The main function of chillers and cooling towers is to remove heat from a liquid, which is typically water. These two systems use different methods to remove heat from the liquid and reject the heat into the environment. The system that is used depends on the purpose and temperature of the water leaving the system and how cold it needs to be.
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Chillers are similar to air conditioners in that they use refrigeration to cool. The main difference is that chillers cool liquids, typically water, compared to an air conditioner which cools the air. The fluid moves into the evaporator heat exchanger where it encounters the refrigerant. The heat then transfers to a condenser heat exchanger which cools it further through the use of air, water or cooling towers. The cooled liquid then recycles back into the system.
Cooling towers use evaporation and heat transfer properties as the main source of cooling. A liquid is placed into a fill. A fan is run across the area where evaporation occurs. Heat also transfers from the warm water into the air. The heat is removed by the fan and the heat is rejected out into the environment.
The main difference between the two cooling systems is the leaving water temperature -- the temperature of the water as it leaves the system -- the two can provide. Chillers have the ability to cool liquids to much lower temperatures than cooling towers. Cooling towers work well to get liquid temperatures as low as 75F. If lower temperatures are required for use, a chiller is required.
The chiller is used in applications such as plastic moulding and even air conditioning systems where large systems are required. Cooling towers are commonly used in power plants. The easily identified towers of a nuclear power plant are a type of cooling tower. In some cases the two systems may be found working in tandem with a chiller system first cooling the liquid and the cooling tower as a heat rejection system.
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