The motor is the heart of your motorcycle and motor oil is its lifeblood. Oil lubricates your bike’s internal parts and carries away combustion contaminants to be cleaned and collected by the oil filter. Through this process, oil flow also helps cool internal parts, like camshafts and stators—some motorcycles even use oil as a primary coolant.
The motor is also the single most expensive system to repair or replace on your motorcycle.
Preventive maintenance is critical to keeping your ride healthy and vibrant. Oil and filter changes are the cheapest investments you can make in motorcycle maintenance. One way to keep the cost down is to do it yourself.
Changing the motor oil and filter isn’t a hard job, and when done properly, it’s not messy. As an added bonus, it’ll help you learn about the condition of your motor. Doing this service is a rite of passage for some riders. It’ll empower you to be more involved in keeping up with your motorcycle maintenance.
Let’s break down the costs involved in a typical oil and filter change.
First, the materials—this job requires multiple quarts of oil, a filter, and more than likely, a crush washer or O-ring to seal the oil drain plug.
Then, there’s the labor. Labor costs for an oil change can add up quickly, especially when it involves other services, like checking the brakes. A mechanic’s time is money. Expect about an hour of labor unless you’re told otherwise upfront.
Changing your oil yourself is a great way to keep your cost down. You can even inspect brake pads or lube-critical components—items on the maintenance schedule—while the oil drains. By doing maintenance yourself, you could save on:
Before you change your oil, make sure you know what type of motorcycle oil you should use for your bike. There are a few things you need to know:
The oil grade is the measure of its thickness and is sometimes expressed as a weight (e.g. 50-weight). A lower viscosity number translates to thinner oil.
Oils come in two basic formulations: single grade and multi grade. Single-grade oils have one viscosity and are rarely recommended. You may hear a rider claim they run straight 50-weight oil in their chopper when riding to Sturgis. Don’t take this as advice for your factory motorcycle. The reason for that rider’s logic is that all oils thin as they heat up. However, when thinned too much, they lose their protective lubrication quality.
Multi-grade oils have two numbers separated by a W-, which stands for winter. A 20W-50 multi-grade oil will function as 20-weight in colder temperatures, but won’t get thinner than 50-weight at full operating temperature. Oil additive technology yields easy starts on cold mornings while still providing necessary viscosity at full throttle.
You can find the appropriate viscosity grade and rating standard for your ride in your owner’s manual or factory service manual. Note that there are often different recommended viscosity grades for seasons of colder or hotter average ambient temperatures. You should always use oil that meets or exceeds the manufacturer’s recommendation for the conditions you ride in.
Next, you need to know the type of oil your motorcycle was designed for—mineral oil, semi-synthetic oil, or full synthetic oil.
Old-school mineral oil is typical for older motorcycles; however, you may be able to upgrade to semi-synthetic oil or full synthetic oil. Some high-mileage motorcycles may weep synthetic oil, but this is typically a gasket problem, not an oil problem. On the flip side, some older motors can run smoother and leak-free on synthetic oil, so it really depends on your bike. Synthetic oils do offer longer service life and less frequent oil changes. If your motorcycle was designed for synthetic oil, there’s no benefit to using mineral oil—it could lead to excess wear and void your warranty.
There are a few factors to consider when shopping for oil:
Determine how to choose an oil that works for all your bike’s parts by reading your owner’s manual or factory service manual.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) standard is expressed by a two-letter code, sometimes followed by a number. The first letter represents the type of internal combustion engine the oil is rated for.
While your motorcycle uses gasoline as fuel, some motorcycles need the performance qualities of diesel motor oil. The second letter represents the standard that the oil meets—letters further down the alphabet are newer standards. For example, API-CP is a newer standard than API-CN. Beginning with API-SJ, these oils were primarily designed for cars and light trucks and aren’t suitable for motorcycle use due to friction modifiers in the additive package that can adversely affect wet clutch performance.
Many of these evolving standards have to do with additive packages, automobile fuel economy, and tailpipe emissions. Motorcycle oils can be rated API-SG and higher, with the caveat they must be labeled for motorcycle engines.
The Japanese Automotive Standards Organization (JASO) has a classification standard—JASO-MA—specifically designed for motorcycles that run a wet clutch. JASO-MA2 is a similar standard for higher friction characteristics. All JASO-MA oils are expected to meet at least one of the following API standards: API-SG, -SH, -SJ, -SL, -SM.
Motor oils are a very competitive product category and there are a few brands that have a loyal following. Prices can vary, but that doesn’t mean high prices equal the best oil for your motorcycle. You need an oil that meets or exceeds the manufacturer recommendations and fits your riding style. Lots of riders are willing to share their experiences with different motorcycle oils and share them on internet forums and places like our Facebook page.
You can find a maintenance schedule for your motorcycle in the owner’s or service manual. It’s vital to follow the mileage intervals for changing the oil and the filter—which should always be changed at the same time. Oil filters can only remove so much contamination before they too are exhausted.
These intervals are intended to maintain optimal performance and a long service life for your motor. View the schedule as a firm commitment to your motorcycle and not as a flexible recommendation. If you don’t ride enough miles in a season for an oil change, consider changing your oil and filter before winter storage to protect the motor from corrosion. There’s no harm in changing the motor oil and filter more frequently than the maintenance schedule, which you might do to prepare for a long tour. Make sure you keep track of the mileage when you make the change.
Changing your oil and filter doesn’t require many tools or materials. You can purchase the oil and filter locally or online. An oil change kit may be available, which will have the necessary amount of oil for your bike, a filter, and potentially, some recycling materials.
*Avoid 12-sided sockets and wrenches—they’re more likely to round off bolts over time.
Now that you know the basics of oil and what you’ll need to change your oil and filter, here’s how you do it:
Once you’re sure you have everything you need, take your motorcycle for a 10-minute ride to warm the motor to full operating temperature—you might need more time if it’s very cold outside. Park the motorcycle in the work area on the correct stand. While the exhaust is cooling, arrange all your tools and supplies for easy access. Put on your nitrile or latex gloves.
After the exhaust system has cooled enough to touch, unplug the dipstick or look at the sight glass to check the oil level and the condition of the old oil. If the motorcycle has a sight glass, remove the filler cap.
Arrange your cardboard floor protector and place the oil catch pan under the drain plug. Use the ratchet wrench to break the drain plug loose, turning counterclockwise until it feels like you can turn it with your fingers. Remove the wrench. The oil catch pan should be positioned now so that the oil, which will pour forward a few inches, will land in the pan. At this point you should finish removing the plug with gloved hands. Be ready to get your hand and the plug out of the way—the oil will probably still be hot. Set the plug aside without wiping it off.
Once you’re sure the oil is going into the pan, inspect the drain plug. Oil drain plugs usually have magnets to collect metal shavings that settle in the oil tank. Small amounts are normal on break-in oil changes. If you find a lot of metal shavings or bits on the plug, save them to show to your mechanic—this could be a sign something is wrong. Let the oil drain to a slow drip. The more that comes out the better.
While the last of the oil drains, consider using aluminum foil to cover anything under the oil filter so the motorcycle will stay clean when you remove the filter. Move the oil catch pan under the oil filter and use the filter wrench to turn the filter counterclockwise to break it loose. Continue to unscrew the filter by hand until it comes off—it’ll have some oil in it. Set it upside down in the pan to drain. After the oil stops dripping from the filter mount, wipe the gasket-mating surface clean. Make sure there isn’t an old gasket stuck to the mating surface.
If you have an internal cartridge oil filter, there should be a bolt head on the center of the cover. Remove this the same way you removed the drain plug. The only difference is it’s typically under spring pressure. There may be several internal components, such as the spring, you’ll need to take out. Keep track of the order you take them out.
First, verify that the gasket-mating surface is clean. Then use a gloved finger to spread a thin coat of oil on the new filter’s gasket. If the filter mounts vertically you can prefill it with oil, which helps with start-up lubrication. If it mounts horizontally, you may be able to add a few ounces of new oil, being careful not to put in so much that it spills during installation. Screw the filter on until finger tight, then tighten it three quarters to one full turn by hand—don’t use a wrench. It’s helpful to mark the filter with a grease pencil or a sharpie to help gauge the amount you tighten it.
Remove the old crush washer or O-ring from the drain plug and wipe it clean, removing any metal particles. Install a new crush washer or O-ring and thread the bolt into the drain hole with only your fingers until it’s finger tight. At this point you have the option to use a torque wrench to tighten the drain plug to the manufacturer’s specified torque. Or you can use the open-end wrench to tighten the bolt until snug, using care to not overtighten it, as you’ll need those threads for many more oil changes.
Using a funnel, slowly pour the oil into the filler hole. Most riders allow each just-emptied oil container a few moments to completely drain into the funnel. Remember to account for the volume of any oil you pre-filled the filter with. After you’ve added all the oil to the motor, install the dipstick or—on a sight-glass equipped bike—install the filler cap. Making sure you have adequate ventilation, start the motor and allow the bike to run for a few minutes while observing the filter and the drain plug for potential leaks. Turn the motorcycle off and give the oil a chance to settle into the tank and then check the level with the dipstick or the sight-glass.
No matter how neat you are, there’ll likely be a small amount of used motor oil on the underside of your motor, and possibly the frame or exhaust components. If left behind, it can burn and smoke, causing you unnecessary anxiety on your next ride. Your beautiful motorcycle deserves to be clean. Use shop rags and aerosol carburetor cleaner to wipe it clean. Don’t spray anything on a hot engine and be sure there’s adequate ventilation. Collect any runoff in the oil catch pan. Check again for any signs of leaks.
It’s always a good idea to take the bike for a short test ride to warm the motor to full operating temperature. If the initial fill looked a little low, it’s better to make sure that the oil has a chance to fully warm and circulate. Then, let it settle to perform a normal level check. Check again for any signs of leaks and top off as needed. Avoid overfilling—too much oil increases pressure and can harm the motor.
Transfer the used oil to the storage container and bag the old oil filter. It’s easy to recycle used oil and filters in most communities and is often free. Follow local guidelines on recycling the empty oil containers. Any oil-soaked rags or cardboard are flammable, so be sure to hang them in a safe place outdoors. After the oil is dry, completely soak with water. Pack them wet into a sealable can or bag and follow local guidelines for hazardous waste disposal—which is likely the same place you recycled the oil and filter.
There’s a learning curve with motorcycle oil. Once you have the knowledge, it’ll be easier to buy the best oil for your ride. Changing your motorcycle’s oil is fairly simple mechanical task and after your first time, you’ll be able to do it cleanly and easily.
Till next time, ride safe!