Most of us have only a vague understanding of viscosity. We tend to choose an oil with a viscosity that we believe is correct for our particular engine, but would another viscosity improve or reduce the life of the engine? Can we freely pick and choose a viscosity outside a manufacturer’s recommendations?
Technically, viscosity is defined as resistance to flow. Commonly though, we think of it as an oil’s thickness. To be more specific, it is the thickness of an oil at a given temperature. The plot thickens (ha!).
The viscosity of an oil could be reported at any temperature, but to standardize things, most laboratories report either a low temp (100°F or 40°C) or a high temp (210°F or 100°C). The standardized temperature reading allows us to compare apples to apples for judging the thickness of the oil. At Blackstone, we test the “high temp” part of the viscosity; that is, the thickness of the oil at 210°F SUS pr 100°C, which is about the operating temperature of your engine when it’s warmed up and running.
An apple is an apple, no matter what language you use to describe it. In the same respect, there are many ways to describe viscosity: SAE engine, SUS (Seybolt Universal Seconds), cSt (Centistokes), ISO grade, etc. For engine oil, we report both SUS and cSt. No matter what you call it, the number given simply defines the thickness of the oil at the standard high temperature.
Straight Weight vs. Multi-Grade
Engine oil can be either a straight weight or a multi-grade viscosity. In the old days, all oil was straight weight. Relatively few straight weights are manufactured today since most gas- or diesel-engine manufacturers recommend multi-grades. At operating temperature, a straight weight performs just as well as a multi-viscosity oil, and there is nothing wrong with using a straight weight. It’s just a simpler form of oil. Some diesel fleets use straight weights, as do about half the piston aircraft operators and many marine engines.
The difference between multi-grade and straight-weight oil is simply the addition of a viscosity improving (VI) additive. The most common grades of automotive oil in use today are 5W/30 and 5W/20, which are mineral oils refined with VI additives that leave it reading as an SAE 5W viscosity when cold, yet an SAE 30W or 20W when hot (at 210°F). The advantage to the multi-weight is that when starting the engine, the multi-viscosity oil (with its 5W thickness when cold), allows the engine to spin over more easily.
The most common diesel use oil is 15W/40. It is an SAE 15W oil with a VI additive that leaves it the thickness of an SAE 40W at operating temperature. What makes an oil a diesel-use oil (rather than automotive-use) is the level of additives used. Diesels require heavier levels of dispersant and anti-wear additives. These heavier additive levels are objectionable for automotive engines since they may interfere with the emission controls mandated by the EPA.
Which Viscosity to Use?
Engine owners often stray from manufacturers’ recommendations regarding the viscosity of their oil. The engine builders dyno-test their engines using a specific viscosity oil, so when you use the viscosity they recommend, you are working with a known result. Going to another viscosity is an experiment, but it’s usually a harmless one. For the sake of efficiency you want to run the lightest grade oil in your engine possible, within limits. We are seeing that trend for newer engines, for which the recommended grade is getting progressively lighter. The common 10W/30 has become a 5W/30, and many manufacturers recommend 5W/20 or 0W/20 oil. Even trucks now commonly leave the factory with 5W/20 in place.
Changes in Viscosity
Adding anything foreign to your oil can change its viscosity. Some types of after-market oil additives cause a quite high viscosity at operating temperature. We don’t typically recommend additives, since the oil you use already has additive in it. If there was magic in a bottle, the oil companies would be all over it.
Other changes to viscosity can result from contamination of the oil. Moisture and fuel can both cause the viscosity to increase or decrease, depending on the contaminant and how long it has been present in the oil. Antifreeze often increases an oil’s viscosity. Exposure to excessive heat (leaving the oil in use too long, engine overheating) can also increase viscosity. On the other hand, some engines are known to shear the viscosity down without the help of any contamination. If you’re seeing consistently thin viscosity readings without any contamination present, it might be your engine that’s doing it.
When your oil’s viscosity comes back as either lower or higher than the “Should Be” range, something is causing it. If the high/low viscosity is hurting wear, the key is to find out what it is and repair your engine or adjust your driving habits accordingly, to correct the viscosity and optimize your engine’s efficiency.
If you decide to use a different viscosity oil than what the manufacturer recommends, you might want to use oil analysis while you are experimenting. Your wear data doesn’t lie. People selling oils and additives may be sincere, but they don’t have to live with the results. They simply smile a lot on the way to the bank.