For many farmers, an all-terrain vehicle is an essential tool. Even for farmers with small acreage, or those who are sustainability minded, an ATV can help keep a farm in working order. With an ATV, many tasks can be performed fairly quickly by just a single person, including moving heavy or bulky items, surveying property and performing tasks such as plowing a garden. An ATV can save hours of work and minimize physical strain on the body.
Like any tool, an ATV requires maintenance, proper care and occasional repairs if you want to get years of use out of it. Even if it’s new from the shop, not every part will necessarily be in perfect working order, so it’s good to have a maintenance checklist to follow for a new ATV (and for subsequent checkups).
What to Look For
First, check out all areas and components. Do all the parts look like they’re on properly? Is anything missing? Does anything just not look right? Even if you’re not sure what every part does, this is a good way to get to know every nook and cranny of your new tool. Now, start feeling around. (Be sure to give it time to cool down if you’ve run it recently, as some parts can be hot.)
Unless something is a quick, easy fix, do the entire checkup and take notes before proceeding. Check the handgrips, seats, baskets and any other attachments to be sure they’re securely attached. For loose grips, you can use grip glue or a safety wire or simply replace them. Inspect as many nuts and bolts as you can for any looseness. Secure anything that needs to be secured.
Next, check fluid levels, air filter and tire pressure. Check your manual if necessary and learn all fluids that need to be changed and where they’re accessed. Fluids include oil, transmission fluid, differential fluid, coolant and gas. Check the dipsticks or level indicators for each, and top off as needed or change if the fluid looks dirty.
If you bought the ATV used or are starting it for the first time after several months of sitting, check the gas tank. If there is no gas, just add some and you’re good to go. If there is gas in it, consider that it might be old gas. If you’re not sure how long it has been since the ATV was ridden, empty the gas from the tank and carburetor, dispose of it properly and add fresh gas.
Check the air filter to make sure it’s there, and that it’s clean. Change it if it’s dirty. Grease the portion that contacts the air box, and add a thick coat of filter oil to extend the filter’s life.
Next, check the air pressure in the tires and inflate them to the proper PSI (listed on the tires and in your manual) if needed. Inspect the tires carefully to ensure there is no sidewall damage or anything sticking into one of them. A nail could cause the tire to deflate in the middle of a ride, which isn’t fun (and potentially dangerous). If the sidewall is very worn or shows signs of rot, replace the tire as soon as possible. While you’re down there, make sure all of the lug nuts are tight.
Check the brakes often. Loose or worn brakes can lead to accidents or damage to expensive parts. Make sure the cable is in good condition and slides through its sleeve smoothly. Inspect the calipers to ensure they’re adjusted properly, and make sure the pads aren’t too worn (anything less than 1⁄8-inch thickness isn’t safe, even for a light day of riding).
If you hear metal-to-metal grinding or see sparks when braking, change the pads as soon as possible. If your ATV is equipped with a chain, check it regularly to ensure it is adjusted properly. Your manual provides specifications on proper tension. Keep it well oiled. While you’re at it, check for any fittings requiring greasing and make sure they’re well greased. Look for any pivot points or anywhere that accepts a grease gun tip, and check the manual for the proper grease type.
For water-cooled ATVs, clear the radiator of any debris with a water hose, and check coolant levels regularly. ATVs with an electric start are equipped with batteries. Be sure the battery has a good charge, and keep a charger with you at all times. Keeping a steady trickle going when the ATV isn’t in use for long periods will help ensure a strong electrical system. If your ATV has a carburetor, be sure it is properly jetted for your region. An ATV manufactured in New Mexico and jetted for that climate won’t perform well in a cold, wet climate such as Maine.
Next, take it for a ride around the yard. Get a feel for how to operate it, and gauge whether you need to make adjustments for optimal ride comfort and flexibility. Look for anything adjustable, such as the handlebar, footrest/shifter and seat. Drive it slowly and listen for any off sounds (such as knocking, grinding or scraping). Investigate the source of any strange noises. This is also a good time to test whether the ATV turns smoothly and properly, and if it drives straight when the steering mechanism is centered. If it doesn’t, you might need to adjust or replace the tie rod.
Oil ’er Up
Changing oil in an ATV isn’t much different than changing oil in a car or truck. However, there are a few differences depending on your model.
Start by letting the engine run for about 10 minutes to warm the oil so it flows out easily. Shut the engine off, and remove the filler cap to equalize pressure for a faster flow. In some ATVs, the dipstick is next to the seat and the filter is underneath the vehicle. For others you access the filter and dipstick by removing the seat.
With the seat removed, look for a detachable panel on the right side of the vehicle. Remove this panel and then remove the bolts holding the plate underneath it in place. Remove the dipstick, and leave the filter in place for now. Some models, such as the Honda Rubicon, have two drain plugs. It’s critical that you remove both plugs to ensure full drainage.
Crawl under the vehicle or safely jack it up, and look for a hole in the middle of the skid plate (a large metal plate that protects the ATV’s underside); the oil drains through this. For models with two drain plugs, the other is located on the opposite side of the circular drain filter cover (which you need to remove part of the skid plate to access).
Locate the proper size wrench, and loosen the plug. Unscrew it the rest of the way with your fingers. Wear rubber gloves if you want to keep your hands clean, and have a container situated directly under the plug or plugs big enough to catch all of the oil. Clear away any debris before fully loosening the plug or plugs. Once you’ve removed the plug or plugs, let the oil fully drain. Replace the plug or plugs and tighten snugly—but don’t overtighten.
Next, locate the filter. You need a filter wrench to remove external filters. For those with an internal filter on the undercarriage, you need to remove the bolt in the center of the filter cover and set it aside. You can then remove the cover by wiggling it or prying it off with a slotted screwdriver.
When removing the old filter, note that you need to set aside a spring and a washer that you need to add back with the new filter. Allow the rest of the oil to drain from the filter opening. While you’re waiting, take a bit of your new oil and lubricate the rubber O-ring on the new filter (and on the center bolt for internal-filter models).
Set the new filter on the cover, and place it back in the opening. Screw the center bolt back in, taking care not to overtighten. For an external filter, screw it back in by hand and finish tightening with the filter wrench.
Check your manual for the proper amount of oil for your engine, and add about a quart less than called for. (Some older models can take as many as 6 quarts.) Replace the oil-filler cap, and run the engine for a few minutes. Shut off the engine, and check the dipstick. If it’s not quite at the full mark, add more oil. Remember, it’s always better to be a little under than a little over, as too much oil can cause engine damage.
When I asked my dad for tips on keeping an ATV alive, his response was simple: “Don’t overload it, and don’t drive like an idiot.” In his case, overloading it caused the frame to break in one instance and driving like an idiot resulted in a busted tie rod.
As long as you’re safe, you can get away with some aggressive driving with a sport ATV, but if you purchased your ATV as a farm tool, treat it as such. Take care to drive at a safe speed when traversing rough ground, and always be aware of your surroundings. Lean forward when driving uphill and backward when driving downhill. Never drive with more people on the vehicle than the manufacturer recommends, and always wear a helmet.
Most of all, follow the tips in this article to keep your four-wheeler in top shape, and you’ll get many years of use out of it.
AFV: All-Farm Vehicles
While ATVs are lighter and more maneuverable than most tractors, not all of them are up to the job required by each attachment. Be sure to consider your vehicle’s weight, power and existing features when purchasing equipment.
Quads with air-cooled engines are not designed to operate for long periods at low speeds. Consider an external oil cooler if you plan to use yours for lengthy, horsepower-intensive tasks such as plowing a garden. Also, consider an ATV with shaft drive rather than a chain drive if you need it for farm tasks. Have at least a 400-cc engine for any application requiring heavy loads.
- Cutting Firewood & Clearing Trails: Whether you heat with wood or just need to clear fallen limbs to ensure your trails are accessible, every hobby farmer needs to be equipped to cut and haul wood. An ATV with a trailer is essential for this task, even if you’re hauling wood over short distances. While you can use a truck or tractor, at ATV can reach places that would otherwise be inaccessible and allow you to haul firewood and brush through all corners of your farm.
- Plowing Snow: If you live in an area that gets heavy winter snow, an ATV snow-removal blade attachment is critical. Blades are available in V-shaped and straight varieties. A V-blade will push snow off to both sides, while a straight blade can be slanted to push all snow to one side. Purchase a model with an electric winch if your ATV doesn’t have hydraulics for raising and lowering the blade. A snow thrower with an auger feed is another option for quickly clearing snow.
- Garden Prep: If you have large garden areas to prepare, various ATV attachments are available to help. Plows are useful but can test your vehicle’s cooling system and transmission. Or, use a pull-
behind tiller, which has its own power supply to lessen the strain on the ATV’s engine. If you use a disk with your ATV, be sure your vehicle has large tires with high clearance. For any of these tasks, working for lengthy periods at slow speeds can overheat your engine, so consider an external oil cooler. To finish things off, look for harrow and cultivator attachments.
- Cutting, Raking, Baling & Hauling Hay: With the right attachments, you can harvest hay with your ATV. Draft horse hay implements can easily be customized for ATVs by removing the harness and attaching a drawbar. Several attachments are also on the market designed specifically for ATVs. Even the heaviest of bales can be hauled using a hay dolly or a hay spear attachment.
- Hauling Debris: Let’s face it. No matter the size of your farm or how clean and organized you think you are, debris can build up in various places over time. Examples are fallen branches, equipment and materials that are left to linger for many years, and unfinished projects. You’ll realize one day that you have a large pile of junk somewhere on your farm that needs to be hauled away. Various ATV attachments can help you with this job, including trailers and front-end power loaders. You might even find these attachments useful on your next hunting trip.
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.