Timberline Blog

Commercial Heat Exchangers and Cooling Towers: What’s the Difference?

July 21, 2023 by Timberline

For commercial and industrial property owners, facility managers and other decision-makers, understanding your options for heating, cooling, and generally maintaining comfortable interior environments is essential.

Heating and air conditioning system for commercial building.

You don’t need to be an expert in the various technologies—that’s our job. But having basic knowledge about the climate control systems involved is helpful as you consider your options for devices and the company that will service and maintain them to keep them functioning properly.

Two terms you’re likely to hear as you prepare to build a new facility, upgrade an existing one, or replace aging HVAC systems are “heat exchanger” and “cooling tower.” This article explains what these terms mean

Commercial and Industrial HVAC Systems

One of the reasons terminology in this industry can be a little confusing is that it has to cover several separate but related functions. Specifically, HVAC stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.

A commercial or industrial HVAC system has components for handling each task—warming an interior environment, cooling it, and moving air into, through, and out of it as needed. And, of course, there is a significant amount of overlap in these actions.

Heat exchangers and cooling towers are components within an HVAC system, as described below.

What Is a Commercial/Industrial Heat Exchanger and How Does It Work?

The simplest definition of a heat exchanger is a system that transfers (or exchanges) thermal energy (or heat) between two mediums (liquids, vapor, or gases). Depending on the type of system, the exchange can be gas-to-gas, liquid-to-gas, or liquid-to-liquid.

The physics of heat transfer is beyond the scope of this article. But, essentially, a heat exchanger like a furnace heats air (by burning fuel or activating an electric coil) and then circulates it in some way to warm the rooms or areas in a building. Where things can get somewhat counterintuitive is that an air conditioning system is also a type of heat exchanger. In that case, the heat is being transferred from indoor spaces to the outdoors.

Many commercial and industrial building owners and managers find it easiest to think of heat as an “item” of sorts. It gets moved into or out of a facility based on conditions inside and outside of the building. In cold weather, when the outside environment is pulling heat out of a structure, you need to bring more energy into it. In summer, when the environment is pushing heat into the building, your HVAC system works to move it back out of the building.

That ongoing push and pull of heat is why you need systems that are correctly designed, implemented and serviced. Failing in any of those areas can lead to higher energy costs, component breakdowns, decreased system longevity, etc.

What Is a Cooling Tower and How Does It Work?

A cooling tower is a type of heat exchanger. If you’re familiar with evaporative cooling, like what occurs in a residential “swamp cooler,” you have an idea of how a cooling tower works.

It brings water and air together to lower the water’s temperature. As that occurs, the water releases heat it previously absorbed. Specifically, when the air and water interact, a small amount of water evaporates, causing a drop in water temperature.

In a commercial or industrial setting, water heated by an industrial process or a condenser is sprayed onto a material called fill. This material slows the flow of water downward through the tower and greatly increases its surface area. This maximizes its exposure to air, which is brought into the tower by a fan.

The system then circulates the cooled water to the area where it can absorb more heat, and the process repeats. The water in a cooling tower serves essentially the same function as the coolant in an air conditioner. It’s like a sponge, continually absorbing heat from inside a building and releasing it outside.

Since evaporation is vital to the functioning of a cooling tower, this type of system works best in a hot, dry climate like we have here in Colorado.

Ask the Pros About Commercial/Industrial Heat Exchangers and Cooling Towers

This brief overview can help you understand how commercial or industrial heat exchangers and cooling towers work. That knowledge can be helpful as you consider the question, “What’s the best approach for maintaining proper heating and cooling in our building?”

But determining the most effective way to control the climate in a building requires a conversation with an HVAC expert. We can talk with you about how your commercial or industrial facility operates, your heating and cooling needs, and other factors to help you identify the best way to ensure occupant comfort, especially regarding system repairs and preventative maintenance.

And you’ll be happy to know that the advice we provide is based on our team’s extensive experience (more than 200 years, when you add it up!) working with companies and organizations of all types and sizes. Our interactions with them and the insights we’ve gained are captured in the HVAC system repair and maintenance best practices we follow.

Keep in mind that there’s never a bad time to learn about our services. Whether you’re looking for assistance with your HVAC system today or are simply connecting with providers to assess your options, we’re happy to tell you about our company and what we do. From chiller, boiler, and air conditioning repairs, to HVAC service, to special projects, we can help ensure your systems work efficiently and effectively.

We also offer expert commercial and industrial plumbing services, so engaging with us for your HVAC needs makes it easy to leverage our plumbing expertise should you need it. We work on water lines, hot and cold potable water systems, water heaters, sinks and faucets, water fountains, and more.

So, don’t wait until a system breaks down or you notice that it is functioning less than optimally. Delays in repairs or preventative maintenance are almost always costly. They’re definitely more expensive than catching and correcting small issues before they become big problems.

Contact Timberline Mechanical at your convenience, and let’s talk about your commercial or industrial HVAC needs and how we can help you address them.

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