In more than six decades repairing snowmobiles in the North Shore town of Tofte, Minnesota, Jerry Gervais has seen just about everything that could possibly go wrong with a sled.
From major repairs of snowmobiles involved in accidents to helping a confounded owner realize he couldn’t start his machine with the kill switch on, no job is too large or too small for the man affectionately known as the Snowmobile Doctor. And as a lifelong snowmobile enthusiast who bought his first machine in 1960 and raced for much of his life, he has many of his own personal stories to tell, too.
With his shop located just off the popular Sawbill Trail, Gervais is in the thick of the season, with hardly a day going by where he isn’t working on something. In his shop in early February was a 1970 Scorpion Mark II, as he’s earned a reputation for knowing his way around vintage sleds. But more common are new machines owned by Twin Cities snowmobilers having some fun up north.
Gervais took a break from his passion to speak with us a bit about some of the most common snowmobile problems to watch out for and how to avoid them with some basic attention and maintenance.
Snowmobiles that won’t start after sitting for long periods of time most commonly have problems related to fuel. Gervais says there is much debate about how to store a sled when it’s not being used, which includes both the off-season and time between rides—or between snowfalls in some years.
The first tip, he says, is to use high quality fuel, preferably non-oxygenated recreational gasoline. When his sleds aren’t used, he fills them right up to the gooseneck with fresh fuel to eliminate any space for condensation to take place. A partial tank of gas will be prone to developing moisture, which can lead to all sorts of problems, he says. Gervais will then turn the gas valve off and run the machine until the engine quits, so there’s nothing left in the lines or carburetor. That last step is especially important if you don’t run non-oxygenated fuel, as you could develop varnish deposits that can restrict fuel passageways, causing rough idle, hesitation, and other issues.
Even during the snowmobile season, especially in the North Shore climate, Gervais recommends adding four ounces of isopropyl to every tank to prevent moisture buildup. At Sea Foam, we recommend taking an extra step to help protect your sled by adding Sea Foam Motor Treatment at each fill up. And once or twice a year—especially if your snowmobile starts hard or idles rough—add a full can of Motor Treatment to a low tank of fuel and run it for a few miles. Then let it sit and soak in the fuel passageways for a night or two before filling the tank with fresh gas.
Running a high concentration of Motor Treatment through your fuel system before your final fillup of the season is also a good way to stabilize fuel and prevent corrosion. You can also pull your plugs and add Sea Foam Spray into the combustion chamber to help ensure cylinders stay lubricated.
Whether your snowmobile has a carburetor, is fuel injected, a two-stroke or a four-stroke, Sea Foam works the same way in each engine.
If your machine is liquid-cooled rather than a fan-cooled model, riding packed trails, ice, or trails with little snow can lead to overheating, Gervais says, because the sled needs snow on the heat exchangers to cool properly.
If you’re riding in these conditions and your engine temperature warning light comes on, it’s best to shut down your sled and allow it to cool. If the light stays on and/or you experience a loss of power or hear unusual noises, shut down the sled and have it towed to a shop for inspection. At its worst, overheating can cause damage to pistons and rings and cause your engine to seize.
“Have someone tow it, don’t drive it anymore until it’s looked at because it could save you hundreds of dollars,” Gervais says.
“The most commonly neglected part is the clutch,” Gervais says. “Nobody lubricates their clutches.”
Gervais says ideally you should lubricate your clutch after every eight hours of driving time. Lubricate the weights, the rollers and the main shaft to improve the life of your clutch and belt.
“You can find a common clutch lube that is a graphite with a wax base and it really works,” Gervais says. “I’ve had machines that have hundreds and hundreds of miles on them and the clutch is still working properly and I’ve hardly used any drive belts.”
Dry Rot/Suspension Issues
Though it is more of a problem on older snowmobiles or ones that sit for long periods of time, Gervais says to store your sled with the suspension hanging (unloaded) and the track off the cement whenever possible. This will keep the rubber track from developing dry rot and ensure your suspension works properly.
Most importantly, Gervais says, is to routinely inspect your snowmobile, especially before each use. Many of the riders who end up in his shop don’t take the time to do a basic walk around, he says. Keep it clean and lubricated, make sure your fluids and filters are changed regularly. If you’re unsure about something, ask an expert, or better yet—a doctor. Being proactive, along with basic maintenance, is going to keep your machine on the snow.