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Petroleum Open Learning

Oil and Gas

Part of the
Petroleum Processing Technology Series



Petroleum Open Learning

Oil and Gas

Part of the
Petroleum Processing Technology Series



Petroleum Open Learning

Designed, Produced and Published by OPITO Ltd., Petroleum Open Learning, Minerva House, Bruntland Road, Portlethen, Aberdeen AB12 4QL

Printed by Astute Print & Design, 44-46 Brechin Road, Forfar, Angus DD8 3JX

OPITO 1993 (rev.2002)

ISBN 1 872041 85 X

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval or information storage system, transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission in writing of the publishers.

Oil and Gas Separation Systems - Workbook 2

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(Part of the Petroleum Processing Technology Series)



Training Targets

Section 4 -Control of Separators

The Control Loop

Separator Level Control
Separator Pressure Control

Section 5 - Separator Safety Systems

Level Control and Systems

Pressure Control and Safety
Emergency Shut-down Valves

Section 6 - Operations of Separators

Routine Operation Checks

Start-up Procedure
Shut-down Procedure
Blow-down Procedure



Visual Cues

training targets for you to

achieve by the end of the unit

test yourself questions

to see how much you

check yourself answers to

let you see if you have been
thinking along the right lines

activities for you to apply

your new knowledge

summaries for you to recap

on the major steps in your

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Training Targets
When you have completed Workbook 2 of this unit you will be able to :
Explain the basic principals of process control
Describe the equipment used in separator level control
Describe a simple separator safety system
Explain the routine operational checks on a separator
Describe in simple terms a separator start up procedure

Tick the box when you have met each target.

Oil and Gas Separation Systems

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4 - Control of Separators
In the last part of Section 3 of this programme you
looked at the external features of separators. Two
of the items you saw were pressure gauges and
level sight glasses. These pieces of equipment are
used to enable the operator to check pressure and
liquid levels inside the vessels.
Pressure and liquid level are features of the
process which can vary. Each can increase or
decrease with variations in separator throughput.
However, in order to obtain optimum separation,
the pressure and liquid level must be maintained
at a constant value.
So, apart from the equipment used to check the
liquid level and pressure, separators have two
major controls.

* Liquid Level Control

* Pressure Control

In any continuous process such as oil and gas

separation there are a number of factors which
must be kept within certain limits. These are called
the process variables. The four most common of
these are.


Liquid Level
Fluid Flow

As I pointed out earlier, we are going to concentrate

on Liquid Level and Pressure, but the basic method
of achieving control applies to all four. It relies on
having built into the system a suitable control


In this section we will look at each of these control

systems and see how they work.
Please note that we will be covering the
subject of control at a very basic level. Other
programmes in this series will delve much
more deeply into Instrumentation and Control.
Before we proceed, however, lets consider the
fundamentals of process control.

The Control Loop

There are 4 main elements in a typical control loop
and these are :



Process Variable
Measuring Unit
Correcting Unit

Figure 26 shows a simple block diagram of a

control loop.

Process Variable




Figure 26 : The Control Loop

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We can look at the four elements in turn.

The Process Variable

This is that part of the process which has to be
controlled within certain limits, i.e. Level, Pressure,
etc. The actual value of the process variable
which the operator wishes to maintain is called the
desired value. We need not say any more about
the process variable at this point.

The Measuring Unit

This unit measures the actual value of the variable.
It could be a Pressure Measuring Instrument, a
Flow Measuring device and so on. The measuring
unit obtains the measured value.

The controller may work using air (pneumatic

operation), liquid (hydraulic operation) or

The Correcting Unit

This part of the control loop is usually a valve. On
receipt of the signals from the controller it opens or
closes to alter the process variable. The measured
value is then returned to the one indicated by the
desired value.
The following example should help you see how a
simple control loop works.
Look at Figure 27.

The Controller

Imagine in this simple example that water is

entering the tank through the inlet line at the top of
the tank. Joe has opened the valve on the outlet
line so that exactly the same amount of water is
leaving the tank as is entering. As long as this
situation remains steady, the water level in the
tank will stay constant. This level, as shown on
the level indicator, is the measured value of the
process variable. Also, because that is the level
which Joe wishes to maintain in the tank, it is the
desired value. There is no difference between the
measured value and the desired value.
Supposing that the flow of water entering the tank
is somehow increased. What will happen to the
water level? Of course, if nothing is done to the
outlet valve, the level will start to rise.

It is the job of the controller to compare the

measured value of the process variable with the
desired value. If it senses a deviation between
the two it then sends a correcting signal to the final
element in the loop, the correcting unit.
For instance, supposing you wanted to maintain
the pressure in a separator at 250 psi, but the
pressure had increased to 275 psi. The desired
value is 250 psi and the measured value is 275 psi.
There is obviously a deviation. A mechanism within
the controller would sense this and instruct the unit
to send an appropriate correcting signal.

In this figure the process variable is the level of

water in the tank. The measuring unit is the level
indicator. The correcting unit is the valve in the
water outlet line. Finally, the controller in this case
is the plant operator. Lets call him Joe.

Figure 28 on the next page, shows this.

Figure 27

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Figure 28
But Joe is keeping his eye on the level indicator
and sees the change in level. He compares the
new measured value with the desired value and
notes that the level has increased. In order to
reduce the level again the valve in the outlet line
must be opened more. Joe does this manually and
increases the outlet flow until the measured value
of the liquid level once again matches the desired
This is shown in Figure 29.

Figure 29
Joe, the controller, has maintained a constant level
in the tank by :
Comparing the measured value of the level in
the tank with the desired value.
Noting the difference between measured and
desired values.
Sending an appropriate signal to the correcting
element in the loop. (In this case an instruction
to his hands to open the valve).

Of course having an operator like Joe standing

by the tank all day long would be a waste of an
operators time, and pretty boring for Joe. It would
be much more sensible to have an instrument to do
this simple control job.
Lets see how this basic principle of automatic
control is applied to level and pressure control in
a separator.

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Separator Level Control

Test Yourself 7
Fill in the missing words from the following paragraph.
That part of a continuous process which an operator wishes to control within certain limits is
called the ................ ................, and its target value is called the ................ value.
A measuring unit obtains a measured value from the process and feeds it to a
.................................... whose job it is to compare the two values. If a deviation exists
between the two values, the ........................ sends a correcting signal to the final element
in the loop - a correcting unit which is usually a ................ ................ .

Level control in a separator is very similar to the level

control system in the simple example I just gave.
Before we look at the control loop used, lets consider the
reasons for maintaining the liquid level in a separator at a
constant height. They may seem fairly obvious but I think
it is worthwhile listing them here.
Liquid Level Control is required :
To prevent liquids being carried out with the
gas. (Known as carry-over.)
To prevent gas from leaving the separator
through the liquid outlet. (Blow round.)
To help maintain the pressure on the vessel.
(Fluctuating levels affect the pressure.)
In a 3 phase separator, to prevent oil from
leaving through the water outlet or vice

To ensure optimum retention time.

Think first of all of an oil level control system on a 2 phase

horizontal separator.

You will find the answers in Test Yourself 7 on page 42

Figure 30 shows the system in its most basic form.

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The hardware associated with the system consists of:

The displacer mechanism - which is the
measuring unit.
The level controller - in this case we are
looking at a pneumatic controller.

The level control valve - the correcting unit.

Let me describe each of these units and briefly

explain how they work.

Displacer Mechanism
This piece of equipment measures liquid level by a method
which is based on the principle of Archimedes. The
principle states that, if a body is immersed in a liquid, it
will apparently lose weight equal to the amount of liquid it
So, a cylindrical weight partially submerged in a liquid will
have a certain apparent weight. (Less than its actual weight
because of the buoyancy effect of the liquid.)
If the liquid level rises or falls, then more or less of
the cylinder will be submerged. Its apparent weight will
therefore vary. The apparent weight can be measured to
give an indication of the level of the liquid.
Figure 31 on the next page, shows how the apparent
weight varies with the liquid level.

Figure 30 : Oil Level Control System

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The loss or gain of apparent weight has to be transmitted

to the controller as a signal which is proportional to the
increase or decrease in liquid level. This is done by
means of a torque tube mechanism.
Figure 32 shows the torque tube assembly.

Figure 31a

Figure 31b

Much of the cylinder submerged - buoyant effect means

low apparent weight.

Less of the cylinder submerged - higher

apparent weight.

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A hollow rod called the torque tube (C) is connected

via a torque tube plate (D), to the supported end
of the float rod. The opposite end of the torque
tube is welded to the outer flange of the assembly
(indicated E).
A small diameter shaft, the torque tube rod (F), fits
inside the torque tube and is welded at the torque
tube plate. This shaft protrudes through the outer
flange where it is free to rotate.
Look carefully at Figure 32 again and try to
visualise what will happen to the assembly as the
liquid level moves up or down.
Imagine the level going down in the vessel. As it
does so the apparent weight of the displacer will
increase. The increased weight hanging on the
float rod will give a twisting motion to the torque
tube. (Remember that the torque tube is fixed at the
flange end but only supported on the knife edge at
the free end).

Figure 32 : Torque Tube Assembly

The displacer cylinder may be contained in a chamber which is connected to the separator but mounted outside
it. The liquid level in the chamber is obviously the same as the level in the separator. Having the displacer placed
outside the separator like this means that it is unaffected by any turbulence in the vessel.

Because the torque tube rod is welded to the torque

tube, it will rotate as the tube is twisted. The rotation
of this rod at its free end will be in proportion to the
increase or decrease in liquid level. The rotation is
transmitted via linkage to the next element in the
control loop, the controller.

The displacer is suspended from one end of a float rod, marked (A) on the figure. The other end of the float rod
is supported on a knife edged bearing (B).

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Level Controller
We have seen already that the job of a controller is to
compare 2 signals, the measured value signal and the
desired value signal. If a deviation exists between the
two, the controller then has to send a correcting signal
to a control valve.

In order to perform its job the controller has 4 separate,

but interconnected, units. They are :

The Differential Mechanism

The Flapper/Nozzle Assembly

The Feedback Unit

The Pilot Relay



There are various types of controller, but in this section

we are going to look at the basic principle of operation
for one type of pneumatic controller.

to recorder






Figure 33 shows the relationship of the four units in

the form of a block diagram

Figure 33


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One end of the desired value link acts as a pivot

point for the differential arm. The position of the
pivot point can be altered by means of an adjusting
knob at the other end of the link (not shown).

We can see how each of the units works, and how

it interacts with the others.
Differential Mechanism

The measured value link is also connected to the

differential arm. It is connected at the other end to
the measuring unit, or element (not shown).

It is the job of the differential mechanism to

compare the desired and measured values of the
process variable. If a deviation exists between the
two, the unit feeds this information to the next unit
in the controller, the flapper/nozzle assembly.

From the centre of the differential arm a deviation

link transmits any motion of the arm to the flapper/
nozzle assembly.

There are two types of differential mechanism

which can measure the deviation, and these are
known as :

The Motion Balance Mechanism

The Force Balance Mechanism

Look again at Figure 34. You can see that, providing

there is no movement of the M.V. link relative to the
D.V. link, there will be no movement of the deviation
link. However, if the measuring element causes the
M.V. link to move, there will be a movement of the
deviation link.

Motion balance mechanisms use two mechanical

linkages to compare the measured and desired
values (abbreviated as M.V. and D.V.).

Force balance mechanisms use pressure applied

to bellows to compare desired and measured
Figure 35 on the next page, shows this -again, in
a very simple form.

Figure 34 shows this in simple form

Figure 34 : A Motion Balance Mechanism


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Supposing the measuring element output gave an increased pressure signal. The M.V. bellows
would expand against the D.V. bellows. This movement would cause the free end of the force bar to
move. The movement could then be fed to the flapper/nozzle assembly as a deviation.
Force balance is the mechanism most commonly used in Pneumatic Controllers.
I have mentioned several times the flapper/nozzle unit. Lets look now at this piece of equipment.
Flapper/Nozzle Assembly
The flapper/nozzle unit consists of three items, the flapper, the nozzle and the restrictor.
Figure 36 is a simplified drawing of the unit.

Figure 35 : Force Balance Mechanism

The output from the measuring element is fed as a pressure to the
measured value bellows.
The movement of the bellows is opposed by a second set of bellows, the
desired value bellows. These are pressurised by a signal which relates to
the desired value of the process variable.
Sandwiched between the two sets of bellows is one end of a bar known as
the force bar. The bar is pivoted using a fulcrum and the other end of the
bar is free to move.
Im sure that you can visualise what happens when a deviation between
desired value and measured value occurs.


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It is the job of the assembly to send a correcting

pressure signal from the controller to the final
element in the control loop, the control valve.
Here is a basic explanation of how that is achieved.
An air supply is fed to the line upstream of the
restrictor, typically at a pressure of 1.3 bar.
This air can pass through the restrictor to the nozzle
outlet and also the variable back pressure outlet.
If the flapper is positioned away from the nozzle it
is possible for the air to pass through the restrictor
and out through the nozzle. Because the diameter of
the restrictor is small compared to that of the nozzle,
there will be very little pressure build-up in the space
between the restrictor and the nozzle. This means
that there will be no build-up of pressure in the back
pressure line.
However, if the flapper is moved towards the nozzle,
the area of nozzle through which the air can pass is
reduced. This means that the nozzle back pressure
will increase.
If the nozzle is completely covered then the back
pressure would build up to the supply pressure of
1.3 bar.
Figure 37 shows a graph of the back pressure
obtained from a flapper/nozzle system against the
position of the flapper relative to the nozzle.

Figure 37

You can see from the graph, that the section of the
curve between points 1 and 2 is almost a straight
line. The nozzle back pressure varies from 0.2 bar at
point 1, to 1.0 bar at point 2. Between the 2 points,
the back pressure obtained will be proportional to the
distance that the flapper is away from the nozzle.
Pneumatic instruments are usually designed to
operate over a standard pressure range. This range
must lie on the straight line portion of the graph
which you saw in Figure 37.

With a supply pressure of 1.3 bar, the operating range

chosen is from 0.2 to 1 bar. So, nearly all pneumatic
instruments will record, transmit and control within
this 0.2 to 1 bar range.
You can probably imagine now, how the controller
is able to send a correcting signal to the correcting
If the movement from the differential unit is linked
to the flapper, a varying back pressure signal will
be obtained from the nozzle. This signal will be
proportional to the deviation between measured and
desired values of the process variable.


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In an actual controller, the movement of the flapper

is extremely small. The total movement required to
change the signal from 0.2 to 1 bar is only a little
more than 0.1 mm. Such a small movement means
that a direct linkage from the differential unit to the
flapper is impracticable. The deviation signal must
be adjusted to compensate for this.
This brings us to the next unit in the controller, the
feedback unit.

Feedback Unit
Feedback simply means feeding back the output
signal of the controller to the input of the same
unit. This allows relatively large movements of the
differential unit to cause very small movements of
the flapper. We will see how this is done shortly.
Feedback is also used to introduce more complex
control actions to the loop. These control actions
are beyond the scope of this programme. However,
you will come across them if you follow other
programmes covering Instrumentation and Control,
in the Petroleum Processing Technology Series.
We can see now how a simple feedback unit
The mechanism is shown in Figure 38.

Figure 38 : Feedback Unit

The pivot point of the flapper is attached to the
movable end of a set of bellows. The movement of
these bellows is opposed by a spring.

The increased bellows pressure will move the pivot

point of the flapper against the spring until the spring
and bellows forces are balanced.

The nozzle back pressure is fed to these bellows in

addition to being the controller output signal to the
correcting unit.

As this happens, the movement of the pivot point will

lift the flapper away from the nozzle.

When a deviation occurs, the flapper moves

towards the nozzle and causes an increase in back

This sequence of events, movement of the flapper

towards then away from the nozzle, will continue
until a steady state is reached.


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control signal

When this state is reached, the flapper will have moved very slightly nearer to the
nozzle. Just enough to increase the output to the correcting unit.

Pilot Relay
The final unit in our pneumatic controller is the pilot relay. This is a device which is
connected to the nozzle back pressure line.


Its function is to act as a signal amplifier.

actuator spring

The controller output has to operate an actuator on the correcting element which is
usually a control valve. This actuator, as you will see, requires a relatively large volume
of air. Because of the restriction in the supply line to the nozzle, only a limited volume of
air can be supplied to the actuator. The pilot relay can boost this air supply, for proper
operation of the valve.

valve stem

I think that this explanation of what the pilot relay does is sufficient at this stage.

The Level Control Valve

The function of a control valve is to throttle, or regulate, the rate of flow of a fluid.

valve plug

valve body

You will remember from our simple example earlier, that Joe had to open and close the
valve in the outlet line from the tank. He was operating a level control valve manually. In
an automatic control system, however, the control valve is operated by the signal from
the controller. In the case of a pneumatic controller the signal is air pressure, which
varies between 0.2 and 1 bar.

valve seat

There are many different types-of control valve in use. Figure 39 is a simplified drawing
of a typical valve which could be used in a level control application.

Figure 39 : Level Control Valve


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The valve is called a diaphragm motor valve and

consists of the following items.


actuator spring

valve stem

valve body

valve plug

valve seat

The actuator spring is attempting to hold the valve

in the open position by pushing up the diaphragm
and lifting the valve stem. This is called a normally
open valve.

If there is a complete loss of control pressure, the

actuator spring will cause the valve to move into the
fully open position. This type of valve is sometimes
called a fail open valve. It is possible to change the
action of the valve or the controller so that a loss
of control signal would cause the valve to close. In
this case the valve would be referred to as a fail
closed valve.

Test Yourself 8 will help you draw together all

these aspects of control loop operations.

You will notice that the valve illustrated in Figure

39 has two valve plugs and seats. It is known as a
double ported valve. Although single ported valves
are sometimes used, the double valve is preferred
for level and pressure control duties on separators.
Take another look at Figure 39 and satisfy yourself
that you understand how the control valve works,
and how it fits into the complete level control loop.

The control signal is applied to the top of the

diaphragm. Increasing pressure of the control
signal overcomes the resistance of the actuator
spring and gradually closes the valve.
The valve is arranged so that a signal pressure of
3 psi will just start to close the valve. With a signal
pressure of 15 psi, the valve will have moved to its
fully closed position.


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We have just been looking at separator level control. You

will remember that the other major separator control is that
of pressure. Let's finish off this section by having a look at
separator pressure control.

Test Yourself 8
The following items from a level control loop are part of the measuring unit, the level controller
or the level control valve. Indicate by a tick in the box provided, to which part of the system each

Measuring Unit

Level Controller

pilot relay

differential mechanism

torque tube rod

actuator spring

valve plug

flapper nozzle assembly


feedback unit

float rod

valve stem

Level Control Valve

Separator Pressure Control

As with level control, the basis of a pressure control loop
consists of :
a process variable (in this case,
in the separator)

the pressure

a measuring unit (some form of pressure

measuring device)
a controller (again, a pneumatic controller in
this example)

a correcting unit (once more a control valve)

The controller and control valve work in the same way as

the units used in level control. The measuring unit, however,
is obviously going to be different.

You will find the answer to Test Yourself 8 on page 43


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Think for a moment about what the measuring unit

has to do. It must transmit the measured valve to
the controller as a signal. In level control this is done
by the torque mechanism which transmits rotation
of the tube via a linkage. Somehow the pressure
measuring unit must perform a similar function.
We have already looked at a pressure measuring
instrument in Section 3, the bourdon tube type
pressure gauge. This mechanism could be used to
transmit a measured valve signal to the controller.

Think about the way in which a pressure gauge works. How could the measured pressure
be transmitted to the flapper of a controller ?


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In a most simple way, the transmission could be as is shown in Figure 40.

As the valve opens, more gas is allowed to leave

the separator and the pressure is reduced.
Obviously, if the pressure in the separator goes
down, the movement of the bourdon tube pushes
the flapper towards the nozzle. This will cause the
output signal pressure to rise, causing the control
valve to close. If less gas now leaves the separator,
the separator pressure will then increase.

Test Yourself 9
In the pressure control loop I have just
described, is the control valve in the fail
open or fail closed mode?

Figure 40 : A Pressure Control System

You can see that the free end of the bourdon tube
is connected via a linkage to the flapper/nozzle
assembly of the controller. In the set up shown, if
the pressure in the separator rises, the bourdon
tube tries to straighten and the movement pushes
the flapper away from the nozzle. This causes the
output signal from the controller to fall which in turn
causes the control valve to open.

You will find the answer to Test Yourself

9 on page 43


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Summary of Section 4
Before going on to summarise Section 4, I should emphasise once again that the subject of process measurement and control is very complex. We have only
scraped the surface of the subject in this section but you should now know how a simple control system works.
We started the section by considering the four
most common process variables :
Liquid Level

Fluid Flow

Of these, we concentrated on the control of liquid

level and pressure.
You saw that a suitable control loop is required
to achieve control, and such a loop has four main
elements :


process variable
measuring element
correcting unit

With the aid of a simple example involving an

operator called Joe, we saw how the elements of
a control loop work together to maintain the liquid
level in a tank at a constant value.
From there we moved on to consider a separator
level control system. We saw that the hardware
associated with a typical system consists of:

The displacer mechanism

The level controller
The level control valve

We looked at each of these elements of the system

in some detail and saw how they are constructed and
how they work. We paid particular attention to the
controller with its four separate, but interconnected,
units which are known as :


After a detailed look at the principle of operation of

a level control loop we finished off the section by
working through the basics of separator pressure
control. Here you saw that the basis of a pressure
control loop is the same as that for level control.
However, the measuring element is obviously
a different unit to the measuring element of a
level control system. We used a bourdon tube
type pressure measuring element in the example
we considered, but you should remember that
many other types of measuring instruments are
In the next Section we will be looking at additional
equipment and instrumentation which may be
fitted to a separator to ensure safe operation of the
vessel or train of vessels.

differential mechanism
flapper/nozzle assembly
feedback unit
pilot relay


Oil and Gas Separation Systems

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Section 5 - Separator Safety Systems

In the last section we looked at control of the two
main process variables in a separator, i.e. Level
and Pressure. These two control systems usually
operate with relatively few problems. However
there is always the possibility that, for some reason,
they fail to maintain control. This may happen, for
example, because of instrument malfunction in
the control loop. If this should occur a potentially
hazardous situation will arise.
Think for a moment about the possible
consequences of losing either level or pressure
control in a separator.

Jot down in the space below your ideas of what might result from the following separator

oil level goes too high

oil level goes too low

pressure continues to increase

pressure continues to decrease

water level goes too high

water level goes too low


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Here are a few ideas of mine. How do they compare

with what you have written down?
If the oil level goes too high, a situation will be
reached where oil gets carried over with the gas,
causing problems downstream

We have already looked at similar equipment in Section

1. There, you saw that flow lines can be fitted with
pressure switches to warn the operator of high or low
flow line pressures. You also saw that these pressure
switches are tied into the Emergency Shutdown (ESD)

Should the oil level go too low, there is a danger of

gas leaving the separator through the oil outlet

Let us now consider a typical 3 phase separator, together

with its protective devices.

If the pressure increases too much, there is a risk of

exceeding the safe working pressure of the

Level Control and Safety

In the situation where the pressure falls too much,

there will be insufficient pressure to push the liquids
from the separator
If the water level rises above the weir, water will
contaminate the oil leaving the vessel
Should the water level go too low, oil will flow from
the separator through the water outlet

Lets start by having a look at the oil level in a separator.

We can see what would be the sequence of events if
the oil level started to rise, and continued to rise.
First of all you will remember from the previous section
that an increase in level will cause the level control
valve to open.
Take a look at Figure 41 which shows the oil
accumulation and outlet side of a 3 phase horizontal

LCV 01
Figure 41

In this section, we are going to look at the equipment

designed to prevent such situations arising in a typical
separation system.
The section will concentrate on three variables (oil
level, water level, and pressure) and the degrees of
protection afforded by this equipment.


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You will see that this is a simple illustration of a level

control loop.

to rise or fall, then the separator must be protected


LC 01 is the level controller and LCV 01 is the level

control valve. So in this case an increase in oil level
causes LC 01 to open LCV 01.

This is done by having a second degree of protection

using level switches connected to ESD valves. These
switches are connected to the separator independently
of the level controller.

However, the level might continue to rise (due to

equipment malfunction, etc.), and start to approach a
hazardous situation. In order that the operator can be
warned of the situation, alarm signals are generated
by the controller.

Figure 42 shows this.


If the level reaches the setting of either of these
switches, a signal is sent to the ESD system which
automatically isolates the vessel and makes it safe, by
activating the appropriate ESD valves.
We will look at the location and operation of ESD valves
It is quite common for all the instrumentation relating to
separator level control and safety, to be located externally
to the vessel. In such a case, the instrumentation can
be mounted on pipework sometimes referred to as an
instrument bridle.

If you look again at Figure 41, you will see LAH 01

connected to the controller LC 01. The letters stand for

Figure 43 on page 24, shows a typical set up

incorporating an instrument bridle.

If the level should reach the setting of LAH 01 an audio/

visual alarm would be generated.
This is usually a noise (rapid high pitched beeper) and
a flashing light which would indicate the alarm condition
at a location which is normally manned, e.g. a central
control room.
The alarm would alert the operator, who could then try
to rectify the situation before the actual hazardous
situation is reached.
If a falling level is the problem, you can imagine that a
similar alarm is generated by LAL 01.
If the situation is not rectified and the level continues

Figure 42
You will notice that the switches are designated LSHH
and LSLL These stand for LEVEL SWITCH HIGH-


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You can see that the bridle is connected via valves to the
top and bottom of the separator.
Take a look at Figure 43 and identify the bridle which
incorporates the level controller, the level alarms, the level
switches and the sight glasses. You will remember from
Section 3 that the sight glasses give a visual indication of
the actual level inside the separator. Note that there are
two sight glasses which overlap each other. The normal
operating level would lie within the overlap, enabling the
level to be checked through both sight glasses.
We have just looked at the oil side of the separator. In a 3
phase vessel, the water level must also be controlled.
Of course, in this section of the vessel, the water is
covered by a layer of oil. So there is an interface between
the water and oil. It is this interface which is measured by
the controller.
Apart from that, the control and safety of the water end of
the separator works in a similar manner to the oil end.

Figure 43 : Instrument Bridle


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Pressure Control and Safety

Test Yourself 10
Make a simple sketch of the water outlet end of a separator.
Your sketch should show an instrument bridle with the
relevant instrumentation.

You will find the answer to Test Yourself 10 on page 44

You saw in the introduction to this section that an increase or decrease in pressure in
the separator is also potentially hazardous. Let's look now at this problem.
I am sure that by now you will have realised that there are several degrees of pressure
protection on a separator.
Look at Figure 44. This shows a simple pressure control loop.

Figure 44


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PC 01 (the pressure controller) activates PCV 01 (the

pressure control valve).

This operating pressure is well below the maximum

which the separator is capable of holding.

In addition PC 01 generates alarm signals (PAH 01 and

PAL 01) if the pressure goes too high or too low.

However, the vessel could be ruptured if the pressure

went high enough.

Separate pressure switches PSHH ( Pressure switch

high-high) 01 and PSLL (Pressure switch low-low) 01
are connected to the ESD system. The switches are
shown in Figure 45.

Because of this, a further level of protection against

excessive pressure is fitted to separators, in common
with other pressure vessels.
These are called Pressure Safety Valves (PSVs).

Pressure Safety Valves

To prevent the separator system from becoming overpressured, every separator is fitted with Pressure Safety
Valves (PSVs). (These valves may also be called
Pressure Relief Valves, or PRVs).
The set pressures of the PSVs are determined by the
maximum operating pressure of the separator. The sizing
of the PSVs is determined by the maximum amount of
gas which may be required to be vented.

PSVs are special valves fitted to the top, or gas sectionof the separator. At a pre-determined pressure, which is
higher than the set pressure of PSHH 01, the valves will
open and gas from the separator is vented. Usually the
vented gas goes to a flare.
Let us take a more detailed look at pressure safety

Figure 45
If either of these switches are activated, the separator is
made safe by isolating it via ESD valves.
Separators are designed to operate at a certain pressure.


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Figure 46 show a typical PSV arrangement. There are

two PSVs fitted to the separator - PSV A and PSV B'.

The PSVs are normally situated on the top of the vessel

upstream of any demister pad. This is to ensure that,
should the demister pad become blocked, then the PSVs
will still function properly.
Separators are fitted with two PSVs, either one of which
will cope with the full pressure relief requirements of the

The usual method of operation is that one PSV is on-line

whilst the other PSV is isolated and on stand-by.


The isolating valves are interlocked so that:


both PSVs may be on line,

PSV A may be on line, or,

PSV B may be on line.

The interlock system ensures that it is never possible for

both PSVs to be isolated from the separator at the same
From the shading of the valves you can see that, in the
illustration, PSV A is on-line and PSV B is on standby.

Figure 46

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Pressure Safety Valves can vary in design and construction but the most
common type is one which relies on a spring to hold a valve closed.
Figure 47 is an illustration of this type of valve.

When the pressure beneath the valve seat reaches a pre-set

value, the valve lifts against the spring tension and allows
gas to escape. Figure 47 shows the valve in the relief

In circumstances where the separator may be handling

corrosive gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) or hydrogen
sulphide (H2S), then a rupture disc may be fitted between
the separator and the PSV.

Rupture Discs
A rupture disc is a disc of malleable metal which is designed
to burst at a pre-set pressure. Figure 48 is an illustration of
a rupture disc and how it is installed.
The rupture disc is fitted to protect the seats of the PSV from
corrosion and is normally set to fail at a pressure just below
the set point of the PSV. To assist the disc to spread out as
it fails, a disc cutter is normally positioned just above the
rupture disc.

Figure 47

This is shown in Figure 48 on the next page.


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rupture disc

A pressure switch is often fitted in the space

above the rupture disc and below the PSV.
It is indicated as P.S. in Figure 48. If the
switch is activated it sends an alarm to the
operator in the control room. Can you work
out why the pressure switch is fitted?

disc cutter
rupture disc

Figure 48 : A Rupture Disc Installation


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The set pressure of the switch is below the lifting

pressure of the PSV. If the rupture disc bursts or
leaks, then the pressure switch will be activated.
The pressure switch tells the operator that the rupture
disc is no longer operable and requires changing.

Emergency Shutdown Valves

We have said that the High-High and Low-Low
switches will be tied into the ESD system to stop liquids
or gases from entering or leaving the separator. This
is achieved by the use of Emergency Shutdown
Valves (ESDVs).
ESDVs are valves which are operated as part of the
ESD system.
They are normally air or hydraulically actuated
valves. The valves are spring loaded to fail to their
safe position in the event of an air or hydraulic
The ESDVs ensure that the process is isolated
in a safe condition in the event of an Emergency
Figure 49 shows a separator with its ESDVs.


Figure 49


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The ESDVs in Figure 49 are situated as follows :


on the main fluid inlet line


on the oil outlet line


on the water outlet line


on the gas outlet line

Also indicated in the drawing are the four main

controllers associated with a 3 phase separator.

Look at Figure 49 and locate the four different controllers. Write down what each controller
does and what it uses to achieve the control required.
YES. There are FOUR controllers, its not a printing error!


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The controllers are as follows :

Level Controller LC-01 controls the oil level
on the downstream side of the weir by opening
and closing LCV-01.

Before we finish this section, let us look, once again, at the overall sequence of events which could occur
if control of one of the process variables is lost.
Use Figure 50 to follow the sequence.

Level Controller LC-02 controls the oil/water

interface level on the upstream side of the weir
by opening and closing LCV-02.
Pressure Controller PC-01 controls the pressure
in the separator by opening and closing PCV-01.
The overall level control for the left hand side
of the separator is achieved by a weir. The weir is
the simplest type of level control ever invented.
You will see from the drawing that there is one further
This is situated on the top of the separator and is known
as a 'blow-down' or 'depressurising' valve.
If the separator has been isolated via the ESD system,
it could still remain fully pressurised, and it may be
necessary to depressurise the vessel as an extra safety
precaution. If so, this is done through the blow-down
valve. If ESDV 5 operates, it will vent all the gas from the
separator to the flare, thus dropping the pressure.


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Let us assume that the problem is a rising oil level. The

following will happen :

LC-01 will open LCV-01

Summary of Section 5

If the level continues to rise

LAH-01 will generate an alarm

If the level still rises

LSHH-01 will send a signal to the ESD
system which will then close ESDV 1
When ESDV 1 closes, no more reservoir fluids will enter
the separator.

In this section on separator safety systems we have covered a very complex subject in a rather simplistic
way. Once again I must emphasise that the situations I described are not taken from any particular
process or separation system. Each process is unique. If you are involved with process operations,
you should make sure that you are completely familiar with the equipment on your own particular

Remember, safety is your concern.

Of course, the sequence I have just described is just one

small part of the whole ESD system. Other things may
happen. Depending on the hazardous situation which has
been detected, other ESD valves may open or close.

At the start of this section we considered the consequences of losing either level or pressure control in a
separator. You saw that loss of control could result in a potentially hazardous situation.

For instance, in addition to closing ESDV 1, the system

may also close ESDVs 2, 3 and 4. This would completely
isolate the vessel. The vessel may then be depressurised
by opening ESDV 5 and venting the gas to a flare

generate alarms

cause an emergency shutdown

A complete ESD system is very complex. In essence

however it can be described as a system of sensors,
actuators and valves which are capable of automatically
shutting down a process or part of a process. This
renders the plant safe in the event of a hazardous
situation arising.

We looked first at the problem of level control. You saw that an increasing or decreasing level can :

Moving to pressure control, you saw that alarms and shutdowns are also initiated by the pressure going
too high or too low.
You also saw that additional pressure safety features such as Pressure Safety Valves and Rupture Discs
may be fitted to a separator.
We finished the section by having a brief look at ESD Systems and valves, and you saw an example of
a simple sequence of events which could occur on loss of level control.
Now that you have completed Section 5, you can move on to the final section in this unit, where we will
look at separator operations.


Oil and Gas Separation Systems

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Section 6 - Operation of Separators

In this, the last section of the programme, we are going
to look at some routine separator operations. You must
remember however that each system is unique and will have
its own operating procedures. Here we will consider general
operations of a hypothetical separator train.

Routine Operational Checks

The operator of a separation system will often have other
systems under his control. This is because, normally,
separators are smooth running items of equipment with very
few operational upsets.
The operator will usually check the following, on a regular
basis, during the course of a shift:

Levels : All sight glasses and level controllers.

The operator should ensure that the sight
glasses are easily readable and that the levels
which they indicate correspond to the levels
indicated by the level controller. This may
involve draining the sight glass and blowing it
clear with gas.
Figure 51 illustrates the type of valve found at the
top and bottom of most sight glasses. You have
seen this type of valve before. It is similar to that
shown in Figure 25 on Page 35 in Workbook 1.
You will remember that we referred to it as a ball
check valve.

Figure 51 : Ball Check Valve


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The valve shown in Figure 51, however,

is capable of shutting off any of the three
outlets. It seals by the movement of a free
floating ball.
Its operating position is indicated in the
drawing, with the valve stem fully retracted.
If the sight glass breaks, whilst the valve is in
this position, the flow of oil and gas, as they
escape, will cause the ball to move and seal
off the leaking glass.

Pressures : All pressure gauges and

pressure controllers. The operator should
ensure that all the vessels are working at the
desired pressure and the readings on the
pressure gauges correspond with the
readings being given by the pressure
controllers. If differences in these readings
are discovered, the cause should be
investigated and the fault remedied.

Leakages : All vessels, interconnecting

pipework and instruments. The operator
should ensure that there are no escapes of
liquids or gases from any of this equipment.

We will now take a look at some of the problems

which can occur during normal operations.

A common operating problem is that caused by the
water and oil forming an emulsion.
This is a mixture of two immiscible liquids where
one of the liquids is dispersed throughout the other
in the form of very small droplets. In the oilfield, the
dispersed liquid is usually the water.
An emulsion may be classed as tight or loose.
Milk is a tight emulsion. It is a mixture of butter fats
and water and it cannot be easily broken.
Salad dressing is a loose emulsion. It is a mixture
of oil and vinegar. When you shake the bottle an
emulsion forms and the small globules of oil and
vinegar can be seen with the naked eye. If you let
the bottle stand for a few minutes the emulsion will
break down and the oil will begin to float on the top
of the vinegar.
If emulsions are found in a separation process they
may be tight or loose. The type will depend, for
example, on the nature of the oil being produced
and the amount of water present.
One of the functions of a separator is, of course,
to remove the water from the oil. The presence
of an emulsion could obviously make this more
difficult. In fact, in extreme cases, water removal
from an emulsion may have to be done in a special
treatment plant.

However, in some cases, the emulsion can be

treated in the separator itself. This involves the
injection of a chemical into the well fluids. This
chemical, which is called a demulsifier, helps to
break down the emulsion and allows the separator
to do its job.

Another problem which may be found in separators
is that of foaming.
This is caused when the oil fails to release the gas
quickly enough as it passes through the vessel, and
a layer of oily bubbles forms on top of the liquid
The level control displacer on the oil side of the weir
is designed to operate in a liquid. It cannot float in
When the float sinks in the foam it indicates a false,
low level to the level controller and the oil outlet
valve will close. This can result in the carry-over of
liquids with the gas stream and a possible shutdown
of the gas facilities downstream.
To stop this happening, anti-foam agents are often
injected into the inlet stream to prevent foaming.


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A third, but less common, problem in separators is
that of slugging.
Slugging occurs when, for some reason or another,
there is an intermittent, rather than a constant, flow
of well fluids into the separator. In some instances
the flow may cease altogether for a few seconds
and then a slug will arrive.
This intermittent flow can cause rapid fluctuations
in separator levels and pressures. The controllers
react to these changes by rapidly opening and
closing their respective valves in an attempt to bring
the situation under control. In severe cases the
control system may become unstable resulting in a
These are the three most common problems
associated with the operation of separators.
We will now have a look at a simple start-up
procedure and a simple shut-down procedure for
our separator train.

Start-up Procedure
Before a start-up procedure is initiated, a number
of checks have to be made to ensure that the
separation train is ready.
We will assume that the separators are empty, but
are in a condition to receive hydrocarbons.
We will first check that:
all the valves, in the inlet manifold upstream
and the pipework downstream, are in the
correct open/closed position for start-up.
well fluids will be available when we require

all the sight glass bridles, sight glasses,

level controllers, pressure gauges, pressure
controllers etc. on the separator are on-line
and able to function properly.

As you work through the next few paragraphs, refer

to Figure 52 on the next page to remind yourself of
the valve numbering.
Let us consider the status of the vessel before we
introduce the well fluids.

As the vessel is empty and depressurised, the

following switches will have been activated :
LSLL-01. This will have closed ESDV 1, ESDV 2,
ESDV 3 and ESDV 4 through the ESD system

LSLL-02. This will have closed ESDV 3

PSLL-01. This will have closed ESDV 1 and

The fact that ESDV 1 is closed means that we are
not able to get fluids into the separator through this
We will need to inhibit the output signal from LSLL01 before we can open ESDV 1. We will then have
to keep it inhibited until we have established a level
of oil, over the weir, higher than LSLL-01. When this
occurs LSLL-01 will automatically re-set and will
cease to have an effect on ESDV 1 and the other
LSLL-02 only closed ESDV 3 so, although it will be
activated, we will not require to inhibit it in order to
open ESDV1.
PSLL-01 will also be activated. This switch also will
prevent us from opening ESDV 1. However, this is
not a problem. If you refer to Figure 52, you will see
that there is a small by-pass line around ESDV 1.


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So, having completed our checks, and with

LSLL-01 by-passed, we are ready to start-up
our separator.
We first of all open the small by-pass around
ESDV 1. This will allow a small flow of well fluids
into the separator. The pressure will begin to
rise and the liquid level at the back of the weir
will also rise.
When the pressure passes the set-point of
PSLL-01, ESDV 1 will be opened. (Remember
that LSLL-01 is still inhibited.)
ESDV 4 will also be opened and, as the pressure
in the separator rises to the desired value, PC01 will take over control.
As the pressure in the separator is increasing,
so will the liquid level upstream of the weir.
By using the sight glasses we can keep a check
on the level of the well fluids as they fill the
space at the upstream side of the weir.
The oil will now start to spill over the weir into the
oil end of the separator. We can then observe
the level of the oil building on the downstream
side of the weir.

When the oil level reaches the set point of LSLL01, we can re-activate it. ESDV 1 is now fully
under the control of the ESD system. ESDV 2
will also be opened and LC-01 will take over
control of the oil level.

Shut-down Procedure

When ESDV 1 is open, and the system is

operating automatically, we must always
remember to close the by-pass valve. If we
dont do this, and ESDV 1 activates, there
will still be flow into the separator via the bypass, thus defeating the objective of the ESD

If none of the valves leak, the pressure and

levels will be maintained at that point.

When the water level reaches the set-point of

LSLL-02, ESDV 3 will be opened. With the water
level at the desired value, LC-02 will maintain

In order to maintain levels and pressures, and

thus facilitate easy start-up, the ESD valves are
closed before these levels and pressures fall
too low.

The ESD system on the separator is now fully

commissioned and will operate if we have a

If the separator is shut down in this condition,

then it can be brought back on stream much
more quickly.

If we slowly reduce the flow of fluids into the

separator, levels and pressure will fall and the
controllers will close the relevant control valves.

Unfortunately this seldom happens. Control

valves often do leak and levels and pressure will
continue to fall and, eventually, will activate the
ESD system.

At this stage we have flow of fluids into the

separator and all controllers on-line in automatic
When we are satisfied that everything is
functioning normally, we can begin to increase
the flow of fluids into the separator up to the
operating rate.


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Blow-down Procedure
One procedure we have not mentioned is blowdown.
As we have already explained, ESDV 5, which is
shown in Figure 52, is a blow-down valve. It is fitted
so that we may depressurise the separator in a rapid,
but controlled, manner.
The control logic of a blow-down valve on a separator
is often designed so that it will not open if any of the
other ESDVs on the vessel are open.
The blow-down valves may be activated :

One other feature on Figure 52 should be mentioned.

The restriction orifice (RO), downstream of ESDV
5, is a flat plate with a precision hole bored through its
centre. The RO serves the following functions :
it reduces the pressure drop across ESDV 5,
thus reducing wear on the valve
it can be accurately sized so that the
flare system is not overloaded by too much
Now that you have completed this section, try the
following Test Yourself.

automatically, by the ESD system, in the event

of a hazardous situation arising.
by a manual signal from the Main Control Room,
or a local depressuring panel.
The blow-down valve would not normally be used as a
depressuring valve for maintenance or during normal


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Test Yourself 11
The following statements refer to :




operational checks,
separator problems,
separator start - up procedures

Indicate to which of the three areas, a, b or c, each statement belongs.


Inhibit output signal from the level switch low low.

Increase flow of fluids into the separator.
Ensure level in the sight glass is readable.
Inject demulsifying chemical.
Bypass the ESDV on the separator inlet
Ensure that the vessel pressure is at normal operating value.
Inspect the connection between vessel and instrument bridle for leakage.
Liquid carry over occurs because of foaming.
Observe the level building on the upstream side of the weir.
Check that the inlet manifold valves are open.

You will find the answer to Test Yourself 11 on page 44


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Summary of Section 6
In Section 6, the final section in this unit on Oil and Gas Separation Systems, we have had a brief look at the operation of separators.
We started by considering the routine operational checks that an operator may have to make on a regular basis during the course of his shift or tour of duty. You saw that the
operational variables of level and pressure are constantly monitored. You also noted that the operator keeps a close look out for possible leakages which could give rise to
potentially hazardous situations.
Although separator operations are usually trouble free, there are some problems which
may be encountered. You saw that potential problems included :




Finally we looked at three basic procedures, including start-up, shut-down and blowdown. We went through a step-by-step procedure to be followed when starting a
separation system. The procedure was a hypothetical one, based on the separators
described in previous sections of the unit. We then looked at shut-down and blowdown in more general terms.

Before you leave this unit and move on to another unit in the Petroleum Processing
Technology Series, I must make some final comments regarding the operation of
process plant:
The Unit that you have just completed relates to separation
in general. It is not meant to describe any particular plant or

If you are involved in the operation of processing facilities,

you should remember that each plant is different. You must
be completely familiar with the specific plant and equipment
under your control

Laid down procedures and operational guide-lines must be

followed, and safe working practices adopted at all times


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Check Yourself 7
Fill in the missing words from the following paragraph.
That part of a continuous process which an operator wishes to control within certain limits is
called the PROCESS VARIABLE, and its target value is called the DESIRED value. A
measuring unit obtains a measured value from the process and feeds it to a CONTROLLER
whose job it is to compare the two values. If a deviation exists between the two values, the
CONTROLLER sends a correcting signal to the final element in the loop a correcting unit
which is usually a CONTROL VALVE.


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Check Yourself 8

Check Yourself 9

The following items from a level control loop are part of the measuring unit, the level controller
or the level control valve. Indicate by a tick in the box provided, to which part of the system each

Measuring Unit

Level Controller

differential mechanism

pilot relay
torque tube rod

Level Control Valve

actuator spring

valve plug

flapper nozzle assembly


feedback unit

float rod

If signal pressure is required to close the

valve a loss of signal pressure causes the
valve to open. It is therefore in a fail open

valve stem


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Check Yourself 10

Check Yourself 11
Indicate, to which of the three areas, a, b or c, each
statement belongs.

Figure 53
Figure 53 shows the water end of a 3 phase
separator. An instrument bridle is connected to
the separator with the top connection in the oil
and the bottom connection in the water. The
instrumentation on the bridle is identical to the
instrumentation on the bridle at the oil end of
the separator.

This instrumentation consists of: level controller

incorporating level alarms, high-high and lowlow level switches and, of course, one or more
sight glasses. (Only one is shown in Figure 53
for simplicity).

Inhibit output signal from the level

switch low low.


Increase flow of fluids into the separator,


Ensure level in the sight glass is readable,


Inject demulsifying chemical.


By-pass the ESDV on the separator inlet,


Ensure that the vessel pressure is at

normal operating value.


Inspect the connection between vessel

and instrument bridle for leakage.


Liquid carry over occurs because

of foaming.


Observe the level building on the upstream

side of the weir.


10 Check that the inlet manifold valves

are open.