Oil Analysis–A Way to Extend Oil-Change Intervals and Know Your Engine?

Recently, I saw yet another contentious motorcycle oil-change thread on my local motorcycle forum. All the usual questions came up–what’s the best type of oil for my bike, conventional or synthetic? Which brand is superior? How long can I stretch my oil-change intervals without hurting the bike’s engine? Of course, some posters passionately advocated synthetic, others insisted that cheaper conventional oil was fine; heck, even the usual Shell Rotella advocates and Amsoil fanboys climbed out from under their rock and held forth. Some guys told our questioner to go read his manual; the old-fashioned types insisted that the time-honored 3,000-mile interval should be his guiding light; the cheap guys said that he could go 8-10,000 miles on synthetic, easy.

It’s true that oil has a tougher job in motorcycle engines than it does in cars; bike engines tend to run hotter and rev much higher than car and truck engines. More importantly, while car engines have separate lubrication systems for the automatic transmission or clutch and the engine, most bikes share a single pool of oil, circulating between the clutch and the engine alike. This means that motorcycle oil endures shearing forces from the meshing of gears in the transmission, as well as increased amounts of particulate and carbon shed from its fiber clutch plates. That’s why, while some car manufacturers recommend oil-change intervals of 9-10,000 miles, most motorcycle makers stick to 3–6,000 miles for their recommendations.

Amid all the arguing, one guy mentioned that several places in the U.S. offer oil analysis, which gives a breakdown of what’s going on in your engine, and can tell you whether or not your oil-change interval is too long, too short, or just right. In addition, oil analysis offers an opportunity to see what’s going on, chemically and structurally, inside your engine. Is the head cracked and leaking coolant into your oil? Is there fuel contamination, or excessive silica, meaning you have a fueling problem or aren’t changing the air filter often enough? Are your pistons and bearings in good shape, or are they shedding aluminum and copper? Each oil sample is tested using chemical spectrometry, testing for viscosity, fuel and antifreeze contamination, as well as suspended particles in the oil that are shed from the various metals and surfaces inside your engine.

Testing the oil gives a representative portrait of what condition your engine is in, and can anticipate engine problems before the vehicle clatters to an unplanned stop in a cloud of smoke 100 miles out of Wichita. Also, part of the test can involve a recommendation for just how long your next oil change intervals ought to be, based on the current condition of the oil. In a best case scenario, you can lengthen your oil change intervals, which uses less oil (and fewer filters) in the first place. You save time and money, and you reduce oil waste as well–that’s even better than recycling your oil (though of course you should still do that, too)!

For more detailed information on just what oil analysis analyzes, Bob Is The Oil Guy has further info.

I was intrigued, and decided to geek out and go for it. I looked up Blackstone Laboratories in Indiana, and emailed to request a free testing kit. It arrived a couple of weeks later.

The package from Blackstone Labs

The package from Blackstone Labs

Inside, a mysterious bottle.

Oil sample bottle

Oil sample bottle

Opening it, I found the contents of the testing kit.

Contents of the oil testing kit: Outer bottle, inner oil sample bottle, ziploc for the inner bottle, absorbent cloth to wrap around inner bottle, report sheet, and window decal

Contents of the oil testing kit: Outer bottle, inner oil sample bottle, ziploc for the inner bottle, absorbent cloth to wrap around inner bottle, report sheet, and window decal

It contained:
* The outer bottle,
* inner oil sample bottle,
* ziploc for the inner bottle,
* absorbent cloth to wrap around inner bottle,
* report sheet, and
* a window decal, to write down the mileage of your vehicle at this oil change.

It turned out that I’d just changed my motorcycle’s oil, but my car (a 2001 Suzuki Grand Vitara) was due, so I decided to use it as a guinea pig. Besides, it was a chance to learn to change the oil and filter on this vehicle and get an oil sample, instead of giving in to the temptation of going to the local quicky-lube place. I picked up some Mobil 1 Full Synthetic, a new filter, a fresh crush washer for the drain bolt, my oil kit, and set to work. Blackstone Labs requests that the oil sample come from a completely warmed-up engine, so I made sure to do the oil change after I’d returned from a mid-length trip.

Suzuki Grand Vitara, set up for an oil change

Suzuki Grand Vitara, set up for an oil change

Oil change supplies

Oil change supplies

I chocked the rear wheels, placed my jack and elevated the front end of the SUV, and put the jackstands under the frame. I put down some cardboard to lie on, some more to catch any spills, and placed my oil drain pan to catch the flow.

I got the oil-sample bottle ready. Blackstone suggests taking the oil sample from the middle of the oil flow once the drain bolt is removed, rather than the beginning or end. This gives the most accurate picture of the bulk of the oil circulating through the engine. When I got under the vehicle to loosen the drain bolt and drop the oil, I kept the sample bottle close to hand.

oil sample bottle

oil sample bottle

Crawling under the car with my socket wrench and oil sample bottle, I loosened the drain bolt.

Loosening the drain bolt

Loosening the drain bolt

As I removed the oil drain bolt and the hot oil splashed out, I waited a couple of seconds, then held my sample bottle under the flow of oil–trying not to burn myself!

Drain pan and sample bottle full of used oil

Drain pan and sample bottle full of used oil

When my sample was secure and the oil drained, I removed the oil filter, then replaced it with a new one. In the 2001 Suzuki Grand Vitara, the filter is mounted on the side of the engine case, making filter removal and replacement an exercise in messiness and creative contortionism.

Replacing the oil filter

Replacing the oil filter

To check the recommended oil-change interval on your own car/truck, refer to your manual, or check out CalRecycle’s Check Your Number website. Sadly, no motorcycles, but it’s still a useful resource.

Once the filter was on, I put a fresh crush washer on the drain bolt, torqued it down, and added 5 quarts of oil (Mobil 1 full synthetic 5w30, to be exact). I started the car and ran it for a few minutes, then stopped it, waited 5 minutes, and topped off. I took a short spin and checked the oil level again–it was fine.

My filter went into my oil filter drainer, the oil drain pan I capped and wiped down, and took both into my local auto parts shop for recycling–of course! For where to recycle oil and filters in northern California, visit Riders Recycle. CalRecycle has a zip-code lookup tool for all CA oil/filter recycling locations.

With my oil sample captured, I wiped down the bottle and bagged it, wrote down the relevant information on the enclosed sheet, wrapped the whole bundle up in the absorbent mat, closed and taped the outer bottle, and dropped it off at the Post Office in a tyvek Priority Mail envelope.

Oil sample, ready to package up and send in to the lab

Oil sample, ready to package up and send in to the lab

After 10 days, I got the oil analysis report back, attached to an email! With a little excitement, I printed out the info sheet.

Oil Analysis report

Oil Analysis report

Aside from the elevated copper levels (which are, I’m told, usually the result of an oxidizing oil cooler shedding copper, and not worrisome when other metals are not elevated), the results were darn good. Even with the analysis being based on oil that had gone 3,600 miles (I’d gone 5,000 miles between changes), the levels of metals and other contaminants in the oil were within expectations. The viscosity of the old oil held steady as well, ensuring that the internal engine parts would still have their necessary lubricant film. There were no traces of fuel or coolant in the sample. In the end, the lab recommended that I extend the Suzuki’s oil-change intervals to 7,000 miles. That saves a fair bit more oil from entering the waste stream, uses fewer filters, and, happily, saves me some effort and money, while not harming my engine. Just the result I’d been hoping for.

A number of companies offer oil analysis. I used Blackstone Laboratories, which has a good reputation and charges $25 per basic sample, and $10 extra for a TBN (total base number) test, which tests how many of the oil’s additives are still working in your sample. The TBN tells you whether you can extend oil change intervals, and recommends a particular mileage, and added to the standard test, comes out to $35 total. Since a synthetic oil and filter change costs $83 at my local oil changer, and I paid $41 for 5 quarts of synthetic oil and a filter, I saved $8, got a view into the working condition of my engine, and got scientifically-backed advice that will save me money and time in the future, and got a chance to to save resources and reduce pollution and oil use. Seems like a win all ’round.

When it comes to oil, as with anything else, reducing is even better than recycling.

Blackstone Labs

Oil Analyzers, Inc.

Scooter Time! Change the Oil on That Honda Elite 80

Changing your own oil makes for an easy and satisfying Do-It-Yourself project requiring a minimum of tools and supplies, saves you money at the bike shop or dealership, and helps you learn to keep your scoot purring along in fine mechanical shape. It’s an easy job, and the Elite has no oil filter. The Elite 80 has a little square on its dashboard, usually green, that switches to red every 3,000 miles. This indicates that it’s time to change your oil…though in practice, I’ve seen many scooter mechanics advocate changing the oil every 1,000 miles, just to be sure. In any case, the oil on this little scooter was 2100 miles and over a year old, so I prepped for an oil change.

Supplies you'll need to change the oil on a Honda Elite 80

I gathered all the supplies I’d need–

  • the Honda,
  • a jug of 10w40 oil (plain ol’ automotive oil is fine, as long as it does not have an “Energy Conserving” label on the back),
  • pan,
  • funnel,
  • a cleaner or solvent (I like Winzer MPS-100, but Simple Green is fine too, with a rinse afterward)
  • a jug for waste oil,
  • an 8mm metric allen or hex wrench to remove the oil drain bolt,
  • nitrile gloves to keep my hands clean,
  • paper towels or rags for cleanup,
  • and a new crush washer.
  • With everything I needed at hand, it was time to change some oil. First, to drain the oil in a small scooter effectively, you often need to tilt the machine to help it drain. I placed a board under the right foot of the scooter’s center stand, to help the scoot lean and drain to the left.

    Note the board placed under the right foot of the centerstand--to help the oil drain

    Here, you can see how I tilted the scooter up and placed the oil pan directly underneath the centerstand, with the left foot of the stand actually sitting in the pan. If you aren’t comfortable slinging the scooter around at such sharp angles, you could use a large funnel to catch the oil and direct it over into the pan.

    I located the drain bolt on the left side of the scooter’s engine.

    The red arrow indicates the oil drain bolt

    Other views of the tilted scooter.

    Maximizing oil drainage with oil pan and board propping up the scooter at an angle

    From behind, this shows the tilt of the scooter when placed on a board for drainage

    I used the 8mm allen wrench to loosen and remove the drain bolt.

    Removing the oil drain bolt

    With the drain bolt out (be careful not to burn your hands if the engine and oil are hot), the oil can flow freely into your catch pan.

    With the drain bolt gone, the oil begins to drain

    Remember, if the scooter is warm when you start, the oil will drain more quickly and effectively.

    Allen/hex wrench (metric size eight) with oil drain bolt

    After waiting a while for the oil to completely drain, I moved on to the next step.

    On the other side (the right side) of the scooter, I unscrewed the oil filler cap/dipstick in preparation for filling the scoot with oil.

    Then, I pulled off the old crush washer, added a new one, and replaced the oil filter bolt. Use awareness and careful feel to tighten the drain bolt–you want to slightly compress the crush washer and ensure that the bolt isn’t so loose that it works its way out, but avoid stripping the aluminum threads in the scooter’s small oil pan. Have an experienced friend or family member help you with getting the feel for bolt tightness if you feel hesitant.

    Replacing the oil drain bolt and new crush washer

    Then, with the bolt replaced and the oil drained, I was ready to take care of the old stuff and add fresh oil. I wanted the scooter to be level and perpendicular to the ground to get an accurate measurement of the oil level, so I removed the board from beneath the right side of the center stand.

    Then, I moved around to the left side, and tilted the scooter over to the right to pull the center stand completely out of the oil pan.

    Leaning the scooter so the center stand is no longer in the oil pan

    I leaned the scooter waaay over, and pushed the oil pan out from under the center stand carefully, taking care not to tip it over.

    Leaning the scooter, and now the oil pan is clear of the center stand

    With the old oil safely out of the way and the scooter level again, it was time to pour in the fresh oil. I put a funnel in the oil filler neck and slowly added oil, stopping to check the level with the dipstick frequently. A funnel with a long neck or, better yet, a flexible neck, is needed to reach the filler opening on the Elite 80–it’s pretty far down there..

    Adding oil

    Checking the level (the oil capacity is 3/4 of a quart–not much, be careful not to overfill)…

    Checking oil level--should be to the top of the checkered area on the dipstick

    And with the fresh oil in, it’s time to spray some cleaner on the oily areas beneath the scooter (if you use Simple Green, remember to rinse with water), and then to take care of the old oil. Any sturdy container with a secure cap will do for transporting the oil for recycling–I had a screw-top laundry detergent bottle rinsed and ready to go.

    Draining old oil into a container for recycling

    Draining oil into a bottle--I'll be taking this jug down to my local O'Reilly's for recycling

    The last step is to start and run the Honda for a minute or two, the turn it off, let the oil settle for 3-5 minutes, and check the level on the dipstick again, adding oil bit by bit if necessary. This allows the oil to circulate through the engine and level itself out. Remember, on Hondas and Japanese bikes and scooters in general, you check the oil level by simply setting the dipstick into its hole, not by screwing it all the way in.

    Once you've got the level right, it's time for a ride

    With that, you’re done. Give yourself some props for your mechanical accomplishment, then think about heading out for a ride…your scooter with run all the better with fresh oil!

    Don’t forget, of course, to recycle that used oil. I have curbside pickup in the city where I live, but most areas have a variety of automotive retail businesses and oil changers that will happily accept your used oil for free. For a more detailed answer about where to recycle your oil after an oil change, visit Riders Recycle’s web site.