The proliferation of microorganisms — bacteria, fungi and algae — presents a significant challenge in the maintenance and operation of process cooling water systems. Excessive accumulation of biofilm — and the activity of the microorganisms within — can lead to fouling, formation of mineral scales, amplification of pathogens (e.g., Legionella spp.) and microbiologically induced corrosion (MIC). If biofilm is not well controlled, the result can be loss of heat transfer, reduction in energy efficiency, downtime for cleaning, illness or death, corrosion-related failure and costly equipment repair or replacement. To minimize or prevent these issues, it is important to have a robust cooling water treatment program with a strong emphasis on biofilm control. A number of effective strategies exist for cooling water biofilm control. This article will primarily discuss the application of chlorine.

Oxidizing microbicides such as chlorine, bromine and chlorine dioxide make up the fundamental backbone of cooling water biofilm-control programs. This has always been the case, but more recent concerns for the control of pathogens, especially those causing Legionnaires’ disease, have placed increased emphasis on their use. The oxidizing microbicides are important in the control of biofilm and biofilm-related problems: Oxidizing microbicides not only kill microorganisms but also help to destroy the extracellular biofilm components. This is especially important in reducing the risk for Legionnaires’ disease.

Chlorine is most often fed in the form of liquid sodium hypochlorite (bleach), but it may also be applied as chlorine gas or solid forms such as calcium hypochlorite. Chlorine also can be generated electrolytically from salt (NaCl) and is an effective way to provide halogen or mixed oxidant without the need to store a large amount of hazardous materials on site. In any case, it is essential to feed chlorine in a manner that does not allow biofilm to accumulate. In most cases, the use of supplemental nonoxidizing microbicides and dispersants, which work either synergistically or complementarily with chlorine, will assist with penetration into biofilm and algal masses as well as provide protection for offline equipment. The frequency of addition will depend on need but is typically one to three days a week.

Those responsible for the treatment of process cooling water systems, including water treatment professionals, often struggle with effective ways to manage and control chlorine feed. There is a school of thought that chlorine is not effective in cooling water systems operating with a pH of greater than 8.0. The basis for this is that chlorine dissociates into two forms in water: hypochlorous acid (HOCl) and the hypochlorite ion (OCl-). At a higher pH, a larger percentage of the chorine will be present in the OCl- form, which is a weaker oxidant and carries a negative charge. In practice, this tends to have less relevance for cooling water, where chlorine is applied continuously, when compared to sanitizing and disinfection applications, where exposure to chlorine may last only a few minutes.

Managing Chlorine Residuals in Industrial Cooling Water

Chlorine residuals are measured and expressed in two ways: total and free chlorine. Free chlorine consists of both the HOCl and OCl- forms, which are the more effective oxidants, while the remaining portion of the total chlorine will consist of chlorine that has combined with amino acids, ammonia or other nitrogenous compounds. These will tend to have less microbiocidal activity, depending on the form. Monochloramine is one form of combined chlorine that can be generated on site and is often used in municipal drinking water. It does not have the ability to oxidize biofilm components, but it can penetrate into biofilm and algal cells to provide antimicrobial activity. Because it is readily stripped over cooling towers and cannot oxidize the extracellular biofilm components, its use in cooling towers has been limited.

When chlorine is added to cooling water systems, any free residual will quickly dissipate once the feed is discontinued because the oxidant readily reacts with organic compounds and reducing agents. It is imperative to test free-chlorine residual within a minute of obtaining the sample rather than gathering a sample and walking it back to the test station. Free-chlorine residuals do not persist once the chemical feed is stopped, and this explains why biofilm populations will quickly recover. Just to understand how quickly bacteria can reproduce, one bacterium with a generation time of 30 minutes, will result in a population of 28,147,497,660,000 bacteria in 24 hours! The rapid reproduction rate of bacteria is the primary reason feeding chlorine a few days a week is not an effective biofilm-control strategy. Another important point to make is that a low-level continuous feed of chlorine (less than or equal to 0.2 to 0.5 ppm) can result in a scenario where the rate of bacterial reproduction and biofilm accretion keep pace with, or exceed, the rate of kill. This is often the reason for the failure of chlorination and other oxidant programs to control biofilm. Chlorine residuals can be monitored with easy-to-use test kits, which are available in a variety of options, including test strips, color comparators, titration, colorimetric or spectrophotometric.

Controlling Chlorine Feed in Industrial Cooling Waters

Considering that a low-level continuous feed of chlorine may not always be sufficient to maintain biofilm control, a strategy that has been shown to work well is to apply timed spikes of chlorine with the frequency and duration dependent upon the relative cleanliness of the system. This could be as little as a few hours one day a week in clean systems or as much as daily in others. An example would be to hold a continuous free residual of 0.2 ppm and then spike to 0.5 to 0.75 ppm two days a week for a period of three hours.

The most popular and reliable method for the feed and control of chlorine in cooling water systems is oxidation-reduction potential (ORP). While ORP is not a direct measurement of chlorine residual, it can be used to maintain relatively consistent control once dialed in. Several off-the-shelf cooling water controllers or PLCs are capable of managing this type of control. Most controllers with an ORP sensor input will allow for continuous control, but not all will have the flexibility to add the controlled-timed event. If the current controller being used does not have this capability, an upgrade to one that does is recommended.

Free- and total-chlorine probes are available and can be used. However, they are prone to issues and require a great deal of maintenance and care, especially in cooling water systems with heavier solids loading. When using ORP or a chorine probe, it is important to fine tune the feed to maintain tight control around the setpoint. If the pump is oversized or set too high, overfeed can occur. This will result in a pattern of continuous over- and underfeed of chlorine, which can negatively impact corrosion rates.

Monitoring Results of a Chlorination Program

One question that often comes up is how to monitor the effectiveness of a chlorination program outside of residual measurement and control. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it may seem. Multiple observations must be used to determine performance.

It is important to understand the organisms growing on system surfaces are what we are trying to control. This means bulk-water enumeration may not always be the best method for measuring performance. At the same time, dip slides or other culture techniques, or ATP measurement, should make up part of the monitoring program and are the simplest way to trend overall microbial activity in a cooling water system. With continuous halogen feed, bulk-water bacterial counts or ATP should be at very low levels (less than 1,000 cfu/mL). ATP control limits will depend on the actual instrument being used. Organisms are constantly being shed into the water from the surfaces, so if high numbers are found in the bulk water, then chances are, there is either a significant surface population or contamination is occurring through an outside source.

Heat exchanger performance monitoring and visual observation of cooling tower cleanliness are simple practices, and they provide hard evidence of cleanliness. Commercially available test heat exchangers or biofilm monitors can be used to measure fouling, though they are costly and sometimes difficult to use. A number of other useful tools also can be used to measure performance, including fouling coupons, activity-specific media and surface-swab techniques.

In summary, continuous low-level chlorine feed may not be enough alone to control cooling water biofilm and its related problems. For improved protection, chlorine should be continuously fed, monitored and controlled. The effectiveness of chlorination programs can be increased with the addition of controlled residual spike(s) and supplemented with nonoxidizing microbiocides and dispersants, when possible.

To ensure accurate measurements when reading free-chlorine residuals, measure samples within one minute of gathering. Numerous tools are available for monitoring results, including microbiological tests, visual observation, heat exchanger efficiency monitoring and test heat exchangers. Work with your water treatment provider to determine the best protection method for your unique system.