The automatic transmission valve body is by far the weirdest looking thing you’ll find on any car. If someone was to drop it on your table with no context, chances are you’d think it’s a part of an alien space ship or some highly classified experimental aircraft.
However, there’s some order to this puzzle of pathways and channels. Today we’ll try to explain what all of it does, how the valve body works, and how to recognize the symptoms and prevent potential problems.
The Basics of Automatic Transmission
Automotive transmission systems have come a long way from their original form. Original manual gearboxes were crude devices that required some skill and a lot of manhandling to operate. Then we invented synchronizers to help us shift gears smoothly. Synchronized manual gearboxes are very much still in use as a large percentage of cars today run gearboxes like these.
Then came the automatic transmission systems. The idea of automating gear changes and letting the car do all the work meant more comfort for the driver, but also more efficiency. Cars could now be dialed in to optimize gear usage, gas mileage, and other important parameters.
Early automatic transmission systems were clunky, but as time passed, they became more and more surgical in their performance. A modern automatic gearbox is a work of art that is fast, efficient, and much better at shifting gears than any human is.
How does an Automatic Transmission Work?
Any kind of gearbox is a complicated system of gears and shafts that can confuse even the most mechanically inclined people. That being said, an automatic transmission system is on a whole different level of black magic engineering. The reason for this is the use of planetary gears and clutch packs.
Planetary gears are interesting in the sense that they have two inputs and one output. This gave engineers plenty of leeways when it came to building a flexible system and reaching various performance levels. However, if you take that an average automatic gearbox is packed with several planetary gear sets and a bunch of clutch packs, it becomes obvious that controlling all of this requires a complex solution.
Automatic Transmission Valve Body
That complex solution comes in the form of numerous hydraulic valves and solenoids that drive the gears as needed. Actuating different gears and clutch packs are done using hydraulics. Your average automatic transmission gearbox is a highly pressurized system that relies on transmission oil pressure to work properly.
Routing the oil where it’s needed was one of the biggest challenges to creating a smooth gearbox. At the end of the day, the solution came in the form of a valve body.
An automatic transmission valve body consists of a large number of hydraulic channels and passageways designed to bring highly pressurized oil to various valves. Each of those channels performs more or less the same task as a hydraulic fluid hose. Instead of having a hundred hoses running all over the place, it was much simpler to mill out passageways in a metal block, thus keeping everything tidy as well as more reliable.
Older automatic transmission valve bodies featured a manual valve that was actuated by the gear shift lever. More modern systems have ditched this mechanical link for a solenoid pack that does the same job.
Symptoms of a Failing Transmission Valve Body
Although modern automatic gearboxes are fairly robust and durable, the added complexity does impact the overall reliability of these systems. This is especially true on vehicles with a spotty maintenance history.
Recognizing the most common symptoms of a failing valve body isn’t too hard. What’s more important is that you don’t ignore these symptoms when they first occur. It’s highly recommended that you take your car in for service as soon as you notice that something is wrong. Here’s what to look for.
Noise Coming from the Transmission
One of the tell-tale signs that your valve body might be on its way out is different knocking noises that might occur. You’ll hear clanking or knocking from the gearbox when you step on the brake, when you put the car in different gears or when you accelerate.
The cause of the noise can be anything from improper oil pressure to actual physical damage to the valve body. Either way, any kind of knocking from the gearbox is a reason enough to visit your mechanic as soon as possible.
Trouble Shifting Gears
Another common symptom of a bad valve body is late gear shifts or general issues with gear changes. Usually, when the gearbox is about to shift gears, it will drop the RPM slightly. A bad valve body might cause the RPM to spike for a brief moment. Similarly, you might experience rough downshifts and generally inconsistent gear changes. Again, make sure to visit your mechanic as soon as you notice any problems.
Causes of Automatic Transmission Valve Body Failure
Valve bodies are complex that much we know by now. With complexity comes low tolerance for less than optimal working conditions. Out of all things that can mess up an automatic gearbox, the lack of oil pressure is probably the most common culprit.
We’ve already mentioned that auto gearboxes require high transmission oil pressure to actuate different valves. If there’s not enough pressure to run those valves, your gearbox will start to act up. The cause of low pressure can be traced to various leaks or simply a lack of transmission fluid.
If your car has a gearbox dipstick, we highly recommend that you check it from time to time, whether you have issues with your gearbox or not. Staying on top of car maintenance is still the best way to avoid issues.
Lack of Transmission Oil
Transmission oil serves a variety of purposes in a gearbox. It works as a hydraulic fluid to actuate all of the valves and other components, but it also serves to lubricate and cool the entire system. It’s literally the bloodline of the gearbox. The lack of pressure we’ve just talked about is the first sign that you’re losing oil somewhere.
Oil leaks are not uncommon on high mileage vehicles and can be caused by various gasket failures and other issues. Low levels of transmission oil are nothing to play with. Depending on how bad things get, you’re looking at physical damage to the valve body as well as the transmission itself. Once more, check your oil levels from time to time.
Modern automatic gearboxes require regular maintenance to operate properly. One of the most important aspects of gearbox maintenance is a regular oil change. A good rule of thumb is to change your transmission oil every year. If your gearbox comes with oil filters, make sure to change those as well.
Transmission oil, just like most other automotive oils, breaks down over time. The constant pressures, high temperature, and friction degrade the oil to a point where it no longer meets lubrication’s minimum requirements. At that point, you’ll start to see physical damage on metal parts of the gearbox.
Similarly, a clogged transmission oil filter is enough to cause all kinds of issues. When the filter clogs up, it no longer allows a sufficient amount of oil to circulate through the system. This causes the same issues as low transmission oil levels.
Following a strict maintenance schedule is enough to avoid all of these problems.
Tips for a Long-Lasting Valve Body
Proper maintenance is definitely one way to keep your valve body and your gearbox in the green for longer. However, we also recommend that you use quality transmission oil. Brands such as Motul offer a line of modern gearbox lubricants that are designed to offer optimal performance and lubrication even under adverse conditions.
Using low-quality oils will lead to sub-par lubrication and cooling of the entire system, translating to a shorter life span of key components. It’s much cheaper to invest in good oil than it is to rebuild a whole gearbox.
Automatic Gearbox Maintenance
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