ATVs and UTVs are workhorses around many small farms, providing off-road transportation; hauling tools, fencing and firewood; and even serving as tractors, pulling mowers, tillers and manure spreaders. On top of that, they’re just plain fun! But even workhorses need a little maintenance now and then, especially as they age. The engine and powertrain get most of the wear and need the most attention, so let’s start there.
Most ATVs and some UTVs have air-cooled engines. That’s fine for general use, but issues arise with heat when the engine is pulling hard at low speeds that don’t give it enough airflow to effectively cool the cylinders. This can have several consequences.
For one thing, it can degrade the performance of the engine oil, and in an extreme case, it can warp the cylinder head. Your first line of defense is to make sure that the cooling fins are clear of brush or anything that would reduce the airflow over them. A quick blowout with compressed air should do the trick. If your vehicle has an external oil cooler, make sure that it also has good airflow through it. If it has a radiator, clean it out regularly—compressed air works well here, as well—as leaves and dust can clog it, and use the recommended antifreeze even in the summer. Many engines have water pumps that depend on the lubricating properties of antifreeze.
Ethanol in fuel is an issue for many small engines, including motorcycles, ATVs and UTVs. It destroys some plastics commonly used in carburetors and fuel lines, and it can leave a residue if left to sit for extended periods. If possible, use ethanol-free premium fuel. If ethanol-free fuel is not available, use a fuel stabilizer, such as STA-BIL, if you won’t be riding for a couple of weeks or longer. For extended periods of nonuse (six months or more), turn off the fuel valve and run the engine until it dies to remove fuel from the fuel lines and carburetor (or injectors).
Every time you change the oil on your ATV or UTV, replace the oil filter and air filter, as well. You might need to change the air filter even more often if you operate in dusty conditions. A clogged air filter can cause the engine to run rich (too much fuel for the amount of air taken in), which in turn can cause the engine to run rough and foul the spark plugs.
A clogged fuel filter has the opposite effect, causing the engine to run lean (not enough fuel for the amount of air taken in), which can cause the engine to run hotter than normal. It would be very unusual for a fuel filter to clog up, but follow the manufacturer’s instructions if you need to perform maintenance.
ATVs and UTVs typically have electronic ignitions that are as foolproof as it gets. The main troublemakers are the spark plugs and wires. If the engine is not running as it should, make sure the spark plug wires are in good condition. Sometimes, they can get snagged, damaged or pulled out.
Follow the manufacturer’s recommendation on replacing the plugs. Generally, if they appear in good condition and the engine is running smoothly, there is no need to replace them, but it’s a good idea to have an extra set, especially if you will be depending on your vehicle in remote places. Inspect the electrodes and center porcelain for deposits, corrosion or carbon fouling. If the plug is corroded, replace it. If it is fouled with carbon (black soot), you can usually clean it out with a paper clip or burn the carbon out with a propane torch. A fouled or corroded plug indicates an engine problem—fuel mixture, timing or running hot—so it would be a good idea to take the machine to a mechanic for a check-up.
One thing that a lot of people miss is setting the spark plug gap: Don’t assume that this is correct when you buy them. Use a feeler gauge and adjust the gap until you just feel the electrode scrape against it. If necessary, open up the gap by prying it with a small slot screwdriver or close it up a bit by tapping the electrode with the screwdriver handle. It is soft metal and bends easily, so take it easy.
Use a spark plug wrench. It has a rubber insert that holds the plug while you pull it out or put it back in. When you replace the spark plug, start it by hand to make sure you don’t cross thread it. Tighten it down by hand, then add no more than a quarter turn with the wrench. Most ATVs have aluminum heads that are much softer than the spark plugs, and over tightening can strip them out. Damaged spark plug threads will require major repair.
Ideally, you should check the engine oil every time you use the machine. There are some oils that are formulated specifically to perform under high temperatures. Oil changes are probably the single most important maintenance operation that prolongs engine life, so keep them within the factory specs.
One of the most common mistakes is overfilling the oil. Unlike a car, which is down a quart when the oil drops to the “add” mark, it doesn’t take much to top off the oil in an ATV or UTV. Too much oil can cause the engine to run hot. If you do add too much, drain a little out to get it at or below the full mark.
Changing engine oil on a regular basis is the one single thing that can most prolong the life of your engine. If the machine is new, follow the recommendation for the initial oil/filter change — typically after the first 50 hours of operation—to break in the engine and clear out any material left by the manufacturing process.
The debate between petroleum-based oil and synthetic oil continues. Many people break in the engines with petroleum-based then switch to synthetics, which tend to hold up well under heavy use at high temperatures. Go with your dealer’s advice on this.
The battery may also be the source of aggravation. They are typically small and expensive and don’t seem to last as long as they should. This problem usually shows up in cold weather or when the ATV or UTV hasn’t been driven for a while. A battery left discharged over the winter will almost certainly need replacing. Use a battery maintainer to keep it topped off. There are some inexpensive solar chargers that also work well.
If your ATV/UTV battery is tucked away in an inaccessible place, consider attaching a couple of wire leads to it (red for positive and black for negative) for easier hook-up. While you’re at it, check for corrosion around the battery terminals. You can clean the terminals with a wire brush, then coat them with a gel that prevents future corrosion. If the battery is not sealed, check the level of the electrolyte every time you change the oil. If the electrolyte level is low, top it off with distilled water.
Almost every moving part of your ATV or UTV will require lubrication of some sort. The manual that came with your ATV or UTV should have a diagram showing all lube points. If your machine has an automatic transmission or hydrostatic drive, keep them topped off, and check the reservoir for hydraulic brakes if your vehicle has them.
Shaft drives are pretty much trouble-free, though there may be a place to top off the gear oil. For chain-drive ATVs, use the recommended chain lube. Wipe down the chain with a rag, spray on the lube, then wipe off the excess. If there is a chain tension adjustment, set it to the point where there is about 1/4 inch of play in the chain. Too tight, and you risk breaking the chain. Too loose, and it could come off when you least expect it.
Moisture is the overall most destructive element on equipment—especially in cables where even a small amount of rust can freeze it in its housing, causing it to move stiffly, if at all. Usually a little cable lube will free it up.
Cables can also get kinked. If you can’t straighten one out so that it operates smoothly, immediately replace it. This is a safety issue; you want the throttle to go back to an idle any time you let go.
Depending on how you use the ATV or UTV, the tires can take quite a beating. To make the matter more complicated, it can be difficult to tell when those big flotation tires are low just by looking at them, which makes a tire gauge a key piece of equipment. The dial-type gauges are the best, but the pencil-type ones pack better in the tool box.
The biggest issues are nails, thorns, sharp stubs or anything else that can slice or poke a hole in the tires. Be especially watchful for slices on the sides of tires, as these can open up at any time. I don’t recommend the use of a tire sealant because it can corrode the rim, making the tire nearly impossible to remove. Sealant also gums up the inside of the tire so patches won’t stick if you ever need one. One product that I do recommend is Armor All or other such material to protect the tire. Usually, you’ll find that the tire ages and cracks before the tread wears down, and this will extend the life of your tire.
Most ATVs and UTVs use hydraulic brakes. Check the brake fluid reservoir at least three times a year or any time the brakes feel soft. If your vehicle has a brake pad wear indicator, check it periodically.
If the brakes chatter, grab or feel soft, take the wheels off and check the pads, drums and/or rotors for wear, and replace if necessary. Generally, you should replace them in front or rear pairs. If this looks like more of a task than you want to tackle, take it to a mechanic.
The spark arrester prevents sparks from flying out the exhaust onto dry grass or leaves, starting a fire. It can, however, become clogged with carbon, causing back pressure that diminishes engine performance. Follow the ATV/UTV manufacturer’s recommendation on inspecting, cleaning and replacing. Do not remove the spark arrester. The time it takes to maintain it is almost nothing compared to the risk of starting a fire.
Taking Your ATV/UTV To The Shop
At some point, you’ll be in over your head on a repair for your ATV or UTV. It may be a carburetor adjustment or even taking a tire off the rim to fix a flat. When you find yourself in this situation, there are a few things you can do to save on the $60-an-hour shop fee. Clean up the ATV before taking it in. At least get most of the mud off of it. If it is a matter of a flat tire, take the wheel off and just take it in. It saves you hauling the entire machine and saves on the mechanic’s time. If you have a specific problem, be prepared to provide as much information as possible.
The old adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is certainly true of equipment maintenance. Routine maintenance, such as changing oil and filters, reduce equipment wear and more expenses down the road. The simple maintenance procedures outlined in this article will help ensure that your ATV or UTV will be available to do a variety of jobs at a moment’s notice for years to come.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Hobby Farms.