Thursday, October 31, 2013

Chains, sprockets and lubrication

Why we still have chains and sprockets is beyond me. Chain drive is noisy, messy and expensive to maintain. If you slightly over-lubricate or get poor quality chainlube the rear tyre will be covered in chain lube, slightly under-lubricate and they'll wear out quickly. And then there is the question 'what do you do when riding dirt roads'? Lubricate them and the dust sticking to the lube makes it a grinding paste, don't lubricate and everything runs dry. Why do we still have chains? Because they're cheap for the manufacturers I presume, I can't think of any other reason. 

Gearshifts seem better with chain drives… some people claim. True, BMWs have never been known for their silent gearshifts… but Harley Davidson gear changes are clunkier than BMWs ever were. There are plenty of shaft drive systems made over the years that worked fine. The commonly heard argument that you need a large engine to run a shaft drive has been proven wrong many times as well. Moto Guzzi has had 350, 500, 650, 750cc shaft drives that worked fine. Honda made the CX500 for years and even BMW had shaft drive 450s. Triumph has decided the Explorer needed a shaft drive but the Tiger a chain. Why? Is it marketing? Do they feel the need to give the Explorer something extra on the expense of the Tiger owner? BMW does the same with the 650 and 800 models. Maybe Triumph could have perhaps given the Tiger 800 owners something extra too by giving it a proper shaft drive. Of course ordinary motorcycles like our Bonnevilles and XT660R have no such luxury, they all have chain drive. 
Comparing service life of chains and sprockets is difficult as different conditions may give very different results. In our case it's possible as we have 3 bikes doing the same trip at the same time and maintained by the same guy; me! 

Triumph OEM chain and sprockets
The original chain and sprockets on my Triumph lasted 40.000 km. Greasing them every 400-500km, we went through quite a few spray lube cans! The original chain and sprockets on my T100 were replaced by a set of original sprockets and an even better and very expensive Heavy Duty RK chain, as the only original chain and sprocket set available from Triumph in Australia was for the older 790 Bonneville which was already out of production for years, good one Triumph Oz!
That expensive heavy duty RK chain lasted only just over half of the original standard chain and ruined the sprockets in the process. Needless to say we weren't impressed by the RK claims and won't buy them again. Jeanette's bike still had the original chain and sprockets which were only halfway their lives while the RK was ruined. Same trip, same lubrication.

Yamaha XT660R OEM chain and sprockets
Mike's Yamaha came with original sprockets and a DiD chain (we bought the bike with just 2300km on it). After 15.000km it started to show signs of wear. The o-rings had departed by 22.000km and when we replaced it at 26.000km, it had stretched by 1.5 links... Why we used it for so long? Because we couldn't get the sprockets for it anywhere in Canada or the USA. In the end JT Sprockets came to the rescue and we fitted new sprockets and Z1R chains from them on all 3 bikes. The reason we fitted new chains all round is that JT Sprockets claim they should last us the rest of the trip to Argentina! If that would be the case then we won't have to look for replacements in South America. We'll keep this page updated on how they perform. All I can say at this stage is that they fitted very tight around the splines, have no lateral runout and are so well made that they show an almost even chain slack all round. Compare that to the original Triumph Sprockets which are oval and wobble!
They are competitively priced and seem a much better product, we'll keep this page updated…

1st update: Mike's chain needed it's first 'bedding in' adjustment at almost 2000km! The Bonnevilles are even better, first adjustment needed at 3000 km! I have been riding and maintaining motorcycles for over 30 years, but this is the first chain and sprockets combo that didn't need it's first adjustment at 1000 km. 
2nd update: Almost 10.000km covered on the JT chains and sprockets. No further adjustment needed and no 'stiff' links to be found anywhere. So far very positive about JT Sprockets and chains. 

Chain lubrication
Chain lube in spray cans can be hard to find when you are on the road in less populated areas. It's also expensive stuff. We've used quite a few different types and brands in the past years and this is what we found. 

Maxima gold chain wax
Works good in protecting the chain and sprockets but makes an absolute mess of the same chain and sprockets and inside the front cover by covering everything in wax which becomes rock hard. I'm sure Maxima will claim I used too much lube. I disagree and let's face it; wax, by it's very nature, is sticky stuff that is hard to remove. Even brake cleaner won't shift it. Still on the chain it won't last that long in the rain.

Maxima silver
Used it once because there was nothing else available, will never use it again. It made a complete mess of the rear tyre despite using it sparingly. Doesn't last long in the dry and disappears real quickly in the rain. 

One of the better chain lubes out there. Looks very thin on application but sticks really well, not much fling off at all and lasts a long time. Expensive though. 

Cheap, messy, not very long lasting and hopeless when it rains. The only application I found it handy for is cable lube.

Made in the same factory as Castrol I think, if not then a very accurate copy.

Can't remember what it's called (I think 'racing'); it leaves a white-gray coating and is the most expensive one out there. It's by far the best chain lube I found. Lasts so much longer that the higher price is fully justified and even lasts well when it rains. No fling off and easy to apply. Hard to find as not a lot of bike shops seem to sell it.

Like I said earlier all chain lubes are expensive, even the cheapest Castrol one. They are also hard to get when on the road, which means you have to carry at least two spray lube cans (remember we have 3 bikes and thus 3 chains to lubricate). I've also had quite a few spray cans with way too high a pressure in them, making lubrication messy. I therefore started looking into alternatives, ie chain oilers. 

Oil versus spray lube
As all chain oilers work with oil as lubricant I started experimenting with that first. I wanted to know how much oil was needed, how long it would last and how much the stuff would fling off. After all fling off is a problem with most spray type chain lubes as well. 
Oil manufacturers suggest to use gearbox oil for chain applications. So I bought a litre of gearbox oil and a cheap brush, apply a drop on the brush and smear it on the chain. How much oil I need depends on how dry the chain is but on average I use about 15 droplets for a full lube of a Bonneville chain. The Yamaha requires a bit more as it has a longer chain. The trick is not to be tempted to over-lube (it's amazing how little you need to properly lube a chain) and to distribute evenly over the rollers and rings. 
The results were amazing. There is virtually no fling off at all with gearbox oil, the chain is lubed for about 300km but most of all it's clean. I assumed it would be a bit more messy to apply and I would end up with a dirtier chain, but it's the other way around. There is a little bit of fling off but non ends up on the tyre and the gearbox oil keeps the chain clean as it takes the dirt with it when it's eventually being thrown off or washed off. Simply put the results have been so amazing that I can't see any advantage of using spray lubes ever again. Compared spray lubes, gearbox oil and a brush is cleaner to apply as there is no overspray and less fling off than 90 percent of the spray chain lubes I tried. Plus it's incredibly cheap! I paid $7.50 for a full litre of Castrol gearbox oil and after thousands of kilometres and lubing 3 chains I haven't even used a quarter of it. The brush is kept in a very small empty drinks bottle and yes the handle is still clean. 

Still… wouldn't it be nice if the chains were lubed automatically. It's not just the automatic part that I was after but no matter how well you lube your chain, you will never do it any better than a proper chain luber as it supplies a constant film of oil. In dusty conditions it should, in theory, even help in cleaning the chain.

Scott Oiler
Scott Oilers are expensive and as we would need 3 of them, it would be a $750,- option. Still I tried to get one in Australia, just to see how they would work in reality, but found they sell them through an importer that didn't accept Visa but required me to donate money directly into his bank account and then hope he would send them... That importer was replaced by another one that didn't want to reply to email... I contacted Scott Oiler directly and again no reply… So I started looking at other options.

Loobman chain oiler
Loobman is one of the companies that made me start this blog. They make something that doesn't work, know it doesn't work and still sell it to you. According to the website Loobmans were developed for London couriers. Although not fully automatic, it seemed a good system, simple and cheap enough to try, so I sent Dennis from Loobman an email explaining what we were doing and that we'd like to use his chain oilers. He replied positively and I thus ordered them. Fitting is messy, instructions are unclear and everything has to be fitted with zippy-ties... Not really a professional approach. I had one fitted to my Bonneville for testing in about 20 minutes. Testing didn't go all that well. Oil was sprayed all over the tyre and virtually non on the chain... Investigating why I found the head had fallen apart and the zippy ties fallen out. The head had not touched the sprocket, was undamaged and was mounted exactly as shown in the instructions. It had fallen apart as it wasn't glued but a simple press fit top and bottom that didn't press all that well. The head assembled again and kept together with even more zippy ties this time, I tried again. Now the oil was dispensed to both sides of the sprocket and centrifugal force spread it to the chain. All seemed well... but wasn't. The oil finds it's way to the outside of the sprocket and then simply leaves it through the gap between the sprocket and chain. Some would find it's way to the rollers, some would find it's way to the inside plates of the chain but virtually non would end up on the o-rings and most of it was simply fling off onto the road, the chain guard, the tyre, the mudguard and even the luggage strapped to my bike. 
I emailed Dennis and was astonished to read what he replied: I wasn't driving fast enough…?!? 'The system works best at speeds over 40mph', he wrote. We worked our way down through as many national parks in the USA as we could, where speed limits are often less than that. We also make frequent stops for photos, parking the bike on it's sidestand and find oil dripping off the head straight onto the rim (spreading to the tyre from there). Hang on a minute, I thought, wasn't this system developed for London couriers? They get stuck in traffic, make frequent stops and wouldn't get much chance to do 40mph in many areas of London... 
Then we dropped out of national parks for a while and cruised at 65-70mph for a long stretch, so I used the Loobman again. The results were terrible, oil was absolutely everywhere apart from on the chain. I took the system off and had a good look to see if there was a manufacturing fault of some sort. Comparing it to the others I bought there wasn't. 

What causes all the problems is a very poorly designed head. It depends on oil droplets running down a zippy tie onto the sprocket. When you're doing 70mph the wind simply blows the oil off the zippy tie. The head is also open between the two zippy ties, so why would the oil even go to the zippy ties instead of simply taking the easy way out and drop out of the head? Again wind blowing past the head will help to suck it out. When your speed is low it will actually find it's way to the sprocket but the low speed means it will simply leave between sprocket and chain, only slightly lubing the inside of the chain in the process. Dennis' idea of higher speeds works on the principle of so much oil trying to leave through the gap between chain and sprocket that it can't escape quickly enough and thus overflows to the other side of the chain. This would make a mess of your tyre and in fact the whole back of the bike. 

The only way this system could work is if it would supply a constant supply of oil to create an oil film, like the Scott Oiler does for instance. The constant supply would mean all parts are covered in a thin film which would ensure the fresh oil supplied would spread. The Loobman doesn't do that, unless you press the button every couple of kilometres. 
But even if you do that then the poorly designed head will ensure most of the oil doesn't even reach the sprocket or chain. Because Loobman requires you to mount their head at the 9 o'clock position, rather than the 6 o'clock used by Scott Oiler, the oil is thinned out well before it reaches the chain, further easing the oil's escape between chain and sprocket. The only way you can lube the chain sufficiently with this system is by massively overlubing, which leaves a dangerous layer of oil on the tyre (not to mention the mess on the rest of the bike).

I contacted Loobman again, explained what I found after 1500km of testing and that I wanted to return the items as they didn't work. I also explained that I told him before I bought the units, what we were doing and that by his own admission he now agreed his system wouldn't do that all that well. He told me he wouldn't accept the used unit back for a refund, as if there is any other way to find out it doesn't work(!) and that he would only refund the base price of the other 3 units at 75 percent of the costs...! 'I have a family to feed' he wrote, so do I mr Loobman and you've just shamelessly taken part of that food by selling me a product that you know doesn't work.
In the end I found the perfect spot for the Loobman oilers: the bin! I took the zippy-ties out of the packages as that is the only thing I could use: they must be the most expensive zippy-ties in the world.

Pro Oiler
Looking at other chain oilers, with lessons learned with Loobman, I don't think the Scott Oiler would work properly either. It has a couple of advantages, like a shut-off when the engine stops and it gives a continuous oil supply, but still works on gravity and doesn't take speed of driving and/or distance covered into account. The only system I can see working properly is the Pro Oiler. This system uses a pump and takes distance travelled and speed into account. It also has the best delivery head available which is closed all the way up to the sprocket and thus won't spray oil all over the place. 
If it actually does work I don't know as I haven't bought one. I thought about it, did the maths and found that there is no way I can justify buying them.

Manual lubing with gear oil
All this time I kept my chains lubricated with gearbox oil and brush. Which works fine. At this stage it looks I'll just keep lubing with brush and gearbox oil. Some have suggested chain bar oil from a chainsaw would work even better. Might be but the current litre of gearbox oil will last me a long time before I can try it! My guess is the gearbox oil sold for trucks, which is SAE 85-140 would probably be best. Have a look at the video below on lubricating a chain with gearbox oil.