Differential fluid, gear oil, or differential oil lubricates the suspension and steering system in your vehicle. This oil lubricates parts like the clutch packs, gears, bearings, ring and pinion gears, etc.
Essentially, you need it to keep your vehicle’s steering and suspension in good condition. However, changing differential fluid isn’t always as straightforward as changing motor oil.
With no gauge and access bolts that are sometimes hidden inside the housing, changing front and rear differential fluid can be confusing.
Luckily, the average cost of replacing differential fluid is usually around $180. That includes new oil and a front and rear differential fluid change. If you only have to fill up the rear end, you’re probably looking at something closer to $75-$100.
The table below shows a quick price comparison of differential fluid changing cost estimates from reputable suppliers:
|Supplier||Labor||Differential Fluid Cost (Gallon)|
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How Much Does Differential Fluid Changing Cost?*
Differential fluid is usually relatively cheap. For example, it often sells for $6 a quart.
However, if you’re replacing or changing the differential fluid in your vehicle, you normally need about a gallon per axle with differential oil.
Here, some vehicles only have a rear differential, and some have a front and rear differential. This will impact total costs.
However, buying 1- or 2-gallon bottles of gear oil will save you money over buying smaller bottles. For example, if you buy the cheapest option from Walmart, you pay $20 for a gallon buying it by the quart and $13.94 by the gallon.
In addition, labor costs are almost always the larger part of the expense. Here, getting to, draining, and then refilling a differential can be a dirty job.
Your mechanic might be able to do the work in 10 minutes. They might also take over half an hour, depending on the housing placement and the bolts. In addition, different vehicles have different gear oil capacity.
The chart below shares estimated costs for changing the differential fluid on 10 popular vehicles.
|Vehicle||Differential Fluid Cost||Labor Cost|
|Ford F Series||$63-$80||$99-$227|
|Dodge Ram 1500||$32-$67||$95-$110|
*Note: Prices are estimates and were correct at the time of writing (February 2022). Cost estimates may have changed since, our figures should be used as a starting point for your own research.
Changing Differential Fluid Price Factors
There are a lot of factors that could affect the cost of replacing your gear oil. Here, the largest ones are the brand, the number of differentials in your vehicle, and where you get the work done.
We’ll look at some of the reasons in detail below.
Number of Differentials
Most vehicles have a single differential in the back. This is why topping up differential fluid is often synonymous with “filling up the rear end”.
Some vehicles have a front differential instead. In addition, others have a front and a rear differential. In most cases, front differentials cost more to fill than back differentials. That’s because the parts are more difficult to access.
For example, you’ll usually have to go around the steering rack and you’ll be closer to the engine. Still, the job can often be completed in 15 minutes or less.
You can also see that pricing difference on the chart above. E.g., the Ford F series has a front and rear differential. You’ll have to buy different types of oil for each. And, with more ports to fill, you spend more money.
Where You Have the Work Done
In most cases, filling differential oil only takes a few minutes. So, mechanics charge their minimum rate for a job. Often, that’s around $30.
This minimum rate makes doing small jobs worth their time. However, it does mean you’ll pay a larger fee.
In addition, some shops actually charge a flat rate for differential service, no matter what type of vehicle you have.
For example, YourMechanic sometimes advertises a flat rate of $94.99 for a differential fluid change no matter what the vehicle. That’s a great option if you have front and rear differentials and want to save money.
On the other hand, it could cost you if your normal mechanic would charge you $30 for the labor.
Of course, not all YourMechanic locations do this and $94.99 could actually save you a lot of money over some alternatives. So, it’s important to check local rates.
On the other hand, if you take your Jeep to a dealer, you’ll often receive quotes as high as $500 for a differential oil replacement. Here, you’ll usually pay the dealer around $200 for the gear oil.
Because there’s no reason to do that and you’re not getting any specialty oil, it’s usually a much better idea to go to a local mechanic.
Dealerships are almost always more expensive. However, they do guarantee that you get factory OEM oil, which could improve the lifespan of your vehicle over risking putting something with a different viscosity or heat tolerance in your vehicle.
The Gear Oil
Differential oil is a lot like motor oil in that it ranges in price. However, it also changes a lot in consistency and properties. In addition, synthetics will always cost more.
In addition, some vehicles do need different types of gear oil for the differentials.
If you look at the Ford F150, that’s especially obvious. For example, the back takes 1 gallon of 75wx140. On the other hand, the front takes a half gallon of 80wx90. That’s a big difference.
It’s always important to check your owner’s manual to see what kind of oil you should be putting in the machine before buying it.
Differential oil, usually sold as gear oil, can run between $6.99 and $37.99 per quart. However, you’re more likely to pay $10-$15. And, the average axle holds 2.75-3.6 quarts of gear oil when full.
So, at maximum, you usually need a gallon of gear oil to fill up the differential system. Everything else is labor.
And, labor costs can cost anywhere from $30-$100+. That depends on your mechanic’s rates.
How Do You Know If Your Differential Fluid Is Bad?
If your differential fluid is going out, you can easily replace it. However, noticing that it’s going out is usually a much harder thing.
Here, most vehicle manufacturers recommend that you take the expedient of replacing your differential fluid every 50,000 miles. After all, differential fluid is relatively cheap.
And, replacing your gear boxes and clutch after the oil goes bad and the parts burn is extremely expensive. So, you’re always recommended to replace the fluid on a schedule rather than waiting for things to go wrong.
If things are going wrong, you’ll probably notice the following symptoms.
If you smell burning when you drive, it may be the gearbox. Here, you can check under the car and see if the smell is coming from the gearbox.
If the lubricating oil is dirty, not lubricating properly, or contaminated, it will smoke and burn as the gears heat up. And, if there’s not enough oil to properly lubricate things, the gears will get a lot hotter than they should be.
It’s important to replace the differential oil immediately if you notice a burning smell coming from the gearbox.
If you hear metal on metal, whirring, whining, howling, or scraping from the gearbox when steering, shifting, or driving, it might be low differential oil. Often, this is a result of improper lubrication.
However, it could come from other issues with your engine as well. Therefore, you always have to check what the issue is before moving forward.
Vibration when Driving
If your vehicle is vibrating and making noises when you accelerate or take a turn, the differential might be the culprit.
However, this can also be a result of suspension and steering issues. Therefore, you’d want to check and verify the source of the problem before moving further.
How To Replace Differential Fluid: 6 Steps
If you want to replace differential fluid, chances are you can easily do so yourself. Here, the only important steps are verifying that you have a safe place to dispose of the oil.
You’ll also want to check the owner’s manual to see what kind of differential fluid is needed for your vehicle. From there, the whole process is only slightly more complicated than changing your motor oil.
Unless, of course, you have to take off the housing first. However, that’s also relatively simple.
For these instructions, we’ll focus on changing the fluid in the rear differential. If you have a front differential, you can follow the same steps.
Things you’ll need:
- Ratchet set – most vehicles use 10-12mm or 12mm hex, however, there is no standard
- You can also use a wrench set, but it will be more work
- Plastic drain pan
- Replacement differential fluid matching your vehicle
- Jack and Jack stand (optional)
- Hand pump – You can buy these to screw onto the top of your gear oil bottle at most auto or hardware stores for around $10. However, this is optional. If you buy a quart bottle with an access tip, that is good enough. However, you’ll have to take your time with filling it.
In most cases, you can fully replace the gear oil in the differential in about 15 minutes, providing you have a hand pump.
If you don’t have a pump, it might be extremely difficult, mostly because the fill plug is normally close to the top of the axle and sometimes difficult to access with a normal bottle.
You’ll therefore have to hold the bottle at a slant and slowly squeeze gear oil into the differential.
- Park your vehicle on a flat and level surface. Make sure the wheels are turned straight and forward.
- You can choose to jack up the car. This will make accessing the differential easier. However, this is optional for many vehicles. If you have a very low vehicle, you might have to. On the other hand, if you can’t easily slide under the car and access the differential, use a floor jack and jack stand.
- If you’re changing the oil instead of topping it up, find the drain bolt on the differential. Make sure you have a plastic pan in place to catch the runoff. Use a ratchet to remove the bolt. This is normally 10 or 12mm. Allow the differential to drain. It can take some time for it to stop dripping gear oil. Then, replace the bolt.
- Use a ratchet to remove the fill plug. In some cases, you’ll need a hex bolt to remove it. Normally, the plug is on the passenger side, about halfway up the differential casing. If you don’t see it, you might have to take the housing off first. In this case, you can use a ratchet to remove the bolts on either part of the casing. From there, you can access the fill plug.
- Then, you can fill the differential up with oil. Double check that you have the right gear oil for your machine. Then, either use a hand pump and slide the hose into the hole or use a fill tip on a normal bottle. Hold the bottle up to the hole and slowly squeeze oil into it. Keep filling until oil starts to come out. If you’re replacing the oil, that may be a full gallon on a rear differential.
- Then, put the bolt back into place. You can wipe the surface down with rags if you have a mess.
In addition, you want to make sure you always dispose of your gear oil safely. Many mechanics have drop-off points for oil and engine fluid.
If you’ve never changed differential fluid, it can be confusing. These answers might be helpful.
How often does the differential fluid need to be changed?
Most manufacturers recommend changing the differential fluid every 50,000 miles. Some have different recommendations.
You can always check your manufacturer’s recommendations in the owner’s manual of your vehicle.
What kind of noise does a bad differential make?
A bad differential will grind, squeal, howl, and whine. Normally, you’ll get metal-on-metal sounds, which are loud, high pitched, and usually very noticeable.
Changing your differential fluid is a relatively easy job, providing you have a jack and a ratchet set. A good hand pump also makes changing the fluid easier.
However, you can also normally have the fluid changed at a shop for as little as $100-$150. That means it’s relatively easy to keep your vehicle in good condition by occasionally investing in maintenance.
Good luck changing the gear oil in the differentiator.
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