Engine oil is an essential part of the operation on any engine, especially on a simple unit like a motorcycle motor.
Engine oil doesn’t last forever, though. In time, it thickens, often contaminated with dirt and grime, lessening in column and losing the chemical properties that make it essential to your bike motor’s operation.
Low oil can cause severe hindrances to your motorcycle’s engine, including, but not limited to engine overheating and, eventually, total seizure.
That said, there are numerous signs your bike is running low on oil; we’ve compiled the eight most common symptoms your motorcycle oil is low:
1. Your Dip Stick Reads Low Oil
While it’s essential to familiarize yourself with all the symptoms your bike is running low on oil, they tend to get more and more severe as you go down the list–catching it at this point will save you time, money, pain, and suffering down the road.
Some bikes have an oil window that lets you look at the oil level without having to touch anything.
- If your bike has an oil window, there’s no reason not to make a habit of checking it before every ride, after your bike warms up.
- If your oil level is low after giving the engine and oil time to heat up, add some more oil until your oil window tells you your level is proper.
- Note: Consult your bike’s owner’s manual for the specifics of testing and topping off the oil on your bike. It may specify leaving your level just under max, as your oil will expand as it heats up, raising its level.
There are just as many, if not more, motorcycles out there that require you to use a dipstick to check their oil level.
A dipstick is the metal rod-like strip that rests in your oil pan like a knife in a sheath.
While most modern bikes are low maintenance and much more reliable, many still require riders to use the simple dipstick inspection method to read their oil levels, ideally before every ride.
Again, use the instructions provided in your specific owner’s manual to know the specifics of checking your oil. You can check some bikes accurately while leaning on the stand, while others require the cycle to be upright to get an accurate oil level reading.
All the bikes follow the exact mechanical sciences and oil lubrication processes.
Below we’ve provided a general step-by-step guide to knowing if your motorcycle’s oil level is low by checking your dipstick:
- Warm your engine up to its spec riding temp, between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on climate.
- Turn the bike off.
- Let the bike sit for enough time to let the oil drip-drain from the engine’s top-end, down through the motor, and back into the oil pan so you can get an accurate reading; it generally takes about five minutes.
- If your bike has a transparent oil window, you likely have to keep the bike level to use it. If the window is on the bottom of the bike and you don’t have a center stand, either have a friend sit in the saddle while you check the level (or vice versa) or use a telescopic mirror to check it from the harness yourself.
- If you don’t have a window, time to pull out the ol’ dipstick. Check your owner’s manual to see which position your bike should be in before checking it. You’ll need to clear the stick of all oil with a shop towel before you get started.
- Reinsert the dipstick into the oil case until the plug’s threads are flush with the case’s threads.
- Draw the dipstick back out and check its marking to see if your oil level is adequate.
- If you ride daily, checking once a week is fine, apart from hard riding. If you don’t ride that often, we suggest inspecting your dipstick before every ride.
2. Your Oil in Bad Condition
If your oil is in bad condition due to contamination, coagulation, etc., it will lessen in the column. Therefore, one important early symptom of low oil to be aware of early on is identified by inspecting the condition of your oil after checking your level via the methods outlined in the section above.
Fresh oil is a translucent golden color. As it runs through your engine, heating up and cooling down, it gets darker and thicker until eventually, when used past the suggested point, it gets scorched-black and thick like a syrup.
Burned or contaminated oil is a good sign that your motorcycle’s oil is passed due and your bike’s oil is low. Inspect your oil condition by rubbing your finger up and down on the dipstick until you’ve transferred oil onto your skin. Rub the oil between your fingers, feeling for debris particles, road grime, or grittiness of any kind.
Oil contaminates based on use, not so much time; mileage, how hard you’re ripping, and how harsh the condition is when you ride the motorcycle all affect the rate at which your oil burns and loses its functional qualities.
Inspect your oil’s condition with your fingers at least once a month and anytime you’re riding hard or through dusty conditions.
If you’re unsure of what you’re looking at, there’s no shame in taking the bike to a trusted mechanic for an oil inspection.
If you’re feeling brave, here are a few general guidelines:
- If your oil looks golden amber, like it came straight from the bottle, you’re, well… golden.
- If it’s dark brown to black, it’s probably time to put some fresh oil in her.
- If you have any white, milk-like substance in your oil on a liquid-cooled bike, you could have a coolant leak somewhere; coolant reacts with oil to turn milky white.
- If you see, feel, sense, or smell gasoline in your oil, take the bike to the shop and don’t run it; a fuel leak can cause some severe issues.
3. Your Check Oil Light Stays On
Newer bikes have a gauge that tells you when your oil is low.
If your check oil light comes on, it’s a good sign that your motorcycle has low oil.
As soon as the oil light illuminates, revisit the above two sections and check your oil level. And condition. If it’s just low, top the oil off and watch how long it lasts. If its condition is burned and black, change the oil and filter before refilling it.
4. You Haven’t Changed Your Oil in a While
If you suspect your motorcycle’s oil is low and over a month since you’ve changed it, it’s likely the case.
Different manufacturers list varying spec service intervals in the owner’s manual, including oil changes at varying frequencies depending on make, model, and motor type.
Checking it weekly and preparing to change it per the manufacturer’s spec suggestions ensures your motorcycle’s oil won’t run low in the future.
5. Your Bike’s Motor Makes Metallic Clanking Sounds
Here’s a symptom that’s easier to detect for those who ride their bikes frequently and know their bike well; if your bike is making new sounds, like metallic and louder than usual, it could be because your motorcycle is low on oil.
Clean oil is a lubricating layer of protection between the high-revving and hard-functioning metal engine components.
When your oil is fresh, and at an appropriate level, your engine sounds clean and tight.
If your oil runs low, your engine parts lose that protective coat of lubrication, running together and causing a racket of metal clanking that’s louder than usual.
Note: While there are other possible causes of strange and loud engine sounds besides low oil, metal clanking is always a sign of a severe issue that can cause some serious damage. If you’re hearing weird engine sounds, especially metal on metal, we suggest stopping riding and immediately taking it to a pro.
6. Your Motor Runs Hotter Than Normal
If your engine is overheating to the point that it’s running noticeably hotter than it used to, your bike could be low on oil.
Some bikes have a temperature gauge that tells you when your bike is overheating. More modern motos even have a digital meter that reads your engine temperature.
An overheating engine is always a serious issue, but if your motorcycle is air-cooled, it’s vital to rectify the problem.
An air-cooled motorcycle engine might run hot in scorching weather or, when it’s idling in traffic for too long; even more of a reason to pull over and check your oil level on the fly.
As soon as you notice your engine is hot, ensure your oil is at the appropriate level to ensure the engine parts aren’t damaged.
7. You Smell Burning Metal While Riding
Another somewhat severe symptom that your motorcycle is low on oil is the smell of burning metal.
You know the distant smell if you’ve been in the room with a welder or caster heating metal. If you smell the scent of welding metal while riding, pull over and hit the kill switch asap.
If low oil is the cause of this, you need to top off your oil levels immediately and don’t ride the bike until it can cool down.
The smell of burning metal could be the smell of your pistons fusing or binding inside your engine. If you don’t deal with this immediately, you’ll soon encounter the most severe low oil symptom of them all…
8. Your Engine or Clutch Seizes; Motorcycle Fails to Run
Like we said from the start, the lower you get on this list, the more severe the symptoms are. If you’ve missed all the above signs, a seized motor is the final symptom of low oil on a motorcycle engine.
- Your bike’s engine has passages that allow oil to flow to where it needs to go for proper cooling and lubrication.
- Some of the oil sprays up onto the pistons while they’re cranking, both to cool and lube them up.
- Some passages take the oil up to the top end to lube the valves and cam timing chains.
- On many bikes, the motor oil doubles as transmission lubrication, too, as oil is carried into the gearbox to lube up your clutch plates.
- If you run your motorcycle with low oil for extended periods of riding, these critical components can rub together, heat up, and fuse.
- If your pistons weld to the engine cylinder walls, they’ll seize up and cease the operation of your engine, killing your bike on the spot.
It’s critical to keep your motorcycle’s motor oil at the proper level, or your bike’s pistons can seize, damaging your crankshafts, valves, and connecting rods, and your transmission can fail.
A seized engine must be heavily rebuilt or replaced; we suggest inspecting and detecting a low oil level on your bike from a symptom higher on this list.