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How to Check Transmission Fluid Level
Check Transmission Fluid
Your 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.
If you check 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. Unsure how to check transmission fluid? Follow our quick reference guide!
The dipstick for how to check transmission fluid 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 check transmission fluid 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 gasket. This can result in slipping and instability. We must always check transmission fluid levels every few months.
- Park your car on a level surface and lift the hood.
- Turn on your car, leaving it in park, and let the engine run for a few minutes to warm up. If you check transmission fluid, and it 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.
- 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.
- 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 You Check Transmission Fluid Yourself
- 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 check transmission fluid, immediately.
- 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.
- Smell – Clean fluid is practically odorless, but if you notice something similar to burnt toast, it is cause for alarm. A burnt smell is a sign that the transmission has developed problems and needs to be serviced by a professional right away. Check transmission fluid regularly.
NOTE: Most 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?
In severe climates, cars require a little more TLC, meaning maintenance services should be performed on a more frequent basis. Check Transmission fluid flushes should be performed every 30,000 miles and check 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 span of your transmission! Always watch for scams.
Most vehicle owners know that in order to keep their ride roadworthy, they need to stay up-to-date on routine maintenance, such as oil changes and tire replacement. But you should also keep tabs on your automatic transmission—you know, that thing with the gears that you shift into drive, reverse, and park multiple times a day. Keeping your transmission humming smoothly can pay dividends, as it’s one of the most expensive components on your car to repair or replace.
Thankfully, checking on your transmission’s health is neither as difficult, as time consuming, nor as costly as you may think. Here’s how.
Check Transmission Fluid Color & Smell
Just as your engine uses oil to lubricate and cool its internals, automatic transmissions use specially designed transmission fluid for the same purpose. Conventional automatic transmissions, dual-clutch automatics, and continuously variable automatic transmissions each use a specific type of transmission fluid. If you’re unsure which fluid is used in your transmission, consult your owner’s manual; typically, transmission-fluid requirements can be found in the specifications section.
You don’t need to be a mechanic to gain insight into the condition of your vehicle’s transmission—a simple visual check will do. You’ll need to look at the level and condition of your transmission fluid.
First, locate the transmission dipstick, which can be found under the hood, in the engine compartment. Make sure you are locating the transmission dipstick and not the engine-oil dipstick; the transmission dipstick is usually further back in the engine bay, toward the firewall (the bulkhead at the front of the cabin). The transmission dipstick is typically marked with a specific color or a transmission symbol.
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Note: if you can’t find the dipstick, don’t be alarmed. Many modern vehicles use a sealed-for-life transmission that never requires checking or fluid replacement—so they don’t have a dipstick. (Refer to your owner’s manual for your model’s specific service schedule and to double-check whether it has a transmission dipstick.)
If your vehicle has a sealed transmission, you can slam the hood shut and drive. But if your vehicle does have a transmission dipstick, here’s what to do next:
Check Transmission Fluid Level
With the engine warmed up, leave the car idling in park on a level surface. Pull out the dipstick, wipe it clean, replace it slowly, and then pull it back out. Check the fluid level—how high the fluid comes up on the dipstick—against the “full” and “low” or “fill” marks on the dipstick.
Now lay the dipstick on a white surface, such as a paper towel, to analyze the color of the fluid. The condition of your transmission fluid—and to some extent, the transmission itself—is indicated by the color of the fluid. If your fluid is healthy, it should have a reddish-pink color; if it’s getting to the point of needing replacement, it will be brownish red. If the fluid is dark brown or black, then it’s quite possible that you will be replacing more than just your fluid.
Dark fluid with a burnt smell is bad news; in the worst case, you might find fine metal shavings in the fluid as well. Both of those symptoms point to possible damage of your transmission’s internal components. This is usually a result of failing to follow the recommended service interval for replacing the transmission fluid, but it’s not impossible that a transmission could have a premature mechanical issue, just like any other component on the vehicle.
If your fluid is low, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re headed for disaster, but it does most likely mean there is a leak somewhere in the system. Filling up the transmission and then check transmission fluid daily to see how quickly the level goes down can be a good way to assess the severity of a potential leak. Also try to visually inspect your transmission by looking under the car for any fluid oozing out of it. Does the car leave spots of reddish fluid on the ground after it’s parked? If the fluid is black, it’s engine oil. If it’s water, it’s likely condensation from the air-conditioning system.
If you do notice some transmission fluid loss or observe that your transmission is using an abnormal amount of fluid, contact a mechanic as soon as you can. We’d recommend seeing a reputable car dealer who sells and services your vehicle as a first stop. Its service department will have the most experience with your make and model and might have seen this issue before. If you have the luxury of letting the car sit until it can be inspected, do so.
Contrary to what some internet mechanics may tell you, a transmission-fluid replacement will not destroy an older vehicle’s aging transmission. Typically, when a transmission suddenly has issues after fluid replacement, it’s because there was already an internal problem, such as a worn clutch pack. If your transmission is healthy, then a fresh change of fluid will only help its longevity.
FYI, if your transmission fluid is low and needs topping off, this is usually done through the same tube that the dipstick fits in. Adding fluid (which is available at auto-parts stores) will require a funnel with a narrow—and most likely long—spout.