Properly Measure Liquid/Liquid Interfaces

Follow a simple rule for location of level gauge nozzles.

By Jonathan Webber, Fluor Canada, and Patrick Richards, Irving Oil

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Detailed design of a vessel includes determining the proper locations for level gauge/transmitter nozzles. There's little debate on the correct nozzle locations for vapor/liquid interface level measurements -- it's well understood to locate the upper nozzle in the vapor space and the bottom nozzle in the liquid phase. Martyn (1) discusses the challenges of liquid/liquid interface level measurements when using bridled (externally mounted) configurations. Our experience indicates that much confusion exists about the correct nozzle configurations for level measurements of liquid/liquid interfaces. Common questions include: "How do we know that the interface level in the gauge will be the same as the vessel?" and "Won't the light liquid get trapped on top of the heavy liquid in the gauge?"

So, here, we'll provide a simple "Golden Rule" for nozzle placement that we have used successfully in numerous refinery interface measurement applications.


For proper location of externally mounted level-measurement nozzles, ensure that at least one nozzle is located in the top liquid phase and at least one nozzle is located in the bottom liquid phase.

If this simple stipulation is satisfied and the top and bottom fluids are immiscible and have different densities, then we can be sure, at equilibrium, that the pressure balance will equalize the interface levels in the gauge and the vessel.

Either a non-flooded (i.e., top nozzle connected to vapor space) or flooded configuration will allow the pressure balance to equalize the interface levels in the drum and the gauge (Figure 1). The non-flooded configuration offers the advantage of allowing for a total liquid level measurement. Sometimes multiple nozzles are used to cover the expected range of liquid inventories. In these cases the Golden Rule is satisfied as long as at least one nozzle is connected to each liquid phase at all operating conditions (Figure 2).

Oil/water interfaces are common in refining, and we often hear the question: "Isn't it possible for the pressures to balance in such a way that the height of the interface in the gauge isn't the same as the height of the interface in the vessel?" A common argument is that the extra head of water in the gauge will compensate for the smaller head of oil in the gauge, thereby allowing the equilibrium interface level in the gauge and vessel to differ (Figure 3). This argument is flawed -- if the Golden Rule is followed, the two levels will equalize. The sidebar provides a simple mathematical proof by contradiction.


In practice it can be difficult to locate nozzles to satisfy the Golden Rule under all operating conditions. If a vessel may contain widely varying levels of liquid inventories, then it's worth considering multiple nozzle locations. Select nozzle positioning and spacing to minimize the chance that one no longer is connected to a liquid phase. It's possible for light liquid to become trapped in the gauge, causing an error when the light liquid inventory no longer is connected to a nozzle (Figure 3). This could occur, for example, when the heavy liquid level drops and too large a nozzle spacing was used.

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