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Nicht Uber Max: Click, Click, CLICK!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: George Mangicaro
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AKA "Testing your battery, starter and solenoid"

 

Q:

Dear Nicht Uber Max – I’m having trouble getting my 2009 G 450 X to start. It just goes “click, click, click” and won’t come to life. I installed a new battery in it but am still puzzled why it won’t start and want to know what else I can do to troubleshoot my problem. Is my problem a bad starter or something else? – Bill W.

 

A:

There are fewer sounds sadder than that “click click click” noise a bike makes when it won’t start. Solving the problem may not be as simple as replacing the battery, so there’s some steps to follow to try and find the problem.

The only tool you need to start testing is a digital volt-ohm meter (DVOM), also known as a voltmeter or multimeter. There are many on the market, but you don’t need anything special. Make sure it can read volts in direct current (DC) and resistance in ohms (Ω). The one I carry on my bike is a compact, auto-ranging multimeter made by Extech that cost about $40. There are many available on either side of that price point.

02 DVOM
A digital volt-ohm meter, or multimeter, doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive. Having one small enough to carry on your bike as part of your regular tool kit could save you some hassle on the side of the road.

When you get that dreaded “click click click,” the first thing to check is your battery. Make sure the connections to the battery are tight and clean (free from corrosion). After determining the connections are good, break out your DVOM. Verify you’ve got the leads connected properly, then touch the red lead to the positive terminal of your battery and the black lead to the negative terminal.

01 Battery
Here, the positive terminal as on the far side of the battery, with the negative terminal at the bottom of the photo.

If the readout is above 12 volts, chances are your battery is good, and you can move on to the load test. If the readout is below 12, it’s time to hook your battery up to a trickle charger for a few hours (or better yet, overnight).

03 Testing Pos to Grnd
You can test the battery by putting the DVOM probes on both terminals or by going from the positive terminal of the battery to a known good ground point on the bike (in this case, a screw that touches the frame).

Once you determine the battery is carrying 12+ volts, then you can test the battery under load. You can eliminate the possibility of a bound-up starter giving you a false dead battery result by using the headlight. Put the headlight on the high beam setting, then turn the key to “On.” If the battery still reads above 12 volts, then move on to testing things out with the starter button.

Load testing by using the starter button is easier with a helper. Have one person hold the DVOM leads on the battery terminals, and with the bike’s ignition in the ON position, have the other person press the starter button (**BE SURE your bike is in NEUTRAL!**). No matter whether the bike starts or not, you should see a drop in the voltage readout. If the drop is minimal—a volt or two—your battery is okay. The amount of drop acceptable can vary and is dependent on your specific motorcycle; for instance, an older bike with points has a much lower threshold for acceptable voltage than a modern bike with an electronic ignition system.

With a modern bike, if the drop takes it much below 10 volts, you need a new battery. The problem there is that the battery is accepting a charge, but it’s just a surface charge. When a load is put to the battery—that is, when you try to start the motorcycle—the battery is not up to the task and has to be replaced.

Let’s say you’ve installed a brand-new battery and prepped it per the manufacturer’s instructions, but your bike still gives you the old “click click click.” The next step is to test the circuit’s continuity through the starter. BMW motorcycle starters carry the ground through the housing of the unit, so the number of wires going to your starter may vary. Find the main lug on the starter and verify the connection is clean and tight.

08 Starter Power Lug
F, G and K bikes will have a starter with just one lug on it; make sure the connection is tight and free of debris and corrosion.

BMW motorcycles have two different starter setups – one for horizontally-opposed twins, and one for pretty much everything else. Horizontally-opposed twins have a starter with a built-in solenoid hanging right off the side of it—just like an automotive starter. Other bikes (F, G, K) have a two-piece setup; the starter is in one place, and the solenoid is in another place, probably under a body panel somewhere. These are a little easier to test, but only just a little.

05 R Bike Starter
Modern R bike starters are similar to automotive starters in that the starter and solenoid are built into a common chassis. These are a little harder to test, but not ridiculously so.

For the remainder of this article, let’s say your battery is putting out 12.5 volts. With the bike’s ignition off, touch one lead from your DVOM to the positive terminal on the battery and the other lead to the lug on the starter. This test will only tell you if your starter is absolutely dead; if the DVOM readout is 12.5 volts, then you know you’ve got continuity from the battery and through the starter to ground. If at this point the DVOM reads zero volts, there are a number of things that could be wrong, but it’s likely the problem lies within the starter itself. It could be as simple as corrosion between the starter chassis and the engine where it’s mounted, but it also could be that the brushes inside the starter have worn out. Either way and many ways in between, you likely need a new starter.

Testing the solenoid (or starter relay) is a logical next step. There should be two big lugs, and there may be some smaller ones or even a wiring connector. It’s the big, heavy-duty connection points you want to use for your testing. One will have a cable coming (more or less) from the battery; the other lug will have a cable going to the starter.

The ignition solenoid is a type of relay, and it functions much as relays do. At rest, there is no electrical connection between the contacts. When power is applied—in this case, by you pressing the starter button, which sends current to the “trigger” lug on the solenoid (one of the smaller wiring connections)—the contacts inside the solenoid come together, sending power from the battery to the starter.

06 Starter Relay Open
Starter relay - open!

07 Starter Relay Closed
Starter relay - closed! This starter relay from an Airhead shows clear signs of corrosion and is indeed non-functional. In its resting state – that is, the starter button is not being pressed – its contacts are apart and no electricity flows through them. When the starter button gets pressed, electricity flows through the coil, turning it into a magnet. The magnet draws the upper arm down, making the contacts connect and flowing power from the battery to the starter.

One of the things that can go wrong with the solenoid is that the contacts simply degrade or corrode over time. They’re getting zapped with 12.5 volts several times a day, after all, and that can leave debris behind on the contacts, which can then get dirtier over time and stop making a solid connection. Testing the solenoid is simple. You can use either the positive or negative terminal from your battery; it doesn’t matter which. Put one probe on a battery terminal and put the other probe on one of the solenoid lugs, noting the readout. Then touch the probe to the other lug on the solenoid and note that voltage as well.

04 Solenoid
It may be hard to determine which lug on the starter connects to the battery and which to the starter, but you’ll know once you start testing it with your DVOM. It’s important to make sure the contacts are clean and tight. Corrosion such as seen in this photo should be carefully cleaned and the nuts retightened after cleaning.

You should get one readout at zero and one at 12.5 volts (or whatever your battery voltage is). If one of the readouts is anything other than zero or battery voltage, then it’s likely there’s a problem with your solenoid. If both solenoid lugs test the same, whether it’s at zero or 12.5 volts, the problem is likely the wiring between the battery and the solenoid, and that could include the connections at either end. You can also test from the solenoid to the starter. Put one DVOM probe on the lug connecting the solenoid to the battery, and the other on the starter lug. If you get anything other than battery voltage (12.5V in the example here), then there’s a problem between the solenoid and the starter. As a backup, test from the other lug on the solenoid to the starter – you should get zero volts.

One of the frustrating aspects of chasing problems like this is that everything can test out okay, but your bike still won’t start because there’s some minute problem inside the starter that looks fine when you’re using a DVOM, but fails when you actually put the full load of the battery to the starter. Clearances are tight, and if things are degraded even a little bit, it can prevent the starter from functioning properly. If you’ve seen anybody bang the starter on their car or truck with a hammer and the thing magically starts after that, then you’ve experienced what can temporarily “fix” a stuck solenoid. If you’ve seen somebody rock their can back and forth in gear to get it to start, you’ve seen what a dead spot in the starter’s brushes can do.

Between the battery, the solenoid, the starter and all the wiring connecting those three components together, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Luckily, it’s relatively easy to use a digital volt-ohm meter to test the basics of the circuit, and that could point you right to the likely problem.

If you’re having a problem with your motorcycle that you’d like me to address, send your questions or issues to techquestions@bmwmoa.org, and we’ll address your problem in a future issue. Next time I’ll discuss how BMW’s integral brakes function and go over why bleeding the brakes on a bike so equipped is a little more involved than it looks.

 

Set your DVOM to Volts DC (VDC) and use this handy reference chart.

Connect This To This Readout Problem/No Problem
Battery + Battery – (or ground) 12V (or more) No Problem
Battery + Battery – (or ground) <12V Problem
Battery + Starter Lug 12V No Problem
Battery + Starter Lug <12V Problem
Battery + Solenoid IN 0V No Problem
Battery + Solenoid OUT 12V No Problem
Battery + Solenoid OUT <12V Problem
Solenoid IN Starter Lug 12V No Problem
Solenoid OUT Starter Lug 0V No Problem
Solenoid IN Starter Lug <12V Problem

 


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