Basic Motorcycle Wiring
Engine vibration, exposure to the elements, and poor quality wiring all contribute to old motorcycle electrical problems. Components such as spark plug wires and coils go bad with time. Regular inspection of your wiring and electrical components can keep you from breaking down on the roadside.
Thirty Seconds Of Electrical Theory
The electricity in your motorcycle wiring travels in a circle. Power leaves the battery from one terminal, passes through components (lights, horn, coil, etc.) and ends up back to the battery on the opposite terminal. Electricity doesn't care which way it goes, it just needs a path to come back. If something in that circle breaks, either a component stops working or the bike doesn't start.
Troubleshooting A Motorcycle Electrical System
Broken or melted wires are the most common source of electrical failure. The first thing to do is visually inspect all wiring, front to back, side to side. If you're lucky the problem may be obvious.
To check an old electrical system for shorts, start with a fully-charged battery. You'll be needing it to test the electrical system and wiring. Having a workshop manual for your specific bike is very helpful. If you don't want to buy one, you may be able to download one online.
A test-light is a must-have for finding electrical shorts. Be sure to use a 12 volt (automotive) test-light. They sell for under $10. The leads on the test-light are reversible. One end goes to a positive and the other end goes to a ground.
Always start by "testing" the test-light on the bike's battery. Depending on what you testing for, you may have to turn the ignition switch on. Electric test-lights have a sharp pointed end. Use this to pierce the plastic insulation on a wire. Now you can test the circuit without disconnecting anything.
A multimeter is an instrument designed to measure electrical values such as voltage (volts), current (amps), and resistance (ohms). There are two main types of multimeters, analog and digital. A digital multimeter is known as a DMM, and have an easy-to-read numeric display. Digital is by far more common, and one can be had for less than $20.
Although you can run dozens of tests with a DMM, I use mine for about two. I use it mostly to check if a certain wire is still good or if there's a problem with it. Connect one test probe to one end of the wire, and the other test probe to the other end of the wire. With the DMM on the low ohm setting, it should read .02 or less. Anything much higher than that tells you there is a blockage in the current. Replace the wire and/or the terminals.
The other thing I use my digital multimeter for is to check battery output. Vintage Harleys are not known to have great charging systems, so a quick check assures everything's working OK. It probably won't be the most used tool in your toolbox, but multimeters are invaluable to find electrical problems. Plus they're so inexpensive there's no reason not to have one.
Repairing A Broken Wire
Once a broken electrical wire on a motorcycle is discovered, the two pieces of wire should be soldered and shrink-tubed. Butt-connectors are easier to use, but soldering is far more vibration-proof. All that's required for a quality repair is a soldering iron, some solder, and a bit of patience.
Procedure To Solder A Broken Wire
- Strip both ends of wire with a pair of wire strippers
- Cut a piece of heat-shrink tubing
- Slip it over one end of the broken wire, sliding it up and away from the repair area
- Solder the wires back together using resin-core solder
- After the repair has cooled to the touch, slip the shrink tubing back down over the repair
- Once the repair is covered evenly, heat the tubing and allow it to shrink over the soldered wire
Motorcycle Charging System
To check your charging system voltage, with the engine off, check the voltage across your battery with a multimeter. Next, start the bike and check it again, with the lights off and engine running about 1500 rpm. With the engine running, the charging voltage should be higher than the basic battery voltage. A reading of 13.8 volts is ideal, but anything over 12.8 volts is good.
If your readings are lower than 12.8v, the battery is not getting completely charged. For a final test, turn the lights on, and check the voltage again. If it drops below 12 volts, your battery's going to be in a state of discharge when you're running with lights on.
Generator Charging Problems
Your classic bike's generator or alternator really doesn't charge the battery until engine rpm is considerably higher than idle. Trips that are less than 15-20 miles are typically not enough to recharge the battery's losses from starting. Consider upgrading to a trouble-free aftermarket generator like Cycle-Electric.