What is "white rust"? Well, while it is white, it really isn't 'rust' in the normal sense of iron-oxidization. White rust is instead a corrosion product of zinc oxidization that often strikes galvanized surfaces subjected to moisture. In our industry, the most common victims of this corrosion mechanism are cooling towers and fluid coolers. And in these products, white rust can cause thousands of dollars of damage in a relatively short period of time.
White rust damages equipment by allowing a rapid and localized corrosion of the protective zinc coating on galvanized surfaces. Normally, in a galvanized surface, the zinc protects the underlying steel by providing a sacrificial cathodic protection to small areas of exposed steel, and provides bulk protection by providing a durable protective inert zinc oxide coating to prevent exposure of the underlying steel.
In white rust, however, this normal oxidation of the zinc surface goes wrong, and instead of providing a durable dull-gray surface, a porous, powdery or waxy oxide is produced instead. This corrosion product allows a rapid removal of the protective zinc surface--made worse in that the corrosion is generally localized in 'cells' which cause a very quick penetration of the zinc surface, exposing the underlying steel in a pitting process.
In recent years, the incidence of white rust has increased dramatically, leading the industry to study the process in greater depth. The Association of Water Technologies has produced an informative paper (pdf) that investigates the reasons for this increase (essentially changes in the methods used to produce galvanized sheet metal and water treatment methods) and how to prevent its occurrence.
Generally, white rust is more prevalent in soft water areas, which makes it a big problem in the Pacific Northwest. Preventing it entails both design and operational considerations.
White Rust Cells in Basin of Tower
If galvanized surfaces are used in your tower, it is critical that the tower be subjected to a 'passivation' treatment. This is a temporary water treatment regimen in the first few weeks of tower operation that acts to ensure the development of a desirable zinc oxide surface. Evapco discusses this process in this engineering bulletin. If Evapco's non-chemical Pulse~Pure product is provided, passivation is be included in the first year service that is provided with all installations. It is critical that this be performed immediately upon filling the tower with water--if water is left in the tower untreated for a period of time before the passivation treatment begins, white rust cells can develop in the interim. This is a very common cause of white rust corrosion in otherwise well-treated towers.
The other method to avoid problems with white rust in your tower installations is simply to chose your materials of construction wisely. In cooling towers, the most critical portion of the system is the basin--white rust can cause a rapid pinhole leak through the basin of a galvanized basin that would require immediate refurbishment. Providing a 304 ss basin is a very economical way to avoid costly system renovation at a future date. For areas with high chlorides, or when using water treatment methods that operate at high cycles of concentration (thus increasing the low chloride content of the utility water to dangerous levels) 316 ss is also available. Of course, the entire tower can also be constructed from these corrosion-resistant materials if desired.
In fluid coolers, however, the coil is an additional problem area. White rust on this galvanized component can rapidly lead to perforation of the closed-loop side of the system causing loss of cooling water and/or glycol coolant into the open loop side of the system. This can be a triple-threat due to the economic loss of glycol and water, an increased threat of freeze up, and huge water-quality problems due to bacterial growth and plasticization due to glycol exposure in the open side of the cooler.
Plasticized Bacteria/Glycol Slime: Yuck
The coil in your fluid cooler is the single most expensive component in it, by a large margin. And replacing coils can be an extremely costly proposition, especially in coolers without easy access to the coil section.
Until recently, there hasn't been a lot of choice for protection of this critical component of the system. Other than selecting a tower, like Evapco's highly efficient ESWA fluid cooler, that provides easy coil access for coil replacement, the usual option was to ensure a thorough passivation program. However, Evapco has now introduced 304 SS fluid cooler coils to protect your project's investment in this costly and critical component.
White rust is a problem that can cause great economic losses for building owners and operators. Thus it is critical that designers and contractors are aware of the prudent requirements necessary to prevent this damage. But with simple precautions, namely requiring a passivation program or wisely selecting materials of construction, this problem can be avoided in your projects.
But what if it's too late, and you already have white rust on your tower? Well, there are an array of options, including attempting to re-passivate the galvanized surfaces or a full refurbishment of the basin using a polymer coating like Evapco's Evapliner. The helpful people at Fluid-Tek would be happy to help you determine the best course of action for your project.