Chances are you are reading this article because your bike won’t start. Yes, I know, revolutionary. However, my goal for you after reading this article is that you will start to pay more attention to the battery and overall electrical system of your motorcycle before something goes wrong next time.
Being stranded on a motorcycle with a dead battery is inconvenient and easily avoidable if you maintain good battery “hygiene”. What I mean by that is there are some basic checks and habits that can help you foresee an issue before you leave the comfort of your garage.
Let’s answer some common questions and build up a good foundation of knowledge in order to better own and operate your motorcycle.
Motorcycle Battery Options
Nowadays, there are four main options you will be presented with when replacing your motorcycle battery. I would only seriously consider three of them as the fourth is very dated technology. Regarding price, I wouldn’t spend more than $150 for a battery unless you have a special case like a big Harley engine that requires more power to start.
- Conventional: A conventional lead-acid battery is liquid-filled to create the chemical reaction internally. The liquid is acid and does need to be maintained by topping off over time as the level drops. As a result, this battery is not sealed and can spill the bike or battery itself tips. This battery type is the cheapest option but lasts the shortest time and poses the greatest hassle with the need for maintenance and worry of spilling.
- AGM: AGM (absorbed glass mat) batteries are similar to conventional lead-acid batteries in that they are liquid filled. The differentiating factor is that this battery type is sealed after being filled so the risk for spill is slim to none. The acid is contained by fiberglass pads inside the battery and the filler ports on top of the battery are sealed shut with plastic caps. Otherwise, this is a good cheap option that does not require maintenance and lasts an average amount of time.
- Gel Cell: The last of the trio is the gel cell battery. This is the next iteration from the previous two types to further prevent spilling and extend the usable life of the battery. In this type, silica is introduced to create a gel inside the battery to contain the acid which eliminates the chance of spilling. This battery will last longer than the AGM type and also requires zero maintenance.
- Lithium Ion: This battery is different than the first three in that the internal chemistry does not use the same liquid acid to create the chemical reaction. As the name suggests, a lithium-ion technology is utilized in this type of battery to reduce weight and extend longevity. This type of battery is the most expensive, but does last a very long time and most notably is extremely lightweight. Take caution when switching to a lithium battery as you cannot use the same charger as a lead-acid and you don’t want to let it discharge all the way down as it is less stable.
Acid-filled batteries come with an acid pack and filler tube to install the acid in each cell. The little caps then plug the filler holes to avoid spilling when the bike leans during turns.
Why Should I Care About My Motorcycle Battery?
I imagine most people think about motorcycle batteries like the roof on their house. It looks fine from afar and nobody thinks it’s going to fail until it does which usually comes at the most inconvenient time possible. There’s a wide range of lifespans for both and both a battery and roof can be checked on but rarely do people make the time to take this preventative measure.
You should think about replacing your battery as a maintenance item that takes the form of cheap insurance. By insurance I mean that your battery dying is an inevitability, not a chance event, so replacing it sooner than later only costs a little (insurance premium) in exchange for the convenience (insurance coverage) of always having your bike start up.
How much is it worth to you to not have your bike leave you stranded on the one morning you’re late for work? Because you know it will die the morning you couldn’t get out of the house on time.
The next logical question you may ask is regarding this ideal time frame at which to replace a battery that is still functioning but may be reaching the end of its usable life.
How Long Should A Motorcycle Battery Last?
This does vary between battery types, riding style, and rider temperament.
In general, a motorcycle battery should be replaced every 3 years regardless of the state of health. Most batteries at this point may still serve the function of starting your bike but will be approaching the end of their usable life.
This may very well be perceived as a controversial statement, but it comes from a place of practicality and reason. Three years is a good compromise between premature replacement and being stranded. Some batteries can last five years and beyond while others may die before the second year of ownership.
If you have a conventional lead-acid battery, three years is already pushing it. Depending on how long the bike has sat without being ridden, this may need to be adjusted down to two.
For AGM and gel batteries, three should be no problem. Someone who wants to push the limits and doesn’t mind keeping a spare battery in the garage may want to take this type of battery out to five years or longer.
Lithium batteries are still a very new technology and their behavior is difficult to predict. If kept on a tender with proper intervals, inside a garage out of the heat, and not damaged in any way, lithium can last more than five years with no problem. This one even restarts itself apparently….I like antigravity batteries. Check out their options here.
It is critical to keep tabs on the state of health of your battery and also assess your own risk tolerance. Someone like me who is a little more conservative in their approach and hates finding a dead battery will replace a battery before it dies. The premium I pay for whatever life was left on the old battery far surpasses the inconvenience of being stranded.
How Do I Check My Motorcycle Battery Health?
Checking your motorcycle battery is not laborious by any means and is not cost prohibitive.
Check your motorcycle battery state of health using either a multimeter or a purpose-built battery tester tool to assess the voltage and the cold-cranking amps.
A multimeter can be used by placing the positive (red) and negative (black) leads on the appropriate posts of the battery. The voltage readout on your multimeter should show somewhere between 12.5 and 13.5 volts. This tells you the battery is holding enough voltage for proper operation.
If the voltage across the posts is sufficient then don’t worry about checking CCA (cold cranking amps). You know at this point you don’t have a collapsed cell or any other issue so this simple voltage check will suffice.
If the voltage reads below 12.5 colts, additional testing is required. This is where a proper testing tool would come in handy to check cold-cranking amps.
Additionally, if you have a battery reading low voltage, try charging the battery on a trickle charger then rechecking. If the voltage returns to good levels and holds, then maybe a light got left on and simply discharged the battery or the charging system might have an issue. If it falls below again then your battery cannot store enough charge and will definitely leave you stranded.
How Do I Extend The Life Of My Motorcycle Battery?
There are two methods in particular I use to extend the usable life of a motorcycle battery and avoid premature failure.
- Battery Tender / Maintainer: I like to use what is known as a trickle charger to ensure that my battery voltage does not drop below threshold levels. This device will apply a low-current charge over a longer time to the battery to avoid excessive discharge. This is useful if you know the bike will be sitting for a while without being ridden.
- Terminal Pads: I also recommend using terminal pads with solution on the two posts of the battery. This serves the purpose of absorbing any acid that leaks out of the junction by the positive and negative battery terminals. If left unchecked, this leaking acid can cause damage to the battery or surrounding components.
These are two preventative measures that can be taken to hedge your bets against a dead battery. Again, this is just cheap insurance, and not necessary to have a properly functioning battery.
I would, however, recommend a tender if you are going to leave your bike parked for long periods consecutively. Small motorcycle batteries do not respond well to being discharged and this will certainly negatively affect the lifespan.
How Long Can I Leave A Trickle Charger On My Battery?
Most modern battery maintainers can be programmed to turn on and off after a set time interval. If you get a cheaper model charger, this function may not be available to you.
As a general rule, I would not leave an active charger hooked up to a battery for more than 48 hours at a low current. A good setting would be 12 volts at .75 amperes. Anything beyond that is unnecessary and presents a risk of fire.
If you know you will be out of town for a long time, it would be worth it to invest in a more expensive charger you can shut off remotely or on a programmable timer. Leaving a battery on a charger indefinitely is dangerous and could overheat the battery causing a fire.
I have personally seen what can happen to a battery left on a charger. In this instance, the battery was on a regular high-current charge and left overnight, so the battery ballooned up like a marshmallow and exploded causing a massive fire and burning down a building. The same thing can happen on a low-current tender so please be careful.
How Do I Start A Motorcycle With A Dead Battery?
I have personally started a dead motorcycle using two methods. Neither is ideal but sometimes becomes necessary, especially if you are out and about.
- Jump Start: A motorcycle can be jumped started under certain conditions with minimal risk of damage. There is definitely some harm that can be done if a motorcycle is jumped incorrectly, but in general there is no damage caused by jump starting a motorcycle. If this makes you uncomfortable, simply move on to step 2 or don’t run your battery to failure next time.
- Bump Start: Almost “J”ump start but not quite. This is a last ditch option that poses some risk but is better than pushing your bike home. What you do here is find a downhill and while sitting on the bike start rolling down the hill to pick up speed. Once you get going at a decent clip, slam the bike into gear (make sure the key is on) and put as much of your weight on the rear tire as possible all at the same time. We are trying to get the tire to hook up and rotate the engine to get it started.
- BONUS: Lucky you, a bonus option for the owners of expensive motorcycles afraid to jump their bike and not gutsy enough to bump them. Call a tow truck!
Is It Ok To Jump Start My Motorcycle?
It is perfectly safe to jump-start a motorcycle using another motorcycle or a car. You will not cause damage to your bike by properly performing this operation.
Let’s go over a couple of best practices when jump-starting your motorcycle.
In the best-case scenario, you have a jumper pack on you that can deliver enough power to start the bike.
If you are using another vehicle, you want to make sure you are jumping the bike off of another vehicle using a 12-volt battery. Also, make sure you use the smaller motorcycle jumper cables. Larger cables meant for a car might short out against your motorcycle frame that is close to the battery terminals.
After jumping the bike, make sure to head straight home or to a repair shop where the battery can be tested and replaced if needed.