How To Check Transmission Fluid (Hot or Cold) + Common FAQs!

How To Check Transmission Fluid

We car owners have to stick together! We need to educate each other on how to check transmission fluid so that everything runs smoothly and in turn pays dividends, as it’s one of the most expensive components on your car to repair or replace. Staying up-to-date on routine maintenance, such as oil changes and tire replacement, (and everything else your service provider says you need to do) happens naturally. But one thing people kind of forget is to keep tabs on your automatic transmission and the fluid it contains. Most of us forget because we are not mechanics! Luckily, you don’t need to be a mechanic to figure out how to check transmission fluid—a simple visual check will do. This means you need to look at the level and condition of your transmission fluid.

Without further ado – let’s get started on this blog and put it on drive! 

Learn How To Check Transmission Fluid 

Quick Glace: 

Transmission fluid, unlike motor oil, tends to require the regular change and the occasional top-off. 

Why does the fluid need to be changed? Automatic transmission is one of several integral systems for your vehicle to operate and its fluid level should remain consistent for the lifespan of the car.

Conventional automatic transmissions, dual-clutch automatics, and continuously variable automatic transmissions (AMT gearboxes) each use a specific type of transmission fluid.

Look at the level and condition of your transmission fluid by following these simple steps: 

Color – Most new transmission fluids should be a vivid, transparent red color. Darker red or light brown is normal but both are indicators of its age and usage. A darker brown color is a reflection that fluid needs to be changed. Black color is a bad sign which means that the fluid is burnt as a result of some transmission troubles. Your vehicle should be taken to a transmission specialist or mechanic to determine the cause of the burnt fluid, immediately.

Consistency – After some time fluid can appear to be thicker than usual. This is normal, but good transmission fluid should appear new. Not only that, transmission fluid should not contain any contaminants or particles including metal shavings. Metal shavings mean trouble and will need to be inspected right away. Foamy fluid could also be an indication that either too much fluid is present, it is overheating, or the wrong type of fluid has been added instead.

Smell – Clean fluid is mostly odorless, but if you smell something similar to burnt toast, it is cause for concern. A burnt aroma is a sign that the transmission has developed problems and needs to be serviced by a professional asap! 

If you are able to locate the Transmission Dipstick, then continue to read this article. Or else you’d have no other choice but to call an automotive repair professional who will need to check the fluid level through a plug located on the side of the transmission 

What Is An Automatic Transmission, Why Does It Need Fluid?

Automatic transmission is one of several integral systems with the gears that you shift into drive, neutral, reverse, and park as many times a day. Keeping your transmission humming smoothly depends on your transmission’s health and it’s – you guessed it – fluid! Just as your engine uses oil to lubricate and cool its internals, automatic transmissions use specially designed transmission fluid for the same purpose. This is neither as difficult, as time-consuming, nor as costly as you may think. 

Checking Your Transmission Fluid

Locate the Transmission Dipstick

Identify the transmission dipstick, which can be found under the hood, in the engine compartment. 

Make sure you are finding the transmission dipstick and not the engine-oil dipstick

The transmission dipstick is usually placed 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. 

A lot of newer cars are not equipped with transmission dipsticks, in which 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.

This is also because a lot of modern vehicles use a sealed-for-life transmission that never requires checking or fluid replacement—so they don’t have a dipstick. 

If your vehicle does have a transmission dipstick, check the level. 

Check the Level on The Dipstick

With the engine warmed up, leave the car idling in park gear on a level surface. 

Pull out the dipstick, wipe it clean, place it back slowly, and then pull it back out. 

Check the fluid level by checking how high the fluid comes up on the dipstick—against the “full” and “low” or “fill” marks on the dipstick.

Fluid Condition and Color

Next, 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 reflected by the color of the fluid. 

If your fluid is healthy and good to go, 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 transmission fluid! 

Dark fluid with a burnt smell might mean that you 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 bad news, usually a result of failing to follow the recommended service interval for replacing the transmission fluid. 

All this being said, it’s not impossible that a transmission could have a premature mechanical issue, just like any other component on the vehicle.

Low Fluid?

If your fluid is low, it does most likely mean there is a leak somewhere in the system. 

Filling up the transmission fluid and then peaking 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. 

Notice your car leaving spots of reddish fluid on the ground after it’s parked? If the fluid is black, most likely it is the engine oil. If it’s water, it’s usually condensation from the air-conditioning system.

Motor Oil Stains On The Pavement Surface

If you do notice some transmission-fluid loss or observe that your transmission is using an abnormally large amount of fluid, get on the phone or meet a mechanic as soon as you can. 

Other FAQs:

Do you check your transmission fluid when it’s hot or cold?

Prepare the Vehicle If You Can Locate the Dipstick

The first thing you need to do is find a flat, level, and firm surface for your vehicle to park on. 

Set the parking brake and start the engine. Yes, your car needs to be on to check the transmission fluid. Let the car run for about 5 minutes so that it can warm up.

Some car manufacturers will recommend you turn the engine off before checking the transmission fluid, but this is not true.

Next, open the hood in the front and find the transmission dipstick.

If you have a rear-wheel drive vehicle, locate it toward the back of the engine and you should find the dipstick. On the other hand, in a front-wheel-drive vehicle, the dipstick for the transmission usually sticks out from the transaxle. 

Check the Fluid Level (When Engine Cold)

When the engine has warmed up, Pull out the dipstick once you’ve found it. The handle of the dipstick should have a red or orange ring on it.

Wipe it clean with a rag and re-insert it all the way in. Now, pull out the dipstick again and observe the markings on the stick. 

There are two marks spread out on the dipstick and are usually labeled “Cold” and “Hot”. Sometimes they may be labeled “Add” and “Full”.

Dots, notches, or lines next to each label provide a fluid level range you want to be in. 

Checking the transmission fluid level when the engine is cold is simple. Since the engine is barely warm at this point, you want the level to be somewhere in the “Cold” range.

Check the Fluid Level (When Engine Hot)

To get the correct transmission fluid level reading when the engine is hot, you will need to observe the level after normal driving (idling in the driveway is not enough). 

Usually, driving about 10 miles will do the trick (slightly less if on the highway; slightly more during the winter).

Once the engine is hot, pull out the dipstick once you’ve found it. The handle of the dipstick should have a red or orange ring on it. Wipe it clean with a rag and re-insert it all the way in. Now, pull out the dipstick again and observe the markings on the stick. 

There are two marks spread out on the dipstick and are usually labeled “Cold” and “Hot”. Sometimes they may be labeled “Add” and “Full”.

Checking the transmission fluid level when the engine is hot is simple. When you look at the measurement, you’ll want the level to be in the “Hot” range.

Be careful since the transmission fluid and engine itself will be very hot so you can easily burn yourself. 

Add Fluid if Necessary

If the fluid level was below the “Cold” range on the dipstick when the engine is cold, then you need to add more transmission fluid to the transmission.

If the fluid level was below the “Hot” range on the dipstick when the engine is hot, just add more transmission fluid to the transmission.

Make sure you choose the right transmission fluid as not all fluids will be compatible with your vehicle’s transmission. 

The ideal way to figure out which fluid to use is to check your owner’s manual.

When you’re ready to add the fluid, put a funnel in the opening of the tube and slowly pour the fluid into the funnel. Add the fluid slowly and keep looking at the fluid level until you get to the correct mark.

Do you check transmission fluid with the engine running?

Once you have located the dipstick, you can now check your fluid level:

  1. Ensuring that your vehicle is in Park or Neutral and that your parking brake is on, start running your engine. Leave the engine running for a moment as you pull out the dipstick, ensuring the engine is warm as you inspect the fluid level.
  1. Next, dip your index finger into the fluid on the dipstick, and rub it between your finger and thumb. Hopefully, what you see is some pink- or red-tinted, mostly clear liquid. notice the smell of something burning, or to particles present in the fluid. Both of these are signs that you need to change the fluid right away.
  1. Use a clean, lint-free rag to wipe the dipstick clean, re-insert it, and inspect the fluid level again. If you see some of that pinkish liquid but the fluid level does not quite reach the “full” level, use a funnel to pour a bit more transmission fluid into the tank—enough to reach that line without overfilling. 
  1. Make sure to reinsert the dipstick when you’re finished.

How do I know if my transmission fluid is low?

Signs your transmission fluid is low:

1. Noises

If your transmission is working properly, there won’t be any noise while you’re driving as it should transition smoothly. 

Not only do unusual sounds differ between brands and models but they also depend on the type of transmission. Manual transmissions often create a loud clunking or grinding noise when you shift gears, while an automatic sounds like it’s whining or humming.

Noises could reflect that the fluid level is getting low, but you most likely won’t be able to diagnose the problem yourself, so have the issue checked out by a certified technician promptly to prevent labor-intensive repairs.

2. Burning Smell

Any foul smell coming from your car means that there are several reasons that a burning smell comes from your car and one of those is the occurrence of overheated transmission fluid. This sign can be a sign of a low fluid level.

Higher friction between components occurs when a transmission is too heated up which inevitably causes gunk to build up and corrode the transmission.

If left in this crappy condition, the transmission will ultimately damage itself enough to become non-functional.

3. Transmission Leaks

Your car’s transmission fluid is its only source of lubrication and acts as a cleaning and conditioning agent for the surrounding transmission seals. 

Leaks are a common symptom of transmission problems, so if you notice a red fluid underneath your vehicle, then it almost certainly lost transmission fluid.

have the transmission inspected and it could be an easy swap of a failed gasket or hose. However, without service, a transmission that is leaking fluid will only continue to fester as the fluid level drops.

4. Slipping Gears

A healthy transmission will transfer between gears smoothly and there won’t be any slippage. 

Low fluid levels can make gears miss, which will result in a grinding sensation. 

The occasionally slipped gear might seem like a small issue at first but have the transmission looked at when this occurs to avoid costly repairs in the future.

Do You Leave the Car Running When Adding Transmission Fluid?

Your car’s engine should be on when you add fluid to the transmission. 

Make sure you should have the transmission in park and the handbrake activated for safety. Inspect the owner’s manual for instructions on selecting the correct transmission fluid for your vehicle.

How Long Should I Let My Car Run Before Checking the Transmission Fluid?

Let it run for about 5 minutes so that it can warm up. Some car manufacturers will recommend you turn the engine off before inspecting the transmission fluid, but most don’t recommend this.

How Often Should You Check Transmission Fluid?

Transmission fluid checks must be performed every 30,000 miles and transmission fluid levels should be inspected, at least every six months. Now that you know how often to inspect your transmission fluid and the steps on how to do so, you’re one step closer to extending the life of your transmission!

Final Tips for Fixing the Transmission Fluid

For optimal performance, you will want to utilize the type specified in your owner’s manual. Double-check this before purchasing the new fluid.

If you identify the signs that your fluid needs changing, and if you’ve never done that before, your best bet may be to bring your precious car to a mechanic to learn from. 

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