Check your oil!

The customer tells me, “It made a bad sound, then stopped running. Now, when I push the starter button, nothing happens.” We turn the motor by hand, and feel and hear scraping and grinding. Next we drain the oil. It has less than 1/2 quart of black sludge. It’s supposed to have 2 quarts of oil. Now we know exactly what happened: oil starvation leads to catastrophic engine failure. The picture above is the piston, missing pieces that are now stuck in all the wrong places throughout the motor. It’s done; game over. Time to swap in a used motor or get a new bike.

This is a story I’ve seen before, too many times. This is what happens when you don’t check your oil, or change it once in a while. Hopefully this helps a few out there to get the point: check your oil!! So now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about how to do this.

Motorcycles, unlike cars, have a variety of ways they tell you how much oil they have. Dipsticks are sometimes used, more commonly these days a sight glass is how you check the oil. But even with these 2 common options, there are a variety of ways to do it correctly. Do you check on the sidestand? Centerstand or upright? Do you screw in the dipstick to check it? Is the engine warm? Did you let it sit or did you just turn it off? Is there a separate oil tank, maybe the frame itself is a tank, or even the swingarm on a Buell? It turns out there are a ridiculous number of ways engine oil is checked. It’s up to you to make sure you know how to properly check the oil on your bike. The owner’s manual is the best place to get this information. If you don’t have your owner’s manual, look online. Manufacturers make an effort to keep owner’s manuals available to the public, and there are specific forums and websites dedicated to many makes and models that have owner’s manuals to download.

Here are some basics that should help:
*Always check the oil with it warmed up. Oil expands when it’s warm. Only a warm motor will read correctly. Also, bikes with a tank need to have the oil circulated to read properly.
*Most bikes are checked while upright, either on the centerstand or held upright. The best way to do this is to sit on it and balance. Sometimes    you need a friend. It is rare, but does occur, that you check the bike on its sidestand. Some Harley’s for example.
*A friend is very helpful for reading a sight glass. One of you hold it upright while the other checks the level.
*Always wait a minute or two after you turn it off to check the level. This allows all the oil to settle.
*Most dipsticks are checked without screwing them in. Some BMWs and Harleys require screwing them in to read correctly.

Now that you know how to check your oil, what if it’s low and you need to top it off? First, make sure you are putting the right oil in your bike. Do not put car oil in your bike!! Car oil has additives that are bad for the wet clutches found in most motorcycles. The wrong oil can ruin your clutch quickly. Only use oil made for motorcycles or ATVs. Next, find the right weight oil for your bike. 10w-40 is most common, but there are many combinations of these numbers that might go in your bike. And just to explain the numbers: the first number is the weight of the oil at ambient temperature (room or outdoor temperature) and weight means how thick/thin, or viscus, the oil is. The second number, the 40 in this case, is the weight of the oil when it is at operating temperature. So the oil gets thicker, more viscus, when it’s hot. Older bikes would recommend 10W-30 in the winter and 10W-40 in the summer. Here in Texas that means 10W-40 year round. Check your owner’s manual and see what the manufacturer recommends and definitely put that weight in your bike. Also check to see if it specifies a synthetic oil.

There are a ridiculous number of conversations about what oil to put in your bike on the internet, and here’s another one. Once you have the proper weight figures out, there’s synthetic or non, and which brand. This is where there are as many opinions as there are people. I’ll tell you what works for me. I only put synthetic oil in motorcycles that spec synthetic, that the manufacturer says it requires synthetic. The exception to that rule is my 90s Ducati that I baby in every way possible. It’s original owner always put in synthetic and I have followed suit. For the dozens of other bikes I take care of, I use a good quality non-synthetic oil and I change it at least as often as recommended. Oil carries the carbon ‘dirt’ made in combustion engines. Synthetic oil has the ability to carry more dirt. Why not just get that dirt out more often with a more affordable oil? That’s my thinking. There are a bunch of stories floating around about how switching from synthetic to non, or back the other way, will do something bad to your bike. Technically, the only difference in these oils is that the synthetic oil has all perfect molecules, while naturally processed oil has some imperfect molecules. Your bike really shouldn’t know the difference. That being said, I have met a few people that will tell me a story of how their bike was different when they changed from one to the other. It doesn’t match my engineering background’s way of looking at these things, but these people weren’t lying. In the end, choose what’s right for you. Just know that you are not hurting anything when you switch. The truth is, if you are at the point where you are researching what oil is best, you are taking good care of your bike. This post is mostly for those that haven’t got to that point yet.

So look at that picture again, and remember how important oil is to your bike. Check it. Change it. Then go ride knowing you are doing it right.

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