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Conserve Water by Improving Cooling Tower Efficiency

William F. Harfst

Strategies for Improving Performance

Cooling tower cycles can be maximized in a variety of ways. These include pH adjustment, chemical scale inhibitors, and pretreatment of the tower makeup. PH Adjustment. Traditionally, cooling towers operating on high-hardness, high-alkalinity makeup water utilized pH adjustment with sulfuric acid to maximize cycles of concentration. One part of 66 Baume acid is required to neutralize one part of alkalinity. Sufficient acid is injected into the makeup to maintain the total alkalinity of the cooling water in the range of 50 to 100 ppm or at a level that will maintain the pH within the range of 6.8 to 7.5. The Langelier, Ryznar, or Practical scaling index is used as an additional control measure to correlate the calcium hardness, total alkalinity, pH, total dissolved solids, and temperature to maintain water chemistry at the neutral point of the index (neither scaling nor corrosive). The problem with using acid to increase cycles is one of control. Accidental overfeed conditions (low pH) make the cooling water very corrosive to system metals. And reducing the M alkalinity removes the natural passivating effect that carbonate and bicarbonate alkalinity have on steel. Operating the cooling tower at pH levels above 8.5 creates an environment that passivates steel and minimizes corrosion of galvanized steel and copper. Unlike scale deposition, which can be removed by chemical or mechanical cleaning, damage caused by acid corrosion cannot be reversed and is very expensive to repair. In addition, the handling, transporting, and feeding of concentrated sulfuric acid creates additional environmental, health, and safety issues. Chemical Scale Inhibitors. Various chemical additives and formulations are marketed that enhance the solubility of calcium and magnesium salts while at the same time controlling corrosion to within acceptable rates. These chemicals are generally phosphonates (organically bound phosphate compounds), polymers (mono-, co-, and ter-), and organic corrosion inhibitors. These products are used alone or in combination with supplemental acid feed to maximize tower cycles. Proven effective in lab tests and in the field, cooling water additives are usually limited to keeping calcium and magnesium salts soluble up to a Langelier Index value of about +2.5. Other chemical programs push through the calcium solubility limit by claiming to maintain clean heat transfer surfaces at even higher cycles, despite the precipitation of hardness salts, which are chemically conditioned into a fluid, nonadherent sludge that is removed by routine bleed. Notwithstanding the benefits of a sound chemical treatment program, if the cooling tower cycles are limited to fewer than five, significant water savings can be realized by improving the quality of the tower makeup. Pretreatment of Cooling Tower Makeup. The primary limiting factor for cycles of concentration is calcium hardness. As a general rule of thumb, the calcium hardness in the cooling tower should be maintained within the range of 350 to 400 ppm on a non-acid treatment program. If the makeup water contains, say, 100 ppm calcium hardness, the cycles of concentration are restricted to 3.5 to 4.0. This is equivalent to 75% to 85% water efficiency. Reducing the calcium hardness to 50 ppm allows the tower to run at seven to eight cycles, which is equivalent to over 96% water efficiency. Hardness reduction or removal can be accomplished by lime softening, sodium ion exchange (water softener), or reverse osmosis. Low-hardness makeup is often available from recycled and reused plant wastewater such as spent rinse water and steam condensate. Water of any desired hardness can be obtained by the controlled blending of softened water with untreated raw or recycled water.

Benefits of Increasing Concentration Cycles

Maximizing cooling tower cycles offers many benefits in that it reduces water consumption, minimizes waste generation, decreases chemical treatment requirements, and lowers overall operating costs.

As a simple example, a cooling tower handling a 1,000-ton load operating at 3.5 cycles of concentration with a 12F temperature drop across the tower has a makeup demand of 61,775 gallons per day (gpd). Increasing the cycles to eight has the effect of decreasing the makeup demand to 50,400 gpd. This reduces the makeup requirement by 18.4%. The wastewater produced by the cooling tower decreases from 17,640 gpd at 3.5 cycles to 6,336 gpd at eight cycles, which is equivalent to a 64% decrease. And by using less water, chemical treatment consumption and disposal requirements are proportionately reduced. Potential cost savings vary from plant to plant, depending on the cost for raw water, waste disposal costs, chemical treatment dosages, and energy. Nevertheless, in addition to the environmental, health, and safety improvements, the return on investment for improving cooling tower efficiency is typically less than one year.

Contributed by William F. Harfst (, Harfst and Associates Inc.