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Motorcycle Maintenance

Mon, 01/06/2015
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Routine maintenance of your motorcycle is vital to keeping your bike in the best condition possible and safe to ride at all times.  There are a handful of checks that you can do on a regular basis to ensure you keep your bike in good order. These checks can be done at home and will only take a few minutes, so there is no excuse for not doing them. You don’t need to be a mechanic or have any special or expensive tools to do these checks but your bike will thank you for doing them, will be more of a joy to ride and will be more reliable and last a lot longer than if it is not maintained.

These checks are split in to 2 groups: Daily checks & periodical checks

Daily checks- These checks should be carried out every day that you use the bike. Ideally done before you first set off, these checks are to make sure that the bike is roadworthy and compliant with UK road laws. These checks are all visual inspections and should take no more than a couple of minutes to complete.

Daily checks are:

    1. Lights- Check that all lights are working (headlamp, side lights, tail & stop lamps, indicators and number plate lamp). This should be done even during the day and even if you have no intention of riding at night.
    2. Horn- Check that the horn works and is audible.
    3. Tyre Pressure- Check the tyres are at the correct pressures.*
    4. Tyre Tread Depth- Check for a minimum of 1.5mm tread depth around the tyre.
    5. Engine oil level- Check the level sits between the upper and lower marks.*
    6. Coolant Level- Check the level sits between the upper and lower marks.*
    7. Break wear- Check pads are not worn below their wear indicators and discs are not lipped.
    8. Chain tension- Check that the chain is not too slack or too tight.*

Periodical checks are carried out less often but still at regular intervals such as every 1000 miles or once a month, whichever comes first, similar to the service schedule. These are largely the same as the daily checks but we look more closely at their overall condition and evaluate further servicing needs.  These are a combination of visual and physical checks but shouldn’t take more than 5-10 minutes to complete.

Periodical checks are:

    1. Lights- Check that all lights are working (headlamp, side lights, tail & stop lamps, indicators and number plate lamp). This should be done even during the day and even if you have no intention of riding at night.
    2. Horn- Check that the horn works and is audible. Check connectors for corrosion.
    3. Tyre Pressure- Check the tyres are at the correct pressures.*
    4. Tyre Tread Depth- Check for a minimum of 1.5mm tread depth around the tyre.
    5. Tyre Condition- Check the profile of the tyre for uneven wear, cuts and punctures.
    6. Engine oil level- Check the level sits between the upper and lower marks. Check colour and consistency of the oil.*
    7. Coolant Level- Check the level sits between the upper and lower marks.*
    8. Brake wear- Check pads are not worn below their wear indicators and discs are not lipped. Check Brake fluid levels. Check Brake lever/pedal, brake lines and calipers for leaks, seizures and corrosion.
    9. Chain & Sprockets- Check that the chain is not too slack or too tight. Check chain for kinks & tight spots. Check sprocket teeth for wear and ‘hooking’.*
    10. Battery- Check the battery is holding charge at the correct level.*
    11. Number plate- Check the plate is fitted securely, clean and unmarked.
    12. Nut and bolt check- Check nuts, bolts and screws around the bike are tight and not rattling loose.

Lights:

It’s important to make sure your lights are operational at all times. This is a simple check that takes just seconds to do.

Start the bike up and turn the headlamp on, check the beam is steady and not pointing up or to the right. Check the tail lamp is illuminated. Operate the front brake lever and the rear brake pedal in turn to check the stop lamp goes on and off without sticking. Turn on the left and right hand indicators in turn and check that they flash in sequence and at a steady pace (aftermarket L.E.D. indicators often require a separate resistor to control their speed- flashing too fast is an indication that the resistor has failed or is not fitted at all). Check that the number plate lamp is on and shining across the whole of the number plate and that a reflector is showing to the rear of the bike.

Any lamps that have blown should be replaced before riding (L.E.D. units have to be replaced in their entirety).  If you have changed a bulb and the lamp doesn’t work, check the fuses and replace as required. (If the lamp still doesn’t work after changing the fuse consult a bike mechanic as there may be earth or wiring issues).

It is illegal to show a white light to the rear or sides of a vehicle, so any cracked or broken lenses that allow white light to show anywhere, other than forwards, will have to be repaired or replaced. 

Tyres:

Tyre condition is crucial to the safety of the rider. It’s important to regularly check the tyre pressures and adjust them accordingly. The correct tyre pressures for your bike will be listed in the handbook and may also be stamped into the sidewall of the tyre. It’s important to remember that tyre pressures need to be adjusted to account for a number of different changes such as the additional weight of a pillion, ambient temperature changes and the terrain you are riding on. You should always check the tyre pressure when the tyres are “cold” – i.e. not when you have returned from a ride.

Uneven tyre wear can be caused when the tyres are either under or over inflated for a period of time. Characteristics of uneven tyre wear are vibrations through the steering head and notched auto-centering steering, as well as a feeling of the bike being difficult to lean into a bend and then suddenly dropping in “over an edge”. Bald/flat patches in a regular pattern around the tyre and raised edges of the tread patterns are also ‘tell-tail’ signs. 

Punctures are often unavoidable but are not the end of the world. It is often useful to carry a can of Tyre-weld or other similar product particularly on long journeys. If you are competent with tools you may choose to carry a ‘plugging’ kit to plug any puncture holes yourself but it’s worth bearing in mind you will need to be able to re-inflate the tyre afterwards. You should never pull screws, nail or other foreign bodies out of your tyre especially if they are blocking the air from escaping. Push them in to seal the holes and get to a safe place where the tyre can be changed or repaired.

The minimum tread depth required to pass an MOT is 1.5mm for both front and rear tyres of a motorcycle. This is measured in the center 3rd of the tyre often at more than one point around the tyre. Less than 1.5mm, bald, worn or punctured tyres should be replaced. It is recommended, but not essential, to keep the front and rear tyres as matching models and patterns to ensure they are working together in the same way; therefore a lot of riders will chose to change their tyres in pairs.  It is not recommended that you use part worn, ‘race scrub’ or any other form of second hand tyre because you simply don’t know its level of integrity. Similarly it is not recommended that you change your tyres yourself unless you are experienced in doing so.

Chain & Sprockets:

The drive chain and sprockets are an integral part of what makes your bike go. Without them you won’t be going anywhere. The toothed front sprocket is connected to the engine via the drive shaft which pulls the chain around. The chain is also looped over a second toothed sprocket attached to the rear wheel so that when the engine turns, the rear wheel turns. With wear the teeth on the sprockets become ‘hooked’ and the chain will jump off of the sprocket.  It’s important to monitor the wear of the sprockets and change them in pairs as they degrade.

The chain is formed of a series of metal links joined together with small metal pins and rubber O-rings. Chains stretch in length as they wear so it’s important again to monitor their stretching. A chain that is too loose will jump off of the sprockets. The chain may be adjusted by moving the rear wheel back in the swingarm to take up the slack. This adjustment can only go so far though; any further and you will risk the chain snapping.  The chain should have a certain amount of slack to allow for the travel of the rear suspension as it moves up and down. This tolerance varies from bike to bike so check your handbook for detail on your model and how to check it.  A chain that is too tight will pull on the drive shaft of the engine and could bend it out of alignment- this is very costly to repair and in many cases will deem the bike to be beyond economical repair!

Kinks and tight spots occur in chains that have become dry and used at the incorrect tension. Chains should be lubricated with chain oil regularly to keep the metal from corroding, the O-rings supple and not allowed to dry out.  On occasions dry and kinked chains may be recovered by removing them from the bike and placing them in a bucket of OLD engine oil for several days. This won’t always work however and only works with old oil, not new.

Undue wear to chains and sprockets is caused by poor maintenance and heavy throttle use. Harsh acceleration and wheelies put massive strain on the chains and will reduce their life expectancy considerably. 

Brakes:

Brakes are the single most important aspect of your bike as they are your sole means of stopping the bike safely, therefore we should maintain them accordingly. Brake pads and discs wear down with use and need to be replaced periodically. Brake pads have wear markers that run through the useable material. Once you can no longer see the wear marker, because the pads have worn down past them, they must be changed. Do not wait until they are down to the metal before you change them.  Brake discs also wear down but don’t have any markers; instead you will notice a lip start to form around the outside edge of the disc where the pads have worn down the surface.  Once a distinguishable lip has formed the discs should be changed. Front brake pads and front brake discs should always be changed in pairs (where fitted in pairs) to avoid uneven wear and biased braking. New pads may be applied to an existing disc but if the disc is changed the pads must also be changed.  Drums brakes follow the same principle but only the brake shoes are replaced as the drum forms part of the wheel.

Brake fluid should be checked regularly and changed periodically. As the braking materials degrade the fluid levels will drop to compensate for the lack of material.  Brake fluid breaks down over time and will need to be replaced in line with your service schedule.  Sponginess in the braking system is often an indicator of low fluid levels or poor performance from the brake master cylinder and should be investigated by a mechanic.

Fluids:

Engine oil is crucial to the health of your engine. Engine oil circulates around the moving parts of the engine to lubricate them and prevent friction and grinding between these parts. If you ran your engine of a period of time without any engine oil eventually the moving parts will expand with heat, grind against each other, and fuse together- seizing the engine. This almost always results in the total loss of the engine as repair will be either impossible or more costly than buying a new engine.

There are two main methods of checking the engine oil level in your engine. The method you use will depend on whether your bike if fitted with a sight glass gauge or a dip stick.  Most manufacturers place these on the right hand side of the engine either incorporated into or next to the clutch cover. This isn’t always the case; some are in the frame or swingarm, so consult your handbook to be sure.

The dipstick or sight glass will have an upper and lower mark indicating the minimum and maximum oil levels required for safe operation of the engine. You should maintain an oil level between these two marks. The difference between minimum and maximum is often as little as half a litre of oil. If the oil level is low, top it up by adding oil via the oil filler cap (see handbook) until you reach the required mark.

Always check and fill the engine oil with the bike stood upright- NEVER on its side stand as this will give a false reading. Most bikes should be checked while the engine is cold; some however need to be at running temperature before the level is measured. These tend to be bikes with dry sumps, characteristics of which tend to be having the oil stored in the frame rather than in the bottom of the engine. Always use the correct oil for your engine and never reuse oil or hydraulic fluid of any sort.

Water-cooled engines also have a water-based fluid circulating around them. This fluid flows through chambers of the engine known as the ‘water jacket’ transferring heat away from the cylinders to the radiator where the cooling draft air cools the water before it recirculates back into the engine. With constant heating and cooling this fluid breaks down over time and should be replaced periodically, usually at regular service intervals. A coolant reservoir can usually be located next to the radiator (Check your handbook for location) which will display upper and lower marking similar to those used to check the engine oil level. DO NOT use ordinary tap water to top up the coolant- lime scale will form in the system and require expensive cleaning processes. Always use the correct automotive coolant.

Corrosion:

Corrosion is an ongoing battle for every motorcycle owner and is something that needs to be kept on top off if you want your bike to look good and function as it should. Besides lubrication of areas such and chains, sprockets and electrical connectors there are a few other things that should be considered. Water and bare metal is a major issue where corrosion is concerned. Try to keep your bike under cover as much as possible to stop it getting wet when not in use- garages or bike covers are ideal. Dry the bike after a ride in the wet; once the bike has cooled go around the bike with an old cloth and wipe off any surface water. Chips in paint on metal parts such as frames and fuel tanks should be touched in with corrosion resistant primer to stop corrosion before it starts.

Coastal areas suffer from salt corrosion through the high salt content in the air. This is combated by regular washing of the bike with fresh water and again drying the bike thoroughly afterwards. The same treatment may be applied in the winter to protect against corrosion from road salt.  Copper grease may be applied to bolt threads to prevent seizing and some people go as far as to applied petroleum base grease such as Vaseline to bolt heads and other exposed metallic areas or even apply a thin layer of WD40 across surfaces. 

Battery:

Most motorcycles employ a 12v sealed battery made small enough to be accommodated neatly in the bike. Different models use different shapes, sizes and voltages.  You can check the voltage of your battery using a multimeter. Motorcycles draw a lot of power from the battery to start the engines so it is important to maintain a healthy battery with at least 12v but ideally 13-14v.  If your bike is garaged or has an accessible power supply use a trickle charger when the bike is parked to maintain the battery’s voltage. If this is not possible and the bike is not being used on a day-to-day basis it is advisable to disconnect the battery between uses. This will not be possible if you have an alarm or tracker fitted however.

The battery charges off the generator/alternator whilst the bike is running. If you continually lose charge in your battery have it checked by a garage- the battery may have worn out (they have a life expectancy and won’t last forever) or there may be underlying electrical issues within the bike itself.

Nut & Bolt check:

Over time nuts and bolts have a tendency to either seize up or rattle loose.  Take a few minutes to go around the main nuts and bolts on the bike and check that they are still nice and tight.  Areas to check are wheel spindles, pinch bolts, steering head top nut, handlebars, brake lines, levers, pedals and footrests. You might also want to check the fairing bolts. Sump plugs and oil filters are also important areas as they tend to be closest to the ground and can be impacted from debris on the road.

Number plate:

Number plates should be fitted to the rear of the motorcycle and conform to British road laws in size, type, colours and characters. The number plate should be clean and readable and illuminated at night. Number pates must also display the name and postal code of the company that made/supplied it.  It is also a legal requirement to display a red reflector to the rear of the bike; these are often incorporated into the number plate holder or rear mudguard/fender. If that is not the case stick-on reflectors are available and often applied to the bottom corner of the number plate which is permissible.

Horn:

Horns, if fitted, should be in good working order and audible. Often the tone and volume can be adjusted by turning a small screw in the rear of the horn. If the horn stops working check the connections for corrosion and check the fuse.

Summary:

This list of key points for maintenance is by no mean exhaustive of what may need to be done on any particular bike but you should now have good base of knowledge of what to keep an eye on and how to spot if something needs further attention.  Hopefully you will also now be able to provide at least the basic level of care for your bike which a lot of people seem to forget.

*refer to your handbook for tolerance and inspection methods.

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