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The present-day automatic transmission is a real mechanical marvel. Starting from two-speed devices, it has turned into 6 and 7-speeds for smooth & improved driving performance and for making it economical as well. As a result, Automatic transmission fluid (ATF) has a very long history that runs parallel to the history of automatic transmission technology.
A vast majority of today’s car productions rely on the automatic transmission system for ease and convenience. This article aims to throw some light on the important facts relating to automatic transmission fluid.
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What is automatic transmission fluid?
Also known as ATF, Automatic transmission fluid is mainly lubrication oil used in automatic gearboxes and power steering systems of cars and trucks. It is a mixture of several chemical compounds and a large number additive. It is also used in the 4WD system and also in some modern manual transmissions. There are several types of automatic transmission fluid and the type to be used is specified by the directive of the vehicle manufacturer.
What does the automatic transmission fluid do?
Automatic transmission fluid helps to lubricate the transmission components of a car for optimal performance. It also serves the following functions
- It acts as a hydraulic fluid
- Maintain correct frictional requirement
- Protect the gears and metal surfaces
- Increase rotational speed
- Condition the gaskets
- Acts as a coolant
Change of gears is done by pressurized fluid in automatic transmission. The computer sends a signal to the solenoid that directs the fluid through a series of valves for squeezing the clutch and engaging the right gear. Since the clutch plates are made of metal, there should be seamless engagement and disengagement for the best driving experience.
The automatic transmission fluid makes the process smooth and also forms a durable fluid film for preventing metal-to-metal contact. This helps to reduce the wear and tear. It also improves the cooling function and brings down the operating temperature.
What does transmission fluid look like?
It looks like the other fluids in the vehicle and, typically colored red or green for distinguishing from the motor oil.
Different types of Transmission fluid
Transmission fluids are mainly of three types. They differ in constituents and purposes. Each auto transmission vehicle has a specified fluid that is compatible with the system of the vehicle. All of these contain hazardous chemicals.
- Automatic Transmission Fluid: This is designed for vehicles with an automatic transmission system. It is also compatible with some of the current manual car models. It helps to lubricate gears and also improves valve operation.
- Manual Transmission Fluid: It is made from a variety of oils like motor oil, heavier hypoid gear oil, and meant for use in the manual cars.
- Synthetic Transmission Fluid: Synthetic transmission fluid is made from a series of chemical reactions under controlled pressure and temperature. The car manufacturers recommend this based on the specific need of the models.
There is also another type called continuously variable transmission (CVT) fluid. It is a combination of full synthetic premium base oil, unique anti-wear additives, and friction modifiers. It is designed for advanced variable transmission vehicles.
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- Enhanced friction durability for smooth transmission performance
- Meets DEXRON-III H requirements and satisfies requirements of DEXRON, DEXRON-III, IIE and II
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- High Film Strength Helps to Dramatically Reduce Heat and Wear
- Automatic Transmissions Generate a Great Deal of Heat and Depend on Transmission Fluid for Cooling and Protection
- Extraordinary protection
- Excellent for high performance transmissions
What color is automatic transmission fluid should be?
The automatic transmission combines the computer processors, electrical, hydraulic, and mechanical systems of the vehicle. The automatic transmission fluid is a critical component of the combined system. It is responsible for coordinating everything and also lets one have smooth and efficient driving. So, it is of utmost importance to know if the automatic transmission fluid is okay.
The scent is also a very good indicator of transmission status. In case the automatic transmission fluid smells somewhat sweet or maybe like petroleum, you are on the safer side. But, if that gives out a burning smell that could be due to overheating.
Moreover, the automatic transmission fluid should not be very thick and sluggish. When it is thick it is an indication of improper flow through the transmission and the vehicle needs a fluid flush.
Checking the color of the automatic transmission fluid in the vehicle can help to check if there is any existing transmission problem. It further indicates the overall health of transmission.
The color of the automatic transmission fluid in your car is also very important. It can help in diagnosing a transmission problem and further give you an indication of the overall health of your transmission. For this, one has to check the warm fluid from running transmission system.
Open the hood of the vehicle, locate the dipstick, pull it out of the filler tube and check the color of the fluid. Sometimes it may be difficult to check the color of the auto transmission fluid at the end of the dipstick. You must place a drop or two of the fluid on a white surface. This will give a more accurate color reading.
The following is the ATF color chart and the thumb rule for subsequent action:
- The fluid is red and transparent: It indicates that the automatic transmission fluid is new or as good as fresh. Maintaining such color is likely to avert transmission problems.
- The fluid appears light brown & translucent: This indicates that the automatic transmission fluid is in good condition. Only check if there is any leakage. Maintaining this level and follow the service conditions as per the manual for optimum performance.
- The fluid is dark brown and opaque: This indicates fluid full of dirt resulting in improper and inadequate lubrication. This is likely to entail excessive wear and tear of the vehicle parts and total transmission failure. This is to be addressed immediately change of transmission fluid and the filter, or by complete flushing of the transmission system.
- The fluid is extremely dark brown or black: This happens when the auto transmission fluid is old, dirty, contaminated, and oxidized. In most of the cases, this is associated with a burnt smell. Such things generally happen when there is some internal damage. Immediate serious action is needed. Try fluid changing & flushing. In case of no improvement opt for transmission rebuilding.
- The fluid looks light pink: Complete failure is almost certain. One must avoid coming to this stage by checking the automatic transmission fluid regularly and taking necessary corrective actions. Unfortunately, there is no action other than rebuilding or replacing the transmission that could be thought of.
Which one to opt for synthetic or traditional transmission fluid?
Traditional automatic transmission fluid is crude oil with re-shaped hydrocarbons for meeting the requirements of the different vehicles. It is thin, less viscous. This contains additives for increased lubrication and reduction of friction. Manufactured through a series of chemical reaction synthetic automatic transmission fluid is less prone to oxidation or breaking down at higher temperatures. As such, this does not thin out easily.
Vehicle manufacturers are currently using another variety of transmission fluid. This called continuously variable transmission (CVT) fluid. Most of these oils use synthetic premium base oil as the core component and also contains anti-wear additives and friction modifiers. This gives good performance and also improves the economy. One must consult the manual of the vehicle for choosing the right transmission fluid.
Most of the times people try to compare synthetic transmission oil versus regular engine oil erroneously. The engine or motor oil is meant for the engine of the vehicle and is designed to meet the combustion requirements. And, the automatic transmission fluid takes care of the transmission system only. It lubricates the power steering, gearbox and others for minimizing friction and wear & tear.
How to put transmission fluid?
One fine morning the car may hesitate to start. In such cases, the first thing that strikes is that there must be something wrong with the car. Before pressing the panic button and calling a mechanic it is prudent to check the transmission oil level. In most of the cases, the cause of the problem lies there.
Putting transmission fluid in the system becomes easy and involves two stages: checking the level, and filling the fluid. The first thing is to check the manual. This will tell about the type of fluid required and the frequency of filling.
Knowing how to top off transmission fluid saves time and cost. It is important that the fluid reading is taken when the transmission is on. Let the transmission running. This will bring the fluid temperature to normal working condition. Open the hood and find the transmission dipstick. Pull it out and clean with a rug. Now dip it again, lift out, and take the reading. Do not forget to note the ‘hot’ mark on the stick.
Next, fill the transmission system slowly with the fluid, taking care not overfill. Run the fluid through the system by pressing the brake and check the level again. Put the dipstick tight in the hole if the reading is okay.
How to dispose of transmission fluid?
It is needed to change the transmission fluid at a regular interval. But this interval may exceed 100,000 miles for a new vehicle. If one does not hold a new car for a long period, changing the transmission fluid may not be necessary. But in case one owns a used car, changing transmission fluid is beneficial for the extended overall health of the vehicle.
It is always best to adhere to the recommended service interval in the manual of the vehicle. This is because the service interval may range from 30,000 to 100,000 miles. Some of the models with automatic gearboxes have a sealed and shut transmission system. In such cases, the transmission fluid is meant to last for the lifetime of the vehicle.
Since old transmission fluid can be recycled, proper disposition of transmission fluid has many more benefits than improving the function of the transmission system. All transmission fluids have some harmful components like heavy metals and lead. It should never be dumped on the grass, or down the drain, or anywhere else in the open.
This needs to be disposed of in a manner that protects health and the environment as well. One can follow the following steps for the efficient disposal of transmission fluid.
- Collection of old fluid: One must use a large drain pan that can hold up to 2 gallons of the fluid. It will ensure the collection of all fluid from the transmission flush.
- Transfer of the old fluid from drain pan to a container: This should be done using a funnel to avoid spillage of the transmission fluid. The fluid can be collected in a plastic bottle or anything with a lid that can be sealed tight. As most of the collection facilities do not accept mixed fluid, the container should be clean and free from any other liquid.
- Find a fluid collection site: Check with the local authorities and find out a household hazardous-waste acceptance center near your place. Also check, if the auto parts stores in the near vicinity accept old fluid. It is likely to be so free of cost because they can earn money by selling the old fluid to the recycling center.
- Drop off the old fluid for disposal: Try to locate if there is any waste management organization that will come and pick the old transmission fluid. Also, make sure that the seals of the containers quite tight for preventing leakage during transportation.
Why recycle the transmission fluid?
Your transmission fluid may constitute petroleum products or it can be made from synthetic materials. No matter what is the case it contains lubricants and additives like anti-foaming agents, anti-rust agents, heavy metals, lead, etc for protection and smooth functioning of the engine. All of these are hazardous chemicals.
The crux of the situation is that the transmission fluid is good for your vehicle but can cause serious damage to life and nature. Moreover, the transmission fluid is also extremely inflammable. As such, it should not be disposed of in the trash and needs intentional disposition and recycling to make the earth greener.
Recycling of the old transmission fluid and getting a new fluid is possible. Burning of the old fluid for energy generation is another alternative. Although this cannot be called true recycling; but this is better than land-filling!
Where to recycle transmission fluid?
This is a very big question and needs to be answered. One can approach the household hazardous waste facility nearby. These organizations have special skills to handle dangerous substances that cannot be thrown as such. One should check what they accept. This is likely to differ from one place to another. Some of these facilities charge fees and others have special polices. Once you hand over the old transmission fluid to them your headache is over.
Why go for fluid additives?
Both new and used cars are not immune to the transmission problems. Remember that there could be several different things that can seriously affect the performance of your vehicle. Only investing in the right product can deliver you a smooth and enjoyable drive. The transmission fluid additive is one such thing.
Visit any auto parts stores and you are sure to find different types of fluid additives. Designed with a fast-acting formula, the present-day fluid additives can remove harmful deposits and restoration transmission performance at once.
These are the “mechanic-in-the-bottle” and can deliver a world of difference in performance by resolving many transmission related issues. This makes finding the best transmission fluid additive an absolute necessity. A large number of transmission fluid additive brands are available in the market. These perform the following functions.
- Prevents the loss of transmission fluid: Drop in the fluid volume may result in rough shifting and slipping. Adding fluid additives can address such leakage problem before it goes out of hands and needs costly repair or replacement.
- Eliminate foaming: Foaming is a common problem in transmission fluid as it flows through the transmission system. The additives make the transmission fluid more stable and reduce foaming to a great extent.
- Prevents impurity formation: Transmission fluids are likely to be contaminated with time. Thus, the fluid becomes thick and sluggish entailing a decrease in the lubrication property. The varnish is the worst culprit for this. It goes into the fluid and can clog many parts of the transmission system. Adding fluid additives into the transmission fluid helps to arrest such impurities and ensures the free flow of the fluid.
- Reduces vibration and noise: The seasoned drivers are tuned to the normal sound of the car engine. They can tell when something unusual happens under the hood. If there is a strange and loud noise, that is a sign of strained transmission. In most of the cases, it accompanies vibration. These are never to be ignored. The addition of quality fluid additives helps to fix such issues.
- Reduces wear and tear: The gear and other transmission components go through wear and tear over time. This is true for both new and used vehicles. Preventing wear and tear is very important for any vehicle, especially for those are driven in extreme weather and road conditions. Adding fluid additives helps to retard the process
- Gives a prolonged life: Adding fluid additives to the transmission fluid is a proactive move. This lets you do preventive maintenance and helps to rejuvenate and protect the transmission system. Using the right additive can control the operating temperature and prevent overheating. This ultimately adds many years to the vehicle.
- Improves shifting
- Extends fluid life
Different types of transmission fluid additives
There are four types of fluid additives for different transmission systems.
- Automatic transmission additives: These additives are made to form a layer of coating on the metal parts for protecting those from temperature variation and corrosion. These also clean the parts of the transmission system and help deposit elimination. These are thinner than the manual transmission additives.
- Manual transmission additives: Loaded with two shafts system the manual gears tend to generate more heat and friction. As such these additives are made with high viscosity and high heat resistant properties to assist smooth functioning of the transmission system.
- Universal additives: This works well for both automatic and manual transmission systems. Using this is a great option when one has vehicles with different transmission systems. These are stable and do not change their chemical properties. This also prevents overheating.
- CVT additives: It is a special formulation designed for single-speed transmission. The Continuous Variable Transmission systems are sophisticated and involve huge repairing costs. This additive is made keeping this in mind.
You can use the one that is compatible with your vehicle transmission system. Mind that using additives cannot be a permanent solution for a damaged system.
What happens if I accidentally put transmission fluid in my oil?
As because the transmission fluid is colored red, the chances of getting it mixed with the oil are very remote. However, an accident is an accident and it may happen anytime with anyone.
No one uses transmission fluid equal to whole engine capacity. So, its amount must be limited to a quart or two. Never drive the vehicle with such a mix. You run the risk of wearing out the bearings and the cylinder walls. Drain out the whole thing immediately and have a fresh fill. This will keep you safe.
Can I add the Transmission fluid conditioner myself?
Yes. You can do it DIY following the instructions on the container. Just warm up the engine before you add the conditioner and make sure that you are adding a sufficient quantity. Also, go for a drive after you have completed the process. This will allow you to test the gears.
What transmission fluid is in my car?
Transmission fluid is important. One should use whatever is in the car. It is always better to refer to the user’s manual for this.
Although it is vital to take care of the transmission system of the vehicle, it is more than often neglected. Now that you have reached these lines, you have acquired some insights about automatic transmission fluid. Follow these for the best performance.
Last update on 2021-08-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API