What is ATF power steering fluid?

When talking about ATF power steering fluid, power steering fluid is an essential part of keeping cars and trucks running. As the name suggests, it’s what allows you to steer and turn your vehicle with little to no effort.

Power steering fluid ensures that the power steering hoses, pistons, valves and pump are working optimally. If you don’t stay on top of the quality of your vehicle’s power steering fluid and if you don’t flush and replace it as needed, your power steering pump will begin to deteriorate.

Read on as Brian Murphy, Universal Technical Institute Education and Development Program Manager Explains the types of power steering fluid, how to change power steering fluid, what color power steering fluid is, how to flush the fluid power steering fluid and other information about how power steering fluid keeps cars running smoothly.

What is power steering?

A vehicle’s power steering system uses engine power to help reduce the amount of effort required to turn a vehicle’s front wheels. It is a system that helps the driver to have greater control and handling of a vehicle.

Power steering systems can be hydraulic or electric. Hydraulic systems use fluid to apply hydraulic pressure to the system to help turn the wheels of a car. An electric system uses an electric motor and various sensors to detect how much force a driver is applying to the steering wheel and then determines how much assistance the system should add.

What does power steering fluid do?

Power steering fluid is the hydraulic fluid used in the steering system to create a hydraulic link between the steering wheel and the front wheels. That decreases the amount of effort required to turn the wheels.

Power steering fluid also lubricates the moving parts within the steering system. Suppresses foaming and prevents corrosion in the power steering gear and steering pump, keeping vehicles running optimally.

What color is the power steering fluid?

Power steering fluid is typically red, amber, pink, clear, and/or clear. If it’s dark brown or foamy, it probably needs to be changed.

Where is the power steering fluid?

The power steering fluid reservoir is located under the hood, usually on the passenger side of the vehicle, although it can sometimes be found on the driver’s side. The container is usually white or yellow with a black cap that has the words “power steering” or “steering fluid” across the top.

What are the types of power steering fluid?

Automatic Transmission Fluid (ATF) is the same fluid that is used inside the automatic transmission. ATF can also be used in some power steering systems. Some types of ATF include Dexron and Mercon.

Synthetic power steering fluid is a non-oil based fluid that is created in a laboratory. Synthetic power steering fluid is usually designed specifically for the particular car or system for which it is used. Most newer vehicles use synthetic power steering fluid.

There are also non-synthetic mineral-based oil power steering fluids that can be used in applications that accept ATF fluids.

Many people ask, “Is power steering fluid the same as transmission fluid?” Although ATF and power steering fluid are hydraulic fluids, ATF contains different modifiers and detergents that are specifically designed to remove dirt and grease from the transmission system.

What are power steering fluid specification standards?

Power steering specification standards are requirements for fluid viscosity, detergents, additives, and other components. Meeting these standards ensures that the power steering fluid is safe to use in a specific vehicle.

Power steering fluid specification standards are created by standardization organizations. For example, DIN 51 524T3 is the standard given by the German Institute for Standardization, while ISO 7308 is the standard given by the International Organization for Standardization.

Certain vehicles will require the power steering fluid to meet DIN 51 524T3 and ISO 7308 standards. There may be other power fluid standards for certain types of vehicles, such as those made by Japanese car manufacturers.

When should you change your power steering fluid?

When you should change your power steering fluid depends on the type of fluid being used and how much fluid is in the system. The best way to know when to change your power steering fluid is to follow the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) guidelines. In general, power steering fluid should be replaced at least every five years or 50,000 miles.

There may be physical warning signs that your power steering fluid needs to be changed. When you inspect the power steering fluid, it should be clear in color. If it is dark, it is a sign that it is time to change it. If you see dirt, debris, or sludge in your power steering fluid, it’s time to flush the system.

You may also hear a whine or groan when you turn the steering wheel, indicating that you’ll want to have your power steering system checked. If you find it harder to turn the wheel, that may be another sign that it’s time to change the fluid. If there are leaks, you’ll also want to check the power steering fluid level.

To repair the steering wheel fluid, drain or rinse the old power steering fluid from the car and add new power steering fluid. It is important to service the power steering fluid because it can help prolong the functionality of other parts of the power steering.

Can transmission fluid be used in a power steering pump?

If you can. You can use ATF or automatic transmission fluid in your power steering pump as a substitute for power steering fluid when you’re in a bind. Both your ATF and power steering fluid are hydraulic fluids and your power steering system is a hydraulic system like your transmission system.

ATF benefits you by having detergents within its formula that help keep your system clean. Many cars and trucks actually require ATF in their power steering pump. Read your vehicle manual to see if this is the case for your make and model of car.

The proper fluid recommended by the manufacturer is not that expensive and you can buy the recommended fluid just as easily as ATF. But in a pinch, you can substitute ATF instead.

Several Points to Consider

  • Is there a savings to using ATF in your power steering pump? No. Sometimes it can be cheaper to get the recommended fluid than to use your ATF in your power steering pump. In fact, there is no saving to using ATF in your pump. Some mechanics use ATF instead of power steering fluid for convenience because they don’t want to keep a bunch of different fluids on their shelf since the compatibility of both fluids has been established.
  • Loss of fluid and using ATF to make up for that loss: If you are leaking power steering fluid, you can use ATF to fill it up. However, it is only you who is addressing a symptom of the problem, not the cause. It’s better to fix the problem by replacing worn seals rather than topping up the fluid you’ll eventually lose over time as your pump starts to burn, melt, and get damaged from always being empty. Power steering pumps need to be repaired if they are leaking.
  • Power Steering Fluid vs ATF: Is Power Steering Fluid Exactly The Same As Transmission Fluid? No, but they are the same type of fluid. Both are hydraulic fluids. Physically, ATF is red in color which has a sweet odor. Meanwhile, the power steering fluid is pink, amber, or clear and smells like burnt marshmallow. However, ATF contains friction modifiers and detergents to clean dirt and grease from the automatic transmission while also damaging the hydraulic valves on the steering rack and pump.
  • Can You Put Power Steering Fluid In Your Automatic Transmission? Interestingly, yes and no. Yeah, because power steering fluid, like ATF, is a type of hydraulic fluid, so it’s not like you’re pumping your automatic transmission with alcohol or gasoline or something horrendous. No, because ATF is superior to power steering fluid when it comes to its additives. Power steering fluid lacks detergents that filter out dirt and grease. It also has no necessary friction modifiers to keep excessive heat buildup at bay.  
  • Another use for transmission fluid is as a substitute for chainsaw bar and chain oil. It’s not something you’d want to use all the time, but if you were in a bind or could mix it with regular chain oil, it’s a suitable alternative.

What are transmission fluids and power steering fluids?

Although these fluids are quite different from each other, they do have their similarities. Both are hydraulic fluids that circulate through high-pressure pumps that run some high-force mechanism.

Fluids are designed to have low viscosity and viscous friction. This means they can easily handle up to 1000 PSI of pressure without getting very hot while on the job.

They can also withstand reasonably high temperatures and flow easily through thin tubes. They do all this while still providing the necessary lubricity to protect the rotating pump and sliding mechanical parts from wear.

Some power steering fluids need Dexron like Dexron power steering fluid or other similar types of ATF, while other auto manufacturers are specific about using fluids that are specialized for steering wheel but have slightly different properties.

However, both fluids have similar seal materials that resist the breakdown of hydraulic fluids. It is always best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the use of the various fluids in your car. Sometimes if you can’t find a specific fluid, the auto parts store usually has a compatible power steering fluid substitute.


Automatic transmission fluids are needed for a number of reasons, including lubricating, cooling, and preventing rust in the transmission. Not using ATF, or using the wrong one for your vehicle, can cause the transmission to overheat and produce debris. This leads to gradual but eventual wear of transmission parts.

Manual transmissions do not require specific fluids such as synthetic oils and ATF. And unlike manual transmissions, automatic transmission fluids tend to break down with normal use due to high operating temperatures. This indicates that it is time to change the fluid.

Since you won’t be changing transmission fluids as often as you change engine oils, it’s always best to use the best fluids that increase lubrication and reduce heat effectively.

Fluids additional information

As expected, power steering fluid is necessary to clean, lubricate, and condition the seals in the power steering system. They also transmit the necessary hydraulic force during steering.

With so many features in them, it’s no wonder there are so many types of steering fluids on the market in varied formulations. However, there is no guide that shows the perfect fluids to use in your vehicle, except for the manufacturer’s recommendations.

However, you need to know which PS fluid is right for your car so that you can replace it if there is a leak. Leaks are the most common power steering problem that causes seals to harden and dirt wears down the seal surfaces over time.

Dirty power steering fluids without the proper additives only make things worse. The best way to prevent all this unnecessary headache is by regularly checking and replacing the proper PS fluid.

Fluid Buying Guide

Transmission fluids are important to your car because they help cool and lubricate the different parts of the transmission. It also collects dirt and other metal shavings that flow through the car’s system or settle at the bottom of the tray.

It is best to always perform a transmission fluid flush that removes all debris from the transmission before pouring fresh new fluid into the car. Be sure to check your level at least once a month with a dipstick to change it on time and avoid transmission related problems.

You can also tell it’s time to shift by looking at the color of the transmission fluid. The fluid is good if it is bright red with a sweet smell, while a dirty, dark fluid that emits a burning smell means it’s time to replace it.

What is the difference between Mercon and Mercon V?

Selecting the right automatic transmission fluid for your vehicle is not easy because the wrong one can cause problems. Also, if your vehicle is under warranty, the use of a fluid that is not approved by its manufacturer voids the transmission warranty.

Although auto companies develop specific transmission fluids for their vehicles, they do not manufacture them. It’s the oil companies that do that. These companies produce transmission fluids based on the formulas licensed by the company.

These formulas are made up of base oils and additives, and the license fee allows the oil company to use the ATF brand owned by the automaker. Common names here are Dexron, Mercon, and ATF+4, which are brand names for General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler fluids, respectively.

Most of the time, auto companies stop licensing old ATF formulations once a new ATF formulation enters the market. And the last few years have to lead to major car manufacturers introducing many fully synthetic ATFs that are better than their conventional ATFs.

Vehicles that used to run on the old ATF formulas often run on the new ATF as well. Anyway, the oil company claims that the old ATF can be replaced by its new counterpart.

Multi-vehicle ATF

Most of the time, oil companies try to keep it simple. Instead of using the formula previously set by the car manufacturer, they try to create a new fluid that meets the original specifications of various manufacturers. Therefore, they end up producing “multi-vehicle” ATF fluids that meet both Dexron III and Mercon V specifications.

Customers find it difficult to figure out if a multi-vehicle ATF is right for a specific vehicle because these multi-vehicleVehicles are manufactured according to the standards set by the oil company. The quality and applications of ATFs are generally based on their own testing and not testing by the vehicle manufacturer.

This has led to many auto manufacturers adopting Dexron and Mercon formulations as their specific automatic transmission fluid, such as Motocraft Mercon ATF power steering fluid. Also, since Dexron and Mercon are similar, they are considered interchangeable.

This has also led many oil companies to claim that their Dexron/Mercon ATF can be used in various vehicles other than General Motors and Ford. They make these claims only because a model from that company used Dexron/Mercon.

However, if you add these fluids to cars that are supposed to run only on ATF like Mobil 1Dexron VI or Mercon lv, you will end up voiding the transmission warranty. Always be careful and avoid using multi-vehicle ATF that is advertised to be used properly in multiple vehicles.

These are usually just Mercon or Dexron III versions. Therefore, unless your car was originally supplied with Dexron III or an earlier version of the same or Mercon or Mercon V fluid such as Castrol Mercon V, it is best to consult the multi-vehicle ATF product data sheet before using it. . Never risk using a multivehicle fluid in your car if you are in doubt that Dexron III or Mercon ATF is right for your car.

The best way to choose the right ATF for your car is through the owner’s manual that lists the recommended ATF when the car was new. Here is more information on Dexron and Mercon transmission fluids that were on the market but have now been superseded.

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