Tips for Preventing a Transmission Breakdown

By Mister Transmission

Think of your car’s inner workings as similar to that of the human body.

If your stomach begins to hurt without warning, you’ll probably start thinking of the last thing you ate in order to figure out why you’re having the pain. When it comes to diagnosing car trouble, a similar type of thinking goes into finding out what’s wrong.

The moment you start noticing something out of the ordinary with your car, it’s time to start considering the problem and finding a way to fix it. It’s great if your problem can be sorted without much trouble, but even better not to have a problem in the first place. This is especially true when it comes to your vehicle’s transmission, as this can be one of the more specialized parts to repair. Looking after your transmission is important, so don’t neglect it. The best way to do this is to catch problems early.

Here are 12 tips that could help you avoid a potential breakdown:

1. Check your transmission fluid level, color and smell regularly.
Your fluid should be checked roughly every 1,600 kilometres. The fluid should also be changed every 80,000 kilometres or every other year, depending on which comes first.

2. Use the correct fluid.
Types of fluid vary from vehicle to vehicle. Some newer fluids may be more expensive but they will likely improve the protection of the transmission, which makes it worth the expense.

3. Don’t overfill your transmission.
Follow your manual very carefully when checking and adding fluid.  Overfilling can cause the fluid to foam, which can lead to erratic shifting, loss of internal lubrication and potential transmission damage.

4. Avoid excess heat in your transmission.
Heat is a serious enemy of transmission health. Research suggests that 90% of transmission failures are caused by heat. If you reduce the heat back to normal operating temperatures, you increase the life span of your vehicle.

5. Don’t tow in overdrive.
Look for a button on the dash or steering column that turns overdrive off.  If your vehicle doesn’t have this button, if probably has the overdrive position on the shift indicator.  Pull the shift lever from overdrive to the drive position before towing.

6. Install an auxiliary cooler.
An auxiliary cooler can save your transmission from the damage done by excess heat.  When properly installed they may help your transmission to run 30% to 50% cooler when towing. This investment could save you hundreds of dollars.

7. Don’t overload your vehicle.
All that weight from towing makes the transmission work too hard so it overheats, which causes real damage. If you do a lot of towing, consider the point 6.

8. Allow your vehicle to warm up thoroughly on cold mornings.
Warming up the engine/transmission for about 30 seconds to a minute before driving is best practice. After that take it easy until the car is actually warm.

9. Avoid rocking between gears if your vehicle becomes stuck in mud or on ice.
If you must rock, do so as gently as possible and make sure the wheels have stopped moving before each gear change. This will drastically reduce the strain placed on the transmission.

10. Do not perform high performance starts, or spinning of your tires except in emergencies.

11. Use your emergency brake when parking on an incline.
This reduces stress on the parking pawl (pin) and linkage.

12. Play it safe; get any potential trouble looked at promptly by a professional.
If you think a problem is developing (say you notice sudden changes to the way your car drives, or any changes to the way your transmission works, such as trouble changing gears or a delay before the gear seems to shift), but you aren’t sure, get it checked out by an expert.

Other considerations:
Automatic vs. Manual

Cars come in two basic models: automatic, where you only need to worry about basic gears plus the gas and brake, and manual, where you use a stick shift and clutch to manually choose the optimal gear for your driving conditions. Both types need transmission fluid to keep the transmission in working order, but it can be easier for you to check the transmission fluid yourself in a manual car. If you want to keep your car running as long as possible and as safely as possible, you’ll want to know all about the transmission fluid and the role it plays in your transmission maintenance.

Transmission Fluid

The transmission fluid helps keep your transmission’s gears moving smoothly without friction. If you smell something burning, while driving your car or while checking the transmission fluid, the fluid is likely old and will need to be replaced. Transmission fluid should be bright red in color, which you can check by wiping a small amount on a cotton ball or a piece of white paper, and should smell slightly sweet. While you can usually check the transmission fluid yourself, the draining and changing of it should be handled by a professional, especially with an automatic transmission. If you do want to change it yourself, check your owner’s manual and follow its instructions carefully, including using the recommended type of transmission fluid.  Be careful not to overfill with fluid, as this can cause it to foam and lead to damage to your transmission.

Heat Damage

Heat causes the majority of damage to transmissions and can be caused by old transmission fluid, excessive braking and accelerating in hot weather, towing trailers, and damage to other parts of your car’s system. Experts recommend that with severe use of your car – defined as using your car in heavy city traffic and at temperatures over 90 F more than 50% of your driving time – you should have the filter and fluid changed every 15,000 miles. If you use your car less than that, or in cooler weather, the recommended maintenance is usually between 25,000 and 60,000 miles. Your car manual or your dealership will be able to tell you the optimum number for your vehicle.

Regular fluid and filter maintenance will help prevent fluid oxidization, which can lead to hardened rubber seals and gaskets, which will then start to leak. By catching this problem before it really starts, and by using preventative measures, you will save yourself a lot of money.

Transmission Slip

Regular transmission maintenance is important to prevent a problem known as transmission slip. Your transmission may be slipping if you notice the following problems:

  •     Sudden changes in engine RPM (revolutions per minute)
  •     Sluggish acceleration
  •     The car continues to glide forward when you’ve taken your foot off the gas
  •     Slow response to changing gears

As with all transmission maintenance, keeping your transmission fluid clean and topped-up will help prevent transmission slip, but you can also prevent it by taking care when shifting gears. You should be at a full stop before switching to Reverse or Park, and if possible, shifting to Park or Neutral when stationary will help reduce the strain on your transmission.

Overdrive and Towing

Automatic transmissions have a neat feature called overdrive. The overdrive essentially reduces the stress on your engine and gear system. You won’t need to turn on the overdrive – in the majority of automatic cars it’s already turned on – but you may have to turn it off every now and then when you’re towing something. Turning the overdrive off will increase your torque and your engine’s RPM, but having it off constantly will put excess strain on your transmission, causing it to break down faster. Turning the overdrive off when towing something, however, will help to decrease the excess heat the transmission develops due to the added weight. If you tow frequently, especially heavy loads, you may want to look into installing an extra transmission fluid cooler into your car.

Conclusion

Like our health, there is no foolproof way to prevent transmission problems altogether. However, when a fault does begin to develop, there is still an element of problem prevention. Catching transmission problems early can prevent them from worsening and prevent further trouble from developing. This can potentially mean a simple repair instead of a major one. Following these simple practices can help keep your transmission well cared-for.

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