Concerns and Caveats in Piping Multiple-Cell Cooling Towers

oversized piping in cooling towers

When two or more cooling towers are integrated into a common condenser water system, equalization of all the cooling towers is required for a properly operating system. Equalization — the process whereby multiple cooling tower basins are mechanically connected through a piping system to allow for correction in the water-basin level — occurs during operation.

For proper equalization piping, assuming a 1” head differential, the equalizer lines are sized for a 15 percent flow imbalance between cells. This is derived from Bernoulli’s equation and the relationship between pressure and flow. (The good news is that there is no need to do Bernoulli’s calculations yourself: All of the necessary information is readily available from all cooling tower manufacturers).

cooling towers bypass piping

cooling towers bypass piping

Bypassing the cooling tower is a common control function that is utilized in cool-to-cold climates to avoid or eliminate large volumes of cold water entering the condenser of the chiller (figure 3). If water that is too cold enters the condenser, it can adversely affect the refrigeration cycle and shut down the machine. Likewise, if the bypass cycle is not properly administered at the cooling tower, hydraulic problems within the piping system and the potential for freezing can persist.

When bypassing the cooling tower is necessary, two ways are recommended:

The first option is to bypass directly into the cooling tower sump. If the bypass valve must be located at or near the same level as the cooling tower pipe, this is the preferred method. Putting the bypass line directly into the cooling tower sump will avoid air entrapment in the condenser line.
The second option is to bypass into the pump suction within the mechanical room — with one stipulation. Locate the bypass valve at least 15’ or more below the tower sump. This will place enough head on the valve to allow it to transition from full tower flow to full bypass without pulling air down the supply pipe.

One critical note — never modulate your bypass valve as a means of capacity control. Your bypass valve is intended to control flow to one of two positions:

  1. Full flow to the tower sump (or pump suction).
  2. Full flow over the tower fill when in mechanical cooling.

Once the full flow is proven, typically through an end switch, integrate fan operation with the use of a variable-frequency drive for optimum temperature control.

“Pull down” is a terminology that most are unfamiliar with within the industry. Pull down essentially is the volume of water required to prime the condenser loop when the pumps are initialized to start. Considerable thought must be placed on the location of the cooling tower relative to the process-cooling and facility layout as well as its associated piping system.

First and foremost, ideally, an open cooling tower should be located at the highest point of the condenser water system. This will allow for the adequate net positive suction head (NPSH) for proper pump operation and minimize or eliminate potential hydraulic problems associated with open systems. Secondly, when placed at the highest point of the open system, the cooling tower will have minimal condenser pipe located above the basin level of the cooling tower. This is critical because all condenser pipe located above the cooling tower basin level will drain out and eventually find its way to the basin. Additionally, the water in suspension will settle out in the basin and add to the total volume. Bottom line is, if there is an excessive amount of pipe elevated above the basin, your cooling tower will overflow.

A multitude of issues arises because of this scenario. The first problem is obvious: The tower overflows and water treatment chemicals may be wasted. The second is that the basin will have its available pull-down consumed in minutes if not seconds. The level of the problem is based on the severity of the drain back.

Remember, the instant the condenser pumps are initialized, the system is being primed with water. When problems with piping system design result in improper prime, the first thought about the source of the problem is usually the makeup water system. Whether it is electronic or the standard float, it is impossible for the mechanism to prime the condenser system. Inevitably, the sump is pulled dry, and the air is introduced into the piping system. Until a more detailed evaluation is embraced, it is assumed that the makeup system is the culprit.

Do not fall into this piping design trap. Figure 4 shows a quick calculation that will allow engineers to evaluate their piping layout and make corrections before installing it in the field.

elevated horizontal piping above the cooling towers

elevated horizontal piping above the cooling towers

FIGURE 4. Pull down essentially is the volume of water required to prime the condenser loop when the pumps are initialized to start.
Another potential scenario that the engineer needs to consider is the design of condenser water systems with future buildouts. Multiple-cell cooling tower layouts are prone to a phenomenon when the system loads are light, and cooling towers sit idle waiting to be staged on. At low flow, aerated water at high velocity exits the cooling tower and enters the large condenser supply line, instantly reducing in velocity. At this point in the system, the pipe behaves more like a vessel which, in turn, allows for all of the entrained air to come out of suspension and wreak havoc on the system.

One common problem stemming from this is the displacement of water in vertical pipes (typically, the idle condenser supply lines). This creates a “burping” when initializing the tower cell and opening the control valve. Large slugs of air will disrupt the equalization of the towers and can create overflow situations. If air finds its way to the pumps, they will lose their prime.
In large-volume systems where future loads and future buildouts are incorporated into the design, operating schemes, expected flow velocities in piping, and the air vent locations and sizes must be scrutinized (figure 5).

oversized piping in cooling towers

oversized piping in cooling towers

FIGURE 5. In large-volume systems where future loads and future buildouts are incorporated into the design, the pros and cons of oversized piping should be considered.
Cooling towers only work when they are properly piped for maximum efficiency. Piping design and installation is critical to optimal function. If you have a question about a particular system or a unique need, consult with a cooling tower expert to ensure that the piping you install will make for the most efficient system.