Checking your Vehicle’s Transmission and Power Steering Fluids

Many of us, if not most, put off much-needed monthly checks of our vehicle. It is a task that we are generally lazy to do. But keep in mind that car maintenance is essential to avoid preventable accidents while also avoiding unnecessarily tainting your driving record. Remember that an impeccable driving record will be beneficial if you need to get a convenient $20 down payment car insurance. Besides, avoiding accidents also prevents paying the high costs incurred after the collision. Checking the transmission fluid and the power steering is one of the monthly checks on your vehicle that you should not forget.

Checking Transmission Fluid

Transmission fluid is an odd beast, or at least as odd as the automatic transmission itself. Automatic transmissions contain clutches that transfer power from the engine to the gearset at the back of the transmission. These gears and their associated components receive a steady flow of fluid to keep things slippery and smooth clutch engagement. 

What Are the Additives Necessary For?

The fluid to soften the clutch engagement is, at its root, essentially just a thinned-down version of the oil in your engine. That creates something of a contradiction in designing the fluid since slippery oil and friction clutches generally don’t get along too well. That’s why transmission fluid contains dozens of additives to modify the oil’s friction characteristics under load, as well as detergent additives that keep the fluid channels clean and free of buildup, and additional additives that alter the fluid’s characteristics at a given temperature to prevent foaming.

Anti-foaming Agents Are Crucial 

That last additive is one of the most important because one of the oil’s jobs is to transfer pressure through the transmission’s hydraulic system. The hydraulic system pushes the clutches in the transmission together and holds them there. A drop in pressure means clutch slippage, and air in the oil will compress and drop pressure. So, anti-foaming agents are crucial for maintaining steady system pressure. 

Checking Power Steering Fluid

The same is true of the power steering system, which is your car’s other primary hydraulic mechanism. Foaming is just as likely to occur in the power steering pump as in the transmission, which is why power steering fluid is often very similar to or interchangeable with transmission fluid.

Difference Between Dedicated Power Steering Fluids and Transmission Fluids

The primary difference between both is that dedicated power steering fluids don’t contain the friction modifiers that transmission fluids do. But those modifiers aren’t hurting anything in the PS system, which is why many mechanics and manufacturers will specify transmission fluid to refill the power steering fluid reservoir. Ford and GM often use transmission fluid in both systems, while other manufacturers like Honda do not. Check your owner’s manual first, but the rule of thumb is that you can use transmission fluid in place of PS fluid, but not the other way around. Use only the ATF that your manufacturer designates for your transmission. Check your owner’s manual or local parts counter guy.

How to Check the Transmission Fluid and Power Steering?

When checking transmission and power steering fluid, you’re looking for almost the same as when checking the oil. Drive the car around the block a few times to get the fluid warm and distributed throughout the transmission. Park the car. In most cases, you’ll check the transmission fluid level with the engine running and the transmission in Park – but check your owner’s manual or the dipstick itself because this isn’t always the case. 

Pull the transmission dipstick, wipe it clean, replace it all the way and pull it again. The transmission dipstick should read at the “hot” mark. Transmission fluid is red in color but is thin enough when hot that it may be nearly clear on the dipstick. That’s why most transmission dipsticks use indentations or holes to capture the fluid instead of hatches. If needed, add fluid a bit at a time, and re-check. Do not overfill.

Proper Texture, Color, and Smell in Transmission or Power Steering Fluid

Smell for all the same things as you would with engine oil, but don’t expect the transmission or power steering fluid to feel as slippery under pressure. Remember, it isn’t supposed to be. Good ATF and power steering fluid will usually feel slippery at first and then seem to “dry up” a bit when you squeeze it between your fingers. This isn’t universally true, as there are many different kinds of transmission fluid out there, but you will find it to be true with most.

Ideally, the fluid should be as ruby-red as the lips of a Hammer Films vampire and clear as spring water. Metal shavings on the dipstick are a sign of badly worn bearings or gears or a dying oil pump. Cork-like specks on the stick are actually bits of your clutch material and don’t indicate anything good where the clutches are concerned.

Checking the power steering fluid is just like checking the transmission fluid, but with a smaller – and usually harder-to-read – dipstick. Some carmakers eschew the dipstick in favor of a translucent power steering reservoir tank, which you’ll probably have to clean to read.

Bet You Didn’t Know…

As we know it today, the standard transmission came to light at an 1894 press conference thrown by Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor. The transmission worked fine, but the engine it was attached to fried during the demonstration. This meltdown prompted one reporter to declare that the transmission was “more hocus-pocus from charlatans trying to cash in on the public’s fascination with the new engine car.” Thus, that reporter became the person to start the strangely persistent rumor that automotive journalists are, as a rule, clueless when it comes to automobiles.

Drive safely and get the no down payment plans that fit your budget. We have provided detailed information on some elements that should be checked monthly to keep your vehicle running properly and stay away from possible accidents.