Why Your Engine Is Burning Oil And What To Do About It

This may seem odd, but yes, motorcycle engines not only leak oil but also burn oil. It’s better to know this fact and manage it than plead ignorance and be stuck on the side of the road with a hole in the block.

Motorcycle engines are precision designed with very tight tolerances and parameters from which to operate. They require more frequent maintenance and in some cases more maintenance in general. Failure to do so can lead to excessive oil consumption and catastrophic failure.

Anyone can pick up on the smell of burned oil in the air coming from an exhaust pipe and understand that this is not an indication of peak performance. Smoke from the exhaust as well as poor performance and low oil level are a few symptoms of an engine that’s burning oil.

Fortunately, engine issues can be repaired if necessary or prevented if responsibly managed. One of the leading causes of motorcycle engines burning excessive oil is poor maintenance.

As a whole, engines burn oil in one of two ways: oil either escapes past the piston rings inside the cylinder or past the valve guides in the cylinder head. It is important to determine the rate at which your engine is burning oil before proceeding with any major repairs.

How Do I Know If My Engine Is Burning Oil?

The most important question you should be asking if you’re reading this article is how you can determine if you have a major issue. The first place you need to go is to the engine oil sight glass which is located on the right side of your bike in most cases and read the oil level.

Quick side note – some bikes have a small dipstick like a car also on the right side of the bike instead of a sight glass.

The majority of bikes have the clutch cover mounted to the right side of the engine. Oil circulates around the clutch plates and therefore provides a good place for manufacturers to add a little sight glass to look through and inspect the engine oil level.

Another indicator of an engine burning oil is excessive blue smoke coming out of the exhaust pipe.

Blue smoke billowing from the exhaust is a classic indicator of oil consumption. What you’re observing in this instance is burned oil that has previously entered the combustion chamber now exiting by means of the open exhaust valve.

It is not good to have oil in the combustion chamber. You want fuel and air in the combustion chamber with the occasional spark. Nuff said.

The last way to identify an engine that is consuming oil is if it’s sluggish and low on power.

If engine oil is escaping past the piston rings, that cylinder will be low on compression and not make as much power as it was designed. One way to check this is to perform a compression test on the cylinder in question, put a few drops of oil into the spark plug hole, the recheck. If compression goes up it’s because the oil is making a better seal on the ring / cylinder junction and you have confirmed your issue.

With this being said, it is critical to keep a watchful eye on your oil level regularly to avoid running the engine low.

This guy is checking his oil without a stand which is not ideal but better than not checking at all.

How To Check The Oil Level On A Motorcycle

There is a specific way to read the oil level on a bike. I like to follow this list of steps and I typically check every 500 miles or so to check my oil and make sure it doesn’t run low.

  • Put the bike on its center stand, or use a wheel stand to hold the bike upright
  • As the oil settles, it should land between the high and low indicators
  • Cold oil level should never read above the max mark or below the min mark
  • Start the bike and let it run for a minute
  • Shut the bike off and let it sit for a minute
  • Measure again after the oil has circulated and settled

Allowable Oil Consumption Amount For A Motorcycle Engine

Most service or owner’s manuals will contain a section that comments on oil consumption and how much is allowable over a set time period. In my experience, most manufacturers will claim it’s ok for bikes to burn around 1 quart every 1,500 miles. Check your own manual to get an exact figure for your specific machine.

If this sounds like a lot, it is, which is why we’re discussing this issue and how to prevent major issues down the road. As stated, your motorcycle will burn oil, and it is up to you to manage this phenomenon to keep your bike on the road.

What To Do About A Motorcycle That Is Burning Oil

Now that we have come to the understanding that your bike is burning at least some oil, let’s determine what to do about it. At this point, you should have a good idea or at least a plan to determine how much oil your engine is losing over time.

If the rate of oil loss exceeds the manufacturer’s specifications and recommendations, repairs to some extent are needed.

Now whether this means a full engine rebuild or just some bandaid repairs, some action needs to be taken. I’ve put together a shortlist in order of easiest to most complex repairs (not best to worst)

  • Add More Oil

This is the ultimate quick fix when assessing a low oil condition. Every motorcyclist should have some spare oil in the garage of high quality and the proper weight. When preparing for a ride, a quick oil level check is recommended so that you can add oil if needed.

  • Add Engine Oil Additive

There are oil additives on the market that can hold off the need for major repairs by sealing the engine from the inside out. They will also prolong the usable life of the oil to increase its ability to lubricate the internal engine components for longer.

Check out this link for a recommended additive for high-performance motorcycles.

  • Decrease Maintenance Interval Length

If you catch a consumption issue early enough, you may be able to reverse the trend with tighter maintenance intervals. You shouldn’t be waiting more than 4 months or 3,000 miles to change your motorcycle engine oil. If you have been pushing services off and the bike is still relatively new, start this now and you can possible add more life to your engine.

If the bike is old with many miles and the engine is burning oil, this method won’t be as effective as the damage is likely already done.

  • Major Overhaul

The last resort is a major engine overhaul or complete replacement. If all else has failed up to this point, and the bike has enough value to sink thousands of dollars into, then this is the end of the road.

You are either looking at best case a cylinder head rebuild which would include replacing the valve guide seals, or worst yet tearing down the whole engine to hone the cylinder walls and replace the piston rings. These are both extensive repairs and should only be performed by a trained technician.

Should My Brand New Motorcycle Be Burning Oil?

This is an important question to ask for a brand new bike whether it is your first or one of many. A new motorcycle engine is not broken in yet which means some parts internally with have to settle into place and wear in after running for the first few hundred miles.

It is perfectly normal for a new engine to burn oil at an excessive rate and does not indicate any mechanical failure.

Most manufacturers recommend a very short first service interval of around 600 miles for this exact reason. The engine will consume or burn oil excessively during this first interval because the piston rings have not fully seated against the cylinder walls.

How To Prevent Major Engine Problems

The easiest and cheapest way to avoid major engine problems is routine maintenance with high-quality parts performed by a professional.

Good oil does cost more than bad oil.

An OEM (original equipment manufacturer) oil filter will cost more than aftermarket.

Changing the oil more frequently does cost more than stretching out the intervals for longer time or mileage periods.

Taking your motorcycle to a professional mechanic is more expensive than doing it yourself.

With all of this being said, all of the scenarios listed above added together are cheaper than a major engine repair. Use your service manual to determine proper engine oil weight and capacity. Select a premium brand oil and choose synthetic if your engine allows for it.

With this article at your disposal, when you take your bike to the mechanic of your choosing (even yourself), you can be sure that the correct parts were used, the proper amount of oil was used by checking the level, and have documentation to confirm the proper interval.

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