Yuck! - 4 Things to Know About Biofilms in Industrial Cooling Systems

Author: Luke Gehrke | Water & Energy Manager

In many process and cooling systems, microbiological fouling can present itself as an issue. Microbiological fouling, or “biofouling” is almost always due to the presence of biofilm in the system. In this blog, we will discuss 4 Things to Know about Biofilms in Industrial Cooling Systems.

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1. What is biofilm?

A biofilm is a configuration or collection of many different types of bacteria, held together and protected by exopolysaccharide (EPS) – a substance produced by the bacteria in the said biofilm. Biofilms have both an aerobic and anaerobic layer, which house their respective type of bacteria. Biofilm can form on system surfaces such as piping, sump walls, cooling tower fill, and heat exchangers.

2. Why should I care about biofilm?

Through harboring and protecting bacteria, biofilms become excellent environments to foster the growth of Legionella. In addition to sheltering bacteria, EPS collects nutrients and additional bacteria, and can increase the risk of scale formation. Furthermore, biofilms can corrode most metals, even stainless steel, through what is known as “microbiologically induced corrosion” (MIC).  MIC occurs when biofilm bacteria create low pH environments which corrodes the metal surface to which the biofilm is attached.  Bacteria can also generate a cathode and anode to induce the flow of ions and spur corrosion. In stainless steel, once the oxide layer is penetrated, bacteria begin to “tunnel” through the rest of the metal.

Biofilms also insulate heat transfer up to three times more than calcium carbonate scale, decreasing efficiency and driving up energy costs.
In summary, biofilms can increase corrosion rates, fouling rates, deposition rates, and can grow Legionella and other harmful bacteria.

3. How does biofilm form, and how do I prevent it?

Biofilm is formed when bacteria present in process water begin to stick to surfaces and indicate for other bacteria to join.  The rate of bacterial and biofilm formation increases in warmer condenser water and process cooling water. The factors listed below should be discussed when considering the control of biological growth and biofilm formation.

1) Eliminate or manage areas of low flow

Biofilm formation occurs more readily in areas of low flow – therefore it is important to eliminate all piping dead-legs, and ensure regular circulation of system water during periods of low load, the shoulder season, and the off-season.
2) Filtration

Both the availability of nutrients and the presence of collection surfaces for bacteria help contribute to bacterial growth and biofilm formation.  Filtration is vital to remove the suspended solids associated with these factors. It is recommended that filters be monitored to ensure they do not become breeding grounds for additional bacteria because of the accumulation of these suspended solids.

3) Physical Cleanings and Disinfections

Physical cleanings on tower systems are recommended twice annually to help ensure proper biological control, especially following shoulder seasons or downtime. After the physical cleanings, which break up biofilm, it is important to disinfect the system to eliminate the newly freed bacteria.
4) Copper surfaces

Copper is naturally resistant to bacterial growth and excretes copper ions when corroded. These ions poison bacteria, thus helping manage biofilm formation.

5) Biodispersants

Biodispersants are chemicals added to process water that are specifically designed to break up biofilm. An industry best practice, the consistent addition of a biodispersant is recommended in all open recirculating cooling systems.

6) Biocides

Biocides are employed to kill bacteria in many scenarios, and consist of either an oxidizing or non-oxidizing agent. It is important to note that not all biocides penetrate biofilms equally, and many oxidizing biocides are very weak penetrators. Therefore, use of a biodispersant is recommended in conjunction with an oxidizing biocide.

7) Physical Treatment Devices

Physical Treatment Devices that are designed to kill bacteria are only able to kill bacteria in the bulk water circulating through them.  In these situations, use of a biodispersant may be needed to ensure biofilm growth is managed.

4. How do I know if I have a biofilm issue?

There are many devices available in the marketplace for monitoring biofilm formation, ranging from simple screen coupons to sophisticated devices which analyze electrical interferences. Unexplained reductions in heat exchange efficiency or visual indications such as slimes on sump walls or piping also indicate biofilm formation.

A simple test that is a general indicator of biological activity which may be used is a dipslide or an ATP level test. Although these will indicate bacteria levels present in the bulk water of the system, they don’t necessarily indicate the presence of biofilm.

Your water treatment provider can provide more details on available technologies and best methods for your plant to monitor potential biofilm formation. However, the best way to ensure you do not have biofilm is to take a preventative approach by using a properly designed water treatment program that minimizes or prevents scale and corrosion, which incorporates both a biocide and biodispersant.

Luke Gehrke has a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan. As a Water & Energy Manager, he works with clients to achieve the lowest operational costs for their heat transfer systems through well-maintained water treatment programs. Luke enjoys working with his hands, doing home improvement projects (for now), and is active in his church. He thrives on the challenge of teaching himself to play musical instruments, and he can create a tune on the piano, trombone, guitar, and violin.

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