SAMCO Technologies, Inc.

What Is a Cooling Tower Water Treatment System and How Does It Work?

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Courtesy of SAMCO Technologies, Inc.

For industrial companies using a cooling tower for its facility, some type of cooling tower water treatment system is usually necessary to ensure an efficient process and long equipment service life. If cooling tower water is left untreated, organic growth, fouling, scaling, and corrosion can reduce plant productivity, cause plant downtime, and require costly equipment replacements down the road.

But what is a cooling tower water treatment system and how does it work? This article breaks down the basics below:

What is a cooling tower water treatment system?

A cooling tower water treatment system is an arrangement of technologies that remove damaging impurities from your cooling tower feed water, circulation water, and/or blowdown. The specific configuration of your system will depend on several things, including:

  • What type of cooling tower you have (open circulating, once-through, or closed loop)
  • quality of your feed water
  • manufacture-recommended quality requirements for the cooling tower and equipment
  • chemistry/makeup of your circulatory water
  • regulatory requirements for discharge
  • whether or not blowdown will be treated for reuse in the cooling tower
  • type of heat exchanger
  • cycle of concentration

What’s included in a basic cooling tower water treatment system?

As mentioned above, the exact components of a cooling tower water treatment system depend on the quality of feed water and chemistry of circulatory water in relation to the quality of water needed for the specific cooling tower and related equipment (according to the manufacturer’s recommendations), but in general, a basic cooling tower water treatment system typically includes some type of:

  • clarification
  • filtration and/or ultrafiltration
  • ion exchange/softening
  • chemical feed
  • automated monitoring

Depending on the impurities present in your water, any combination of these treatments might best suit your facility and make up your treatment system, so it’s important to consult with your water treatment specialist to ensure the right system for your specific tower is being considered. Depending on the needs of your cooling tower and process, these standard components are usually adequate. However, if your tower requires a system that provides a bit more customization, there might be some features or technologies you will need to add on.

What does a cooling tower water treatment system typically control?

A cooling tower water treatment system might be made up of the technologies necessary to regulate the level of:

  • alkalinity: will dictate potential of calcium carbonate scale
  • chlorides: can be corrosive to metals; different levels will be tolerated based on materials of cooling tower and equipment
  • hardness: contributes to scale in the cooling tower and on heat exchangers
  • iron: when combined with phosphate, iron can foul equipment
  • organic matter: promotes microorganism growth, which can lead to fouling, corrosion, and other system issues
  • silica: known for causing hard scale deposits
  • sulfates: like chlorides, can be extremely corrosive to metals
  • total dissolved solids (TDS): contribute to scaling and/or corrosion
  • totals suspended solids (TSS): undissolved contaminants that can cause scaling, biofilms, and/or corrosion

How does a cooling tower water treatment system work?

Specific treatment processes vary depending on the requirements of the cooling tower and quality/chemistry of the feed and circulation water, but a typical cooling tower water treatment system will usually include the following steps:

Cooling tower makeup water intake

Makeup water, or the water replacing evaporated or leaked water from the cooling tower, is first drawn from its source, which could be raw water, city water, city-treated effluent, in-plant wastewater recycle, well water, or any other surface water source.

Depending on the quality of this water, you may or may not need treatment here. If a water treatment system is needed at this part of the cooling tower water process, it is usually technology that removes hardness and silica or stabilizes and adjusts the pH.

At this point of the process, the proper treatment optimizes the tower evaporation cycles and minimizes the water bleed rate to drain beyond what might be done with chemicals alone.

Filtration and ultrafiltration

The next step is generally running the cooling tower water through some type of filtration to remove any suspended particles such as sediment, turbidity, and certain types of organic matter. It is often useful to do this early on in the process, as the removal of suspended solids upstream can help protect membranes and ion exchange resins from fouling later on in the pretreatment process. Depending on the type of filtration used, suspended particles can be removed down to under one micron.

Ion exchange/water softening

If there’s high hardness in your source/makeup water, there may be treatment for the removal of the hardness. Instead of lime, a softening resin can be used; a strong acid cation exchange process, whereby resin is charged with a sodium ion, and as the hardness comes through, it has a higher affinity for calcium, magnesium, and iron so it will grab that molecule and release the sodium molecule into the water. These contaminants, if present, will otherwise cause scale deposits and rust.

Dealkalization

After the softening process, some cooling tower water treatment systems will utilize dealkalization to reduce alkalinity/pH, an impurity in cooling tower water that can cause corrosion, embrittlement, and an increased need for chemical treatment.

Chemical addition

At this point in the process, there is typically the use of chemicals, such as:

  • corrosion inhibitors (e.g., bicarbonates) to neutralize acidity and protect metal components
  • algaecides and biocide (e.g., bromine) to reduce the growth of microbes and biofilms
  • scale inhibitors (e.g., phosphoric acid) to prevent contaminants from forming scale deposits

Thorough treatment prior to this stage can help reduce the amount of chemicals needed to treat water at this point in the process, which is ideal considering many chemical treatments can be expensive.

Side-stream filtration

If the cooling tower water is going to be recirculated throughout the system, a side-stream filtration unit will be helpful in removing any problematic contaminants that have entered through drift contamination, leak, etc. A good rule of thumb is that, if you cooling tower water treatment system requires side-stream filtration, about 10% of the circulating water will filter through. It typically consists of a good quality multimedia filtration unit.

Blowdown treatment

The last part of treatment required for cooling tower water is the blowdown or bleed from the tower.

Depending on how much water the cooling plant needs to circulate for proper cooling capacity, plants will choose to recycle and recover the water through some type of post treatment in the form of reverse osmosis or ion exchange, especially in places where water might be scarce. This allows liquid and solid waste to be concentrated and removed while treated water can be returned to the tower and reused.

If the water from your blowdown needs to be discharge, any discharge your system creates will need to meet all regulatory requirements. In certain areas where water is scarce, there could be large sewer connection fees, and demineralization systems can be a cost-effective solution here, as they can help minimize the cost to connect to water and sewer lines. Also, the discharge of your cooling tower bleed must meet local municipal discharge regulations if your effluent is being returned to the environment or a publicly owned treatment works.

In conclusion

SAMCO has over 40 years of experience helping our customers design and custom-engineer cooling tower water treatment systems. If you have any questions, be sure to visit our website for more information about cooling tower water treatment here. We also have an article you might be interested in about how much a cooling tower water treatment system might cost you and who we recommend as qualified cooling tower water treatment companies for you to consider as you search for all the options available for your plant.

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