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What are the pros and cons of the various chain degreasing techniques. I want to maintain my chain and sprockets to the best possible standard and have heard many schools of thought on chain cleaning but I'd like an engineers perspective on the best method for keeping a chain maintained without taking the chain off.

What I've tried:

  • On a really dirty bike whose previous owner had never cleaned the chain, there was years of caked grime and grease and asphalt, I put the bike on centre-stand, put it in first (running) and pointed a hot soapy jet wash at the chain for ten minutes. I found a pretty decent shiny chain in surprisingly good condition under all the guck. (warning for the uninitiated: this is dangerous. It's not intended as advice. Don't try this at home. Chains should never be cleaned while the engine is running.)
  • When I first started chain maintenance, I would get through a full aerosol can of whatever brand motorcycle chain cleaner happened to be cheapest at a motor factors. I would rarely get a clean chain without using the full can.
  • Later, I bought a three-sided chain brush and found I could get away with only a third or half a can of aerosol degreaser by scrubbing while spraying and wiping away muck with a rag.

Specifically:

  • Are cheap(er), citrus based degreaser products (like this or this) safe to use on a motorcycle chain? Will they damage my o-rings? (also: what are o-rings?)
  • Is WD40 (or similar) harmful to a chain? Some say that it removes lubricant from the chain internals so you should avoid it or only use it if the chain is off the bike and can be really thoroughly re-lubricated after the clean. Is this true?
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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I personally prefer citrus-based cleaner. I had used Park Tools bicycle chain cleaner, because I had it laying around, and it works great, although expensive. I plan on buying generic cleaner in large containers. It also has a benefit of being bio-degradable (oil and gunk is not, but at least it doesn’t add to the water-table pollution hazard).

I usually pour a little of the cleaner in an open container, and use brush to dip into it, and spread cleaner over the chain. This way you don’t contaminate the rest, and only use a little at a time. After the chain is clean, I would wash it off with water (often, chain cleaning is coincident with bike wash — wash the top side, clean the chain, wash it off and finish the wheels and bottom), let it dry and help, if possible, with compressed air to blow as much water out as possible.

There are other solvents that can be used to clean chain drive, such as kerosene or mineral spirit, but they are messier, and nastier (have to use rubber gloves with them) whereas citrus-based solvent works real well, smells nice, and have little side-effects, if any.

Whichever cleaner you use, you have to make sure it is safe for rubber, which is what O-rings usually made of. Most bicycle chains and chain drives in controlled and clean industrial setting do not have those, but motorcycle chains have O-rings, which is basically a seal on both sides on the inside of each roller surrounding pins, with grease packed inside of them. This way the grease is protected, the pin-roller interface is always lubricated, and the operator only have to worry about cleaning and lubricating outer plates and sprockets. If the seals dry out, lose their elasticity and crack, the grease would come out (can sometimes be evident by coloured residue on the chain) and the dirt would come in wearing the chain prematurely.

As for WD-40 or similar light oils, they would not be efficient cleaners, and not very good lubricants for the application. I normally just use gear oil applied with a brush at home on a stand, or low-fling chain wax out of the can when out on the road for extended period of time (all-day trips).

Final point. I do not clean the chain every time I oil it. I oil the chain every 300-400 km (200-250 miles), and on average clean the chain only every 3rd or 4th oiling when riding in the city, unless it’s been contaminated heavy with dust and dirt after being out on the trail, or winter slush with road salt.

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If we are talking street applications, then use an o-ring chain, which means 'degreasing' is unnecessary, just cleaning. I have never changed chains at less than 20,000 mile intervals, with one change out after 40,000 miles out of paranoia, though that bike has an oiler installed.

All I do to clean is put the bike on a center stand or rear stand, then slowly turn the wheel with one hand while carefully removing the grime with a strong cotton shop rag, sometimes two depending on how dirty the chain is.

I then use an old school oil gun (you can get them at Home Depot) filled with biodegradable bar and chain (chainsaw) oil. I slowly turn the wheel and put ample oil across each pin on the chain, letting it sit at least over night. Any serious grime that didn't come off in the cloth will be thrown off the next time I take the bike out. Whole procedure takes less than 5 minutes, my chains are always spotless and last a very long time.

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My perspective comes from the bicycle community. I admit there is a size and expense difference but I believe the principles are the same. The best longest lasting lubricant is the stuff the factory used while assembling the chain. It is in the right place which is between the side plates. It is viscous enough that it will not be thrown off at high RPM. Anything you apply that is thin enough to get between the plates is likely thin enough to get thrown off or washed off. The lube must match the conditions that you most often ride in. An oily sticky lube used in dry dusty conditions will cause dirt and grit to stick to the chain making it wear faster. Dry conditions require a dry lube. Many dry lubes come suspended in a solvent that evaporates and allow the lube to penetrate into the small spaces between the plates. Wet conditions require an oily type lube to repel water. Many use the same principle of suspending the lube in a solvent that evaporates leaving a thicker film. All condition lubes are like All Season tires, they work in the middle zone of both conditions, but not as well as the specific types. If you find some dirt sticking to your wet lubed chain, spray it lightly with a cleaner and wipe the side plates with a rag to remove the heaviest dirt.

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I think this is good general lube advice but doesn't really address my question which is actually about degreasing (as opposed to greasing). I agree that the general principles of bicycle and motorcycle chain maintenance are similar but I'm specifically concerned with the chemical effects of degreasers on o-rings and not convinced that bicycle chain cleaners need to worry about this. –  grenade Jul 22 '14 at 2:12

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