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Operation and Maintenance of Cooling Towers

ƒ Introduction
ƒ Types of Cooling Towers
ƒ Key Components of Cooling Towers
ƒ Safety Issues
ƒ Best Practices for Efficient Operation
ƒ Best Practices for Maintenance
ƒ Maintenance Schedule for Cooling Towers
ƒ References

Cooling towers are heat exchangers that use water and air to transfer heat from air-conditioning systems
to the outdoor environment. Most commonly, they are used to remove heat from the condenser water
leaving a chiller. Cooling towers are usually located on rooftops or other outdoor sites. Because they are
frequently out of sight, they are often neglected by operation-and-maintenance technicians, resulting in
lower cooling-system efficiency. This document will help you adopt best practices for the efficient
operation and maintenance of cooling towers.

Types of Cooling Towers

There are two basic types of cooling towers, open and closed (sometimes called direct and indirect).

Open (Direct) Cooling Towers

Open cooling towers expose the condenser water coming from the chiller plant directly to the
atmosphere. This warm water is sprayed over a fill in the cooling tower to increase the contact area, and
air passes through the fill. Most of the heat is removed by evaporation. The cooled water remaining after
evaporation drops into the collection basin and is returned to the chiller’s condenser.

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Open (direct) Cooling Tower

Closed (Indirect) Cooling Towers

A closed cooling tower circulates warm water from the chiller plant through tubes located in the tower. In
a closed tower, the cooling water does not come in contact with the outside air. Water that circulates only
within the cooling tower is sprayed over the tubes and a fan blows air across the tubes. This cools the
condenser water within the tubes, which is then recirculated to the chiller plant.

Closed (indirect) cooling tower

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Key Components of Cooling Towers
This section explains how the components of a cooling tower work together.

Water Distribution
Hot water from the chilled-water system is delivered to the top of the cooling tower by the condenser
pump through distribution piping. In an open tower, the hot water is sprayed through nozzles onto the
heat transfer medium (fill) inside the cooling tower. Some towers feed the nozzles through pressurized
piping; others use a water-distribution basin and feed the nozzles by gravity. In a closed-loop tower, the
water from the condenser loop runs through tubes in the tower and is not exposed to the outside air.
Water for cooling the tubes circulates only in the tower.
In the open tower, a cold-water collection basin at the base of the tower gathers cool water after it has
passed through the heat transfer medium. The cool water is pumped back to the condenser to complete
the cooling-water loop. In the closed tower, the condenser water cools as it moves through the piping in
the tower and returns to the chiller plant.

Heat Transfer Medium (Fill)

Cooling towers use evaporation to release waste heat from an HVAC system. In an open tower, hot water
from the condenser is slowed down and spread out over the fill. Some of the hot water is evaporated in
the fill area, or over the closed-circuit tubes, which cools the water. Cooling tower fill is typically arranged
in packs of thin corrugated plastic sheets or as splash bars supported in a grid pattern.

Air Flow
Large volumes of air flowing through the heat-transfer medium help increase the rate of evaporation and
the cooling capacity of the tower. The cooling-tower fans generate this airflow. The size of the cooling-
tower fan and airflow rate are selected to achieve the desired cooling at design conditions of condenser-
water temperatures, water flow rate, and wet-bulb temperature.
Cooling towers may have propeller fans or squirrel-cage blowers. Small fans may be connected directly to
the driving motor, but most designs require an intermediate speed reduction provided by a power belt or
reduction gears. The fan and drive system operate in conjunction with the control system to control
start/stop and speed. Variable-speed drives (VSDs), when added to the fan motors, control fan speed and
more precisely regulate the temperature of the water as it leaves the tower.

Drift Eliminator
As air moves through the fill, small droplets of cooling water become entrained and can exit the cooling
tower as carry-over or drift. Devices called drift eliminators remove carry-over water droplets. Cooling-
tower drift becomes annoying when the droplets fall on people and surfaces downwind from the cooling
tower. Efficient drift eliminators virtually eliminate drift from the air stream.

Safety Issues
Water Treatment
Cooling-tower water must be regularly treated, generally with chemicals, to prevent the growth of harmful
bacteria, minimize corrosion, and inhibit the buildup of scale (mineral deposits) on the fill.

Maintenance Personnel
Cooling towers are often placed in precarious locations, and inspection ports can be located in awkward
or exposed locations. This can create a hazardous working environment. Be sure to implement adequate
fall-prevention measures and procedures. In addition, always follow lock-out and tag-out safety

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Best Practices for Efficient Operation
Always consult the manufacturer’s manual for the cooling-tower. Another excellent source of information
and standards for cooling towers is the Cooling Technology Institute. Here are some recommendations
for operating any cooling tower more efficiently:
Implement a preventive-maintenance program: This includes regular water treatment and
maintenance of the mechanical and electrical systems. See the Maintenance Schedule for Cooling
Towers, below for more information.
Reduce the temperature of water leaving the tower: The temperature of water leaving the cooling
tower should be as cold as the chiller manufacturer will allow for entering condenser water. Newer chillers
usually tolerate colder temperatures for water returning from the cooling tower. Check with your chiller
manufacturer’s representative or manual and set the entering condenser-water temperature (same as the
leaving cooling tower temperature) as low as possible.
Operate cooling towers simultaneously: Direct water through all towers regardless of the number of
chillers operating. Tower fans should be staged on as required. Operating the towers simultaneously will
use less energy in most situations than staging towers individually. This strategy is particularly effective
with VSDs on the fans. When a fan VSD reaches 40% speed (adjustable), the next fan stages on and
operates in parallel, both now running at a minimum speed of 20%.
Balance water distribution between multiple towers (or cells within a single tower enclosure) and within
each tower or cell. Water often flows down only one side of the tower, or one tower may have more flow
than an adjacent tower. This increases the temperature of the water returning to the chiller and reduces
the efficiency of the tower.
Consider a condenser water reset strategy: The temperature set point of the water leaving the cooling
tower should be at least 5°F (adjustable according to the design) higher than the ambient wet-bulb
temperature. If the Direct Digital Control (DDC) system has a wet-bulb temperature sensor, this can be
done automatically. Otherwise the operator should consider manually adjusting the set point seasonally.
Close the bypass valve before starting the cooling-tower fans: Make sure the DDC control sequence
prevents the tower fans from starting before the cooling-tower bypass valve is fully closed. If the bypass
valve isn’t fully closed, hot water leaving the chiller short circuits into the water returning to the chiller,
adding unnecessary load to the compressor.
Trend log the temperature of the water leaving the tower: Use the trend logging capability of the DDC
to track the temperature of the water leaving the tower. Higher than normal temperatures may indicate
that the tower in not operating properly.

Best Practices for Maintenance

Inside an operating cooling tower is much like a hurricane. This harsh environment must be regularly
inspected and maintained for best system performance.
Effective water treatment: Effective water treatment eliminates harmful bacteria and bio-film and
controls scale, solids, and corrosion. Bleed or blowdown—the continuous flow of a small portion of the
recirculating water to a drain to eliminate dissolved solids—is insufficient by itself to control scale and
corrosion and is always ineffective in controlling biological contamination. A regular chemical-treatment
program is always recommended for controlling biological organisms, scale, and corrosion.
Prevent scale deposits: When water evaporates from the cooling tower, the minerals that were
dissolved in it are left behind as scale deposits on the surface of the fill. Scale build-up inhibits heat
transfer from the water to the air, which reduces the fill’s effectiveness. Excessive scale build-up is a sign
of inadequate water treatment.
Prevent or clean clogged spray nozzles: Algae and sediment that collect in the water basin as well as
excessive solids that get into the cooling water can clog the spray nozzles. This causes uneven water
distribution over the fill and uneven airflow through the fill, which reduces evaporation. These problems
indicate improper water treatment and clogged strainers. Kits are available to replace older, smaller
distribution nozzles or troughs with large-orifice, clog-free designs.

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Ensure Adequate Airflow: Poor airflow through the tower reduces the transfer of heat from the water to
the air. Poor airflow can be caused by debris at the inlets or outlets of the tower or in the fill, loose fan and
motor mountings, poor motor and fan alignment, poor gearbox maintenance, improper fan pitch, damage
to fan blades, or excessive vibration. Reduced airflow due to poor fan performance can ultimately lead to
motor or fan failure.
Ensure Adequate Pump Performance: A closed-loop cooling tower uses a pump to transport water over
the tubes for evaporative cooling. Proper water flow is important to achieve optimum heat transfer. Loose
connections, failing bearings, cavitation, clogged strainers, excessive vibration, and operating outside of
design conditions result in reduced water flow, reduced efficiency, and premature equipment failure.
The table below provides a schedule for maintenance tasks.

Maintenance Schedule for Cooling Towers

Description Comments
Cooling tower use/ Turn on/sequence unnecessary cooling towers Daily
Overall visual Complete overall visual inspection to be sure all equipment Daily
inspection is operating and safety systems are in place
Fan motor Check the condition of the fan motor through temperature Weekly
condition or vibration analysis and compare to baseline values
Clean suction Physically clean screen of all debris Weekly
Operate make-up Operate switch manually to ensure proper operation Weekly
water float switch
Vibration Check for excessive vibration in motors, fans, and pumps Weekly
Check tower Check for loose fill, connections, leaks, etc. Weekly
Check belts and Adjust all belts and pulleys Weekly
Test water Test for proper concentrations of dissolved solids, and Weekly (Open)
samples chemistry. Adjust blowdown and chemicals as necessary. Monthly (Closed)
Perform weekly for open towers and monthly for closed
Check lubrication Assure that all bearings are lubricated per the Monthly
manufacture's recommendation
Check motor Check for excessive wear and secure fastening Monthly
supports and fan
Motor alignment Aligning the motor coupling allows for efficient torque Monthly
Check drift Look for proper positioning and scale build up Monthly
louvers, and fill
Inspect nozzles for Make sure water is flowing through nozzles in the hot well Annually
Clean tower Remove all dust, scale, and algae from tower basin, fill, Annually
and spray nozzles
Check bearings Inspect bearings and drive belts for wear. Adjust, repair, or Annually
replace as necessary.

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Description Comments
Motor condition Checking the condition of the motor through temperature or Annually
vibration analysis assures long life

FEMP 2004. O&M Best Practices Guide 2.0.
FEMP 2002. Continuous Commissioning Guidebook for Federal Energy Managers.
ASHRAE Journal 2005. Maintaining Cooling Towers.

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