Routine checks of your vehicle’s automatic transmission and manual transmissions oil level and condition are good vehicle maintenance tips to follow to ensure your vehicles transmission continues to work as designed. Every vehicle, including front-wheel drive vehicles, may have different methods and steps required when checking transmission oil levels and conditions.
Many new vehicles do not have transmission dipsticks, and some are completely sealed with no dipstick at all to check the transmission fluid. The type of transmission will dictate the steps you need to follow.
This post covers how to check the condition and level of the transmission oil yourself and also what to do if your transmission oil is low or appears to need to be changed. Always check your vehicle’s service manual, before checking the level of transmission oil as well as condition.
5 Simple Steps to Checking Fluid Level Yourself
Vehicle owners can check transmission fluid levels themselves on those vehicles with a dipstick. Consult your service manual to confirm the proper method of checking the fluid level, the location of the dipstick, whether the engine should be running or shut off, hot or cold, and how much transmission oil to add if it is low.
NOTE: If you do add transmission oil, always ensure the recommended transmission oil for your vehicle is used. Using the incorrect oil could damage the transmission. The steps to check my transmission fluid are easy and straightforward.
1. Open the hood
Before opening the hood, consult your car service manual for instructions. Ensure that your car is parked on a level surface for accurate measuring. Pop the hood and locate the dipstick. Ensure that you have a clean cloth available and wear protective gloves to avoid oil contaminating your hands. Start the engine if required to bring it to normal operating temperature.
2. Find the dipstick
In most cases finding the transmission fluid dipstick is pretty straight forward on vehicles with dipsticks. The dipstick may be labeled, “Transmission” and/or maybe a different color to differentiate from the engine oil dipstick. If you cannot find the dipstick, the service manual will provide information on the location. In many modern vehicles, the transmission may be sealed or have ports on the side for checking levels.
3. Pull out the dipstick
Once you have located the dipstick, have a clean rag available and remove the dipstick to check your transmission fluid. In some cases, there may be a locking device or latch that must first be opened. Wipe the dipstick with the clean rage removing all oil from the dipstick to avoid misreading the level. Note the markings on the dipstick for proper levels.
4. Re-insert and pull it out again
Insert the clean dipstick fully into the tube, count to five, and remove the dipstick carefully and hold the dipstick level while observing the level of oil in your transmission. Follow the instructions in your service manual. Every vehicle may have different requirements. Some require the engine to be at normal operating temperature and running while others the engine should be turned off. Always park on a level surface.
5. Checking the level
When the dipstick is removed, the oil will remain on the dipstick. Note the height of the oil and compare it to markings on the dipstick. Markings usually indicate a normal range, as well as high and low markings. Also, note the color and smell of the oil. Dark oil or a burnt smell often indicates it is time to have your transmission oil changed.
Tip: Check this post If your transmission is slipping.
What happens If I cannot find the dipstick?
If you cannot find the dipstick, consult the vehicles service manual for instructions. Some are difficult to locate while many new vehicles do not have transmission dipsticks and are sealed. You may need a hoist to reach ports on the side of the transmission to check the oil. A mechanic with access to the appropriate equipment, including hoist and torque wrench, to check fluid levels. If you find it difficult to find the dipstick on your automatic transmission, we recommend getting an appointment.
How do I know what is the appropriate level?
After fully inserting the dipstick and removing it, note the level of oil on the dipstick relative to the markings on the dipstick. There will be high and low markings, some with cold and hot markings, as well as ranges that are considered satisfactory.
Your service manual provides more detail and how to interpret the levels for your specific vehicle. If you need to add some ATF, look into the Quaker State products. They provide outstanding friction performance, and protection for your transmission.
What to do if the transmission fluid is low?
Low levels of transmission fluid can be harmful to your transmission, especially at high speeds or pulling heavy loads. Follow the instructions in your service manual for your vehicle. Normally the fluid in your transmission should be at normal levels at all time. If you find that the fluid is low, most likely there is a leak.
NOTE: it is very important to add the correct type of automatic transmission fluid for your vehicle to avoid damage to the transmission. Brake fluids are sometimes confused with transmission fluid. They are not the same and should not be used.
Overfilling the transmission can also cause damage to the transmission. It can be difficult to remove excess oil, some cars require a special torque wrench to do so. Try not to use Quaker State transmission fluid in vehicle’s that require Type-F fluids, and make sure you read the owners manual.
How do I know if it is in good condition?
Transmission fluids in good condition should be pink in color. The oil that is beginning to deteriorate due to overheating and use will begin to look dark with a slight pinkish color. Transmission oil that is dark in color should be changed before it damages the transmission.
Oil in sealed transmissions should also be checked. Also, if shifting gears appear to be sluggish or not at all, check your transmission oil and have it serviced. If in doubt about the oil diagnosis of the transmission fluid, have it checked by a professional. Transmission repair can be expensive if you delay maintenance.
If you notice black particles or deposits on the cloth when you check the transmission fluid on your vehicle, consider getting an appointment with a local repair shop. Also, if you find that the fluids are low and you are trying to add automatic transmission fluid yourself, do not overfill and be careful because the engine might be hot.
Do I need to check it when the engine is hot or cold?
The service manual indicates whether the engine should be hot or cold and whether it should be running when you check the transmission level. Instructions can also be found on the transmission dipstick of some vehicles. The dipstick may also indicate a level for checking the transmission oil when the engine is cold. However, most vehicles should be checked while hot. If you need extra fluids, Aamco and Quaker State are know to carry good transmission fluid products that you can purchase on Amazon.
Tip: Check our best 0w-20 synthetic oil guide if you need to change oil in your car.
Wrapping It Up
Park your vehicle on a level spot, use clean rags to wipe the dipstick, check your owners manual or service manual for dipstick location and measuring instructions. Check automatic transmission fluid levels regularly. Change the oil if it is beginning to darken or smells burned to avoid damage to the transmission. Always use the recommended car transmission oil for your vehicle and never overfill the transmission with oil.
Check the car’s oil and change the oil of your engine according to service manual guidelines. Ask your mechanic to check your transmission fluid at the same time the engine oil and filter are serviced, particularly for a sealed transmission. Customer testimonials may also help to select a skilled transmission mechanic. We recommend checking transmission fluid according to the owners manual indications.
Many drivers prefer to use ANAC oil diagnosis to have their automatic transmission fluid ATF analyzed. This report is useful to understand the condition of the transmission fluid as well as adding confidence to value your trade. These reports can be useful to apply for financing and also purchasing certified preowned vehicles. They help to establish the condition of your car and its value.