How Often to Change Transmission Fluid: Signs to Look Out For

By: // Updated: August 29, 2020

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From brake fluid to windshield wiper fluid, there are many different fluids that keep your car running in perfect shape every single day. Or, if the fluids aren’t in perfect shape themselves, they can do the exact opposite and damage your car. One piece of knowledge you need to prevent costly repairs is how often to change transmission fluid.

Healthy automatic transmission fluid (ATF) is a necessity in almost all vehicles commonly used by rideshare drivers. When properly maintained, it keeps your car running smoothly by lubricating the moving parts within it. At the same time, it also cools down your vehicle when faced with high temperatures from the summer weather or severe driving.

With this fluid always doing its part when you’re earning on the road, it’s natural for it to slowly break down. Keep reading to learn why and how often to change transmission fluid, as well as how you can keep up with your transmission fluid’s condition.

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Why Do I Need to Change Transmission Fluid?

How often to change transmission fluid: car with its hood up

Just like many other parts of your vehicle, automatic transmission fluid doesn’t last forever. As different moving parts grind together, they’ll slowly leave behind metal shavings that contaminate your fluid, adding to the basic dirt and grime that naturally accumulates. Over time, this can lead to the need for expensive transmission repairs.

Not changing your automatic transmission fluid will also prevent your transmission from cooling down properly.

Plus, as a rideshare driver, you’re likely putting more stress on your transmission on a day-to-day basis. This makes it more important to adhere to a set vehicle maintenance schedule that includes your transmission fluid change.

The only cars that don’t need ATF maintained are those that run on manual transmissions, as they use gear oil instead. If you have a manual car, jump to our “Frequently Asked Questions” section to learn about more about your car maintenance needs.

How Often to Change Transmission Fluid

Speedometer: how often to change transmission fluid affects how your car performs

A basic recommendation for how often to change transmission fluid is about once every 40,000 to 50,000 miles. This is enough to protect your transmission from the effects of severe driving, which includes common rideshare habits like idling and driving in stop-and-go traffic.

However, your owner’s manual should ultimately give you the best estimation for what service interval is right for your car model. Some car models (especially older ones) may require more frequent transmission fluid changes, whereas others may not require it for far longer.

One interesting point: If your car has already exceeded 100,000 miles and you’ve never changed your ATF, there is a chance that your mechanic will recommend not changing it at all. While this does pose a risk to your transmission’s well-being, releasing the contaminated fluid (and likely sludge) can harm other areas of your car and lead to complete transmission failure.

Of course, always consult a professional first. Your mechanic will evaluate whether or not your old transmission fluid is causing any major issues, or if you’re okay to leave it until the end of your vehicle’s lifespan.

Signs You Need a Transmission Fluid Change

Close up of car's gearshift: how often to change transmission fluid affects how your car performs

Because the recommended service interval for transmission fluid changes can fall anywhere within a wide range, any issues can go unnoticed for a long period of time. One of the best things you can do for your car is check the condition of the fluid every 3,000 miles.

Before you look for signs of your ATF getting worn down, park your car on level ground and pop open the hood of your car. Then, locate the transmission fluid pipe, using your owner’s manual for assistance if needed and pull out your transmission dipstick. Once you’ve done so, here are two major signs of worn-out transmission fluid to look out for:

  • A burnt smell: If your transmission fluid smells burnt, the fluid is no longer in good condition and must be changed, regardless of how many miles it’s been. ATF should typically be somewhat sweet in smell when it’s still healthy.
  • Improper coloring: Automatic transmission fluid starts out as a red, transparent color and slowly turns brown with age. As its color grows darker, keep a closer eye on the fluid. Change the transmission fluid as soon as it turns a very dark brown or you see noticeable contaminants. Light pink or milky fluid can be a sign of a different issue and will require a trip to the repair shop, as well.

Issues with shifting gears in semi-automatic cars can also be a tell-tale sign of transmission fluid issues.

If your transmission fluid level is low, falling below the “Add” or “Cold” line, this is a sign that a leak must be repaired, not a sign that a transmission fluid needs to be changed.

Should I Change Transmission Fluid Myself?

How often to change transmission fluid: Close up of engine gears

While there are many processes that are great DIY projects, we recommend that you bring your vehicle to the mechanic for its routine transmission fluid change.

One reason to take your car to a professional is the fact that the process can be very specific to your vehicle manufacturer. For example, every vehicle model has a specific type of ATF that must be used for proper function. Many manufacturers require a filter change with every fluid change. It’s extremely important to not use an incorrect process or incompatible supplies, especially with luxury vehicles, so paying for a mechanic is often the best choice.

Furthermore, your mechanic will help you save time without jacked up prices. While you’ll spend an average of $100 on a professional transmission fluid change, which includes labor costs and supplies, you can spend as much as $90 and an hour of your time on a DIY change. When the cost is a tax-deductible expense for rideshare drivers, you might as well relax when you’re not working.

Another major reason to get professional help is simply because it’s messy process that can require a significant amount of cleanup after the process is already complete.

Frequently Asked Questions

Long exposure of lights on a highway at night

When you know how often to change transmission fluid and what signs to look out for, you’re far less likely to encounter issues with your transmission. With these common questions, you can learn more about what you need to add to your car care routine:

1. Do I need to change transmission fluid if I have a manual transmission?

Absolutely. While how often to change transmission fluid may be debated when it comes to automatic transmissions, most car experts agree that manual transmissions require a change at least every 30,000 miles, and always before hitting 60,000 miles. Some state that you may need a change in as little as 20,000 miles.

This shorter interval is largely due to the fact that cars with manual transmissions get contaminated fluid faster. Plus, manual transmissions use gear oil, rather than automatic transmission fluid, which is formulated differently.

2. What type of automatic transmission fluid should I use?

Nowadays, there are many different types of automatic transmission fluid out there. The deciding factor should always be what’s recommended in your owner’s manual.

3. What’s the difference between a transmission fluid change and a transmission flush?

During a fluid change, your mechanic will drain your vehicle’s transmission pan and replace the filter. This will leave some old (but not very harmful) remnants of your contaminated fluid behind. During transmission flushes, on the other hand, mechanics will drain and replace fluid until no contamination is left behind.

Transmission flushes are more effective than fluid changes, and we recommend that you spend a bit extra to get one every other time you’re due for a fluid change. However, they’re not critical if you’re already getting routine fluid changes.

Keep Your Transmission Alive

If you’re confident about how often to change transmission fluid in your vehicle and you always keep a close eye on your ATF condition, you can save yourself from an enormous amount of repair costs in the future. Extending your vehicle’s life requires a healthy transmission, so adding this fluid change to your maintenance schedule is well worth the hassle. With this guide, you’ll naturally know what signs to look out for, as well.

Another type of automotive fluid that you must keep a watchful eye on is your engine oil, which requires changing far more frequently than your transmission fluid. Learn about how often to change engine oil to ensure this task is recurring on your calendar as often as needed.

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