What is a Cooling Tower?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A cooling tower is a structure which is designed to dispose of waste heat. Heat is pulled away from the process which generates it and routed into the cooling tower so that it can be vented away. Cooling towers are used in a number of different industries, and many people are familiar with them, even if they are not quite sure what they are for, because they have become visually associated with nuclear power plants. The distinctive towers seen on the grounds of such facilities are, in fact, cooling towers, not the plant itself.

The cooling towers that are installed at nuclear power plants use the process of evaporation to bleed heat away from water that has been used to run turbines.
The cooling towers that are installed at nuclear power plants use the process of evaporation to bleed heat away from water that has been used to run turbines.

Some cooling towers work with evaporative processes. In this case, warm water is routed through the cooling tower, and part of the water evaporates, allowing the heat to dissipate and causing cool water to settle back into a holding tank. Other cooling towers use a nonevaporative process in which heat transfer occurs between hot fluids and cool atmospheric air, but evaporation is absent. The choice of dry or wet process depends on the setting and the preferences of the designer.

A natural draft cooling tower relies on natural temperature differences to create a steady flow of air to promote cooling. Others use fans and other mechanical devices for a draft, especially if they are smaller, because height is needed for effective natural draft. One advantage to natural draft cooling is that it will continue to function without electricity and with minimal maintenance, because the draft is entirely automatic.

Power plants use cooling towers to process the hot liquids they generate, as do other industrial facilities such as factories and refineries which generate a great deal of waste heat. Some use heat exchangers to recover part of the waste heat so that it can be used for energy, which increases energy efficiency and makes the facility more environmentally friendly. A cooling tower is also used as part of a heating and cooling system.

Because of their size, cooling towers can be vulnerable to certain types of damage. High winds and heavy weather may damage a cooling tower or even cause it to collapse, especially if it is built on less solid ground. These structures can also be visually unappealing, with some companies disguising or decorating their cooling towers to address community complaints about their appearance. The cooling tower can also present an avenue for contamination if the associated facilities are not properly maintained, with hazardous substances being released from the tower inadvertently.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


One time I was assigned to work a temporary job at a huge automotive parts factory, and the supervisor told me to go in through the back of the plant. I could hear this really loud rumbling sound, like a waterfall in the distance. I asked the boss what it was, and he said it was an evaporative cooling tower. It had to be over 50 feet tall, and water was just rushing down the sides and into a concrete pool.

He said the cooling tower was designed to pull heat out of the building through water pipes. The heated water would flow out to the top of the cooling tower and then work its way down to the bottom. I could feel the heat radiating out of it. The water in the pool would be cool enough to pump back into the building to draw out more heat from the air. It was a lot cheaper than using conventional air conditioning.


I live a few miles away from a nuclear power plant, so I see cooling towers every day. They are definitely eyesores, but I can't see any way a company could hide them without creating even bigger eyesores. I figure it's something I can live with as long as I'm getting the benefit of cheaper electricity.

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