There are a number of issues that continue to confront cooling tower manufacturers as well as industrial users who rely on cooling towers to protect and control their production processes.
As the demand for cooling towers continues to grow, especially in heavy industries including oil and gas, chemical, metalworking, plastics, food and beverage, as well as pulp and paper, the need to solve these issues becomes increasingly important. Among them: lost production from unplanned cooling tower downtime, expensive and frequent maintenance, increasing energy costs, as well as environmental and health concerns — including legionella, the bacteria that causes the often-fatal Legionnaires’ disease.
For many industrial operations, successfully addressing these issues calls for an examination of recent advancements in cooling tower technology. At the forefront of the industry is the transition from traditional metal-clad towers to those made out of engineered plastic. These high-density polyethylene (HDPE) towers offer exceptional durability, significantly less maintenance, and an easier and quicker installation.
HDPE cooling tower technology is also environmentally friendly due to lower water treatment requirements as well as improved water conservation, substantial energy savings and other “green” benefits. In addition, recent designs are now incorporating antimicrobial properties into the resins, greatly reducing or even eliminating the threat of outbreaks from Legionnaires’ disease — which often originate in cooling towers.
In total, cooling towers composed of advanced engineered plastic are setting the pace for the industry. The question is, can cooling tower users who remain married to the conventional galvanized or even stainless steel paradigm manage to keep up with that pace? History suggests that it will be difficult.
While the transition to HDPE is under full swing now, the technology is not exactly new. In fact, the first HDPE cooling tower models are several decades old with many of the original towers still in use — some 40 years later. The technology was pioneered by Delta Cooling Towers and one of the earliest adopters of the breakthrough design was Ted Alan, founder of Industro Systems, Inc. in Ventura, California.
Back in 1981, Alan was in the water treatment chemical business exclusively, often servicing the growing fleet of cooling towers that were popping up across Southern California. He immediately recognized some of the advantages his customers could realize by utilizing an engineered plastic tower over “conventional” galvanized sheet metal designs.
Fast-forward to today and Industro Systems has successfully outfitted over 100 different companies across the Southland with engineered plastic cooling tower technology — servicing a range of industries.
“I admit, in the beginning there was hesitation from some customers who weren’t sure how plastic could be more durable than metal.”
This doubt led Alan to a novel way of demonstrating just how durable engineered plastic could be. Upon each visit with prospective customers, he would bring along an ax and a small piece of plastic from the Delta tower, “in case someone wanted to take a few whacks.”
More than a few of his customers took him up on the challenge, but not a single one was able to break through.
“Over the years, HDPE made me a lot of happy customers,” he says. “Not only did they respond perfectly with our water treatment chemicals, but they are completely unaffected by environmental factors like salt air or all the corrosive elements found at industrial sites.”
While the degree of “greenness,” or sustainability, continues to be a major concern, HDPE checks that box too. They actually are beneficial to both the environment and a company’s bottom line. New modular units are equipped with smaller, 60-inch direct-drive fans, so the energy consumption is far less. Additional options include VFDs (variable-frequency drives), which offer even more savings. Some operations have calculated the total electric power energy savings to be more than 40 percent.
Moreover, due to the fact that HDPE cooling towers do not leak, as is a common complaint with metal-clad units, users save on both water usage and treatment chemicals.
One of the fastest growing concerns for cooling tower users is the threat of outbreaks — including Legionnaires’ disease — and the liability issues that accompany them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that cooling towers are breeding grounds for Legionella, even when disinfected and properly maintained. In a recent study from the CDC, 84 percent of cooling towers inspected contained Legionella DNA, indicating that the dangerous bacteria that causes a severe, even fatal type of pneumonia were present or had been at some point.
It was just recently that cooling tower manufacturers started addressing this issue by infusing antimicrobial protection into the cooling tower material. Unlike metal, plastic can be manufactured with special antimicrobial resins that are fully compounded into the base cooling tower structural material as well as the casing, fill and drift eliminator. When coupled with consistent water treatment, this effectively eliminates microbial growth.
In the past, plastic cooling towers were too small for many industrial processes, making galvanized metal cooling towers virtually a “given” for most applications above 250 tons. Processors requiring high-capacity cooling were forced to build custom-designed, field-erected towers often at a high cost in labor and materials.
Today, that situation has changed dramatically. Some manufacturers that offer HDPE cooling towers have introduced modular options that can be strung together to meet the needs of some of the largest operators. An added benefit for users that choose the modular design is the ability to simply add modules increasing the cooling capacity as the facilities needs increase.
These cooling towers are also shipped to the site factory assembled, which ensures a much shorter installation process — minimizing downtime, labor, and on-site fabrication costs. “With the trouble-free durability HDPE provides, chances are this type of cooling tower could be the last one you purchase,” Alan concludes. “That along with all the other issues HDPE solves has to appeal to everyone.”
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