How often should transmission fluid be changed?
In the past, auto manufacturers typically specified transmission service at around 25-30k miles. More recently they’re specifying 50k-100k or more. Some even say the fluid is good for the lifetime of the car. Which makes me wonder how long they expect their cars to last, but I digress. Some don’t specify a mileage and instead rely on a maintenance minder system.
Having recently had an early transmission failure on vehicle with 71k miles (serviced at 55k as per the M.M.) I decided to investigate. After much research and speaking with well established transmission shop owners, I can safely conclude that the newer longer trans service intervals are bullshit. Probably some marketing crap to impress us with how far their cars can go between service.
Although modern transmissions are much more sophisticated than those of yesteryear, some basic principles remain the same. There are still gears and often a torque converter and these parts need lubrication, cooling and clean fluid of the right viscosity to operate. Just as always.
Transmission fluid may be better than it was, but the machine still gets hot and fluid still breaks down. When is does, it loses viscosity so you’ll have similar issues as leaving oil in an engine too long. Trans fluid is also hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water further degrading the fluid and possibly leading to corrosion.
Transmission service intervals of 25k to 30k are still a good idea no matter what the manufacturer states. This is especially true if you drive in a climate that is very hot and/or humid. Do it more often if you tow or race. Most cars have a trans fluid drain plug making fluid changes as easy as changing your engine’s oil. At <$20/gallon for fluid vs $2k-$7k for a transmission it’s an easy choice.
For most cars there’s several types of transmission services to consider:
Standard Drain and Fill – If you can change your own oil you can probably do your own trans fluid too. (check your manuals!) Unlike an oil change, a D&F only changes out some of the fluid as much of it is still in the torque converter. If you’re doing it every 25k-30k this is enough to replenish. If you’ve gone a bit far since the last service you can do a few D&F’s over the course of a few miles.
Most shops don’t charge much for this service, but some take a short-cut and just pump the old fluid out the dipstick tube. It’s better than nothing but any debris that might be in the pan or on the drain plug magnet is not getting removed. In time, the drain plug will self-weld to the pan, making future service impossible! So be sure to ask how they do it.
Machine Flush – Typically this is done with a machine that is connected in-line with a trans cooler line. With the vehicle running, the transmissions pump empties the old fluid into the machine while fresh fluid is automatically added. This will cost more, but if the trans has been somewhat neglected this is a sure way to get it all. For cars without a drain plug this is a less messy than dropping the pan and much more thorough than just pumping the old stuff out. But not all cars have external coolers, so this may not be an option or you might have to go to a shop with model specific equipment.
Chemical Flush – I’m not sure I believe in these. If you’ve been doing D&F’s all along you won’t need this service. If you’re a bit past due then do several D&F’s or a machine flush. But if the trans is old and very neglected a chemical flush may actually aggravate old seals and make it fail sooner.
Filter change – Some transmissions have internal filters that should be changed. It usually involves removing the bottom pan and gets a bit messy without the right equipment. Many cars do not need this service and don’t even have a drain pan. Debris is collected by a magnet inside the drain plug where it’s removed during a basic D&F.
The appearance of the fluid on the dipstick isn’t a reliable indicator of it’s condition. The only foolproof way to check is with a D&F and inspect the fluid for color, viscosity and debris. It’s red when new and turns dark red as it’s used. If it’s brownish but still detectable as red, you are due for a change. If it’s black you’re overdue. A small amount of very fine particles on the magnet or in the pan is normal wear. Chunks or slivers that resemble bits of cat litter or larger are not what you want to see, especially in larger quantities.
Milky streaks in the fluid indicate water and that fluid could be changed more often. You might see this on vehicles not frequently driven and especially ones doing short runs in cool damp climates. They never get hot enough to evaporate the moisture and the fluid absorbs it anyway. So regardless of mileage, 3 years max in a dry desert climate. Less in humid climates.
The fluid in this vehicle appeared red and smelled normal on the dipstick. But once drained it was very dark and had a lot of fine particles stuck to the magnet. Some particles are normal, but this vehicle had it’s transmission serviced only 16k miles ago. It was diagnosed as a complete failure by the dealer at only 71k. The excess particles and fouled fluid was possibly due to a materials defect in the transmission. I’ll have more on this saga later.
If you want to do a mid-change fluid condition check, use a Mighty-Vac or similar tool to extract a small amount if fluid from the dipstick tube. You can better gauge the fluids condition but it might not show if debris is present. If you want to take it a step further, there are labs that do fluid analysis and can tell you how much dissolved metals are present, amongst other things.
Also consider investing in a code scanner and periodically check for pending codes (and not just ones related to transmission solenoids!). I’ve used (and like) the Innova brand. The Nexpeak NX501 looks promising, maybe more on those later. The following cat scan was performed free of charge by the resident rodent control unit.