Interface level detection

Endress+Hauser Australia Pty Ltd
Monday, 03 November, 2008

Compared to a standard level measurement in liquids, the detection and measurement of interfaces have their own particular challenges, leaving many interface applications without reliable level measurements. Most popular today are the electronic or non-mechanical solutions with no moving mechanical parts which offer much higher long-term stability and low or no maintenance operation.

Ideally, an interface is a clear separation between two media with different densities, such as a food product and cleaning solution. Practically, however, a transition or emulsion layer often exists between the two media. Consequently, multiple interfaces exist if one considers the transition from the first medium to the emulsion layer, and then from the emulsion layer to the second medium. So with the addition of each different medium two new interfaces are presented.

Figure 1: Different situations for interface measurement.

One non-food example is an oil/water separator in the crude oil extraction process. At the bottom there will be a sedimentation layer, consisting of sand and other heavy substances, followed by a liquid/solid interface to the water layer. During the separation of oil and water an emulsion layer will be formed, and frequently a foam layer can be found on top of the oil - five interfaces.

Process conditions not only affect and change the properties of the mediums but also influence the performance of the selected interface measuring technology. For example, traditional displacer or differential pressure technologies operate based on different densities of the media. Changes in process temperature and densities will cause measuring errors. Build-up and scaling on the sensing elements is another factor that affects mechanical systems with moving parts.

When measuring interface levels, there are further considerations. Is the overall level constant or variable - and, if variable, what is the variation? Is only the interface level measurement required or is the overall level needed as well? Answering these questions will help in the selection of the appropriate instrumentation.

Commissioning procedures also have to be taken into account as some measuring systems can only be commissioned using a ‘wet calibration’, which means the vessel must be filled with both process fluids, one at a time. This not only adds complexity but also incurs costs during commissioning and throughout the life cycle of the instrumentation. These costs of ownership need to be considered.

Mechanical vs electronic systems

Although these systems still offer a wide range of applications, they have lost favour to electronic systems which offer the following advantages over mechanical systems:

  • Capital costs: Although there are cost advantages on the smaller and simpler measuring applications, on larger and more complicated requirements, mechanical systems can cost up to three times more than electronic solutions.
  • Poor dynamics: When interface measurement is between two products with small specific gravity differences or where the span of interface change is small (small dynamic), mechanical systems cannot offer a high enough measurement resolution.
  • Poor flexibility: If either the media changes or if the density changes at any time, the complete mechanical design has to be re-sized and the construction modified.
  • Poor reliability: Sedimentation, scaling and corrosion on the mechanical parts not only influences accuracy but can lead to the complete failure of the system.
  • High maintenance: Today, plants run with lean engineering resources and maintenance-intensive systems only add to operational costs.

Electronic methods

Differential pressure

Differential pressure (DP) transmitters can be used to measure the interface between two fluids that have different densities (ρ). Unlike hydrostatic level measurement, the difference between the densities (ρ1-ρ2) of both liquids has to be considered for the calculation of the differential pressure.

Figure 2: Interface measurement using differential pressure.

 Since the calculation for interface level measurement is based on the difference of the product densities, the resulting DP is small. This makes the accuracy of the DP method unreliable due to external effects. External factors such as the temperature change effect on remote chemical seals and capillaries, or product density changes in the products can produce side-effects that prevent the desired accuracy.

While DP interface measurement is one of the most popular and cost-effective solutions, it is also most vulnerable to external influences such as fluctuating ambient temperatures and changing product densities, and users need to carefully take this into consideration.

Capacitive probes

The instrument probe in combination with a metallic tank forms the two plates of a capacitor, with the medium in the tank acting as the dielectric, and when the dielectric changes, the capacitance changes. Consequently, capacitance offers a simple yet precise interface measurement of mediums with different dielectric constants (DC).

Figure 3: Interface measurement using capacitive probes.


C = capacitance
D = Dielectric Constant (DC) of the medium
εr = Dielectric Constant (DC) of the medium
εo = Density of the lighter media
D = Diameter of the outer electrode
d = Diameter of the inner electrode  

This technology offers certain advantages over other measurement technologies:

  • Overall level changes: The measurement of the interface is still reliable as long as the value of the lower medium is sufficiently higher than the DC of the upper medium.
  • Emulsion layers: Since capacitance measures the combined DC of both media, it is unique in that it produces a stable measurement even when faced with emulsion layers with no well-defined interface.
  • Density and temperature variations: Capacitance is immune to these changes.
  • Suitability software: The suitability of capacitance technology for an interface measurement is easily determined using application software tools.
  • Dry calibration: Using application software, wet calibration can be completely avoided, resulting in significant savings of user effort and costs.

Radiometric measurement

Radiometric (gamma) measurement is non-intrusive and thus ideally suited to level measurement applications in which other technologies will not be able to operate due to harsh process conditions such as high temperatures and pressures, or due to physical limitations. These systems are not low cost and therefore are only considered after all other technologies have been exhausted.

Although high end, radiometric systems do offer a solution for difficult situations. For example, the use of multiple sources and detectors makes it possible to implement the detection of multiple interfaces, providing a product ‘profile’ in the vessel, and is far less costly than other profilers available in the marketplace.

Figure 4: Interface measurement in a separator using radiometric systems.

While radiometric systems have a high initial investment, the long-term reliability of this instrumentation solution does reduce downtime. Modern technology minimises radiation concerns as very low nuclear source activities are required. Additionally, reputable vendors today offer a single device that can measure level, interface and density measurement thereby reducing the investments in stocking spare parts.

Guided radar

Level measurement with guided radar operates using high-frequency radar (electromagnetic) impulses which are guided along a wave guide, a suspended conductive rod or rope. When the impulse reaches the surface of a medium, the change of the electrical impedance causes part of the energy to be reflected. The measured time-of-flight between emitting and receiving of the impulse is directly proportional to the distance between the measuring instrument and the product surface.

Only a part of the radar impulse is reflected by the medium surface. The remaining energy penetrates through the medium and part of it is reflected once it reaches the surface of another medium further down. This effect is used for interface measurement with guided radar.

This technology does have some boundary conditions which need to be satisfied for reliable measurements. These are:

  • The dielectric constant (DC) of the upper medium has to be known, needs to be <10 and needs to remain constant. It must also always be >60 mm thick.
  • The difference in DC between the media has to be >10.
  • Emulsions layers need to be <50 mm thick.

Figure 5: Interface measurement using guided radar.

Although the boundary conditions are strict, guided radar offers the following advantages:

  • No wet calibration required.
  • Independent of medium density.
  • Direct replacement of mechanical displacers in the existing chamber.


There is no universal technology that covers all interface applications, highlighting the importance of the correct selection to provide best performance with optimised cost of ownership.

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