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Bob Irvin, Ametek STC Business Unit, USA, evaluates the benefits of capacitance level and interface measurement
in desalter applications.

Petroleum refineries have thousands of level and


interface measurements. One of the most important

measurement applications is in the desalter, a process A desalter is a heated pressure vessel with high
unit that removes the salt dissolved in the water voltage grids. The unit separates the crude oil from
within the crude oil. impurities such as water and sediment (salt, sand and
dirt). The “cleaned” crude goes into the refinery for
Desalting is normally one of the first processes in further processing, the water is treated and recycled,
crude oil refining. If the salts are not removed from the while the sediment goes to waste disposal. If the clean
crude, several problems can occur in the refining crude contains too much water, it slows downstream
process including the formation of corrosive processing, as any salt will cause corrosion, and any
hydrochloric acid. The benefits of removing salt sediment will foul the catalyst, which is used in
include increased crude throughput, less plugging catalytic crackers and other processing units.
and scaling of the heat exchangers, and less corrosion Conversely, if the water contains too much oil,
throughout the process. additional treatment costs are incurred.

All crude oil goes through a desalter before any Desalters use a transformer to generate a high
processing begins, if the desalter does not work voltage electrostatic field, typically 20000 V, for the
properly, the refinery will be short on feedstock and grid. This field (combined with heat, pressure, and
may have to cut back operations or even shut down. chemical additives) forces the water and sediment to
coalesce into larger drops, becoming heavier and
These units can run continuously without shutdowns
falling to the bottom of the vessel.
for a few years, hence why long-term reliability is
essential. Desalters typically operate at 300-400 psi(20-26 bar)
and 150-200C (300-400F). The processed crude oil
leaving the desalter is usually limited to a maximum
PROVEN SYSTEMS of 0.5% water, and the discharged water to 100 ppm
of oil.

Prior to feeding the crude oil into a desalter, it is

Capacitance/RF admittance based continuous “washed”, which means it is mixed with fresh water to
interface systems are widely used by many refineries dissolve the salts. This crude oil feed is partially or
in the US, Europe, and other parts of the world. These completely emulsified. As the washed crude enters the
systems are highly accurate, robust, and perfectly desalter it starts to separate into phases, oil on top,
suited to desalter applications for both total level and water underneath, and emulsion (sometimes called

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the “rag” layer) in the middle. The sediment collects major consideration in desalter operation. For
on the bottom of the vessel. maximum production, the top of the emulsion layer
should be kept as high as possible without overloading
the grids. Capacitance /RF admittance technology
offers a major advantage in this application, because
it measures the actual electrical interface. Keeping
this interface close to the grids helps coalesce the
water and solids more quickly and completely.
The overall challenge of the desalter is to separate
water from crude, to knock out sediment, to minimize SEDIMENT
the number of chemical additives, and to maximise
This accumulates at the bottom of the vessel in excel
throughput of “dry-clean” crude oil. This must be done
of what is removed with the water. Desalters are
without discharging any oil in the wastewater. To
regularly “blown down” through a series of openings
accomplish this, operators must understand the
to remove the sediment, sometimes with the help of
process. They need to balance the use of chemicals
built-in water jets. However, the sediment is not
(both quantities and types) with product residence
always fully removed and excess sediment build-up
time (throughput and velocity), thickness of the
will change the flow rate and reduce the desalter
emulsion layer, and water content or the output oil.
efficiency. If sediment backs up into the measuring
Specific measurement challenges are as follows:
range, the desalter may require and early shutdown
BUILT-UP for cleaning. If the desalter has an internal stilling well
extending below the grids(required for internal
The feedstock to the desalter may be heavy, medium, displacers), sediment tends to build up inside the
or light crude oil, and may contain varying quantities stilling well at a faster rate.
of wax and sulfides. Heavy oils and wax may coat
everything installed in the vessel, which can affect the HIGH WATER
measuring instruments. However, high-quality
The electrostatic rid must be protected form and
capacitive level instruments are not affected by this
overload. Grids are designed to provide high voltage,
not current (hence the term electrostatic). Only water
DENSITY (present in the emulsion layer) will create a high
current in the grids, causing the transformer to
Variations in the crude, plus the contaminants in both overload and trip the circuit breakers. Drexelbrooks
crude and water, will cause wide density variations in Grid Guard is designed to protect against this
both the oil and water phases. happening.


The emulsion layer is a bound mixture of oil and water The continuous interface sensor must be installed at a
that’s is between the water and “dry” crude oil. This representative location.
emulsion can vary from a couple of inches to several
feet thick, depending on the characteristics of the This location is not always obvious as it depends on
crude oil and how the desalter is operated and the type of crude, flow rates, and how the desalter is
controlled. Emulsion containing medium of heavy operated. The ideal sensor location is where the
crude oils and high percentages of wax and sulfur can samples are withdrawn. Sample taps are located on
be very difficult to break up. Emulsion control is a the discharge side of the desalter. Operators draw

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samples from these taps to determine the location of allows the operator the flexibility to raise or lower the
and percentage of water in the different liquid phases interface a few inches when conditions change. The
in the desalter. heavier the oil and the thicker the emulsion, the
greater the advantages of a continuous transmitter.

If the oil level gets too low it will mix and be

discharged with wastewater. However, there are IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONS
products available, such as Drexelbrook’s water dump
guard, which help protect against this.
The sensing elements should be installed in the vessel
at the location where the greatest separation has
CONTINUOUS INTERFACE MEASUREMENT taken place. The sensing element should not be
installed in an external chamber (also called bridle,
side arm, of float cage). Performance is rarely
satisfactory in an external chamber as this interface
The most important desalter operation requirement is
does not accurately represent the in-vessel interface
to control the interface between the oily water in the
at the representative location. The interface in an
emulsion layer and the wet crude oil. Capacitance/RF
external chamber is determined by the head applied
admittance instruments have an edge in making this
to the lower fill leg and cannot be used to control the
measurement, particularly in heavy and high wax
emulsion-oil interface.
crudes. With manpower in short supply, most
desalters are operated semi -or fully- automated with These chambers can also fill with sediment. This is
instrumentation. important to remember as refineries always want
sensors that can be isolated when used in on-stream
For maximum production, the emulsion layer should
continuous processing vessels. However, it must be
be maintained as close as safely practical to the grids.
stressed that the sensing element should be inside the
Keeping the emulsion close to the grids increases the
vessel to make a reliable desalter interface
coalescence, thereby keeping the emulsion thinner. If
this is done, less emulsion breaking chemicals are
required to maintain and ideal emulsion thickness. If you are trying to replace and internal displacer, the
desalter will have an existing internal stilling well. The
Operators are expected to minimize the quantities of
stilling well must be removed of at least cut off below
these chemicals, since they are one of the few variable
the grids. As with external chambers, the interface in
costs in this operation.
an internal stilling well may not be representative of
There are a series of sample cocks down the side of a the actual vessel interface, excess sediment will
desalter, with pipes that may extend up to 5 ft inside accumulate inside.
the vessel. Operators draw samples to tell them what
Obviously, the selection of a highly reliable sensing
is happening inside the desalter.
element is critical when installed directly in the vessel.
The interface is bet controlled with a continuous Capacitance/RF admittance sensors have proven
transmitter. Some users prefer one (or more) reliable in thousands of installations throughout the
horizontally mounted point interface controls. A world.
transmitter gives the operator a much better picture
of what is happening in the vessel. In addition, it

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CUT MONITOR the cost of chemicals as much as 50% or more. This
instrument is also called a basic sediment and water
(BS&W) monitor. Capacitive based cut monitors are
an excellent instrument for this measurement.
The purpose of the desalter is to furnish dry, salt-free
crude oil to the refinery. Oil containing too much
water cannot be processed efficiently by the refinery.
Water content should be continuously measured in- GUARDING THE GRID
line to ensure it is on-specification.

An ideal combination and quality of emulsion-

breaking chemicals exists for a specific crude oil and If a conductive fluid (water or oily water in the
set of processing conditions. With this combination emulsion) touches the grids, circuit breakers will trip
and quantity, the chemical cost is reduced and and the grids will shut down. To prevent this from
throughput is maximized. happening, a modified cut monitor may be mounted
horizontally just under the grids. Typically, it is
Operators tend to use excess chemicals to “be safe”. recommended that this type of instrument is used
A fair quantity of excess chemicals will increase with 0 to 10% range. The instrument output will start
chemicals will increase cost but not affect the result, to increase when wet oil in the emulsion is present to
but if this excess is too large, the emulsion will bind warn operators of a potential desalter shutdown.
and cause desalter malfunction. When the emulsion Output will increase up to a maximum when water or
binds, the process stops. They either have to increase oily water in the emulsion reaches the sensor.
temperature and pressure and/ or pump out the crude
into another vessel. From there, they mix it with Unlike the standard cut monitor, this is not a precise
untreated crude and feed it back through the desalter measurement, but a concentric shield is
to get the process restarted. recommended to isolate the probe from the high
voltage grids. A ground rod may be required above the
Most desalter chemical additions are delivered by sensing element, depending on the cut monitor sensor
metering pumps with the feed rate manually set. location, to prevent the electrostatic field from
affecting the signal.
Chemical control is considered an art. However,
automatically controlling this chemical addition is
becoming more the norm. automatic chemical control
requires and on-line percentage water measurement INTERFACE CONTROL
of the clean crude.

A cut monitor monitors the percentage of water in

Some refineries prefer to use continuous system to
crude oil. It may be used as an indicator for operator
control this interface. When the process is very stable
information. For automatic control, the output of the
and a minimum of emulsion is present, this works out
cut monitor is tied to a chemical metering pump. As
well. When it is not stable, continuous system allow
the water percentage increases in the cleaned crude
the operator to see what is happening to the
oil, the chemical feed rate increases. When the water
interface, allowing for better control. Capacitance/RF
percentage drops, the feed rate decreases.
admittance type instruments may be used for this
Experienced operators may be reluctant to use measurement. These instruments are removable and
automatic chemical control, but doing so can reduce integrally mounted.

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Water with sediment is periodically or continuously

drawn off the bottom. If the water discharge valve
sticks open (usually due to sediment building up on the
valve seat), oil can be discharged to waste. It is
desirable to have a low oil alarm in the desalter to
signal if oil gets too low. As an option, capacitance/RF
admittance transmitter low oil alarm can be used
proportional control of the water discharge valve/low
oil alarm.

With very heavy oils, there can be a roll over where

the oil becomes the bottom layer of the interface. This
happens when the oil is heavier than the water. This is
called can inverted interface. A water dump guard will
also alarm in case this roll-over occurs.


The desalter process in crude oil refining is a critical

application that requires reliable and accurate level
and interface control. Capacitance/RF admittance
technology products have been used for decades in
these processes with a field proven history of
providing reliable long-term performance.

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