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How to Check Your Transmission Fluid

checking vehicle fluidYour transmission is just as important as the engine in your vehicle. Without it, your car may be able to start but will go nowhere fast. Keeping your transmission in good condition is vital and as with any major component on your vehicle, protection begins with maintenance. Checking your transmission fluid levels, color, and even scent will help you understand what condition your transmission is in. Regular flushes and good habits such as using your parking brake when stopped and shifting to drive from reverse only at a complete stop are great ways to help extend the life of your transmission. Not sure how to check your transmission fluid? Follow our quick reference guide!

How to Check Transmission Fluid Level

The transmission fluid dipstick is similar to the oil dipstick, while the oil dipstick measures the level of the car’s engine oil, transmission dipsticks measure the level of transmission fluid in your vehicle. Keep in mind many transmission troubles are due to low fluid levels. If the fluid is low, it is likely there is a leak and it will need to be found and repaired by a professional right away. If you need to add additional fluid, be careful not to overfill the reservoir. Overfilling transmission fluid can cause the fluid to foam, putting excess pressure on the transmission, and forcing fluid out of the vent or a seal. This can result in slipping and instability.

  1. Park your car on a level surface and lift the hood.
  2. Turn on your car, leaving it in park, and let the engine run for a few minutes to warm up. Transmission fluid expands in heat and in order to receive accurate results, it must be under normal operating conditions. If the fluid is checked when the engine is cold, you may get false results indicating the fluid is low. Allow the engine to continue running while you check the level. Note: Honda is the only manufacturer that recommends you turn off the engine and then immediately check the level.
  3. Locate your dipstick. Often found near the oil dipstick in front-wheel drive vehicles and near the rear of the engine for rear-wheel-drive engines, it is conveniently labeled for access and can have a red, pink, or yellow-colored handle.
  4. Pull out the dipstick and using a clean rag, wipe it clean, and place it back into the reservoir. Remove the dipstick again and locate the indicators on the stick to determine whether the fluid is “full” or “low.” If the fluid is full, replace the dipstick and close the hood. If the fluid is low, take your vehicle to an auto center right away for a fill.

Things to Look For When Checking Your Transmission Fluid

  1. Color – Most new transmission fluids should be a bright, transparent red color. Darker red or light brown is normal but reflects its age and usage. A darker brown color is an indication that fluid needs to be changed. Black is a bad sign, however. This means that the fluid is burnt as a result of some transmission troubles. Your vehicle should be taken to a transmission specialist to determine the cause of the burnt fluid, immediately.
  2. Consistency – After some time fluid can appear thicker than usual. This is normal, but good transmission fluid should appear new. Additionally, fluid should not contain any contaminants or particles including metal shavings. Metal shavings could spell trouble and will need to be inspected right away. Foamy fluid could indicate either too much fluid is present, it is overheating, or the wrong fluid has been added.
  3. Smell – Clean fluid is practically odorless, but if you notice something similar to burnt toast, it is cause for concern. A burnt smell is a sign that the transmission has developed problems and needs to be serviced by a professional right away.

NOTE: Many newer cars are not equipped with transmission dipsticks, making checking the transmission fluid at home impossible. In that case, an automotive repair professional will need to check the fluid level through a plug located on the side of the transmission or by checking the car’s internal computer.

How Often Should You Check Transmission Fluid?

Arizona has a hot, dry, and dusty climate defining it as a “severe driving climate.” In severe climates, vehicles require a little more TLC, meaning maintenance services should be performed on a more frequent basis. Transmission fluid flushes should be performed every 30,000 miles and transmission fluid levels should be checked, at least every six months. Now that you know how often to check your transmission fluid and the steps on how to do so, you’re one step closer to extending the life of your transmission!