Monday, November 10, 2014

Why the Tutoro Chain Oiler?

The heart of the Tutoro system: a motion detector which switches oil flow on and off depending on bike
movement. No vacuum or electrical connection to the bike needed.

Screenshot from the Tutoro video which shows the
neat installation on a dirtbike and which attended me

to Tutoro
As you can read on these pages, I have been lubricating the chains and sprockets of our bikes with plain ordinary gearbox oil rather than fancy and expensive spray lubes. This has worked very well. Application is easy with a cheap $1.40 brush, there is no overspray and fling-off is considerably less than with most, if not all, spray lubes. Lubrication in dusty conditions, like riding gravel roads is always a problem. Spray lubes tend to be sticky, resulting in dust sticking to it and creating a grinding paste of lube and sand, which is worse than no lube at all. While sand will also stick to oil, it also adds weight to the oil and thereby effectively flings itself off the chain due to the centrifugal force instead of becoming a grinding paste. The oil I use is gearbox oil, rather than engine oil, for one simple reason: the oil manufacturers state that gearbox oil is formulated for extreme pressures and recommended for gears and drive chains. I’m not going to dispute the laboratories of oil manufacturers, I’m sure they know a lot more about oil than I do and I thus use gearbox oil :-)

Smart: cap with vent hose to keep dirt out
Problem: water and dirt
So it all works very well then? Well… yes! As far as manual lubrication goes I prefer this method to any spray lube. The only problem I have found is when I used synthetic gearbox oil, despite being of the same 85/90 viscosity it simply flies off. Old-timers will tell you they used to drown their chains in warmed up grease. Manufacturers like Castrol made special tins for that purpose. I’m sure that works well, although riding in sand will still create a grinding paste, but it’s a method from before we had o-ring chains. In modern chains the grease is ‘locked-in’ between o-rings. Some people therefore claim O-ring chains do not need any lubrication at all. The problem with that approach is that they don’t take the lubrication between rollers and sprocket into consideration. Furthermore, the O-rings need to be lubricated to stop them from drying out and cracking. As anyone with a little technical background will tell you, lubrication is essential to keep parts moving smoothly. In an ideal world all the moving metal parts will be permanently covered in a film of oil. This film will prevent metal touching metal and thus prevent wear. 

Feed hose with metal wire in it, allowing
it to be zip tied without restricting flow
Keeping an open chain permanently lubricated, while lubing manually, is neigh on impossible. In the past fully enclosed chain cases have been invented for that same reason. Chain cases work, no question! I have an MZ from former eastern Germany that I used for 17 years, summer and winter, to ride to work. A chain on that motorcycle lasted approximately 70,000 km… and it isn’t even an o-ring chain. The ‘secret’ is the fully enclosed chaincase which prevents dirt and water entering into the equation.
During our European part of this trip we’ve had lots of interesting weather… if you’re a fish. As anyone will tell you keeping an open chain lubricated while riding in rainy weather is difficult. Most spray lubes will wash off in no time at all and gearbox oil isn’t any different. Rainy weather makes for a mess on the road, which will end up all over your bike and thus on the drive chain and sprockets too. The result is that the chains and sprockets on this part of the trip didn’t last as long as the previous set. Mike’s Yamaha is the hardest on chains and sprockets and wore a set out in 23,000 km. We’ve been told by several people that’s pretty damn good for a big 660 single. The JT Chains and Sprockets did well but it was clear that while lubing with oil works better than spray lubes, something needed to be done to keep the chain lubricated when wet. Especially so as we had a long and arduous part of the trip still ahead: from Europe east towards Australia.

Stainless brackets and screws
I had toyed with the idea of an automatic chain oiler before. I was close to trying out a Scott Oiler but didn’t for two reasons. The Australian importer at the time was to put it mildly very unfriendly, which made me wonder how warranty issues would be dealt with, while the price is rather steep for what is effectively a unit that just gives a drop of oil a minute.

I tried the Loobman oiler too, which as you can read in my previous report, doesn’t work. No, let me rephrase that; the Loobman works if you don’t ride too slowly, which will cause the oil to simply drop on the ground rather than reaching the sprocket, or ride too fast as the wind will then blow the droplets from the zippy ties that have to carry the oil from hose to sprocket. Depending on wind speed, elevation, lean angle and acceleration… it might work between 40 and 60 km/hr. But even when riding the ideal speed and the wind coming from the right direction… the Loobman is not automatic and thus won’t give continuous lubrication.

Needle valve and hose connection
(unit upside down)
We have been very close to fitting Pro-Oilers as well. Very expensive but in theory a near enough perfect system. It should take road speed into consideration and has separate tables for various weather conditions too. We actually had one fitted on the XT660 but found it more a hobby project than something that would work in real life. The unit takes its information from the speedo sensor, which involves tapping into the wiring. Pro-Oiler does that with simple and crude connectors that punch through the PVC cover… very very crude. Pro-Oilers’ own wiring goes into a cheap universal non weatherproof plastic box and is then clamped in screw connectors… We are all aware that the wiring, and especially the connectors, in motorcycles have a hard time. Which is why manufacturers seal every circuit board in resin and fit waterproof connectors to ensure everything keeps working when the weather comes down. In this fully waterproof system, Pro-Oiler punches holes and adds a leaking box and open screw connectors… All in all it gave me the impression they don’t really know what sort of conditions a motorcycle will have to operate in. As the speedo info is fed into the bike’s computer as well, tapping into this by punching holes in wires will give problems sooner rather than later.

The biggest problem however was the Pro-Oiler unit itself. Pro-Oiler couldn’t get it to work at all. As soon as we started the XT up the Pro-Oiler’s display was all over the place. It registered all kinds of absurd speeds up to 188 km/h, while the bike was idling and not going anywhere… Pro-Oiler blamed electrical interference created by the Yamaha speed sensor… nice try but the bike’s own speedo worked fine from the same sensor and the bike wasn’t even moving (thus no info from the sensor). They tried to get it to work for two hours, re-routing their wiring, re-locating the unit, fitting another unit etc. All to no avail. They then suggested that we’d try their new GPS unit… by that time I had seen enough. Adding more complexity to a system that is already too complex for it’s own good didn’t seem a good idea, nor did fitting a system that clearly hasn’t been fully developed yet. The system consists of a sticky tape mounted controlled, a sticky tape mounted junction box, zippy tied pump and velcro mounted storage tank. Finding a spot somewhere for it all wasn’t easy and now we needed to add another box to it in the form of a GPS receiver (no doubt fitted with sticky tape too). I looked at it and imagined the mess when pottering along and the unit suddenly starts giving oil for 180 km/hr… not to mention the dangerous situation of riding with a back tyre covered in oil. For what it is, it’s ridiculously expensive too.

I still kept toying with the idea of automatic lubrication, as it is simply the only way to extend chain and sprocket life to the maximum. I wanted something simple and most of all sturdy. I also wanted something that didn’t need ‘tapping’ into wiring. I looked at various twin-feed systems that work by feeding oil onto the rear sprocket too but didn’t like them. Too flimsy, too vulnerable for what we are doing. I wanted something else.

Oil flow of a T120 Triumph, notice the pipe to the rear chain lubrication on the right...
What I’ve learned in the past is that virtually everything that seems new on motorcycles, or is being sold as new, has in fact been around for decades. It’s the same for chain and sprocket lubrication. So I dug into the old bike magazines and looked at what they did for lubrication back then. I’m talking 50-plus years ago. Quite a few manufacturers had automatic chain lubrication built-in then, so much for progress I guess. You may laugh and say ‘yeah but those bikes developed 25BHP’ true, but they also didn’t have chains with o-rings or the steel hardness we have now. In other words they needed more lubrication than we do to keep their chains alive. They also had more dirt roads then… Most old lubrication systems work by dripping oil on the chain just before or, better still, just after the front sprocket. That made more sense to me as the system is out of harms way there. No rocks, sticks or whatever to hit it and it’s mounted in the centre of the fully sprung part of the bike. Just look at the rear axle of a bike riding on corrugations to see what the flexible mounted twin-feed will have to go through on roads like that! 

With the feed onto the chain sorted I looked for automatic drip feeders. They are available from various places as they are used in machinery. All they do is drip… drip… drip… whereby the rate at which they drip is adjustable. Problem with them is that they keep on dripping until you switch them off and don’t start until you switch them on. In other words I would forget to do both. The only way around that would be to fit an electric tap, like the ones used in the petrol circuit of older LPG systems. Ok, fitting an electric tap would have meant ‘breaking into’ the electrical system but since I have already a system in place that charges my camera batteries and laptop which switches on and off with the ignition key, that was no issue. What is an issue with that system, and with Scott Oilers for example, is that they keep dripping while in heavy traffic. Simpler systems like the Loobman can drop their whole lube on the road if you need to stop shortly after pressing the button.

Looking for solutions I scanned the web and found a video of a trails bike with a Tutoro chain oiler, the dispensing tube fitted exactly the same way as I had in mind…! Good start, I thought, and looked further. I looked at the videos, which gave a good insight into the ‘how and why’ and decided to give them a try. Nick and Jude agreed that the Enduro setup they have would be the best solution and made a bespoke setup for us. The Tutoro doesn’t tap into anything on the bike, it’s a totally stand-alone system. They work on bike movement. As soon as the bike starts to move, the Tutoro opens it’s valve and dispenses oil at a pre described flow rate and stops when the bike stops moving.

Of course the Tutoro system doesn’t compensate for faster riding, wet weather or dust. The Scott Oiler doesn’t either. I will still have to keep an eye on the chains. Adjusting the flow rate is a simple affair though, done by a needle valve at the unit. All I can say now is that we have the units and they will be fitted while we’re organising the mountain of paperwork involved in getting two motorcycles through Asia(!) First impressions are very good though. They look well made and thought out (even thinking about a dust proof vent cover for instance). In a future post we will show how we fitted them and keep you informed on how they work in practise!