Automatic Transmission Maintenance Tips

It’s 7 A.M. in the middle of winter, and your SUV is a few inches deep in snow. You barely drive out of the seemingly innocent white powder before realizing your vehicle is not shifting correctly. Not a great observation on your way to work. Between your mortgage payment, uncertain professional career, and unexpected recent expenses, the last thing you want is an unwelcomed transmission issue. You then wonder if there’s anything you could have done to prevent this transmission issue from coming up at the worst possible time. Luckily, there are some things to keep in mind to elongate the life of your transmission. Many of the suggestions below discuss the “DO NOT” items, while others identify the “DO THIS” recommendations.

To prevent premature failure of an automatic transmission, we suggest the 10 Transmission Commandments:

1. Maintain the Cooling System

A transmission has hundreds of moving parts and generates a tremendous amount of heat. A key responsibility of transmission fluid is to manage that heat. Even though transmission fluid has become increasingly complex, even the best transmission fluids in the market needs assistance. The vehicle’s cooling system provides that help.

The radiator and/or external cooler are both designed to accept hot transmission fluid and cool it before sending it back to the transmission. Like most components in a vehicle, a cooling system should be periodically inspected and maintained. If a radiator is low on fluid, commonly known as antifreeze or coolant, it will not be able to cool the transmission fluid. This will lead to a transmission overheating.

Also, the fluid lines to and from the transmission to the radiator need to be periodically checked for leaks. A small leak over time leads to a transmission that is low on fluid. Eventually, there will not be enough fluid to manage and absorb the heat generated from the transmission and the unit will overheat.

Finally, a crack in the radiator can be disastrous for a transmission. This is a common occurrence in the Nissan Xterra, Nissan Pathfinder, and Nissan Frontier models in certain years between 2000-2010. The radiator is known to develop a crack, causing radiator coolant to enter the transmission lines. Once that coolant and water mixture enters the transmission, a major repair bill is on the horizon. The RE5R05A transmission includes a valve body requiring dealer reprogramming, and the entire job – radiator replacement included – could be north of $5,000. Avoid these types of situations and ensure your cooling system is regularly inspected and maintained.

2. Regularly Service the Transmission

Transmissions do the most complicated work of the vehicle. It only makes sense to service it at regular intervals. A transmission service should include dropping the transmission pan, completing a partial drain of the fluid, replacing the transmission filter, and replacing the gasket to the pan. Between one-third to two-thirds of the original fluid stays in the transmission because fluid from the torque converter does not come out during a drain-and-fill procedure. This is ideal for higher mileage vehicles because new fluid is introduced to the system and mixed with the old fluid, minimizing any potential shock to the transmission.

A service should generally occur every 30,000 miles. If a vehicle carries load, operates in stop-and-go traffic, or travels across dramatic elevation changes, a more frequent service internal is recommended. For lower mileage vehicles, a Power Flush is a great solution to add longevity to a transmission in the early life of your vehicle. This is not recommended for vehicles with over 100,000 miles. We suggest consulting your local transmission shop for advice on a proper maintenance schedule based on your geography and the application of your vehicle.

3. Replacing Transmission Fluid with OEM Specified and High-Grade Fluids

There are dozens of transmission fluids, formulated for the hundreds of transmissions on the road. Do not make the terrible assumption that all transmission fluids are the same and then put a generic transmission fluid in your vehicle – it will be a costly mistake! Transmission fluids have specific properties involved in temperate management, clutch engagement, and hydraulic operations, among other responsibilities. Default to the OEM specifications for a fluid type and, if anything, upgrade the fluid.

Low-grade fluids exist on the market, but they are a terrible place to save a few bucks. Upgrading to a fully synthetic fluid or even a premium synthetic is an investment that could decrease the risk of transmission failure and a sidelined vehicle. A credible general or transmission specialty shop should be able to speak intelligently on the fluid options for your vehicle.

4. Regularly Check Fluid Levels

This should be common sense: if you have a transmission leak, immediately take your vehicle to a transmission specialist or trusted general automotive shop! Also, if your vehicle has a dipstick, check the transmission fluid level every month along with the other major fluids in your vehicle, including power steering fluid, brake fluid, motor oil, radiator fluid, etc. In some cases, a transmission leak only occurs when a vehicle is moving; therefore, it is unlikely to find a puddle on your garage floor. Low fluid level is the most common preventable cause for transmission failure. Even if you have experienced our transmission fluid service, it is a good idea to check the fluid level yourself. The best transmission specialists are human and occasionally make mistakes. Take matters into your own hands and ensure your fluid level is always correct.

5. Avoid Excessive Stop-and-Go Traffic

In a prior blog, The Greatest Enemy of a Transmission: TRAFFIC, we highlight the devastating impact traffic has on a transmission. The stop-and-go traffic creates a condition where the transmission is constantly shifting in and out of low gears. Each time the transmission shifts, heat is generated while cooling is inhibited. Air intake in stand-still or slow driving conditions is constricted, preventing a radiator from cooling the engine and transmission as needed.

Elevation change and a lower concentration of oxygen in the Colorado atmosphere makes traffic even more problematic. This type of traffic is no longer limited to the 8am frenzy into urban office jobs. Anyone that has driven on I-70 into or out of the Rockies during summer camping or winter skiing season has dealt with the frustrating logjam of traffic, devastating to your sanity and your transmission.

6. Come to a Complete Stop

Drivers in a rush might reverse out of their driveway or parking spot and engage drive (D) while the vehicle is still rolling. This will wreak havoc on the gears within a transmission, not to mention the rest of the drive-train. This bad habit is characteristic of impatient drivers who will soon find themselves in a transmission repair shop. It is best to reach a complete stop and then only switch between forward and reverse gears. In Colorado, this issue becomes a widespread problem during a snowstorm when drivers get stuck in snow. To free their stuck vehicle, drivers will switch between “D” and “R” frequently to rock their vehicle into some patch of road that could provide traction for escape. Regardless of the rationale, avoid this habit to maintain the health of your transmission!

7. Maintain the Vehicle

Like a human body, major components within a vehicle impact each other. Failure to repair or maintain components within the vehicle can have adverse and unexpected consequences on the transmission. For example, a mass air flow sensor measures the air intake level and, in some cases, the temperature of the air. The sensor has a direct impact on the fuel injection system and a faulty sensor can lead to a disconnect between throttle, engine RPM, and transmission engagement. Countless transmissions have been rebuilt over the years when, in reality, the problem is a bad mass airflow sensor. On the other hand, countless transmissions have eventually become damaged due to faulty sensors that prevent optimal transmission operations.

Engine or transmission mounts are another example. These parts secure an engine and/or transmission to prevent excessive movement while operating a vehicle. Like a mass air flow sensor, many transmissions have been misdiagnosed as faulty when mounts are the culprit for hard shifts or a knocking sensation between gears. A bad mount causes a misdiagnosis in the short-run and damage to a transmission over time.

8. A Healthy Battery and Clean Electrical System Helps the Transmission

In an automatic transmission, hydraulic and mechanical stimuli traditionally controlled shifting between gears. By the 1990s, electronics began controlling the operations of transmissions. That trend has continued with the increased electrification of the transmission. Although this trend allows for improved drivability and fuel economy, modern transmissions now rely on a healthy battery and clean electrical system. Corrosion of the battery or a malfunctioning alternator can prevent a transmission from operating correctly. This is a dangerous situation, because symptoms that traditionally lead to a diagnosis of an internal transmission problem may be the result of another component such as the battery, alternator, or wiring harness. No customer or credible transmission repair shop would want to install a rebuilt or remanufactured transmission with a bill for thousands of dollars only to realize the real culprit was an electrical system that required maintenance or repair for a fraction of the price.

9. React Quickly to Small Transmission Symptoms

Transmission failure is inevitable as mileage piles onto a vehicle. Even if a perfect maintenance schedule is adhered to, high mileage will eventually take its toll on components made of rubber, gaskets, seals, and clutches. These are often categorized as “soft parts.” Recognizing a problem exists comes via inspection of the fluid, appearance of a leak, feeling a vibration, or hearing an unfamiliar noise. In some cases, this noise can sound like a howl or whine. It is common for the symptom to be intermittent and change based on the temperature of the transmission. If the vehicle is shifting as expected but shows one of these symptoms, one would expect the major hard parts to be intact. Yet, in these situations, certain hard parts may be at the end of their lives. Also, don’t play Dr. Transmission and assume additives to reverse slipping or shuddering are effective. Most transmission specialists will dismiss these products as marketing gimmicks, items that provide customers with a false sense of comfort while their transmission deteriorates. While that’s occurring, their future transmission repair bill escalates.

It is more economic to replace soft parts, select electronics, and a torque converter than replacing the countless hard parts within a transmission. If the latter is required, expect an astronomical bill! Once a transmission with high mileage begins to show the first signs of internal failure, there is a small window to preserve the integrity of most parts within the transmission. Completing a transmission rebuild at this point often means the drums, planetary gears, valve body, pump, shafts, and case can all be cleaned and confidently reused in the reassembly of a rebuilt transmission – a transmission that should perform better than the original OEM transmission. It is expected to operate better because there are upgraded parts that, over time, have been identified to reinforce the weak points of various transmissions models. Any quality local transmission shop should know which upgrades are required to address certain vulnerabilities for each common transmission.

10. Carrying or Pulling Excessive Load Should be Avoided

Each vehicle has certain load or weight limitations. Those limitations are not meant to be disregarded unless you deeply yearn for a costly transmission repair bill. Many drivers with cars or small SUVs do not think about this topic; however, it is still relevant. Drivers of trucks and vans are notorious for abusing their vehicle due to overloading or hauling. It is common lingo for truck owners to reference their half-ton, three-quarter ton, or one-ton pick-up. These designations reflect a truck’s weight classification. If someone hitches a 30-foot trailer with 10,000 pounds of weight to the back of a regular Chevy Silverado or Ford F-150, you can be sure that transmission will overheat and get damaged prematurely. In contrast, if you hitch that same trailer to the back of a Dodge 3500 with a heavy-duty engine and transmission, it should operate fine if driven and maintained responsibly.

Due to high mileage and excessive loads, most specialty transmission shops across America perform transmission repairs on trucks more than other vehicle types.

Your Local Transmission Shop

Transmissions are the most complicated component in a vehicle, but using these automatic transmission maintenance tips can help them last for years to come. When the time does come for transmission repair, trust a transmission specialty shop with a strong reputation over a dealership or general automotive repair facility that may not be familiar with the modern complexities of transmission repair.

If you are in the Denver metro area and want the best transmission repair shops in the region to inspect your vehicle, we recommend you make an appointment at one of our highly-rated Advanced Transmission Center locations immediately. Our technicians can perform our TrueTest Inspection free of charge and let you know if any servicing or repairs need to be done.

You can also reach us directly at the following shop numbers:

Call our Northwest Denver center at (303) 421-4140, our Southwest Denver center at (303) 922-4102 or contact us online to get started today!

We’ve been “Geared for Customer Satisfaction” across 5 decades and we appreciate your trust in our team!

Written by Advanced Transmission Center