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Bikebiz | For every rider

Chapter 5 - Changing your oil and oil filter

Kym Liebig

Oil’s well – changing your oil and filter

Next time you hear a fellow rider whining about the price of oil, just suggest that they price an engine rebuild!

Oil is the lifeblood of any motorcycle engine. It can be expensive, sure, but look at it as insurance against early failure. Oil reduces friction, which reduces heat, prevents unnecessary wear and even helps keep engine seals in good shape. 

There’s nothing difficult about changing your oil and oil filter. What’s more, doing it yourself leaves you with nothing to pay for but the consumables involved, which helps make the whole process more agreeable and affordable. As with most bike maintenance matters, preparation and a few well-tried tips can make it so much easier and far less messy, too. First, let’s address a few common oily questions:

*“Why is changing oil regularly so important?”
Oil both lubricates and flushes your engine. So it keeps the internals moving with a minimum of friction and also picks up impurities – dirt, tiny metallic fragments – as it circulates and delivers them to the filter. But oil loses its ‘slipperiness’ with time and also tends to thicken, which means it circulates less efficiently. And oil filters get clogged with crap. In fact many filters have a bypass valve that actuates when they get clogged up. After this happens, you are effectively running your engine without an oil filter. If you have more mechanical sympathy than a baboon, you’ll understand that this is a very bad thing indeed. 

*“But oil is so expensive…”
Have you been paying attention? Old oil doesn’t circulate well. In particular, a cold engine on start-up struggles to get old oil up to the ‘top ends’ – the cams and valve train. These components are usually first to suffer. Paying to replace or refurbish them makes oil look very cheap indeed.

*“All my mates tell me to use Banzai Unicorn Oil. Which oil should I really use?
Ignore your mates and use the oil the manufacturer recommends. If you are still in doubt, continue to ignore your mates and ask the experts at one of our Bikebiz workshops. The same advice applies for oil filters.

*“How often should I change my oil and filter?”
Again, stick with the manufacturer’s recommendations. A rule of thumb is that if you are commuting, you should change your oil every 5,000 kms and your filter at every second oil change.

“*What is good or bad for my oil?”
Lots of short trips where your engine barely gets to warm up are bad for your oil – obviously this looks a lot like commuting for some of us. This sort of riding can separate acids out from some oil types, which can attack engine internals. But don’t panic, just be sure you go for at least one good, long ride to get the oil properly heated up at least once a week. And yes, you can tell your partner that we told you to do that…

Enough talk. Let’s change that oil and filter. 
Like most bike maintenance jobs, spending the time to properly prepare will make all the difference. Get into a routine and you’ll find that after you’ve changed your oil a few times you can do it quickly and efficiently with no fuss and almost no mess. 

  • Buy the right oil – your owner’s manual will usually have details on this, or ask a Bikebiz expert.
  • Buy enough oil – be aware that your owner’s manual will usually quote one quantity for an oil change, and another – slightly larger – quantity for an oil-and-filter change. 
  • You might also need a new sump plug crush washer and the right oil filter for your bike. 
  • Be sure that you have the right tools for your sump plug as well as your oil filter. Do you trust your feel, or do you need a torque wrench for that sump plug? Most oil filters can be removed with a standard type of oil filter wrench, but you will find that some are difficult to access and possibly even almost hidden inside an engine recess (Hello? Ducati?). Carefully check first so that you know what you are up against.
  • Get on the level – while not strictly necessary, using your bike’s centre stand or raising the bike on a paddock/race stand makes the job easier.
  • Got something to catch the oil? Is it heatproof? Is it big enough to catch all the oil? Is it your wife’s baking tray? Oh, and have some clean rags handy. 

We’ll assume you are changing your oil and your filter, too. So take a careful look over your bike. Work out whether you need to remove a fairing first. Be sure of the size of the sump plug and get to know how the filter is located and what’s needed to remove it. Knowing all of this helps.

Now go for a ride. Eh?

Yes, go for a brief ride or at the very least warm it up until the engine is at operating temperature. Warming the bike gets the oil thinned out and ensures that when you dump the oil, it all drains thoroughly. 

A handy piece of cardboard under the bike will buy you some time just in case you do have a spill. Nitrile workshop gloves are good to have, too, giving a bit of protection against hot engine parts and oil, as well as making clean up easier. 

Have some rags handy. Put your catch pan centrally under the sump plug. Reciting the old ‘righty tighty, left loosey’ mantra, loosen off the sump plug just a little with a socket wrench. As soon as it’s just a bit loose, take the socket off the wrench and start loosening the plug with just the socket. This gives you more feel than using the ratchet the whole way, and the socket will help save your pinkies from some of the heat.

Be conscious of where your hands are, where the pan is and the fact that you are about to release a good quantity of oil that will be warm or even scalding hot. As you complete the final turns, oil will flow freely so beware of splashes. As it drains, be careful to keep the pan positioned properly in case the stream of oil changes direction a bit. This happens pretty often. If you have dropped the sump plug into the oil drain pan, don’t dive in to grab it and deep-fry your mitt. Wait until the oil has cooled. 

This is a good time to grab a coffee. When you’ve given the oil five minutes to drain from the sump, or when it has stopped dripping, clean the sealing face of the sump with a rag and clean the sump plug threads thoroughly, too. Put a fresh crush washer on the sump plug and screw it in, finger tight. Move that oil pan to a safe place where you won’t step in it. Now it’s time to torque up the sump plug.

‘Some people have feel, others have torque wrenches’, so the saying goes. You are about to tighten a steel bolt into what is very likely a cast aluminium sump pan, so go carefully. Too much torque can crack your sump, destroying it. The plug does not need to be gorilla-tight. If you have any doubts about your ability, use a torque wrench set to the manufacturer’s recommended specs. 

With that taken care of, move your drain pan under the area where the filter lives. Is the bike still hot? Be careful. Get the right wrench onto the filter and back it off a half turn or so. The rest should be easily done by hand. As you ease it off, be prepared for a decent quantity of oil to spill out over your headers, engine…it can run almost anywhere. Get busy with those rags and give everything a thorough clean, paying particular attention to the sealing face that the filter fits up against. If you don’t clean up properly now, expect plenty of smoke when you start the bike up later. 

What’s that? The bastard filter isn’t even off yet? Dammit!

  • When the bike has cooled down, you might try getting in with your bare hands and giving it a try – if you can get a good grip, this works surprisingly often
  • A large, multi-gripping pliers can work
  • Try slipping a large hose clamp over the filter. Tighten it up and then tap away at it with a screwdriver and hammer
  • For the truly desperate – skewer the filter by hammering a screwdriver through it, then lever it loose. It’s butchery, but it works

Okay, we’ll now assume the filter is off, you’ve cleaned up and your skinned knuckles have stopped bleeding. If you have had a really tough time with this, ask a Bikebiz workshop expert about brands of oil filter that feature a hex ‘bolt head’ built into the filter body, or about specialist filter spanners. Next!

It’s time to reward yourself with a pro trick. Everyone knows the one about how you smear a gloop of fresh oil onto the o-ring on the face of the oil filter before you fit it, right? Well, go next level, stand the new filter on its end and pour a few glugs of fresh oil into it. Now go have another coffee. You’ve primed the filter, and by waiting awhile, oil will be absorbed down into the element and won’t spill all over the place like it does when you prime it and set about fitting it right away. 

Carefully spin the filter on and snug it up. It doesn’t need to be wrenched on with hulk force, in fact if you tighten it up too fiercely you’ll damage the rubber o-ring and the filter won’t seal. Old pros tend to spin the filter on by hand until it seals against the face and then give it another three-quarter turn, by hand. Again, if you don’t trust your sense of feel, use a torque wrench. 

Now, add the right volume of oil to the bike via the filler port – the cap generally screws off these by hand. (You fitted the sump plug, right?) Take your time – if you’ve come this far with no spills, why start now? With all the oil added, give it a moment to run to the bottom of the engine, then have a helper hold the bike level while you check the oil level in the sight glass. Sorted. 

Start the bike, watch that the oil light goes out quickly and warm the bike up while you stare at the sump plug and filter for leaks, Then clean up. Job done. Keep an eye out for leaks over the next week or so and make a note of the odometer reading so you know when you carried out the change. Most local councils run collection depots that’ll take your old oil.

Changing your bike’s oil and filter yourself helps you get to know your bike better, saves you some cash and gives you a surprising feeling of satisfaction. Owners also find that what started out as an hour’s job becomes more like 15 minute’s work with a bit of practice. So get into it, and get that little bit extra out of owning your bike.

Until next time, enjoy the ride!

Click here to read Chapter 6 - Checking Your Brake Pads.