Suspension Tech 101: Shock Therapy
It’s harder than ever to shell out the cash for a new ATV these days. With flagship sport ATV models hanging in the $8,000 range and high-end Side-by-Sides significantly over the $20k mark, it is more important than ever to protect our interests. Maintenance plays a crucial role in making sure our off-road toys stay in tip-top shape and are always ready for that next ride. So we keep our oil changed, chains adjusted, clutches clean, air filters fresh, and our rides washed up and looking great. But there’s one area of maintenance that is frequently overlooked.
If there is one single component of an off-road vehicle that truly makes it an off-road vehicle, it’s the shock absorber. Without properly functioning shock absorbers, no other area of your ATV will perform properly. Our shocks define our vehicles’ ride quality, handling, and even have a huge effect on how the power gets to the ground. Unfortunately they are also one of the most misunderstood components on the machine, and that tends to lead to insufficient maintenance. Read on, and we’ll explain why proper maintenance of your shocks is more important than you might think.
Extreme neglect left this shock unserviceable. Better get out your wallet!
What’s The Big Deal?
The primary job of your shock absorber is to absorb and convert energy from impacts so that the bulk of it doesn’t reach your chassis or your body. The by-product of this energy absorption is heat, which will deteriorate the oil just as it would in an engine or transmission. Of course, your engine and transmission utilize dedicated cooling systems to remove this heat as well as a filtration system to remove wear particles. On top of that, your shocks only carry about one eighth to a quarter of the volume of oil of a typical engine. As the oil breaks down and picks up contaminants, its ability to lubricate and provide consistent hydraulic dampening drastically decreases. So as with any other component, this oil needs to be changed regularly in order to make sure that your shocks can continue to do their job effectively and you can continue to enjoy your ride!
New oil vs. well used oil. Which would you want inside your shocks?
What’s The Schedule?
First things first, in order for you to have your shocks serviced, your vehicle has to be equipped with rebuildable shocks. If you don’t know whether you have rebuildables or not, it’s as simple as looking at the shock absorber itself. A rebuildable shock will have two distinct areas that will let you know it can be taken apart and serviced. It will have a removable seal head (the area where the shaft meets the body), generally identifiable by a pressed-in cap, or a means to unthread it from the body such as wrench flats or holes for a pin-spanner wrench. A rebuildable shock will also have a means of being charged with fresh nitrogen, such as a needle port or a Schrader valve. If you’re not lucky enough to have rebuildable shocks, servicing means replacing the shock itself.
Note the charge port and removeable seal head on the right rebuildable shock vs. the non-rebuildable shock on the left.
WARNING!!! Do NOT attempt to disassemble or discharge a shock absorber on your own unless you are knowledgeable on their design and function and are properly trained to do so! The internals are under high pressure and if you don’t follow the proper procedure, it is very likely that they will blow up in your face! Best case scenario: you and your garage will be covered in nasty, smelly shock oil!
The time between shock services will vary greatly depending on how often you ride, how hard you ride, and even the conditions in which you use your vehicle. As with an engine oil change, that first service should probably be done at a shortened interval as there may be a little bit of funk from the manufacturing process floating around inside. Also, the original oil inside of your shocks was more likely chosen on a basis of cost rather than performance and it will tend to break down faster than any decent replacement oil. A general rule of thumb is to service your shocks once per season under normal conditions and miles, or at least twice a year if you’re racing. In fact, hardcore racers freshen their shocks every couple of races. We wouldn’t recommend going more than a couple of years even if you are easy on your shocks, as acids from normal oil deterioration will gradually damage the seals and internal parts.
It’s a good idea to get the oil in your shocks replaced at least once a year.
What’s The Cost?
Prices for a standard shock service vary greatly, but generally fall into the $40-80 price range and usually include disassembly, cleaning, inspection, and reassembly with fresh oil and nitrogen charge. Parts such as seals and piston wear bands are extra. Just a few hints: your shock guy will be much happier with you if you do a reasonable job of cleaning the exterior of your shocks before you drop them off for service. Sending them in for service covered with mud, grease, and other gunk will not only make a mess of his work area, but can also compromise the cleanliness and quality of your service. Also, it’s a good idea to keep your springs, bushings, and other easily removable parts at home so that they don’t get lost during service. There’s nothing worse than not being able to use your freshly serviced shocks because a critical part fell out and got lost in between your house and the suspension shop.
Get your shocks regularly serviced and you’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of your ride.
What’s The End Result?
Because shocks deteriorate and wear out slowly, you may have not even noticed them getting punky and funky. But often, once people bolt on a set of fresh shocks they realize how bad they really were. Spending a relatively small amount of money on a shock service can pay huge returns in handling and performance and can often make your ATV or Side-by-Side feel brand new all over again.