When it comes to filters under the hood of your car the oil filter is likely the most common one that most drivers are aware of. Because oil changes are so prominent that there are even businesses that specialize in little else, it's the thing most drivers think of when they hear about getting a filter replaced in their vehicle. But of course your car does have a number of other filters including air filters, fuel filters, and of course the transmission fluid filter.
Whether your car is manual transmission or automatic transmission, keeping your transmission system working properly is of vital importance to the overall functioning of your vehicle. If you're unable to change through gears you are unable to use your vehicle at all. Along with your engine, this is one of the basic, most fundamental systems that allows a car to perform as it was designed. For that reason you really want to make sure you're maintaining it as well as you can, that includes keeping an eye on your transmission filter and changing it when it needs to be changed before it causes some serious damage in your vehicle.
What Does My Transmission Filter Do?
All of the filters in your vehicle perform basically the same task. They are in place in a system where they clean debris and contaminants from the flow of various liquids and even air throughout certain parts of your engine. They are very low-tech, and your transmission filter is no different. In fact, your transmission filter is essentially just a piece of felt. It allows the passage of fluids but will prevent large particles from passing through.
Just like a coffee filter becomes gummed up and clogs after you make your morning coffee, your transmission filter is going to get clogged up and become unusable over time. Because the transmission fluid in your vehicle is both a lubricant for the moving parts of your transmission and a coolant because the system can run hot otherwise, it's an important thing to keep well-maintained. A clogged filter prevents the flow of transmission fluid which can lead to your transmission overheating and wearing out much faster because of the damage from contamination.
How Often Does a Transmission Filter Need to Be Changed?
Because the transmission filter is designed to filter out debris and sludge, it absolutely cannot last the life of your vehicle. It is meant to become clogged and then replaced so that your transmission can continue to function as normal. If you've never replaced your transmission filter then that does not bode well for the future of your transmission.
The standard recommendation for changing transmission filters is that you should replace yours every two years or about 30,000 miles worth of driving. If your car has gone much longer than that without having the filter or transmission fluid changed, you're running the risk of developing a serious clog and all the damaging and expensive to fix side effects that it could potentially bring with it.
What Will Happen if My Transmission Filter is Clogged?
There are a number of signs and symptoms of a bad transmission filter that you can be on the lookout for. Not only does your transmission filter help remove dirt and other debris but its chief purpose is to filter out the bits of metal that can flake off from your transmission over time. When it gets clogged up severely enough, you're going to start noticing these things happening.
Transmission Fluid Leaks: Obviously if your transmission filter is clogged then the fluid is not going to be able to pass through it properly. This clog will prevent the flow of fluid and it could end up causing leaks from any loose seals or gaskets. Transmission fluid is typically red in colour, although if it's been badly contaminated it may be a darker brown colour, and if you see this Puddling under your car then it's clearly a sign you have a leak somewhere.
Visible Contamination: Because your transmission filter's job is to prevent contamination from getting spread throughout your transmission, when the clog gets bad enough it will no longer be able to do its job properly. That means you're going to have particles of grit, rust, and other debris floating through your transmission making it perform worse and look dirty. Clean transmission fluid is going to be clear and red. However, once it's contaminated it will go from brown to possibly even a dark black, coffee like liquid. it's also possible that you will find small bits of rust flake or metal slivers contaminating the fluid as well. When your transmission fluid is this bad it can very quickly cause your transmission to burn out.
Clutch Slippage: In a manual transmission vehicle you need to put your foot down on the clutch to allow the engine to transfer power to the transmission. You select your gear, release the clutch, and then accelerate to drive. When your transmission filter is clogged however the clutch will not be able to engage properly and even attempting to shift into a gear you may just slip back out of it again.
Burning Smell: it's possible if you learn how to drive with a manual transmission that you have memories of riding the clutch a little too hard in traffic and causing the transmission to heat up and burn a little bit. When your transmission filter is too badly clogged that is going to start happening again. This is because, without the transmission fluid to properly lubricate it and cool it down, the transmission is going to get incredibly hot. You'll notice the smell of the transmission burning, a smoky, oily kind of smell, and it could actually get to the point where you see smoke coming from the engine as well. Obviously if this happens it's a serious situation and you should pull over as quickly and safely as you can and get your car to a mechanic.
Rattling Sound: A filter that has been blocked by a serious amount of debris can potentially cause a rattling sound that you'll notice while you're driving your car. it will sound something like metal jiggling against metal and will be coming from your engine specifically rather than the exhaust which would indicate a catalytic converter problem.
Whining Sound: If you're experiencing a whining noise when you're shifting from one gear to another that may also be a problem that you can attribute to a clogged transmission filter. It may sound something like your engine trying to rev when you're going between gears, but it will be accompanied by the shift having issues fully engaging. If you have an automatic transmission it's more likely to be a high-pitched whining sound rather than the revving, whirring sound that you would get from a manual transmission vehicle.
Problems Changing Gears: When you find your transmission hesitating as you try to shift from one gear to another then it's possible the issue is related to a clogged transmission filter. The worse the filter gets the more difficulty you're going to have shifting from one gear to another. in the worst circumstances you may not be able to get the vehicle into gear at all, and you'll hear grinding as you do so.
Car Won't Drive: In some severe circumstances your transmission filter can get so badly clogged that your vehicle will start to drive and then simply stop on you. You may experience a continual installing after you try to restart your vehicle and then moving will prove to be close to impossible.
Can a Clogged Transmission Filter Cause No Reverse?
Because a clogged transmission filter affects the entire way your transmission operates, it's very possible that when you are trying to shift into reverse you're going to have problems getting to stick in gear. Typically you're going to notice it along with the other symptoms of a clogged transmission filter at the same time, including a whining noise when you try to shift into reverse that will help you further identify this problem.
Although it is possible that a transmission filter can completely block your ability from putting your car in reverse, it's not particularly likely. You would have to have an extremely bad clog in your transmission filter for this to be the case. The more likely symptom is that you will have difficulty getting into reverse and the potential for slipping out of reverse rather than the complete inability to get into gear. Most drivers report what they would consider a hesitation in getting into reverse, as in when you shift into reverse it will take a few moments before the gear actually seems to set and then you're able to move. Often this will also be accompanied by the whining sound that we mentioned earlier.
Cost of Repairing a Clogged Transmission Filter
The cost of replacing your transmission filter when it becomes clogged will tend to be around $100 to $150. It depends to some degree on the make and model of your vehicle as well as the mechanic that you are going to take it to. Transmission filters on Autozone.com cost between $7 and about $30.Typically, a mechanic would just change the transmission filter when you get the transmission fluid changed as well, so you're killing two birds with one stone in this case and the cost will also include the price of the fluid plus the labour that is being put forth. This makes sense because changing the filter but not changing the fluid would be somewhat counterproductive. It makes sense to start with fresh fluid and the fresh filter if you're going to get the work done.
Remember, you should be getting this done every 30,000 miles or so, give or take. Unlike changing your oil this bit of maintenance doesn't get brought up as often as it should however, and it's also harder to do than a simple oil change so doing it on your own, while not impossible, is not very likely for most drivers. As you can see however, it's not the kind of thing you want to skip for too long because your vehicle will suffer for it.
If you're interested in changing your transmission fluid and the filter on your own, then we recommend that you have at least an intermediate level of experience when it comes to home auto maintenance and repair. If you've never changed your oil or oil filter before, then starting with your transmission fluid and transmission filter may prove to be a little too advanced.
However, if you think you're up to the task there are some very detailed walkthroughs that you can find on the internet to explain the process to you. There are also videos like this one which will walk you through the process of an automatic transmission filter change and this one which covers manual changes. If you're not experienced with this kind of maintenance work then it can be invaluable to have a video that walks you through the process step by step, which you can refer back to as often as needed in order to get the job done.
The Bottom Line
Keeping your transmission well-maintained ensures that you're able to get the most enjoyment and function of your vehicle that you possibly can. A faulty transmission can make your vehicle essentially undriveable.
Just like you need motor oil flowing through your car to keep your engine running smoothly and prevent it from overheating, you need your transmission fluid in your transmission for the exact same reason. And that means you need to ensure that your transmission filter is being cleaned on a regular basis. Every 30,000 miles or two years is not a particularly time consuming schedule to try to keep up with, the key is to remember that it actually needs to be done before the situation gets bad and your car starts suffering performance issues as a result. The best thing you can do is make sure you give yourself periodic reminders that this needs to be done so you can avoid the hassle of having transmission failure and continue to drive your car as normal.