Motorcycle Tuning: Running Lean vs Rich

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A lean or rich condition describes the nature of the air and fuel mixture getting to the combustion chamber.

Either condition can lead to poor performance and potential damage to your engine if you don’t take care of it.

This page will serve as a guide to understanding, identifying, and fixing rich vs lean running conditions on your motorcycle.

The main ways to identity lean vs rich conditions are:

  • Inspecting your spark plug color or performing a plug chop.
  • Listening to your engine.
  • Observing RPMs.
  • Testing performance.

Symptoms of Running Rich

If the fuel mixture is too rich, you may experience:

  • Dull and intermittent engine noise.
  • Performance worsens when the choke is on.
  • Performance worsens as the engine gets hot.
  • Removing the air cleaner improves the performance.
  • Exhaust fumes are heavy and black.
  • Spark plugs are black, dry, and sooty.
  • The engine runs better when it’s cold.
  • Acceleration is flat.
  • Throttle needs to be opened continuously to accelerate.

If you allow your motorcycle to run rich for too long, the following can occur:

  • Backfire.
  • Fouled spark plugs.
  • Gas getting into the oil.

Symptoms of Running Lean

If the fuel mixture is too lean, you may experience:

  • The engine overheats easily.
  • Performance improves with the choke on.
  • Acceleration is poor or stumbling.
  • Engine doesn’t respond when the throttle is snapped open.
  • Engine speeds up when the throttle is closed.
  • There is a lack of engine power, RPMs fluctuate.
  • The spark plugs are white or burned.
  • Popping through the carb when the throttle is opened.
  • Popping through the exhaust on acceleration.
  • The engine runs better in warm weather.
  • Performance gets worse with the air filter removed.

If you allow your motorcycle to run lean for too long, the following can occur:

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  • Backfire.
  • Burnt pistons and cylinders.
  • Warped gaskets.
  • Burnt exhaust.

How to Diagnose Motorcycle Carb Issues on the Fly

Accelerate and shift through all gears at the proper RPM. A properly tuned and carbureted engine will accelerate smoothly and quickly through the gears.

If the main jet is too rich, acceleration will feel slow or stuttery. Close the throttle from full to about ⅞ open when RPMs are over 4500.

  • If the engine accelerates, the main jet is too lean.
  • If the engine hesitates or misses, the main jet is too rich.
  • If the engine only slows slightly, the main jet is pretty good.

You can also try accelerating through the gears at full throttle.

  • An engine that backfires, misses, or dies has a main jet that’s too lean – try a larger jet size.
  • If acceleration is sluggish, sounds flat, or is unresponsive to throttle, the main jet is too rich – try a smaller jet size.

To test for lean or rich conditions at any throttle position, you can cover/restrict or remove the airbox.

  • If you cover the air box and running conditions improve, the carbs are too lean.
  • If you remove the air filter and the engine improves, the mixture is too rich.

If you can turn your fuel petcock completely off so that fuel does not refill the float bowls, you can also check for lean/rich conditions. Turn off the fuel and ride the bike.

  • If it starts to run worse as the float bowls drain, it is too lean.
  • If running conditions improve, it is too rich.
  • See below for how to check your fuel levels with the clear tube method.

If you’re tuning your carbs while the bike is stationary, remember to get the motorcycle up to operating temperature before making adjustments and set up a box fan to help keep the engine cool.

You may be able to temporarily affect the fuel/air mixture and motorcycle performance on the fly by using hotter or colder spark plugs. Use a colder plug to lean it out, a hotter plug to richen it. However, the underlying carb issue still needs to be addressed.

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