How Do I Know If My Gearbox Needs More Fluid
Transmission fluid is one of the many critical fluids that help your car to run properly. It is to your transmission what engine oil is to the engine. It simultaneously lubricates and cools the many moving parts and ensures that the transmission runs smoothly and properly. Also like the engine, your transmission is a component that your car can simply not do without. How, then, can you be sure that you always have enough of this critical transmission fluid?
In today’s blog, we’ll be sharing some of the tell-tale signs that your car is running low on transmission fluid and needs a top-up. Fortunately, there are several key warning signs that will alert you as to the problem.
Warning Signs That Your Transmission Fluid is Running Low
Your Dipstick Tells You
In most cars — though not all — you should find a dipstick in your engine bay that you can remove and read the current level and condition of your transmission fluid in much the same way that you can with your oil dipstick. When you remove the dipstick, the first thing you should notice is the current level. If it looks below the indicated normal level, then you know immediately that you have a problem.
In addition, you should take the opportunity to inspect the quality of your transmission fluid at that point. When fresh, transmission fluid is a rich and deep red or pink colour. If this has started to change to a more orange or brown colour, and/or you notice grit and other contaminants making it thick and grainy, then you might be due for a transmission fluid change.
There’s a Visible Leak
Another big cause of dropping transmission fluid levels is if you have a leak. The most common source of a transmission leak is the transmission fluid pan gasket going bad, weakening and thus being breached. Other causes include problems in the transmission lines, as well as with other gaskets and seals in the system.
Check under your car to see if you can see any fluid pooling under there. If it’s pink or red in colour (or possibly orange/brown if it’s older fluid), then you have a transmission leak. A leak is serious because it means you’re continuously losing fluid, and the longer you leave it, the more precarious your driving situation becomes.
With an automatic transmission, you’re likely to hear a strange sort of humming or whining sound if and when your fluid is running low. If you do hear these types of sounds as your transmission is shifting, you should pull over immediately and check for the first 2 problems we described above: check the dipstick and look for any signs of leaking fluid.
These noises can indicate that fluid levels are low, but they could equally indicate that there is another mechanical problem with the transmission. At any rate, it’s best to let a qualified mechanic take a look.
Smell of Burning
A lowering level of transmission fluid means that the moving parts will grind upon each other with less lubrication. Metal grinding on metal without the fluid drastically increases the amount of friction taking place, which in turn increases the amount of heat generated within your transmission. You might sense this within the passenger cabin in the form of a burning smell coming from the transmission area or centre stack. Equally, you might actually feel the excess heat by putting your hand on the gear shift.
Sluggish Gear Shifting and Gear Slippage
Old and clapped-out automatic transmissions were well known for experiencing increasingly sluggish gear shifting, and even gear slippage where it would slip down from higher gear ratios to lower ones while driving. However, another way that this can happen, even on a newer and well-maintained transmission is when the transmission fluid is low.
When working normally — especially on very new transmissions — the gear shifting both up and down should be extremely smooth and seamless. You shouldn’t notice it at all. If, however, you sense a somewhat jerky rise in gear ratios, and you can start to feel the transmission at work, then it’s quite possible that it’s because the transmission fluid is low.
Following on from the previous point, another related issue to poor gear shifting is a lack of power in acceleration. If you’ve felt the car struggling to get from 0 to 60 — something that should be very noticeable if you’ve driven the car any length of time — then a big cause of that is your transmission not working as it should be. Once again, when fluid levels are low, it’s easy for the transmission to slip and stop working properly.
You See the Transmission Warning Light on the Dash
Finally, if your fluid levels are starting to run low, or if you have a leak, or if you have some genuine mechanical problem with the transmission, you should see a transmission warning light on the dash. Remember that these warning lights are not mere suggestions. They are indications that your car needs proper mechanical attention.
What to Do When Transmission Fluid is Low
If you detect any of the above symptoms, then it’s important that you seek help as quickly as possible. If you have some experience working on transmissions, then you might be able to flush and replace the fluid yourself, but for the vast majority of people — even keen amateur mechanics — the transmission is just that one advanced step that calls for the help of a professional mechanic.
Driving with your transmission either leaking or otherwise lacking transmission fluid is incredibly unsafe. Therefore, if and when you come across any of the above problems, you should take action immediately. If the car has become unsafe to drive even to your mechanic’s garage, then you should request a towing service or home visit to fix the issue.
To reiterate an earlier point, your transmission fluid is to your transmission what engine oil is to the engine: its lifeblood. You should monitor levels and your vehicle’s performance to determine if there might be a problem. You can’t afford even an hour or driving with anything close to critically low levels of fluid.