Understanding Wet Bulb Temperatures and How It Affects Cooling Tower Performance

A cooling tower primarily uses latent heat of vaporization (evaporation) to cool process water. Minor additional cooling is provided by the air because of its temperature increase. Cooling tower selection and performance is based on water flow rate, water inlet temperature, water outlet temperature and ambient wet bulb temperature. Ambient wet bulb temperature and its affect on performance is the subject of this article. Ambient wet bulb temperature is a condition measured by a device called a psychrometer. A psychrometer places a thin film of water on the bulb of thermometer that is twirled in the air. After about a minute, the thermometer will show a reduced temperature. The low point when no additional twirling reduces the temperature is called the wet bulb temperature. The measured wet bulb temperature is a function of relative humidity and ambient air temperature. Wet bulb temperature essentially measures how much water vapor the atmosphere can hold at current weather conditions. A lower wet bulb temperature means the air is drier and can hold more water vapor than it can at a higher wet bulb temperature. For example:

Dry Bulb Temperature% Relative HumidityResultant Wet Bulb Temperature
50°F 40%> 40°F
60°F 50%> 50°F
70°F 35%> 55°F
85°F 55%> 73°F
90°F 60%> 78°F

Since cooling tower cells cool water by evaporation, the wet bulb temperature is the critical design variable. An evaporative cooling tower can generally provide cooling water 5° - 7° higher above the current ambient wet bulb condition. That means that if the wet bulb temperature is 78°F, then the cooling tower will most likely provide cooling water between 83° - 85°F, no lower. The same tower cell, on a day when the wet bulb temperature is 68°F, is likely to provide 74° - 76°F cooling water. When selecting a cooling tower cell, the highest or the design wet bulb temperature your geographical area will encounter must be used. Highest wet bulb temperatures occur during the summer, when air temperatures and humidity is highest. For example, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the design wet bulb temperature is 78°F. Historically Indianapolis can expect less than one hour per year that the conditions exceed a 78°F wet bulb. Typically, 6,000 hours a year will have a wet bulb of 60°F or lower meaning that a cooling tower cell designed for a 78°F wet bulb will be able to make 65-67°F water for 6,000 hours per year nearly 70% of the year. Most cooling towers are capacity rated at a "standard" wet bulb temperature of 78°F. That means on the days when the wet bulb temperature is 78°F, the tower will produce its stated capacity. In other words, a tower rated to produce 135 tons of cooling will produce 135 tons of cooling at a 78°F wet bulb temperature. At a higher wet bulb temperature, the tower cell capacity to produce colder water decreases. Every location has a unique design (worst case) wet bulb temperature that is published by organizations such as ASHRAE and can be obtained easily.

What does it mean when your cooling tower water temperature is higher than the normal 5-7°F above the current wet bulb temperature?

1) Your cooling load may be larger than the rated capacity of your cooling tower.

2) Your cooling tower may have lost efficiency

  • Due to scale build up on the tower heat exchange surfaces.
  • Due to loss of air flow across the heat exchange surfaces.
  • Due to improper water flow from clogged nozzles or pump performance

What can you do to improve your tower performance?

  • Add tower cell capacity
  • Check for the efficiency losses described above
  • Replace the heat exchange surfaces with new clean fill
  • Check for proper airflow
  • Check the water flow is at design
  • Check that nozzles are not clogged or broken

Cooling tower performance is tied to ambient wet bulb conditions. Higher wet bulb temperatures occur in the summer when higher ambient and relative humidity occurs. Initial system design and proper system maintenance is critical to be certain your cooling tower is providing desired cooling. Wet Bulb Temperatures for Evaporative Cooling Equipment.

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