03 February 2016

Motorbike (and Motorcycle) Maintenance

A previous post discussing the importance tire pressure to all motorized vehicles was well-received, so I'm back with a tale of what I call possibly narrowly-averted disaster that started with checking tire pressure of a friend's motorbike...

Fortunately and unfortunately (though in my opinion, mostly the former), Việt Nam is a cash economy. Credit cards are virtually non-existent and if you (usually a foreigner) use one at a hotel or travel service—pretty much the only places you can use one—you will pay a 3-5% premium to cover the credit card company's fees. Most Vietnamese I know are challenged to come up with enough cash every month to pay for the basic necessities like shelter and food, so motorbike maintenance is low on the priority list. Add that to the fact that virtually no one tells them that the bikes need to be maintained beyond filling up the gas tank, so how would they know?

One Saturday last December, I did my every week or so check of tire pressures on my three bikes and found that two of six tires were low. Before putting away the TP gauge and compressor, I messaged my landlord, who lives nearby, and offered to check the tire pressure on her motorbike. She brought the bike over and we found that, in tires with a recommended pressure of 33 psi, she had 30 psi in the front and less than 10 in the rear (the gauge starts at 10 and didn't register at all). As I wrote before, low tire pressure can be very dangerous, so as I topped them off, I asked her to come by every week for me to check hers, too. She agreed and pointed out a small piece of metal in the rear tire, the cross-section of which was so small, I may have missed it while inspecting the tires for tread wear/depth, cuts, abrasions, etc. I suggested that she get the tire patched the next day and recommended where to go to get it patched from the inside. She agreed, thanked me, and left.

As a trainer for almost 20 years, I know the importance of following-up. Two days later I sent her a message asking how it went with the tire repair. The reply was that she was very busy and had not. One of the things I know from a full year of living here is that that most likely meant she might get to it on Sunday, her only day off... and this was Monday. Next thing I knew, I volunteered to trade scooters with her for a day so that I could get the tire repaired. She happily agreed.

The next morning I took the bike in for a tire patch...

They patch the tire from the inside without taking the tire off the rim

ALWAYS patch a tubeless tire from the inside. 
It is a much better and safer repair than the quick-and-easy plug.
When I tried to start the bike to ride to the tire shop, the electric starter ground quickly to a halt... numerous times. Fortunately, the bike has a kick-starter, so I was able to get it running without problem. Then, during my ride to the tire shop, I discovered that in addition to needing the tire patch and a new battery, the bike's speedometer isn't working; there's a strange noise that sounds like it's coming from the front end; and had the thought that it's probably been a long while since the oil was changed. I am constantly surprised how few people in Vietnam (and the U.S.) know to do any kind of basic maintenance on their motorbikes. They ride them until the wheels come off (sometimes literally) and then fix the problem. As it probably is in most of the world, there is little-to-no training or education on the topic. If you've ever heard the phrase "gas and go", these are them.

Instead of heading home after the tire repair, I rode to the repair shop that's recently done quite a bit of work on my Honda Steed.

When I returned the bike to my landlord that evening, I asked her, other than buying gas, what has she done to the motorbike since buying it a number of years ago...

  • Plugged flat tires
  • Changed the oil, though unsure when or how often
Then I showed her what the mechanic had found and repaired:

1. Damaged and Dead battery — Replaced

A bulging battery casing... NOT good
2. Worn-out speedometer gear

3. Front and rear sprockets worn down — Replaced, along with the chain
Rear sprocket before (note sharp teeth)
Rear sprocket after
Front sprocket before. Note the caked dirt below the chain.
Clean front sprocket area
New front sprocket and chain
4. Literally over a pound of dirt in the drive assembly — Cleaned out

Yes, I actually weighed the final pile of dirt
5. Oil change
Drain first, then put in new oil. Otherwise it's topping-off.
6. Replaced a bolt on the luggage carrier
No detail too small...
Total cost, parts and labor, almost exactly 1,000,000VND or US$45. To put this in perspective, a good dinner is about 50,000VND ($2.25) and I pay a woman 120,000VND (market is 100,000) to spend three hours cleaning my house every week. It's a ton more money to the locals than it is to me, and she probably wouldn't have had the work done until something blew up... and cost her a lot more than I paid.

Think about your vehicle(s)... when was the last time you did the basic maintenance? Recently? Great! If you can't remember, consider having someone take a look at it this week—and following their recommendations.

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