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Oil Viscosity - Weighing in on Engine Lubrication

What everyone should know

     
 
 
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Most people are familiar with oil's viscosity rating-10W40, for example. However, very few may know that the "W" refers to "winter," not "weight." And most of us have no idea what the weight-rating numbers actually mean other than that the vehicle's manufacturer specifies a particular viscosity.
Oil Duties
Inside an engine, oil is in a Catch-22 scenario: it has to seal rings and valves, but it also must reduce friction. In simple terms, oil has to accomplish two functions that have directly opposite requirements.
 
The viscosity of any oil changes with temperature. The higher the temperature, the lower the viscosity-the oil thins out. On the flipside, the lower the temperature, the higher the viscosity. Because of this, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has established a series of viscosity classifications that establish oil performance at 100 and 0 degrees Celsius (212 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively).
Highs & Lows
Low-viscosity oils flow better than high-viscosity ones-the lighter-weight fluid is easier to pump and therefore circulates faster through the engine's various galleries. Low-viscosity oils also maintain a lower oil pressure, but the oil pump delivers a greater volume through the galleries than it would with thicker (higher-viscosity) oils. Heavier oils also tend to operate at higher temperatures because the oil pump has to work harder to force the lubricant through the system. Oil does not compress readily, so the added pressure increases the temperature. In the end, high-viscosity oils maintain a higher oil pressure, but the pump delivers a smaller volume of oil.
Multigrades
Multigrade oils typically begin as base oils, such as 10W. Then viscosity-index modifiers (polymers) are added in an effort to stabilize the viscosity. This allows a 10W40 oil to flow like a 10W at cold temperatures and a 40W at higher temperatures. In other words, multigrade oils are formulated to pass viscosity tests across a range of weights. For example, 10W30 meets the requirements for 10-weight at cold temperatures and 30-weight at high temps.
 
The multigrade oils' viscosity modifiers are long-chain molecules that lessen the change of viscosity with temperature variance. In the past, the polymer additives (used to thicken the oil) were sometimes susceptible to viscosity loss. Permanent viscosity loss occurred when high shear forces (such as the relationship between the main bearings and the crankshaft) actually break the polymer molecules into less-effective smaller pieces. On a similar note, temporary viscosity loss also occurred when the polymer molecules aligned themselves in order to create a path of least resistance.
 
Fortunately, today's additive packages have improved oil's shear-resistance. However, oils with the same rating from different manufacturers can exhibit different viscosity ratings in an operating engine, depending on the shear stability of their viscosity-modifying additives.
 
For technoids, weights are defined thusly (stokes and centistrokes are measurements of viscosity):
 
"SAE 30 is SAE 30 no matter what the "W" prefix number is: 0W, 5W or 10W. This viscosity in centistokes (cSt) @ 100 degrees C is with the minimum of 9.3 cSt and a maximum of 12.5 cSt.
 
"SAE 40 is SAE 40 no matter what the "W" prefix number is: 5W, 10W, 15W or 20W. The viscosity @ 100 degrees C is within the minim of 12.5 cSt and a maximum of 16.3 cSt.
 
"SAE 50 is SAE 50 no matter what the "W" prefix number is: 5W, 10W, 15W or 25W. The viscosity @ 100 degrees C is within the minimum of 16.3 cSt and a maximum of 21.9 cSt.
 
"SAE 60 is SAE 60 no matter what the "W" prefix number is: 10W, 15W or 25W. The viscosity @ 100 degrees C is within the minimum of 21.9 cSt and a maximum of 26.1 cSt.
 
"There is no SAE 70 and no one is likely to make one with a "W" prefix number although it is possible using a synthetic base oil. This viscosity is identified as Grade 70. The viscosity @ 100 degrees C has a minimum of 26.1 cSt and no maximum."
 
The difference between a multigrade and a singlegrade oil: The singlegrade can't pass the low temperature viscosity test. If it did meet one of the following "W" viscosities, it would be a multigrade.
 
Singlegrade oils will become obsolete for performance engines in the future. We dropped SAE 30 and SAE 40 because SAE 10W40 does everything 30 or 40 can do-and some things the straight grades can't do-like increasing horsepower. If an off-roader doesn't like 10W40, then use 20W50. It can do everything a 10W40 can do except pass the sub-zero viscosity test at -20 degrees C.
 
Multigrade viscosities are run at six different sub-zero temperatures. When a racing-oil designer puts a formula together, he has to know the viscosity at 100 degrees C of every component in the additive composition. He has to have a target viscosity objective for the finished oil in each SAE grade. Once a formula is established, the technician who supervises the blending has to duplicate this formula in the correct proportions every time the product is blended. The viscosity at 100 degrees C has a plus or minus written into the oil's quality-control specification.
Multi-Viscosity
One oil manufacturer claims that "some people in the industry use multi-viscosity as if it means the same thing as multigrade. An oil cannot be multi-viscosity, but it can be multigrade by meeting the viscosity requirements for SAE 30, 40, 50 or 60 and one of the sub-zero "W" viscosity requirements. At one time, some oil companies labeled oils SAE 10W, 20W30-as if the oil could be 10W and 20W at the same time. This is impossible because 10W is measured at -20 degrees C and 20W is measured at -10 degrees C, which eliminates the multi-viscosity theory."
 
 

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