The API separator is a gravity separation device designed using Stokes' law principles that define the rise velocity of oil droplets based on their density, size and water properties. The design of the separator is based on the specific gravity difference between the oil and the wastewater because that difference is much smaller than the specific gravity difference between the suspended solids and water. Based on that design criterion, most of the suspended solids will settle to the bottom of the separator as a sediment layer, the oil will rise to top of the separator, and the wastewater will be the middle layer between the oil on top and the solids on the bottom.The API Design Standards, when correctly applied, make adjustments to the geometry, design and size of the separator beyond simple Stokes Law principles. This includes allowances for water flow entrance and exit turbulence losses as well as other factors. API Specification 421 requires a minimum length to width ratio of 5:1 and minimum depth-to-width ratio of 0.3:0.5.
Typically in operation of API separators the oil layer, which may contain entrained water and attached suspended solids, is continually skimmed off. This removed oily layer may be re-processing to recover valuable products, or disposed of. The heavier bottom sediment layer is removed by a chain and flight scraper (or similar device) and a sludge pump.