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API Separators - The Workhorse of Refinery Wastewater Treatment

Proper design and selection of support equipment, and understanding issues affecting
API separators are very important to the efficiency of this key piece of refinery wastewater
treatment equipment. The following article discusses all of these issues.
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The API Separator is normally the first, and arguably most important, wastewater treatment step in most petroleum
refineries. For years, refineries have attempted to use other technologies or treatment scenarios as an alternative
to the API separator. But most refineries ultimately select, or return to, the API separator as the technology of
choice for their wastewater treatment primary oil/solids separation step.

The primary function of a properly designed API separator is to remove gross quantities of oil and suspended
solids from refinery wastewater prior to subsequent downstream wastewater treatment processes normally a
second oil/water separator polishing step and some form of advanced treatment for removal of dissolved organic
compounds (typically biological treatment, though other treatment technologies have been used).
The API separator was developed over 70 years ago in a joint effort by The American Petroleum Institute (API) and
Siemens Water Technologies Envirex Products (then Rex Chain Belt). The first API separator was provided in 1933
to Atlantic Refinings Philadelphia refinery, and since then, hundreds of refineries around the world have installed
API separators in their wastewater treatment plants.
How it Works
The API separator is a gravity separation device that works on the principle of Stokes Law, which defines the rise
velocity of an oil particle based on its density and size. Typically, the difference between the specific gravity of oil to
be separated and water is much closer than the specific gravity of the suspended solids and water. Therefore, the
design of the API separator is based on the difference in the specific gravity of the oil to be separated and the
wastewater. If this design criterion is followed, the majority of suspended solids will settle in the unit. Once the oil
and suspended solids are removed from the wastewater in the API separator, the middle phase, water, is then sent
on for further treatment in most refinery wastewater treatment plants.

Design Standards
Through the original work done by the American Petroleum Institute and us in the 1930s, and numerous
subsequent improvements, the design standards for the API separator have been well documented and can be
found in the current edition of API Specification 421.
Some of the most important design criteria developed for API separators include:

Length to width ratio. A minimum length to width ratio of 5:1 is recommended for all API separator

designs to keep operating conditions as close to plug flow as possible, minimizing the potential for short
Depth to width ratio. A minimum depth to width ratio of 0.3 to 0.5 is recommended so that separation

units are not excessively deep, minimizing the amount of time it takes for oil particles to rise to the surface.
Maximum channel width and depth. The maximum API separator channel width is 20 ft; maximum

depth is 8 ft.
Horizontal velocity. Maintaining a horizontal velocity of no more than 3.0 ft/sec has been shown to

minimize turbulence and its effect on interfering with the separation of oil from wastewater.
Inlet distribution. To minimize the effect of high wastewater inlet velocities into the API separator, and

possible short circuiting associated with these high velocities, reaction jet baffles are recommended to diffuse
influent flows across the width and depth of the API separator.
Oil particle size. Majority of oil particles in most refinery wastewaters are 150 micron in size or larger.
Therefore, the design standards for API separators were developed for the removal of oil particles of this size.
Particles smaller than 150 micron will normally exit an API separator and will need to be removed by
downstream treatment processes, unless allowances are made in the sizing of the API separator to remove
these smaller particles.
Design Features
In addition to the previously mentioned Design Standards, there are certain features which should be considered in
any API separator design to insure efficient treatment and environmental compliance, with minimal operator
attention. Some of these are as follows:

Incorporating a single scraper/skimmer system in the tank to remove settled solids and floating oil to

maintain optimum capacity in the separator. The scraper/skimmer system usually consists of a four shaft, chain
and flight collector system that conveys settled solids to a sludge hopper at the inlet end of the unit, and floating
oil to a skimmer at the effluent end of the unit.
Providing some method to remove accumulated oil from the surface of the API separator. This is usually

a rotating oil skimmer pipe, but may also include an oil roll skimmer. Electronic or manual monitoring of the oil
level in the API separator tankage may also be incorporated into the design.
Methods to continuously or intermittently remove accumulated solids (sludge) from the API separator,

usually including some type of sludge pumping system.

A method to transfer (pump) wastewater to the separator if gravity flow is not possible (as with above-

grade API separator tanks).

Wastewater inlet distribution system/dispersion system.
Installing air-tight covers for VOC/vapor containment, which usually includes some type of inert gas
blanketing system for safety.
Using above-ground steel tanks to contain potentially hazardous wastes and wastewaters, as shown in
Figure 2.

Myth vs. Fact

The major fallacies of API separator performance are: that they will always remove a certain percentage of oil and
TSS in a wastewater; or that they should always achieve a certain effluent quality, independent of influent oil and
TSS concentration.
In reality, Figure 3 shows the typical performance of an API separator in a petroleum refinery and illustrates how a
properly designed API separator should operate.

A well-designed API separator should achieve effluent oil and TSS concentrations of 50 to 200 mg/l, independent
of influent concentration, to ensure protection and proper operation of downstream treatment processes.
As the graph shows, effluent quality from this API separator is fairly consistent, even if the influent quality is highly
Selecting Proper Support Equipment is Key
While the design of the API separator seems simple enough, we know that doing a textbook design for an API
separator and actually operating an API separator are two different things.
Designing an API separator to operate properly is more than running a sizing calculation. The separator must not
only be properly sized, but the equipment that supports the operation of the API separator must be properly
designed. Think of an automobile enginethe best one in the world will fail if the components that support its
operation are not properly designed and selected.
The same is true for an API separator. To operate as designed, all support equipment needs to function properly,
including raw wastewater pumping systems (if used), sludge pumping/removal systems, sludge collector systems,
VOC/vapor containment systems and oil collection/removal systems.
Raw Wastewater Pumping
Many new API separators are now located in above-grade steel tanks, allowing for easy inspection and
maintenance. In some cases, this means that raw wastewater must be pumped to the separator; however,
pumping action can shear and emulsify oil droplets, adversely affecting oil removal efficiency in the separator and
impacting performance of downstream wastewater treatment processes. Therefore, select a pump that is low
shear and low turbulence to minimize oil particle shear and emulsificationan Archimedes screw pump is ideal for
this application.

Sludge Pumping/Removal Systems

Arguably the most important support equipment in API separator design, sludge pumping/removal systems remove
accumulated oily sludge from the separator. If not removed, internal chain and flight collector components will
likely fail from being overloaded by excessive sludge volumes. In fact, lack of effective sludge removal is the most
common reason API separators do not operate properly. When designing a sludge removal system, consider the

API separator sludge is heavy, viscous and sticky, and can quickly bridge in sludge hoppers, plugging
sludge withdrawal points. Fluidize and break up compacted sludge by using nozzles and water or steam in the
sludge hoppers.
Use clean-out and flushing connections on the sludge withdrawal piping to keep piping from plugging.
Positive displacement, diaphragm pumps have been used successfully in separator sludge pumping
applications. Centrifugal trash pumps have also shown some success here.
Locate sludge pumps close to, and at the same elevation as, sludge hoppers to provide flooded suction
to the pumps and minimize sludge suction piping, which is prone to plugging.
Sludge Collector Systems
Chain and flight collector systems installed in API separators serve two purposes:

To skim floating oil to a common collection point

To scrape settled oil solids to a common withdrawal point
If floating oil and settled solids are allowed to collect and accumulate in the separator, its effective volume will
decrease, affecting oil and solids removal efficiency which will be noted as increased oil and suspended solids
concentrations in the effluent from the separator. This can adversely affect downstream treatment processes.
VOC/Vapor Control Systems
In most cases, API separators in petroleum refineries or petrochemical plants need to be provided with one of two
types of covers for VOC containment/control:

Floating coversfloat on the surface of the separator

Fixed coversset above the surface of the separator

Consider the following for proper cover selection:

Oil skimming efficiency/interference with oil skimming

Ease-of-access to, and maintenance of, collector components
Safe operation
Capital and operating cost
Regulatory compliance

Maintenance requirements
Both fixed and floating cover systems have been used often and successfully. Note that floating covers can
interfere with oil skimming devices that extend above the water surface at the effluent end of the separators. Fixed
covers must be used over these components even if the remaining portion of the separator uses floating covers. In
general, fixed covers are more commonly used on new API separators and floating covers are generally used
when existing separators must be covered for VOC control.
Interestingly, covering API separators has significantly impacted the process of oil removal from separators. It is
difficult, if not impossible, to see into a covered separator to determine oil levels and skimming needs, resulting in
oil not being removed often enough, causing oil carryover to downstream treatment processes, or oil being
skimmed too often, resulting in significant amounts of water being skimmed with the oil. While windows in the
covers have helped, more successful solutions have included the installation of electronic probes in the separator
covers to monitor oil concentration at various depths in the units, or the installation of sample taps on the side of
the units (for above-grade separators) to manually monitor oil depth.
Oil Collection/Removal Systems
Oil collection is key to API separator design. Removing oil from the separator will prevent accumulation and
entrance into downstream treatment processes, but removal also allows for collection, recovery and reprocessing
of the oil.
Typically, oil skimmer pipes are used for oil removal. These slotted pipes extend partially into the API separator at
the effluent end. Chain and flight collectors skim oil, which has accumulated on the surface of the separator, from
the influent end to the effluent end of the unit. The skimmer pipe is rotated to begin skimming the oil.

To improve the quality of the skimmed oil (i.e., making sure it does not contain too much water), many API
separators also use an oil roll skimmer in addition to the skimmer pipe. The oil roll skimmer is a drum that extends
across the width of the separator, normally of metallic construction, and partially submerged in the surface of the
wastewater. The oil roll skimmer contains an external drive, which rotates the drum. As the drum rotates, free oil
adheres to the specially prepared surface of the drum, and a doctor blade removes the accumulated oil from the
surface of the skimmer as it rotates.
The oil then flows into a collection trough and out of the unit. Oil collected by an oil roll skimmer is usually 95
percent pure oil and is easily reprocessed. However, the capacity of oil roll skimmers is limited. Upsets resulting in
large amounts of oil entering sewer systems can quickly overload oil roll skimmers, which is why an oil skimmer

pipe is always used as a backup oil removal device. Oil roll skimmers will also not remove floating debris and
paraffins, which may be present.
Beyond the systems and components that comprise the design of an API separator, there are issues to be aware
of regarding process operations in petroleum refineries and petrochemical plants which can affect the operation
and effectiveness of API separators, including changes in crude oils, the presence of emulsions and spent caustic
being sent to the separator.
Operational Issues Can Affect Separator Efficiency
Many API separators being used today were designed and installed 20 to 40 years ago, or more. At that time,
many refineries processed much lighter crude oils than they do today. Obviously, the separator was designed
accordingly. As crude slates have become heavier, the oil contained in the wastewater entering API separators
have also become heavier and closer to the specific gravity of water. Therefore, it takes longer for the oil to
separate by gravity from the wastewater and the efficiency of the separator may have decreased, sometimes

To offset this, some refineries today have taken major steps to reduce water usage at their facilities, which has
reduced wastewater flow rate, thereby allowing more time in API separators for heavier oil particles to separate.
However, designs of units installed many years ago should be reviewed to ensure adequate protection of
downstream treatment equipment.
Oil Emulsions
One of the biggest problems facing existing API separators in petroleum refineries is the presence of oil emulsions
in the wastewater. API separators are gravity separation devices, typically designed to remove free oil particles
larger than 150 micron in size. Anything that increases the amount, or percentage, of sub-150 micron oil particles
(which includes formation of oil emulsions) can significantly impact the efficiency of API separators. Two common
operational issues can impact the size of oil particles, or cause oil emulsions desalter brine water and spent
Desalter Brine Water
Many refinery desalters were originally designed to process lighter crude oils. As these lighter crude oil slates
become scarce, more refineries are processing heavier crude oils. This has resulted, in many cases, in poorer
separation of water from oil in the desalter and formation of oil emulsions. In many petroleum refineries, the
desalter brine water now contains significant amounts of oil and oil emulsions, which can quickly overwhelm API
separators (and other oil/water separation equipment) in wastewater treatment plants.
In these cases, it may be worthwhile to provide a dedicated oil/water separation step for just the desalter brine
water to break any oil emulsions and remove the majority of free oil before the brine water is sent to sewer. This

can prevent overloading the wastewater treatment plant API separators with oil and consequently affecting
downstream treatment processes.
Spent Caustic
Spent caustic, while not an issue for everyone, has presented problems in the past, particularly when it is sent to
sewer systems in front of oil/water separators. Spent caustic can raise the pH of the wastewater, causing
emulsification of oil in the wastewater especially when there is turbulence present, such as by pumping. In order to
avoid these situations, spent caustic should be added to the wastewater downstream of oil/water separation
equipment or should be disposed of by some other method such as separate on-site treatment or off-site disposal.

The separator is one of the most important wastewater treatment steps in refineries and petrochemical plants.
Proper design and selection of support equipment are crucial to proper operation, and special plant circumstances
can affect operation as well.
We hope this article provides a good starting point for improving existing API separator operation, as well as
making sure that new API separators will meet performance expectations.