While most riders are okay with doing oil changes and other small maintenance tasks, many riders are uncomfortable doing electrical work on their bikes beyond the occasional light bulb replacement. However, just like the rest of your bike, fixing electrical issues on your bike is a simple matter of doing some some diagnostics.
Troubleshooting motorcycle electrical problems is a very useful skill and with a few tools, some know-how, and some time you can save some money and fix many small issues yourself. Here are some tips on how to fix minor motorcycle electrical problems.
Know How Electrical Circuits Work
With more and more things running on electronics rather than mechanical systems, its a wonder that more people don't understand how electrical circuits actually work. That being said, I'm certainly no expert, though I do get the gist of how these systems work.
A basic rundown of how a electrical circuit works is important to touch on for any article discussing fixing electrical issues, so here we go. I like to divide up the basics of an electrical circuit can be divided up into four different parts.
Number one, you have the power source. This is essentially the battery on your bike Number two consists of any load device, such as a light bulb. Number three is the grounding part of the circuit, usually the frame is used. Number four is the wiring connecting the first three things.
If all those are intact and functioning properly you should have a complete circuit and everything should be fine. If something isn't working right, you have a problem with one of those four things.
Familiarize Yourself With the Bike's Electrical Components
Before you jump in and start replacing or testing certain parts of an electrical circuit, you need to understand where exactly everything is on your bike. This information can easily be found in your motorcycle's owner's manual.
I wouldn't recommend looking at the wiring diagram first, as you can just confuse yourself. Find the section of the manual that goes over the parts of the motorcycle and what they are before you ever look to the wiring diagram. Familiarize yourself with the bike and its electrical components.
You need to know where fuses are, where wires are hidden, what kind of bulbs and where they are on your bike, where all the switches are, and how to access these things easily. Once you know that, look to the wiring diagram and see what lights and switches are connected with what circuits. If you know this, you can more easily discern where to start fixing an issue.
Have the Right Tools
Once you feel like you have a pretty good understanding of what everything is on your bike and how to find it, you need to get the right tools. Its smart to have both a test light and a multimeter.
Both can be found cheap, and if you're just planning to do some minor electrical work, there's no need to buy expensive equipment. I've done a fair share of electrical work with an old analog meter and a basic test light.
The test light is useful for finding the presence of voltage. If you think there's supposed to be voltage somewhere, test it with the light to make sure. This will help you locate potential problems. It's a test light probe and a cord with a clip. Clip the cord to the ground and then touch the probe to the spot you want to test. If there's voltage, the light inside the plastic part of the probe that houses the light lights up.
A multimeter or digital volt ohm meter (DOVM) goes further than the test light. It actually measures how much voltage is in a system, among other things. Multimeters are designed to show you voltage, ohms, amperage, continuity, and a whole lot more. Learning to use one of these takes a little time, so it's best to read up on how to do it before you dive right in.
Here's a great post to read by IFIXIT if you want to learn how to use a multimeter.
The Act of Troubleshooting Motorcycle Electrical Problems
Fixing a motorcycle electrical problem is all about logical thinking and a systematic approach. You need to have a plan of attack before you just dive in and try to fix an electrical problem. Here are some steps to take when trying to tackle a difficult electrical problem.
First off, think about the specific problem. When does it occur? How long has it been a problem? Is there anything that has changed on your bike that could have cause it like an aftermarket part or a change to your bike?
Second, you need to identify the circuit that is affected. Is it just one or is it multiple circuits? If it's multiple, are they related in some way? This is where you can break out the wiring diagram.
Hopefully, you'll have familiarized yourself with the diagram ahead of time. It can seem kind of daunting to figure out a wiring diagram when something's wrong with your bike. It's always better to familiarize yourself with the electrical system and wiring diagram before something goes wrong.
Third, you should test the circuit you've identified with your electrical testing tools. When I start the trouble shooting process, I always check the battery and fuses first. from there, I move on to the light bulbs and other load devices by checking the voltage throughout the circuit.
Testing the flow of electricity through the circuit with your test light and/or multimeter can show you specifically where the issue is. If the battery, fuses, and load devices check out, the issue may be in the wiring or where the wires connect.
Check Your Motorcycle's Owner's Manual for Tutorials
Not all owner's manuals will have tutorials, but many do. These will walk you through common problems like your starter not working or dead bulbs and blown fuses. The best thing about these tutorials is that they're specific to your particular motorcycle.
A general guide can only do so much and a wiring diagram can be difficult to read. The tutorials in your owner's manual can take things a step further and give you the instructions you need to get the job done.
If your owner's manual doesn't have this kind of thing, consider getting a Clymer Manual for your specific bike. These books have all kinds of information about repairing your motorcycle and can come in handy no matter what you're doing. They're well worth the $30-40 investment.
Take Your Time
Fixing motorcycle electrical problems takes time and patience. If you get too frustrated, take some time to clear your head. Sit back, think about the problem and then go at it again after you've had sometime away from the bike.
I've often found that going away for a few hours or sometimes overnight helps me figure problems out. If you try to force your way through the process, you'll only frustrate yourself. This can lead to you spending money on parts and tools you don't need.
Wade Thiel is the creator of Wind Burned Eyes. He is an automotive journalist and a motorcycle enthusiast who lives in Indianapolis, IN. Check him out on Twitter or read his automotive work at Web2Carz.