Riding to work this morning reminded me of one of my favorite movies growing up – The Breakfast Club. Why? My motorcycle was screaming the refrain from the theme song: “Don’t You Forget About Me.”
I forgot about my bike due to the busyness of life. Here in the Bay Area it’s a year-round riding season, but wintertime for me usually brings about less seat time. Because we have the luxury of so many great riding days, it’s easy to skip the ones that are less than perfect. When I hopped on the bike to head to work, my motorcycle expressed some displeasure.
What happened? A whole month went by and all the motorcycle heard was silence from me. It’s really actually easy to keep your motorcycle happy over the winter. I just neglected the very basic steps as I’ve usually gotten away with riding it enough to keep it happy.
A charged battery is a happy battery
Gasoline and the battery are the two ingredients that give the motorcycle life. Batteries are often overlooked as the motorcycle usually “just works” over a long period of time. When they fail though, they fail hard. When I pressed the starter button all I got was wah, wah, wah. My battery was clearly dead.
Why batteries discharge
Batteries discharge over time. Certainly starting the motorcycle takes energy. Also though, batteries discharge when the motorcycle is not running. Batteries stored in a motorcycle will lose energy for things like powering the clock but additionally they lose energy just sitting. It also takes electrical energy from the battery to run the motorcycle. The spark that ignites fuel comes from the electrical system of the motorcycle. When a battery dies, it’s important to understand why it died. Our batteries talk to us. I’ve listed a few simple scenarios below.
I’ve been unintentionally drained
Today’s motorcycles have a wide variety of electronic components that need to remain in balance. The stator and voltage regulator produce energy. Various components on the motorcycle consume energy including lights, spark plugs, gauges, etc. When we add additional components like heated gear we can sometimes consume more energy than the motorcycle produces. This depletes the battery. Also simple things like leaving our lights on when the bike is off can drain the battery. These one-off cases can be easily remedied by charging the battery with an external charger. You are the cause for failure, not the motorcycle. :-).
I can’t hold charge
In my bike I’ve found that a good battery will last me about four years. The current battery I have is a cheap knockoff and only lasted me two years. When buying a battery, spend the money to get a good one. Old batteries do not retain charge. Neither the motorcycle’s charging system or an external charger will help a battery in the state. The battery will discharge when sitting faster and faster as the battery gets older. If the starter sounds more lethargic over time it’s likely your battery is aging and needs to be replaced.
I don’t receive charge
Running the motorcycle requires electrical energy. The stator and voltage regulator work together to replenish the battery has the rider rides his bike. The motorcycle produces more electrical energy that is required to run the motorcycle. The excess then replenishes the battery to keep it fully charged.If the charging system is not working properly, the motorcycle will drain the battery as it runs. How far you’ll be able to ride before the battery dies and you get stuck is anyone’s guess. I was riding a rented Harley across north Georgia and the connection between the stator and the battery came loose. Many miles later the bike lost power and came to a soft landing. It was a long walk to get back to town :(.
Multimeter: Diagnosing the problem
A multimeter can measure the amount of electricity inside of the battery as well as the amount provided to the battery by the motorcycle. I highly recommend any motorcycle rider purchase a multimeter. It takes the guesswork out of troubleshooting battery problems. There are two kinds of electrical current: direct an alternating. Direct current comes from batteries like the one in your motorcycle. Alternating current is in your home. Set the multimeter to measure volts in direct current.
Look in the upper left-hand corner of the multimeter. You’ll see a flat line under the text “Apo”. This indicates direct-current. If the multimeter was measuring alternating current, the flat line would be replaced by a wave icon. Every multimeter is different, so check the manual for the proper configuration if you’re seeing erratic or no results. With the motorcycle off, touch the black probe on the multimeter to the black terminal on the battery into the same for the positive red probe. A healthy battery should read at least 12 V. You’ll also notice the motorcycle starter sounds chipper. When the battery drops below 12 V, the starter will sound more and more lethargic. We then need to understand why the battery is not at full charge.
Let’s start the motorcycle. Activating the motorcycle but not fully starting it places strain on the battery. You’ll likely see a small dip in voltage running across the battery when the motorcycle is on it not running. This battery is getting weak. Thus, the motorcycle is quickly depleting the energy from the battery.
Starting the motorcycle kicks in the motorcycle’s charging system. If we run the same test that we did before, we should see about 14 V.
If your motorcycle is not reading more than 13 V, it’s likely that the charging system is not fully up to par. In this case, the motorcycle won’t start after it’s been running. That’s the key symptom to look for: the motorcycle doesn’t start when warm.
If you are seeing about 14 V, the charging system is working. If the motorcycle runs fine all day and then doesn’t start well after sitting on the night, the battery is not holding charge. It’s usually the case that the battery is due for replacement. When you buy a new battery, trade in the old battery so that gets recycled and you don’t have to pay an environmental damage fee.
Extending the battery’s life
Motorcycles are meant to be ridden. Regular use of the motorcycle provides needed exercise to the battery to keep it healthy. Regular use of the motorcycle also keeps you healthy. 🙂 If you want to riding your motorcycle for an extended period of time, invest in a battery tender.
Battery tenders provide a trickle charge and exercise to the battery to keep it healthy. Battery tenders can easily double the life of the battery. This particular model has a few status lights to help you know that your battery is in tip top shape. My battery tender comes with a couple of connectors. Alligator clips work well for infrequent use of the device. I can just pull the seat off and connect the battery tender. When I put the bike into storage this winter, I’ll use the more permanent ring mounts for the battery.
What if I’m stuck?
You can start a motorcycle a number of ways without a battery. Many riders have “push started” their motorcycles by getting it rolling and dropping it into gear. The spinning of the wheels in gear mimics the action of the starter to get the motorcycle running. If your motorcycle is too heavy or there’s no easy way to push start it, you can also jump start it. It’s ideal to jump start a motorcycle from another motorcycle. Just connect the jumper cables between the two bikes in the following manner.
Start the motorcycle with the good battery. It may take a few moments for the motorcycle to accrue enough charge to start.
You are up and riding again but know that your motorcycle needs a new battery. Jump starting is only a temporary solution.
Good battery health is a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of storage conditions, and a little bit of luck. Had good luck or been burned by a battery? I’d love to hear your story in the comments.