The Effects of Viscosity On Systems And Pump Selection

Author: Mike Baxter | September 4, 2014 | Category: Pumps

DetergentWhen selecting a pump for your system, it's important to understand the fluid you're pumping to its fullest extent. What happens when it's heated? What happens when energy is added? When choosing the pump you need, there are a number of factors that come into play, and viscosity of the fluid is one of them. In this post, you'll learn the basics of viscosity, and how heat and energy can affect the viscosity of fluid.  

Viscosity is a fluid property which is resistance to shear when energy is applied. This characteristic must be taken into account when making process pump selections and in determining friction losses in a fluid process system. Centrifugal pump performance is based on testing with water. Positive displacement pumps performance is based on using water or oils where lubrication is required.

Viscosity is commonly expressed in units of SSU (Seconds Saybolt Universal), cPs (Centipoise) or cSt (Centistokes). The relationship between these units is expressed in the following equations:

SSU = cSt x 4.55 (where cSt are greater than 50)

cSt = cPs/SG (specific gravity)




Liquids that exhibit reduced viscosity with rising temperature are referred to as Newtonian. Motor oils would be a great example of Newtonian fluids. 

Shear Thinning or Thixotropic

Liquids that exhibit reduced viscosity when energy is applied are referred to as shear thinning or thixotropic. Paint would be an example of a shear thinning liquid. 

Shear Thickening or Dilatant


Liquids that exhibit increasing viscosity when energy is applied are referred to as shear thickening or dilatant. Candy compounds, for instance, tend to thicken when energy is applied.


A testing device known as a viscometer is used to determine liquid viscosity.  Tests are typically conducted through a range of shear rates and temperatures with the resultant viscosity plotted in graphical form.  A given flow rate through a specific sized pipe determines the shear rate at that line velocity.  Knowing the temperature and shear rate for the operating conditions defines the viscosity for those conditions.


When the viscosity is known along with the other operating parameters, the type of pump to use can be determined. In general, a centrifugal pump is suitable for low viscosity fluids since the pumping action generates high liquid shear. As the viscosity increases, the pump performance has to be adjusted to account for the additional resistance to shear. Typically there is a small reduction in flow, a more significant reduction in head or pressure, and a substantial increase in power draw.

Generally speaking, positive displacement pumps are the best selection when handling viscous fluids. They typically operate at lower speeds and impart low amounts of shear energy to the fluid compared to a centrifugal pump. There are a variety of positive displacement pumps to choose from based on the application requirements.

Viscosity is an important factor in determining friction losses due to shear energy in a fluid process system and in the selection and sizing of valves, filters, instrumentation and piping. There are a variety of reference materials available that provide friction loss data for a given flow rate, pipe size and fluid viscosity. Data also is available that converts pipe fittings and valves into equivalent straight length of pipe.

When handling viscous fluids, there is no substitute for actual operating experience in determining how the fluid will behave. This information combined with available viscosity data will allow a proper analysis of the fluid process system characteristics. Once the fluid process system has been designed and the pump operating parameters defined, the proper pump selection can be made.

Is viscosity putting you in a sticky situation? Ask us about it! We gladly provide technical assistance to businesses in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

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Mike Baxter

Mike Baxter

Mike Baxter is a Professional Engineer, and the National Accounts Manager for Crane Engineering. He has over 35 years of experience in chemical, pulp and paper, food and beverage, power generation, OEM, as well as water and wastewater industries. His focus is on assisting customers with fluid process needs, including pumping, filtration, mixing, and packaged skid systems.

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