Drivers too often ignore the transmission until an unnecessary, expensive repair is needed
Most drivers do not notice anything about their vehicle’s transmission until it starts to malfunction. At this point it might lead to costly repairs for the customer. A good shop’s strategy should be to monitor and track the transmission for the customer.
Although most consumers ignore the transmission as they drive serenely on Canada’s roadways, the number one problem with the health of vehicular transmissions today is with the auto shop and the technicians, according to Randy Moore, president and CEO of Mister Transmission. “They do not service the transmission. They do not follow the instructions in the owner’s manual.”
He said the key to the wellbeing of the transmission is in the owner’s manual. “Most transmissions need a service between the first 50 and 150 kilometers. All that information is in the owner’s manual,” he said. “The challenge is for people who buy cars secondhand. They usually do not know what kind of service history is on the vehicle. On some of the newer vehicles, you can’t even check the condition of the fluid without a technician because there is no dipstick. So you would have to take it to a licensed technician to check out the transmission.”
Like most components of cars today, the transmission needs to be checked more often the older it gets. “Look at the mileage of the vehicles,” said Moore.
“If it is anywhere over 80,000 to 100,000 kilometers immediately ask the customer if the transmission has ever been serviced. If there is no record of it being serviced than that would suggest that you have it serviced immediately. You need to check the fluid itself. Is it burned or varnished? Does it smell at all?” he recommended. “What happens over time is that the transmission fluid, as it gets older, loses some of its friction properties. You run the risk of slippage in the friction plates which causes burning.
“The fluid breaks down over time and becomes thicker. It picks up contaminants in the transmission from the natural wear of the metals and gaskets, bushings and bearings. When the fluid starts to contain contaminants, these are then forced through the transmission leading to grater problems.”
“Years ago, servicing an automatic transmission was simple,” said Bruce Richardson, vice-president, marketing for ATP Inc. (Automatic Transmission Parts Inc.) “Drop the pan, replace the filter, clean the pan (after checking for debris in the pan) and button it up, and fill the Transmission with Dexron, Mercon or Type F fluid.”
About twenty years ago changes came to the industry, Richardson added. “Flash forward to the mid-90s and flush machines enter the market. Using the flush machine, the transmission is flushed through the cooling lines to expel 90 per cent-plus of the old fluid. This is a big improvement over the pan drop method that only allows 40–50 per cent of the old fluid to be drained and replaced.”
While the benefits were a quick 30-minute service, no fluid spillage and no potential damage to the oil pan gasket, all was not rosy. The downside to this method was that the old filter was sometimes neglected and not replaced, the pan and gasket were not inspected and cleaned, and the magnets are not cleared of metal debris. There were also occasional problems with removing the cooling lines that hook up to the machine.
Richardson noted that, “professional technicians on the traditional side were and are aware of the value of changing the filter and dropping the pan to inspect debris on the magnet and in the pan to determine the condition of the transmission. Flushing does not remove all of the contaminants in the filter and in the bottom of the pan,” he said. “In some cases, flushing will cause metallic particles to become trapped in electronic solenoids and switches. Seventy per cent of all automatic transmissions use a felt filter; these filters cannot be cleaned or flushed to eliminate contamination.”
He recommends, “Flush to remove 90 per cent plus of the old fluid, drop the pan, clean the magnet and inside of the pan, and always replace the filter, refill the transmission, test drive and inspect for leaks.”
“Transmission fluids have changed over the years,” added Richardson. “The vehicle manufactures have changed the way transmissions shift and go into overdrive by modifying the clutch plate and torque converter friction materials. Their goal is to increase gas mileage and improve the ‘feel’ of the transmission in operation. Special fluids were developed to meet these goals. Today, there are over 60 different original equipment fluids in use.”
Most of the transmission’s information will be contained in the vehicle owner’s manual or contained in the service manuals. Richardson noted, “these fluids/supplements are cataloged with the filter kits, highlighted in the transmission wall chart and shown on the end flap of each filter kit box to make it easy for the technician to choose the proper product for each transmission service.
“The ATP Automatic Transmission Service Marketing Kit contains the posters to promote transmission service and allow the consumer to make the choice of which service they prefer.”
Technicians and shop owners/managers should educate the driving public to respect and take care of their transmission. “If they see a leak you need to check it out immediately,” said Moore. “Automatic transmissions are sealed hydraulic units. A lot of people, when they see a leak on the garage floor or on the pavement think nothing of it. They figure they can just top it up or whatever. Transmissions don’t use oil like engines do, so if it is leaking it will be less efficient until the point where it ceases to function because there is no fluid in it. If people see a leak from the transmission area of any kind they should get it inspected immediately before it causes any further damage.”
Having experienced and well trained staff to look at transmissions will save the independent shop money in the log run. “It is very expensive when a transmission comes back,” said Moore. “You should avoid these. In the old days where you had simple three-speed transmissions it was simple to service and repair. Today’s transmissions are very complex. They are married to the power-train systems that run the engine management system. It is not just a tranny. You have to check everything first. You need a proper diagnostics in the first place. That is the number one key to a successful transmission repair or service.”
As the president and CEO of Canada’s largest chain of transmission shops, he looks to the experience that they have nation wide. “Almost 48 per cent of the customers that came to our stores in Canada last year had their concerns resolved without taking the transmission out at all, because there were drivability problems, or other things that we could access without taking out the transmission.”
His advice is, “If a shop thinks that the solution is to put a used transmission in a consumer’s car, you have a 50 per cent chance that in fact it did not need a transmission in the first place. You need to check all the other systems first. A proper diagnostics is everything. In today’s world, with very advanced and complex transmissions, only licensed and experienced transmission technicians should be rebuilding transmissions.”
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