsepower, pump

horsepower, make-up water source, fogging abatement, and drift eliminators.
Operation Considerations

Water Make-up
Water losses include evaporation, drift (water entrained in discharge vapor), and
blowdown (water released to discard solids). Drift losses are estimated to be between
0.1 and 0.2% of water supply.

Evaporation Loss = 0.00085 * water flowrate(T 1-T2) (5)

Blowdown Loss = Evaporation Loss/(cycles-1) (6)
where cycles is the ratio of solids in the circulating water to the
solids in the make-up water
Total Losses = Drift Losses + Evaporation Losses + Blowdown Losses (7)

Cold Weather Operation

Even during cold weather months, the plant engineer should maintain the design
water flowrate and heat load in each cell of the cooling tower. If less water is needed
due to temperature changes (ie. the water is colder), one or more cells should be
turned off to maintain the design flow in the other cells. The water in the base of the
tower should be maintained between 60 and 70 0F by adjusting air volume if
necessary. Usual practice is to run the fans at half speed or turn them off during
colder months to maintain this temperature range.

You can download a small DOS program that will calculate the tower characteristic or
cold water temperature for a given tower based on a few inputs.