Bike Basics: The Oil Change

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One of the perks of owning a motorcycles is that routine maintenance is –  usually – much easier to perform than a similar job on a car. bike oil change lead

Oil and filter changes, for instance. With a bike, you won’t need a floor jack (or jack stands) and you won’t have to crawl around on your back, either. All you’ll need is a few very basic tools – a wrench or socket and ratchet to loosen/remove the oil drain plug bolt/filter bolt; possibly – in a few cases – a filter wrench to remove the filter, if the bike has a car-type spin-on canister filter (most bikes have replaceable cartridge-type filters) and a catch pan to collect the old oil. That plus maybe 10 minutes ought to be all you need. Let’s take a look at what’s involved. But first, a few important preliminaries:

* A bike is not a car – and it’s important to use oil made for bikes, not cars.

There are several reasons why. The most important of these is that most motorcycles have what’s called a wet clutch. That means it is submerged in oil. The same oil the engine uses.

Car oil is not formulated for this purpose, while oils made for motorcycles are. If you use car oil in a bike, you run the risk of performance problems with – and possible damage to – the clutch.

Another reason to not use car oil in a bike is that bike engines typically run hotter (especially if they’re air-cooled) and (typically) spin much faster. 10,000-plus RPM is common whereas the typical car engine redlines around 6,000 RPM. Bike engines require oils formulated to deal with these extremes. Car-intended oils may not make the cut and therefore should never be used in a bike unless you’re desperate for a top-off and that’s all that’s available. In that case, change the oil as soon as possible once you get back to oil picture

You can buy motorcycle-specific oil at any bike shop, or online  – where better deals might be available. Also be sure to stick with the viscosity and other requirements specified by the bike’s manufacturer. This info will be listed in the bike’s owner’s manual – and often, on a sticker underneath the seat or somewhere else on the bike. If you can’t find the manual – and the bike hasn’t got a sticker – look up the info online, or buy a replacement manual, or ask at the dealership. Whatever you do, don’t just pour whatever oil you’ve got in the garage into your bike. Yes, bike-specific oil is expensive – often a lot more expensive than car oil. But it’s a lot less expensive than a ruined engine.

* The filter.

You’ll need a new one. Some are disposable spin-on units (like a car’s) but many are internal cartridge type. You’ll have to remove a housing to get at the old one. No big deal, though. Just a little more mess. Have paper towels/old rags handy. I like to wear disposable rubber gloves to keep the old oil – which is laden with not-healthy compounds as well as dirty – off my skin. You can buy packs of these for $3 or so at places like Home Depot or Lowes and most auto supply joints, too.cannister filter

The really good news about motorcycle filters is there’s less worry about getting a crappy filter, no matter which brand you buy.  With cars, that is a significant worry – because there are typically a half dozen (or more) possible brands – and some are much better (and some much worse) than others. With bikes, you usually have your choice of either the factory brand (almost always ok) or a high-performance brand such as K&N (almost always much better than ok). There are a few aftermarket choices (the major one being Emgo) but none of these, to my knowledge, have ever been found to be pure crap – as has unfortunately been the case with some off-brand (and even name-brand) car filters. So, rest easy. Whatever you get will probably be ok.

* Tools.

Find out what you’ll need to do the job before you begin the job. Most bikes come with a factory tool kit under the seat, but for the most part, these are for emergency use only. You’ll want sockets and wrenches in the appropriate sizes. As with a car, you’ll need one the right size to loosen/remove the drain plug on the bottom of the engine as well as the appropriate tool to remove the old oil filter. Virtually all bikes are “metric” – meaning the fasteners are metric, not SAE. 10, 12, 14, 15 and 17 mm sockets will handle most jobs on most bikes.

An adjustable crescent wrench might be all you need, though – provided you’ve got sufficient access to the bolts. The main thing is to be patient – and exercise care. Most bike engines – and engine cases (and threads for bolts) are made of aluminum, which is a soft, easily damaged metal. A torque wrench is recommended, but if you haven’t got one, just slightly more than snug-by-hand is as tight as you’ll want to go. Always start bolts by hand, too – in order to be able to feel by hand that you’re not cross-threading the bolt.

* The check.oil sight glass

Bikes – generally – do not have dipsticks. They usually have sight glasses located somewhere low on one of the side cases, with a notch indicating “full.” However, these sight glasses can be misleading, especially if the bike’s not sitting straight up on its center stand – and many bike don’t have center stands at all.

This means it’s very important to meter what’s going in as you refill the crankcase, in order to avoid over-filling (or under-filling).  My ZRX1200 – the bike in the video – doesn’t have a center stand (like most sport bikes). It takes 3.7 quarts, an awkward number. The first three quarts are easy. I measure the last .7 of a quart in a beaker. Some containers have marks on the side you can use, too. Main thing – again – is to be careful not to over (or under) fill.

Just as you’d do with a car, once the fresh oil is in, start the bike and let it idle while looking for any leaks. If you see any – or the oil pressure light does not go out within a few seconds of start-up – stop the engine and re-check your work. Assuming no leaks or issues with the pressure, you’re good to go until the next time. oil change beaker

I recommend keeping a small paper notebook with the bike in which you can jot down the date/mileage and other particulars about any service work done to the bike – by yourself or by someone else. This will be a handy record to have on hand for future reference and will also provide documentation of proper service you can show a potential future owner, in the event you ever decide to sell the bike.

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  1. Nice garage you have there Eric. A real man’s garage, every man needs a garage like this. Looks like a house. Is that a pic of Elvis hanging on the wall?

    • Thanks, Joe!

      I’m pretty happy with it. It’s large (almost 3 car) and completely insulated/finished (drywall, casement windows, thermal double doors) so a good environment for storing classic vehicles.

      I need a lift, though. Crawling around on my back is something I’ll do if the need arises, but being able to stand upright while doing stuff like a transmission replacement/clutch job is every gearhead’s dream.

      Elvis watches over all!

      • Ditto on the lift. I’d love one too. I’ve costed them; here in Oz you can get a 240V single phase lift for under $2500. You also need 4 inches of concrete to put under it.

        I don’t like being on my back unless there is a beautiful woman on top……

  2. OK, this topic got me looking again, and whoa..into the deep end of the pool and woods of tech did I find myself.

    Eric, submitted for your (guru of all things powered with wheels on them) opinion and comment:

    “Modern passenger car engine oils contain more and more friction modifiers. While this is the good thing for those segments (reduces wear and fuel consumption) it’s bad for the motorcycles. At least for those motorcycles which use engine oil to lubricate their transmission and wet clutch. JASO introduced the MA and MB specification to distinguish between friction modified and non friction modified engine oils. Most four-stroke motorcycles with wet clutches need a JASO MA oil.

    “Modern motorcycles usually have the same oil lubricating the engine and the wet clutch. For this purpose most of the time the regular friction modified engine oils are not good enough. To make sure that the right oil is used motorcycle manufacturers usually require the oil to meet one of the JASO standards explained below.

    The motor oils that meet the JASO T 903:2006 standard can be classified into four grades: JASO MA, JASO MA1, JASO MA2 and JASO MB. The classification is based on the results of the JASO T 904:2006 clutch system firction test.

    In order for a motor oil to meet any of the above mentioned JASO standards it must be at least of one of the following quality levels:

    API SG, SH, SJ, SL, SM
    ILSAC GF-1, GF-2, GF-3
    ACEA A1/B1, A3/B3, A3/B4, A5/B5, C2, C3
    Furthermore, the motor oil’s Dynamic Friction Characteristic Index…”
    The remainder of the topic is here:

    • That’s it in a nutshell, Gary.

      Most bike engines, transmissions – and clutches – share a common sump. Very different from the set-up in cars, in which the engine has its own separate oiling system and the transmission is a separate component with its own (and different) lubrication system. And, of course, a dry clutch (w/manuals).

      Hence the differing standards. The bike-specific oil is designed to accommodate a wet clutch. Car-specific oil is not. Now, apparently, some people use car oil in their bikes without having problems. But engineering standards are based on objective criteria, and why anyone would choose to ignore them – in their expensive machine – to save a few bucks on oil – is something I’ll never understand.

      There are also the factors I mentioned in the article that are just as relevant:

      Many bikes are air-cooled and so run hotter (and may have different internal tolerances) that also impose different requirements on oil. Other-than-Harleys (and really big cruisers, like the Goldwing) also typically operate at much higher RPM – with redlines that can be two or even three times that of the typical car engine. My ZRX, for example, redlines at 11,500 RPM – and that’s mild compared with some – which spin to 15,000-plus. Even my ancient ’83 GL650 spins at about 5,000 cruising at 70. Redline is 10,000.

  3. As the owner of a couple of older bikes (80’s 90’s) I could not find the two letter SAE oil code the manuals called for, as the industry now has evolved through several codes and formula changes and no longer uses those codes. Except for expensive ($9.00 – $12.00 per Qt. +recycle fees + tax) “motorcycle specific” oil companies do not test or put a motorcycle rating on the bottle as they did in the past. After some research I found out that only the Japanese test oil on motorcycles anymore, and if good for them and their clutches you will see “JASO MA” on the label.

    Odd, to me anyway, the only non-motorcycle oil I could find with the JASO was Shell Rotella, which is marketed for diesel engines, and costs a whole lot less.

    • Yup.

      I use Honda-line stuff (synthetic and blended) in most of my bikes; Motul and Repsol in high-performance sport bikes.

      Rotella T is probably good for car engines as it meets the diesel standard – but I’d be reluctant to use it in a high-RPM bike engine.

    • Rotella T synthetic has garnered JASO MA now, it had it before it was reformulated and called “T6” too.

      I’ve used it in my 600 supersport that saw heavy abuse-15k street miles and around 3k trackday miles(with short change intervals obviously) a decade ago. I also used it in my race prepped R6…but the intervals were every other weekend in that bike.

      I now use it in my little old bandit 400 that sees high RPM all the time, but street use.

      In comparison to motorcycle specific castrol dino oil used initially in the bandit, it lowered temps and actually gave me a few mph up on the top end…lol!

      In fairness to Castrol it was their base dino oil that complied with the factory spec…kinda unfair to compare it synthetic…but the T6 is still less expensive and performed better.(rated 5w-40)

      You used to only be able to get it at Wally World, but I was in Autozone the other day and notice they were stocking it and actually selling it a couple of bucks cheaper(on sale?) then Walmart. $18 and change for a gallon.


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