Low Transmission Fluid: Symptoms and Possible Causes

Low Transmission Fluid: Symptoms and Possible Causes

There’s nothing worse than taking your car out for a drive and seeing a puddle of liquid left behind in the driveway as you pull out. Or maybe you’re trying to start your car, and the transmission just won’t engage, no matter what you do. These are two very noticeable symptoms of low transmission fluid, a fairly common but incredibly important problem to address.

In this article, we will be discussing why transmission fluid is so important to your car’s functioning and giving you the main signs and symptoms that your vehicle is experiencing low transmission fluid. We’ll also be giving you some tips on checking your transmission fluid at home and some possible causes behind low transmission fluid.

What Is Transmission Fluid and Why Is It Important?

Transmission fluid is a reddish-colored liquid that is added into both manual and automatic cars in order to cool the internal parts of the engine and keep them lubricated. In automatic cars, transmission fluid is also used as part of the hydraulic pressure system that allows your car to be able to brake.

Without enough transmission fluid in your vehicle, it can be hard for the internal areas of your car’s transmission to function properly, which will in turn cause a number of dangerous issues, such as the car not driving properly or not braking, and will eventually damage your transmission and engine irreparably if not dealt with.

Signs and Symptoms That You Have Low Transmission Fluid

If you are experiencing any of the signs and symptoms below, it is very possible that low transmission fluid is causing your car’s issues.

Burning Smell or Overheating

A burning smell will typically occur with an overheated engine, which is a direct result of your transmission not having enough fluid to cool itself down and function properly. This leads to a buildup of corrosion between internal components of your transmission, high heat, and friction that causes the burning smell.

If you do experience a strong burning smell while driving, you should head straight to the nearest mechanic, as it is often quite dangerous to drive your car in that condition. Allowing your car to overheat for too long runs the risk of melting the internal components and severely damaging your vehicle.

Clunking Noises

Any strange noises, such as clunking, grinding, humming, or whining, could be an indication of low transmission fluid. These noises are caused by internal parts of your transmission rubbing together and hitting each other in ways they shouldn’t; a normally function transmission is completely silent thanks to the liquid lubricating these internal components.

Vehicle Lurching, Shuddering, or Shaking

If your vehicle lurches when you attempt to drive it, this could be an indicator that there is not enough transmission fluid available to keep your car running smoothly.

Similarly, if you experience shuddering or shaking while driving your car, this may indicate that the internal components are creating friction with each other and are not operating as smoothly as they need to.

Transmission Failure

If your transmission won’t engage and you are experiencing any of the other symptoms on this list, it is a good sign that your transmission is failing. This may require your transmission to be rebuilt or repaired, something which can be quite costly depending on the damage done.

Difficulty Shifting Gears

Difficulty in shifting gears or in accelerating while driving may be an indicator of low transmission fluid. This is most often caused by the fact that the gears will not have enough fluid lubricating them, allowing them to move smoothly, or because of transmission overheating and melting the gears due to lack of fluid.

Liquid Puddles Underneath Car

Liquid puddles or drips that appear underneath your car are a strong indicator of a transmission fluid leak. These puddles will look dark red or brown in color and may give off a slightly burnt smell. If you are noticing a large amount of liquid appearing under your car, this is a sign that you need to seek help for a leak as soon as possible.

Check Engine Light

More often than not, your check engine light will turn on once the system detects an issue with your transmission or transmission fluid levels. However, it can be hard to determine what exactly the check engine light is indicating; if partnered with any of the other symptoms on our list, there is a good chance that you are experiencing low transmission fluid.

To stay on the safe side, you can invest in an OBD2 scanner to read the check engine code or take your vehicle to a professional to diagnose the issue.

What Causes Low Transmission Fluid?

There could be several possible causes for low transmission fluid, but the most commonly experience one is a leak somewhere in the transmission system. This leak is likely to be found in the transmission pan or caused by a gasket failure, but it may also be caused by a fluid line crack (this will occur in the lines that connect the transmission to the radiator or the cooler) or an axle seal failure.

The only way to evaluate the true cause of your low transmission fluid is to take your car to a professional and have the issue properly diagnosed.

How to Check Your Transmission Fluid

mechanic draining transmission fluid

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms that we discussed above, you may want to do a quick check on your transmission fluid to determine its level. To do this, you will need to check your vehicle’s owner’s manual to figure out if your transmission fluid has a built-in dipstick and can be checked by you.

If your vehicle does not have a dipstick to check the transmission fluid levels, you will most likely need to take it to a professional to be evaluated.

To check your transmission fluid with a dipstick, ensure that your car is parked on a flat, level surface. Start your car to warm up the transmission and then leave it in park while you pop the hood and locate the transmission fluid dipstick.

Once located, pull the dipstick out and wipe it off with a clean rag. Dip it all the way back into the transmission fluid and then pull it out again. Look at the dipstick closely to find the fluid indicators on the stick and then compare those to the level of fluid that made it onto the stick. This should tell you whether you are doing ok with transmission fluid or if you need to add more.

Adding More Transmission Fluid

If you have determined that your car does need more transmission fluid, you can purchase the correct type of fluid according to your vehicle owner’s manual. Remove the dipstick from the filler tube and place a funnel over it to help you guide the liquid in before filling up the transmission fluid according to your car’s specifications.

Be sure to check underneath your car the day after filling the transmission fluid to determine if there is a fresh puddle of liquid there. If there is, you are likely dealing with a transmission fluid leak that needs to be fixed or the fluid levels will keep getting low, no matter how much you refill them.

How Long Does Transmission Fluid Last Between Changes?

How long your transmission fluid lasts depends on the type of car you are driving, the type of transmission fluid you are using, and how often you drive your car. Some manufacturers of transmission fluid may claim that their transmission fluid is good for a lifetime, while some may recommend changes every 50,000 or 100,000 miles.

In most cases, however, it is recommended to get a change every 30,000 to 60,000 miles. When taking your car for its regular tune up, be sure to ask the mechanic whether or not you need your transmission fluid changed and if they can check the levels for you, as this will likely save you stress in the future by catching issues before they become worse.

Can You Change Transmission Fluid at Home?

If you are wanting to completely change out the transmission fluid in your car, it is unlikely that you will be able to do this from your home. A full transmission change out requires your vehicle to be raised up high enough for you to get underneath and drain the fluid pan.

Unless you are semi-professional yourself and have the correct mechanic tools at your disposal, it is a better idea to consult a professional for a full transmission fluid change.

Can You Continue to Drive With Low Transmission Fluid?

It may be possible to continue driving a small amount when you have low transmission fluid, but this is not wise or recommended. In most cars, low transmission fluid will cause trouble with braking, shifting gears, and a shuddering sensation that can be incredibly dangerous to drive with.

Additionally, if you continue to drive on low transmission fluid long enough, you may experience overheating, which can melt the internal components of your transmission and require a more expensive repair in the long run.

As soon as you begin to experience symptoms of low transmission fluid, it is a good idea to stop driving your car or immediately drive it to the nearest professional in order to get the problem diagnosed and fixed before any lasting damage occurs.

When to See a Professional About Low Transmission Fluid

For most people, as soon as you start to experience the symptoms of low transmission fluid, you should consult the opinion of a professional as soon as possible. This is especially important if you are experiencing any kind of burning smell or suspect that your engine is overheating, as this can lead to severe damage if left untreated for any amount of time.

Additionally, if you believe you have a leak somewhere that is causing your low transmission fluid, or you just want a complete change out of fluid, you will likely need to see a professional in order to get this done.

Low Transmission Fluid Repair Cost

How much it will cost to repair your low transmission problems depends heavily on the root cause of the issue. If there is a leak causing your low transmission fluid, you can expect to pay between $100 and $1,000 depending on the severity and the parts that need to be replaced.

For small leaks or repairs, you will be paying on the lower end of this estimate. Higher costs come into play when you have a severely damaged transmission, need multiple parts replaced, or have a severe leak that will take a considerable amount of labor to properly repair.

For a basic transmission fluid change out, you can expect to pay anywhere between $80 and $250. Keep in mind that the higher prices for repairs are typically estimated at dealerships, with independent, local mechanics offering their services in a most cost-effective range.

Keeping Your Car Running Smoothly

Transmission fluid is an integral part of your car’s ability to function, and signs of low transmission fluid are not to be ignored. Without the proper amount of transmission fluid in your car, it is highly likely that you will experience trouble when driving or have a transmission that begins to overheat, causing severe damage to your vehicle.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of low transmission fluid that we discussed above, it is recommended to take your vehicle to the closest mechanic as soon as possible in order to repair any issues before they become major.

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