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Motorcycle Winterization & Storage

Written by  December 31, 2011

OK, so you stretched your riding season out until you needed tire chains to maneuver through the snow and ice. Now, you have decided to park the beast until the weather is a bit more pleasant. You think, “It will only be a couple of months until riding season begins again, I shouldn’t have much to do to my ride, right?” Think again! A bike has special needs if you are going to store it for an extended time in any environment and expect it to roar to life at the flick of your ignition switch!

In order to prepare your bike for storage, I’ve listed the instructions in a step-by-step methodology; they are intended to be followed in order. The purpose of this order is to minimize the bike's exposure to corrosive agents and prolong its life & good looks as much as possible. This guide assumes that the bike is being stored for more than a month and less than a year. There may be other storage procedures you should follow if you plan to store it for a longer period of time. For storage of less than a month in temperatures that don't go below freezing, you don't really need to do anything to the bike. (Unless you have an alarm system that may drain the battery, in which case you need to charge the battery, disconnect the alarm, or prepare to deal with a dead battery.) If it's going to get below freezing, bring the battery indoors -- you don't want it to freeze.

I have laid this out in two parts: a high level view (checklist) and detailed steps. Please read the complete document a week before you plan on doing the winterization. Now, on to the checklist of things to do.

HIGH LEVEL VIEW:

Find a place to store your bike and get the tools you'll need. Store it sheltered from the elements, away from chemical fumes and ozone. Get the chemicals you need -- gas stabilizer and any cleaning supplies.
Take the bike out for a ride, swing by a gas station on your way home and fill the tank, then stabilize the gas.
Change the oil. Do this while the engine is still hot -- it gets more crud out.
If you can, put the bike on stands to take the weight off the tires.
Spray fogging oil in cylinder(s) It is used to keep the rings and cylinder walls from rusting.
While the bike is warm, cover the air box intakes and exhaust pipe with bags.
Final fuel system checks If your bike has one, switch the petcock off.
Remove and charge the battery Take the battery out of the bike for charging.
Wash, dry, and wax the bike Get all the corrosive road salt and chemicals off it.
Spray the bike's exposed metal parts (but not the brakes!!) to protect and prevent rust/corrosion.
Lock it up so it doesn't get stolen!
Cover the bike with breathable material that will keep dust off.

I inherited this list some time ago and have added to it as I learned new techniques. No one says you have to follow this stuff to the letter, but a fair amount of thought has gone into the order of the steps and the specific things done at each step. You may ask why things are in the order they are in. Here’s why:

Step one is basic preparation. Get the tools for the job and supplies, as it saves you from numerous starts and stops, not to mention all the cursing.
Step two is critical because the engine needs to be up to temperature for the oil change, the fuel system needs to be stabilized and the tank filled (to prevent rust inside the tank), and a hot engine will burn off any residual condensation or water in the engine/oil. These steps were combined because they can all be done together, as long as they're done in the proper order.
Step three is done before step four only because the post-oil-change engine running needs to be done in a well-ventilated area. That means moving the bike. Putting the bike up on stands before the oil change would make the oil change easier, but then you'd just need to take it off the stands when you move it.
Steps four through eight don't need to be done in any particular order, but they need to be done after the engine is run and while it's still fairly hot.
Step nine is where it is because some of the earlier steps may get oil on the bike, and, besides, it's nice to give the bike a chance to cool down a little before you wash it, since otherwise you could burn yourself.
You could make a good argument that step ten should go before step nine, since there's a good chance that overspray will get oil on the bike's pretty parts. I put ten after step nine because step nine will wash off salt and corrosion, which is precisely what you want to do before you spray metal-protecting chemicals on the bike's tender metal bits. Otherwise you run the risk of sealing the corrosive agents in.

You may have other ways that you handle winter storage and that's fine. I'd love to hear any suggestions that you may have, please send me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and I'll try to work them in. With your input, maybe I can make this list better. However, again, please read through this entire document before you start doing anything -- the suggestions in later steps might affect how you go about doing some of the earlier ones.

DETAILED STEPS:

Find a place to store it, get the tools you'll need.
ESTIMATED TIME: 1-2 hours
Do this step at the beginning of your planning for storage of the bike. Not at the last minute. Find a good place to store the motorcycle. Keep it away from extreme temperatures -- which pretty much means keep it inside, if possible. Chemical fumes can dry out and attack the bike's organic (rubber) parts, so don't put the bike in an area that will expose it to this stuff. Likewise, electric motors and heaters generate ozone, which is also bad for rubber, so keep the bike away from ozone sources, too. Don't put the bike somewhere where it'll get knocked over. Find a smooth, level place that's out of the way. Don’t store it on a dirt floor, where moisture rising out of the soil could collect under a cover and cause your bike's tender metal and chrome bits some grief. Make sure it's stored on a solid dry surface.
Shopping list:
- Gasoline stabilizer, virtually any brand will do, it's not expensive.
- Oil and filter, you might want to put in an inexpensive brand, as you will drain it in the spring.
- Any cleaning chemicals that you plan to use when washing & waxing the bike.
- Any tools that you will need to take the bike's gas tank, bodywork, windscreen, and spark plugs off.
Run the bike, fill the tank up and add the fuel stabilizer.
ESTIMATED TIME: 1-2 hours
(You're about to wash the bike, so it's OK to take it for one final ride on salt-infested roads.)
Take the bike out for a spin, and on the way back, fill the tank up. You may want to add the gasoline stabilizer that you bought right before you fill the tank, as that will mix things up better. You want to make sure the tank is full when you store the bike, so wait until the end of the ride to visit the local gas station. You want to get the bike nice and hot, so make sure you're out long enough to get the engine up to operating temperature for a while. Ride around for at least 20 minutes before visiting the gas station. Getting the engine nice and hot does two good things:
- It burns off any condensation that's formed in the engine.
- It gets the oil hot, which stirs up evil combustion by-products and makes it easier to remove them when you do the oil change.
If you haven't already, add the appropriate amount of gasoline stabilizer to the tank when you return to the storage location. You will need to run the bike for another 5 minutes or so to make sure that stabilized fuel has worked its way through the entire fuel system. Be careful about the build-up of poisonous carbon monoxide fumes if your bike is stored in an enclosed space. Stabilizing the gas is probably the most important thing to do when storing your bike. Gasoline is a blend of dozens of different compounds. Over time, the more volatile compounds will evaporate, leaving a hard sludge that will gunk up your carburetors and prevent them from working. Gasoline stabilizer prevents this from happening. You must stabilize the gasoline in your fuel system before storing your bike, even if your bike doesn't have carburetors.
DON’T drain the float bowls! I don't recommend draining any bike’s float bowls because the gas stabilizer will prevent the gas from turning solid. There are no guarantees in life, but in my experience, the stuff works as advertised. Since you're stabilizing the gas, do you also need to drain the float bowls? I don’t think so. I don't bother, some friends do, and none of us have had problems -- provided we stabilize the gas first. If you're not going to stabilize the gas, yes, absolutely, you must get all of the gas out of the carburetors. The problem with only draining the float bowls is that you haven't removed all of the gas from the carburetor -- capillary action can hold fuel in the small passages inside the carburetor. The unstabilized fuel stored in the carburetor bowls and capillaries can turn into a jelly–like sludge over the winter months, even though the big petroleum companies say it won’t. This sludge can float up from the bottom of the bowls to the tiny jets, blocking fuel to the combustion chambers, which means, you’re not riding anymore. This always seems to happen on a lonely stretch of road, well out of cell phone range and not a house or car in sight. Now, you must completely disassemble and soak your jets in solvents or buy new ones to get riding again; not a normal roadside repair. So, the most important step, by far, is to stabilize the gas. After that, I don't think it makes much difference whether or not you drain the float bowls, since stabilized gas won't turn into sludge.
Change the oil.
ESTIMATED TIME: 1 hour
Change the oil before you store the bike. Old oil contains combustion by-products and other nasty stuff; do a complete oil and filter change now that the bike is still warm after being run. This is probably the second-most important step of storage, and possibly the only one that will cause permanent engine damage if skipped. Make sure you dispose of the old oil properly -- many states have laws requiring auto-parts stores to accept old oil for recycling. Some guides dangerously suggest filling the engine cases with oil. Do not do this; a normal oil change listed in your owner's manual is more than adequate. After you change the oil, move the bike to a well-ventilated area and start it. Running the engine for a minute or two will distribute the fresh oil throughout the engine, insuring that the remnants of the old oil are diluted. After a minute or two, kill the engine and, if applicable, move the bike back to the area where it will be stored. Only do this post-oil-change step if the engine is still warm from step 2. Don't do this if the engine has cooled, as running the engine briefly will just form condensation in the engine. (This is the same reason why you don't want to run the engine during the winter).
Put the bike on stands.
ESTIMATED TIME: 5-10 minutes
If you have a center stand, you're all set. Put the bike up on the center stand and skip to step 5. If you don't have a center stand, read on. If you have a pair of bike stands (a swing arm stand and either a fork stand or a front-end stand that holds the bike from the steering stem), cool. Put the bike up on the stands and store it that way. If you don't have stands, don't risk dropping the bike by trying to rig up something with boards, jack stands, or milk crates. It's not that critical. Just remember that you may want to take a little more care with your tires over the course of the winter.
Spray fogging oil in cylinder(s).
ESTIMATED TIME: 10 minutes - 2 hours
You may need to remove the gas tank to access the spark plugs. On some models (e.g., Yamaha FZR400) you may even need to loosen or remove the radiator or oil cooler. Some spark plugs are very well hidden. BMW and Moto-Guzzi owners are laughing at the rest of us right now. After clearing out dirt/grit from around the spark plug holes (an air compressor or a simple can of Office Duster 3 by Read Right works great), remove the spark plugs and spray some 'fogging oil' (available at motorcycle or marine shops) into the cylinders. If you can't get to some, squirt in a little motor oil (or, failing that, some WD40) to lubricate the cylinder walls. (No more than a teaspoon per cylinder!) If, for whatever reason, you can't get the spark plugs out -- and if you're feeling up to it -- pop the carburetors off and spray some oil in via the intakes. But make sure you spin the engine a bit using the rear wheel top gear trick to make sure closed intake valves don't prevent oil from getting into all cylinders. If your bike has a center stand, or you've raised it off the ground with other stands, put the bike in the top gear and (by hand) rotate the rear wheel to slowly spin the engine. Make sure the ignition switch is off when you do this, and don't use the starter in lieu of spinning the rear wheel by hand. After 10-15 revolutions, the cylinder walls will be well coated and you can move on. If you're not going to be able to get the rear wheel off the ground to spin it and spread the oil around, make sure you use fogging oil (preferred) or WD40. They'll distribute themselves a bit better than a little squirt of motor oil. Don't bother buying 'Marvel Mystery Oil,' since you no doubt have some motor oil left over from the oil change you just completed. All you're trying to do is lube the cylinder walls and prevent the rings from sticking. Motor oil will do a marvelous job -- this is precisely what it's engineered to do. No mystery products required. Reinstall the spark plugs, being careful not to cross-thread them. You may want to dab a little anti-seize on them to protect the threads that they screw in to. If you were able to put the bike in top gear and rotate the rear wheel, put the bike back in neutral. You may need to spin the rear wheel a bit to help the transmission shift. If you had to remove the gas tank or radiator, make sure they get reinstalled properly.
Cover intake/exhaust with bags.
ESTIMATED TIME: 10 minutes
After the exhaust pipes have cooled but preferably while the engine is still warm, squirt a little WD40 into each exhaust pipe and cover the tip(s) of them with a balloon or a plastic bag to prevent moisture from getting to the engine. Make sure it's airtight -- rubber bands work well for this. Likewise, cover the air intake(s). If you had to remove the gas tank to spray fogging oil into the cylinders (previous step), you can now cover the air intake(s) while you have it off. Aren't you glad you followed my advice and read the entire document before starting? You may also want to cover the air box's drain hose.
Final fuel system checks.
ESTIMATED TIME: 5 minutes
If you followed step 2 properly, stabilized gas has worked its way through the whole fuel system, and you did not need to drain the carburetors' float bowls. If your fuel petcock has settings like ON/RES/PRI, leave the petcock set to 'ON.' If your petcock has settings like ON/RES/OFF, switch the petcock to 'OFF.' If your bike doesn't have a fuel petcock, possibly because it is fuel injected, you're a lucky bastard.
Remove and charge the battery.
ESTIMATED TIME: 5-45 minutes
The bike doesn't need its battery over the winter, and you want to prevent it from freezing. So take it out, take it inside, and keep it charged. Batteries contain a lot of water, and water expands slightly when it freezes. If it gets cold enough, the water/acid solution in your battery could freeze, cracking the battery when it expands. Then, when it warms up, the water/acid solution melts and runs all over your bike! Freezing = bad. If you're storing the bike in a place where it won't be exposed to freezing temperatures, you don't need to remove the battery from the bike except to do a routine annual cleaning of the battery and the bike's battery box (as explained below.) Don't neglect to keep the battery charged, however. Keeping a lead-acid motorcycle battery happy, means keeping it charged. The best method is to put it on a smart charger, like the 'Battery Tender' (approximately $50), that will only charge it as much as it needs, and won't boil the battery dry with overcharging. Just put your battery on the smart charger and, with the exception of periodic fluid level checks and other maintenance mentioned below, you can pretty much forget about it all winter. If you can't afford or don't want to buy a smart charger, buy a cheap 12v trickle-charger ($10 or so) and hook it up to an automatic timer, so the battery gets about 30 minutes of trickle-charging a day. You may also be able to rig it up to your garage door opener, giving it a few minutes of charge each time the garage door is opened. A few minutes of trickle-charging a day is probably sufficient to make sure the battery stays charged. Unless you have a maintenance-free battery, check the battery's fluid levels regularly to make sure the charger isn't boiling away the electrolyte. If the levels are low, add distilled water only to bring the levels back up. Charge the battery in a well-ventilated area, particularly if your battery isn't maintenance-free. Batteries can emit hydrogen gas while charging, which is fairly explosive. Clean the outside of a battery with a baking soda/water solution to neutralize any acid that's gotten out -- unless you're certain that no acid has escaped; likewise for the inside of the battery box. Then clean the outside of the battery and the inside of the battery box with a warm soapy water solution -- even for those of you with maintenance-free batteries and those of you who skipped the baking soda step. Make sure to dry things very thoroughly afterwards! All batteries: clean the terminals with a wire brush and lube them with dielectric grease before returning the battery to service. There's an old wives' tale about putting batteries on cement floors. As long as the outside of the battery is clean and dry and the cement is not freezing cold, you have nothing to worry about. Pay no attention to electrical superstitions. Just prevent the battery from freezing, and make sure it stays charged.
Wash, dry, and wax the bike.
ESTIMATED TIME: could take hours
Around wintertime, there's often a lot of salt on the roads. Clean this off before you store your bike! You should do a heavy wash before you take it for the last ride of the season, and after the winterization maintenance, do the light wipe off and waxing. Mild soap and water is fine, or use a bike-specific cleaning chemical if you want. Make sure you wash the entire underside, wheels, suspension components, and all. Don't forget to dry the bike. The engine (which should still be warm from your ride) may be able to evaporate the water off, but you'll still want to get the water off the wheels and frame. Drying the bike is really important; do a good job. Wax the bike's painted parts; it'll prevent the paint from oxidizing over the winter; don’t forget the chrome! Standard warning that everyone who owns a pressure-washer should be able to recite by heart: the overwhelming pressure that pressure-washers generate can do bad things to motorcycles. Take care not to point the powerful stream of water at the bearings or seals. Water under such high pressure can force its way past seals, displacing grease and corroding bearings. Be careful.
Protect the bike's exposed metal.
ESTIMATED TIME: 10-30 minutes
Do not apply chemicals or lubricants to brake pads, brake rotors, or tires. This section is about protecting the frame, the rims and the chain. Don't mess with the brakes. If you get chemicals on them, clean them thoroughly with brake cleaner, available at any auto parts place. To protect metal parts, spray the exposed metal parts of the bike (particularly the underside) with a rust inhibitor like WD40, Cosmoline, or Maxima's Chain Wax. (Believe it or not, Chain Wax works very well for this purpose!) These chemicals will prevent rust and corrosion from making any progress while the bike is in storage. You will want to do a good job of removing them come spring. PJ1 makes a rubber-protecting chemical that seems to keep rubber from dry rotting. Although you shouldn't spray any chemical on your tires, other rubber parts of your bike might benefit from some of this stuff. Rusty spots (except on the brake rotors) should probably be attended to over the winter. See the section on stuff to do over the winter. If you get any ChainWax/WD40/cosmoline/whatever on the bike's nice paint or chrome parts, do a little touch-up washing to prevent these chemicals from staining the bike's finish over the winter. Diluted 'Simple Green' (an organic degreaser) followed by either “Pig Glow”, Honda Pro Oils 'Spray Cleaner & Polish' or Meguire's 'Quick Detailer' should work well.
Lock it up.
ESTIMATED TIME: 5 minutes
Depending on where you store your bike, you may want to put a big-ass lock/chain/cable on it and fastened to an eye hook fixed to the concrete floor helps even more to make sure it stays put. And cover it -- covers are part of the theft protection package. Keep in mind that determined thieves can cut through just about anything, and the best protection against theft is probably good insurance – keep it active through the winter months. On that note, you may not be able to insure the bike against theft ('comprehensive') if you cancel the registration or stop carrying collision/liability coverage over the winter. Check with your insurance agent to make sure you're receiving the coverage that you need. You can buy the big, heavy chain (Cobra-Links or Kryptonite's Barbed Wire come to mind), and lock the frame of the bike to something relatively immovable.
Cover the bike.
ESTIMATED TIME: 5 minutes
Make sure the bike has been well-dried after the washing you gave it during step nine. Use a breathable cloth cover. You don't want to trap moisture under the cover, as it'll cause rust. Likewise, you want to keep water out, particularly if you're storing the bike outside, where it'll be subjected to precipitation. Purpose-made bike covers work well, as does anything made of Gore-Tex.

THINGS TO DO OVER THE WINTER

Do not run the engine for 5-10 minutes over the winter! You'll just create condensation in the engine and combustion byproducts in the oil. Resist the temptation. Winter is an excellent time to do other routine maintenance -- you'll miss riding, and it's a good way to spend time with your bike(s) as you pine away for next season. Plus, you've probably been dragging your feet about performing some of the scheduled maintenance, haven't you? That's OK; we all have. Now is the perfect time to get this maintenance out of the way. Also, don’t forget to install all the great Christmas gifts you received for your ride. Read through your owner's manual, and perform any service that is due once a year or more frequently, even if it isn't quite time yet. At the very least:
lubricate control cables and periodically operate all controls
check (and, if necessary, adjust) chain/belt tension
lubricate chain, or lube driveshaft
check brake pads and rotors
change fluids (brake, clutch, etc)
inspect/replace/clean air filter
check all bolts to make sure nothing is loose
inspect tires (for cuts, uneven wear, dry-rot, tread depth, images of the Virgin Mary, etc)
inspect swing arm and steering head bearings
lube suspension, pivot points, grease fittings, etc

Extra credit assignments.
Change fork oil
Change coolant (except for you air-cooled types)
Valve adjustment (except for you two-stroke types)
Disassemble/clean/reassemble carburetors (except for you fuel-injected-types)
Mount new tires (if it's time)

A lot of this maintenance will seem intimidating to people who haven't done much work on their bikes. That's fine. Start with simple stuff and tackle the more involved tasks when you feel up to it. Or find friends who are more experienced with bike maintenance and bribe them to help you. If you didn't have stands to get the tires off the ground, make sure you check the tires every month or so to make sure they're at normal operating pressure. You may also wish to move the bike slightly every few weeks to prevent flat spots. Clean up any rust spots with some very fine grit sand paper (until you get down to bare metal) and repaint the area with a matching color. (This does not apply to the brake system, of course -- as previously noted, leave the brakes alone.) Paint will not cure properly when it's really cold out, so if you aren't storing the bike somewhere warm, you might as well skip this step until the ambient temperature is over 65 degrees. To paint the exhaust system, make sure you sand down to bare metal and use extremely high temperature paint such as fireplace/stove paint (available at many hardware stores or specialty fireplace stores.) If you can track down a high-temperature etching primer, that'd be a good thing to use between the sanding and the first coat of paint. (The exhaust system gets so hot that conventional paints will be destroyed). Color-matched paint may be available through your local dealership. Color-Rite seems to make much of the OEM paint for motorcycles. Order new spark plugs for your bike's return to use. (Optional, but usually inexpensive -- follow the maintenance schedule set by your bike's manufacturer). Sign up for an early-season Motorcycle Safety Foundation Experienced Rider course.

TAKING THE BIKE OUT OF STORAGE

ESTIMATED TIME: 1 afternoon
Remove the cover.
Remove any large locks you might have used to secure the bike, double check that front disk lock!
Make sure the tire pressures are set properly for normal use.
If the bike is up on stands, carefully lower the bike off the stand(s).
Wash the bike to remove any metal-protecting cosmoline/WD40/Chain Wax.
Install the clean, well-charged battery.
If your bike has a fuel petcock, turn the fuel system on. If your fuel petcock has settings like ON/RES/PRI, set it to 'PRI' for about 20 seconds, then switch it to 'ON.' If your petcock has settings like ON/RES/OFF, set it to 'ON.' If your bike has a fuel pump, make sure the kill switch is set to 'RUN.'
Remove any plastic/rubber covers that you put on the air box intakes, exhaust pipes, and air box drain.
Check the oil level, especially if you have any known leaks.
Move the bike to a well-ventilated area and start it. Let it run for 20 minutes or long enough for the fan to come on twice. (Be careful about the build-up of poisonous carbon monoxide fumes in enclosed spaces.)
Before changing out the cheap oil:
Take it for a long ride to burn out the gas in your fuel tank, getting rid of the fuel stabilizer. Put in a can of fuel system cleaner additive (e.g., Techron) for a couple of tanks. Now do an oil change. 'What, again?!' you say? Yeah, it's probably a good idea. The cheap oil you stored the bike with probably absorbed a bunch of icky combustion byproducts that the pre-storage oil change didn't remove. Hey, that's why you used cheap stuff -- you're getting rid of it. Feel free to use $9/qt synthetic ambrosia this time, or whatever motor oil makes you feel best. I also change out the oil filter and don’t forget to recycle the old oil properly.
Change or clean your spark plugs
Take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Experienced Rider course you signed up for over the winter.

ENJOY THE START OF ANOTHER SEASON OF RIDING!

Bart

Ride Free