Transmission Service Woes (And Lessons Learned)

It's not all glamor this RV the loungs at Hendersons Line-Up
It’s not all glamor this RV lifestyle…in for service at Henderson’s Line-Up

So I admit it’s been a stressful week. Most of the time our RV life is pretty darn fabulous, but like everything there are ups and downs. Glamour? Freedom? Well sometimes you sit in a shop for multiple days, several of which were definitely not planned. Yes, it happens…even to plan-everything-and-read-every-review Nina. This post is a bit of a saga, but there are lessons to be learned so perhaps my mistakes will become your gain. Here it goes…

I’m a detailed planner, as you might already know, and I plan our service with the same depth that I plan our travels. We are careful to maintain our rig to the standards she requires not only for our own peace of mind, but in order to maintain warranty on all our major parts. This month was transmission filter change time. It’s a simple job which we can’t do mostly because we’re just not that handy. But, being a planner we decided to buy the filters ourselves (High Capacity Allison Filters -> procured from THIS site) so there would be no mistakes and chose a reputable shop to do the change.

Tucked in & hooked up for the night at Henderson's.
Tucked in & hooked up for the night at Henderson’s.

Our route took us through Grants Pass, OR the home of Henderson’s Line-Up which is an excellent shop with a very good reputation that we’d visited before. They specialize in motorhome alignment & suspension, but they also advertise service. We wanted some suspension work done anyway so it made sense to stop there. I called to make sure they did Allison transmissions…they did and so the service was set.

Easy peasy, should be a breeze!

We arrived Sunday night and stayed in their handy hookup section ready for an early Monday AM service. All was going swimmingly until I decided, just for good measure, to check on the mechanic. The first indication that something was wrong was the big drum of Amsoil attached to our transmission fill.

“Please tell me you didn’t just put that oil into our transmission?!” I gasped, horrified “that’s not what we have in there!.

Sadly the answer was “yes” which, in turn, uncovered a cascade of additional issues -> turns out the mechanic had accidentally drained our entire transmission (?), could not find the transmission dipstick (I caught him tearing up the bedroom before I stopped him) and under-filled the transmission so it wouldn’t shift during the test drive….OMG!!

What had we gotten ourselves into?

We boondocked for a night near this viewpoint. Getting chillier....
On the drive to Reno we boondocked for a night near this viewpoint. Getting chillier….

After 3 hours of this we were at our wits end and got the owner involved with a rather serious talking to. He apologized for the problem, personally oversaw the rest of our service, assured us the Amsoil was fine for our transmission and even, very generously I thought, waived the service charge. Disaster averted and a free transmission service to boot…or so we thought. After 5 hours in the shop we drove to Reno, NV with relief to be outta there. Phew!

But this was not the end of the problems…

While at the shop I had taken their word for it that the Amsoil was usable in our transmission, but something was nagging at my conscience. So, the following day I started my own investigation by calling Allison Engineering, posting on the RV forums and discussing the issue with an Allison fluid engineer who had worked in the business for 20 years.  The results were not good. You see Amsoil, no matter what they claim, should not have been used in our rig:

  • Amsoil is *not* on the Allison approved fluids list
  • Amsoil has *not* been TES-295 and TES-398 certified (both of which are required for Allison transmission use)
  • Worst of all….using it would VOID our transmission warranty!!

Think positive thoughts…think positive thoughts…ARGH!!

Wait...didn't we already do this? Waiting again at Smith Power Products
Wait…didn’t we do this already? Waiting again at Smith Power Products

No matter how fine that oil might be, that last point was beyond disastrous and there was no way around it. We needed to re-flush our entire transmission, re-change the filters and get the proper fluid back in there. So, we scrambled to find the nearest Allison-Certified center in Reno, NV and drove over to spend yet another day and $600 more to get the problem fixed. For the latter I can say that Smith Power Products did a fabulous job and treated us wonderfully. When it comes to transmissions they know what they’re doing.

What should have taken 1/2 hour turned into a multi-day odyssey with quite a bit of stress involved. Aside from sharing & venting our woes with you, what did this experience actually teach us?

Not Every Shop Can Do Every Service – In trying to keep our service simple I wanted to use Henderson’s not only to do some suspension work (we got a Safe-T bar installed), but also to do our transmission service. Their work on the Safe-T bar was efficient & excellent, and I would not hesitate to recommend them for that purpose. It’s what they do, after all!! But the mechanic working on their general service was clearly not experienced enough. My mistake was assuming that one 5-star service area would automatically extend to another. It did not.

These guys know transmissions, but I would never have my fridge fixed here!
These guys know transmissions, but I would never have my fridge fixed here!

It’s Worth The Extra Time To Seek Out Specialists – In the past we’ve always gone to specialists for our service -> Cummins for our engine, Elite Repair & Remodel for our general rig repairs and Les Schwab for our tires. Henderson’s for our suspension work! Motorhomes are complicated machines and it pays to go to the people who know the specifics. Why did I do it differently this time? Mostly because I assumed it would be easier & faster to get everything done in one place, plus I also assumed the filter change was so simple we didn’t need a specialist. This experience has taught me differently. Go to a specialist even if it means an extra stop.

At the shop again...
Here’s hoping service shops have seen the back of us for a while!

So, will we ever go back to Henderson’s again? For suspension work absolutely “yes”, but for general service probably not. I don’t believe the shop misled us, but I do believe they were miss (or under) informed and most definitely under-experienced on the service side. Their suspension work is well-known in the RV industry as being top-notch, plus the owner is approachable and honest. He worked with us on the initial problem and has since offered to pay for the extra oil change here in Reno. That’s the mark of a reputable shop! Where they went wrong was using a (clearly) inexperienced mechanic and relying on a (clearly) non-certified oil for our transmission service. And on my side, my mistake was using them for something they are not known to do.

Lessons learned…may my mistakes be your gain….:)

Coming up next -> We decompress in view of the Sierra Nevada mountains with a blogger missed, a blogger met and several more at large…..

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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do

  1. says

    Oh do we feel your pain! The first shop we took our bus conversion to was a tire shop – to get tires. They did excellent at that. They then asked if we’d like them to do an engine service, knowing we should really start with fresh oil and filters .. we said ‘sure, let’s get it all done at once’.

    Holy crap on a stick… they put 15w40 oil in a 2-stroke that required straight up 40w. Thankfully I caught them before we ran it.. but shiesh.

    With the new engine rebuild, we’ll be servicing only at Detroit and Allison certified centers for a long long while.

    • libertatemamo says

      Holy cow, what a catch! Thank goodness you averted the disaster. Very similar experience and just goes to show the lesson is universal. Nina

  2. says

    Holy Smokes! that’s pretty darn …. of them. We had our suspension work with them too and so far happy with it. Perhaps they were over their heads and felt confident they too can handle transmission work.

    I can feel the pain, and can imagine the conversations going on there.
    I hope your transmission warranty is still valid.

    And yes we should listen to your woes and learned from it.

    • libertatemamo says

      Yeah, its been a rough week. I do feel transmission service is over their heads, at least with the mechanic and procedures they have in place now. I’m hoping they will improve and have shared all my findings with the owner, but we’ll go elsewhere for that kind of service in the future.

  3. steve says

    Hi, I am hoping to start my travels to the west in a few months myself, and I can say that I very much like your detailed travel blog. Like you and your husband, I am too a dog person. Have two boxers, one in his later part of life and not long for this world and a 5 yr old female boxer who is all girl. Don’t get between her and her daddy! lol
    I will be traveling in a truck camper. Want to forgo the comforts of a large coach for a more manageable camper. I just don’t think I have the nerve, at this juncture, to go large today, but who knows about sometime down the road.
    Keep up the postings, as I look for a new one every day.
    From Tampa,

    • libertatemamo says

      Awwww….love boxers. They are such playfull and smart doggies! Good luck on your travels! The nice thing about a camper is that it can go ANYwhere! Sometimes I really do wish we were smaller in size.

  4. says

    Whew!! Since we have the cottage at Grants Pass, I was really looking forward to your posts about the service there> Whew again! Your loss is my gain specifically! So sorry it was so difficult, Nina. Whew again…your post has worn me out! I did see another blogger at Washoe and wondered if you would run into each other. Hopefully it is nice and WARM for you. Take care and let those amazing mountains and all the beautiful aspens fill you with delight.

    • libertatemamo says

      Yeah, I have to admit that given our experience there I wouldn’t recommend them for general service. By all means get your shocks, sway bars and suspension work done there, but go somewhere else for the rest.

  5. says

    Did the incorrect oil void your tranny warranty? That could be a big one. If the OEM shop did what needed to be done you should be alright, FWIW the owner telling you the wrong oil was ok was either an honest mistake or he was hoping for the best. Lessons learned….

    • libertatemamo says

      According to Smith Power, given we’d only driven 350 miles on the old oil we should be fine for warranty purposes. With regards to Hendersons and Amsoil, I think they have a long-standing relationship and the owner personally uses and believes in their products. At least my impression from talking to him was that he was not trying to miss-lead. He believed Amsoil was the best product and didn’t seem to know about the Allison-approved fluids list. That’s a clear sign of inexperience. Knowing what oils are approved by Allison is something any shop with transmission experience would know. So again..great shop for suspension work, but not for service.

    • libertatemamo says

      I tell you…I would rather give up waiting room comfort for the assurance of perfect service. That room was not much to look at in Reno, but they sure knew what they were doing with our rig.

  6. Upriverdavid says

    Well that sucks..You are not alone. I had my rig in a shop for shocks since it was up in the air I asked for a lube service. I have a heated 1800 square ft shop, I can change my oil, but crawling around greasing it is a pain. Yep! They changed my oil and filters without asking me. I use synthetic and they didn’t..And I had just done it myself. They didn’t charge me but I have learned to keep an eye on all the techs and chat them up to make sure everything is going the way it should..
    I sure hope this doesn’t screw up your warranty..Maybe you should check before leaving the area?
    Best of Luck on your ride to warmer/dryer areas!!

    • libertatemamo says

      They changed your oil without telling you? Boggles the mind! I’ve made it a habit to check on the techs even if I don’t always understand all the details. I have enough general knowledge to know what ‘should’ be happening, even if I can’t actually do the work myself. I think it makes a difference, and it certainly did in this case.

  7. Ralph says

    Don’t ya just love those unexpected problems!. Bet you don’t want sit in a repair shop for awhile. Sounds to me ….like this past week problems.. would be a good reason to have a margarita so BIG….that you would have to post(for insurance purposes).. a “no lifeguard on duty” sign on the side of the glass! Keep smiling,,you got the whole winter to relax.

    • libertatemamo says

      Yeah, in the grand scheme of things this really wasn’t too bad. Our buddies Technomadia spent several months (!!) in a shop this summer doing an engine rebuild. Makes our few days seem pretty paltry in comparison.

  8. Bob Foote says

    Hi Nina,

    Sounds like a Nisser paid you a visit in GP :-)
    When I read the tech put Amsoil in, I immediately thought uh oh. Amsoil is great for front and rear differentials and they make a good lube oil, but their transmission oil is still not ready for prime time. My Dodge Ram uses ATF+4 and last I looked, Amsoil was not yet there. You will most likely be fine as you only went 300 miles.

    I have had the same issues with Dodge dealers and even specialty truck shops. You have to keep any eye on them and ask questions. Good thing you spotted it. Great job!


    • libertatemamo says

      Yeah, after the subsequent research I’ve done on Amsoil I think your analysis is spot on. It may be fine for other purposes, but it hasn’t gone through sufficient testing (in my mind) for use in transmissions.

  9. says

    Hi! I’m sure you’ll get lots of sympathy for this story. My hubby put gas instead of diesel in our truck one time so we stayed in Salt Lake City for another day, had to have the truck towed to the repair place where they had to drain the tank, etc. I’m so glad HE did it and not me! We also just got new tires on our dually truck. The tire place (in Maine) said 2 of the old tires didn’t match. We were sold these cheapies on the road who knows where. From now on, we’ll check that the tires match! The Grants Pass place should definitely have to pay the $600 you paid in Reno. If you write a strong letter with a Yelp threat that might work…. Good luck!


    • libertatemamo says

      Oh noooo…gas instead of diesel. That’s my worst nightmare! That definitely takes the cake. And yes, the original shop owner has agreed to pay for the oil change in Reno. He has been very good to work with that way.

  10. says

    I might add that have a Freightliner chassis and took the Freightliner class in Gaffney SC… there we learned a great deal including detailed info about what fluids were approved for Allison transmissions… so if you have a Freightliner chassis you might consider the class… we learned a lot even after being on the road for two years…

    • libertatemamo says

      I’ve always thought about taking that class. We have a different chassis (Roadmaster), but I’m thinking we could probably learn some valuable info anyway. Sadly, Roadmaster don’t offer those kind of learning programs.

  11. says

    Bullet Dodged!
    Road woes…we’ve had a few, including transmission problems. You quickly learn to give up control when “they” have your rig. We ended up in a motel for two days for a promised one day job. No, they did not reimburse us.
    Then there was the time our blackwater tank burst…
    Box Canyon Mark

    • libertatemamo says

      Ouch!! Burst black tank. I shudder at the thought! I’ve heard a few scary blank tank issues over the years. Fingers crossed we dodge that one.

  12. says

    Thank you for sharing the transmission story…very good advice and reminder to always maintain ultimate responsibility for caring for equipment. It is not always a good thing to give up control of maintenance without really checking things out…again, thank you for this!!

    • libertatemamo says

      Yeah, I’ve learned to check on the mechanics whether or not I know exactly how to do the job. Usually I can tell if things are “off”. This one I managed to catch, but sadly not early enough.

  13. helloroad says

    Informative update. Great Advice. I have always checked and double checked the technicians. The good ones do not mind and the bad ones get insulted if you ask to many questions. I also check with Spartan (we have a spartan chassis) to find someone they will recommend for service. They have been good each and every time. My last service was at the M T Fire Truck Service company in Volga SD. Recommended by Spartan for RV work and after I confirmed my appointment in Sept 2013 they ordered all the correct parts and fluids. When I got there I had the owner, Manager and Senior Technician working on the RV. Great experience. One of my questions always is how many lube joints on the chassis. MT gave me a fitting my fitting rundown. I was impressed. Most Technicians cannot answer this question quickly. Chassis is road ready for another year.

    • libertatemamo says

      The lube joint question is an excellent one. These rigs always seem to have hidden lube areas, and only the really good shops know where they all are. Thanks for that tip. I’m going to use it in the future as a qualifying question for any shop that works on our chassis.

  14. Robert Nuttmann says

    Our transmission misfortune of last fall was even worse than yours. Our transmission was working perfectly and I decided to have Temecula Valley RV (Where we used to store our motor home and had much of our service done.) do a transmission service. We have owned our coach four years and I was not positive when the last full service was down. So I figured that it was good to be proactive and get preventative work done. I got a call a week later to say that they had done the preventative work and that the transmission had now failed and would not even back out of the service bay. Yikes. Oh, and the owner asked me, “is your extended warranty still in effect? And do you have towing insurance?” So our coach had to be towed 100 miles to have the transmission replaced with a rebuilt one. My out of pocket cost was very low so not financially costly for me, but sure did shatter my confidence in Temecula Valley RV. In addition, the mechanics at Temecula Valley RV disconnected wires to our engine brake trying to figure out how to get our transmission working again and forgot to reconnect them. So when I picked up our coach we spent 3 hours trying to figure out what was wrong with it.

    After four years of getting work done on our coach our experience agrees exactly with your post. Get the pros to do work on their area of expertise. We had CAT of Barkersfield work on our motor this last spring. Wow what a difference. Our C12 Cat and connected engine brake work way better than they ever have. We now like getting most of the other work done in the Eugene Oregon area where there is an excellent collection of great shops and technical people. We have had excellent results with the Country Coach factory and Kevin Waite in Junction City OR. I know there are several more in that area.

    • libertatemamo says

      Wow!!! Holy smokes!! Your transmission experience makes ours seem so very trivial. What a horrible experience! I’m happy it worked out (with low cost) in the end, but what a terrible lot of hassle and stress. As you said it just reinforces the point about specialists. Thanks for sharing your story! Nina

  15. says

    Nina… make sure you report on how you like your Safe T Steer.
    We had one installed last winter on our 2 yr old Tiffin at Redlands, In Redlands CA, along with alignment and new Koni shocks. The konis’ made a massive difference in side to side sway, the safe t steer, not so much.
    Will be interested in your opinion.

    • libertatemamo says

      The effects of the Safe-T are subtle. It’s mostly there to keep the coach running straight in the event of a front tire blow-out. On our drive we noticed it helped to keep it running straighter (less wiggling with the steering wheel) on the highway too, but beyond that it doesn’t add much. It defiinitely doesn’t help with sway or front to back movement. We hope to address the latter with new shocks (and possibly also new sway bars) at some point in the future.

  16. Joel & Rebecca says

    And I thought we wear the only ones thing like this happens too.I am a retired diesel mechanic.We had a experience wear Cal Pacific Cummins in ventura ca installed an injection pump for us on our holiday rambler.they charged $2800 dollars and installed it 2 teeth off it for the next 3 yrs it torchered us.would die, over heat, all kinds of heart wrenching hell .every time i drove had no idea what would happen.had it towed seven times averaging 2000 dollars plus every time Engine blew up finally I tore it down found the gear.freaked out with anger called cummins they hung up on me.So we posted pictures of there fine work on line with our names and contact .general manager called he paid for parts I rebuilt the engine.we sold the coach and bought a `07 fleetwood revolution with a CAT DIESEL.happy ,happy , it .We are fulltimers now.We don`t trust dealers.they seem to need money bad. Are you guys going to Alabama hills this month? we were thinking of heading up there .My wife has fear of boondocking.I`m looking forward to it.I make an awesome margarita smooth and strong .plese let us know we would like to meet you guys thanx again for you website we enjoy it very much.

    • libertatemamo says

      WOW! Yet another horror story. This was a big one. It’s amazing the Cummins guys actually did that and caused such massive damage…and then took a threat to pay up!! So sorry to hear about your problems!
      We “may” go back to the Alabama Hills sometime this month, but we have no fixed plans. We like to keep our boondocking kind of loose.

  17. says

    Nina and Paul, thanks for another great and informative post. We are 6 months into full-timing now and still have so much more to learn. We are in a 5er with a F-450/6.7L and agree with your assessment that these machine are magnificently complex. We know you all are enjoying the mountains and cant’ wait to get there ourselves in 2014.

  18. says

    Wow! Good catch! As Ronald Reagan would say “Trust, but verify”. This sort of experience always makes me reluctant to do “preventive” maintenance, as in “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However, I generally do follow or exceed the manufacturer’s recommendations.
    Since you mentioned Les Schwab for tires, I wanted to pass along what I overheard the other day when we were in our local RV shop getting winterized. A couple with a 5th wheel trailer were getting their wheel lug nuts replaced because a Les Schwab technician had used the wrong size socket! So, no matter how good the company’s rep, it all comes down to the individual doing the actual work.

    • libertatemamo says

      You have a very good point. The individual is everything, and in some of the bigger chains (e.g. Les Schwab) one shop in one location may be excellent, but the one 10 miles away could have a terrible reputation. I try to read reviews for every specific location I go, but sometimes even that is fallable.

  19. says

    My blood pressure went up just reading your blog. You must have gone to “stay kool” school somewhere. Sorry to say I failed that course but still working on it … glad all worked out and you’re on your way.

    • libertatemamo says

      I have to admit I got pretty mad at the time it happened. I like to think i handled it politely, but firmly..but this was a tough one. Many years in sales dealing with many angry customers has taught me patience, but sometimes even that is not enough :)

  20. Steve Nelson says

    We can really relate. Henderson’s has such a great reputation for suspension and front end work, you would just naturally assume anything else they said they could do would be topnotch. We very easily would do the same as you guys did with no second thoughts. A very good well
    written article and a very good point made. How lucky we have been in
    the past with shops we did not even know. No horror stories. We love
    what both you guys write and we all benefit from it!
    Steve Nelson

    • libertatemamo says

      I should say this is probably the first such bad experience we’ve had. All the shops we’ve dealt with in the past have been pretty good. I’m just glad it was something that was easily fixable, especially after hearing some of the other horror stories on here from other commenters!

  21. Upriverdavid says

    Hi Nina, you stated you were thinking about new shocks? I need to warn you about Bilstein shocks. I believe they say the shocks are guaranted for life. Well maybe, you have to return them to where you purchased them for it to be honored. I got 5 new shocks @ Camping World Tacoma Wa..Got home and one had fallen half off because they didn’t tighten the bolts. Then the top of the same shock broke off at a later time. They wanted me to drive 450 miles round trip to replace it..Ya sure 5-10 mpg….I went with Monroes, they are 2x as large and work much better…Had to let you know, again hope the sun is shining down South.

    • libertatemamo says

      Thanks for the info! I’ve yet to complete all my research on shocks, but I was leaning towards Koni’s (if and when the budget allows it). Still no-where near fixed on this one though.

  22. Else and Kim says

    Hey Paul
    Thanks for sharing this valuable lesson. Have used
    Henderson several times and concur completely with your assessment. Yikes….it is a minefield out there. Caught that silver bullet between your teeth.

    • libertatemamo says

      Yeah, I have to admit we fell into this mistake.Glad it worked out without too much trouble, but it was a close call.

  23. says

    You may have already said and I missed it, but do you use synthetic transmission fluid in your Allison? There are a few that are approved and I did notice Amsoil was included.

  24. says

    Holy Moly. That could have been so bad. Thanks for writing, we read and we learn. We’re on our way out shortly to see Erik @ Elite, our entry way step motor has died, very sad. Looking forward to seeing what you’re seeing in Owen’s Valley.

  25. says

    So glad to hear that this experience did not void any warranties Nina. I think that last photo of Paul just says it all. You’ve once again taught us all a valuable lesson. Now to the mountains! :)

  26. Cheryl says

    We also feel your pain! Sitting in the repair shop camping lot for the second time since leaving AK. Hoping we can be released soon with no further repeat problems! We had such high hopes for efficiency, but alas, no such luck. I really need to be somewhere by Friday and hope we can get there without rushing. Good to know about repair places other bloggers have experienced for future reference. Glad you escaped and are sitting in the mountains, not the repair camping lot!

    • libertatemamo says

      There is nothing quite as frustrating as sitting around in a shop for days on end. Our worst experience was a slide issue we had a few years back. We ended up spending 2 whole days in a shop in CO, only to be told at the end of it all that they couldn’t fix it. That prompted us to trash all our summer plans and drive 1000 miles to the factory in OR as our last option. The downside was all the time we wasted on the fix, the upside was we “discovered” Oregon which (for whatever reason) had never been on our travel plans. Since then it’s become a firm favorite of ours. Here’s hoping a similar silver lining happens to you!

      • Cheryl says

        definitely a silver lining here as always! I just did a preemptive bill review and it was not as bad as I thought. Hoping to be on the road tomorrow as soon as the washer part gets here and installed. Camping World installed a 2010 model back in March 2013. Where do they keep all this old inventory? Oregon Coast is also our favorite!

  27. says

    I too had a bad experience with Henderson’s in Oregon.

    I asked them to check (and adjust to factory specs, which I provided)
    the ride height on my 2006 Diplomat on a Roadmaster RR8R chassis.

    The tech adjusted the curb side to ‘compensate for the crown in the road’.
    Guess he didn’t look at the auto height adjusting system in the owners manual I handed him.

    Later took it to Source Engineering where they saw and corrected the
    problem. I am out $350 to get my coach back in the condition
    it was before I took it to Hendersons.

    You have to wonder if these shop owners/managers ever read these
    blogs and RV forums!

    • libertatemamo says

      Hmmm…that’s not good. I would actually suggest you call Robert (the owner at Hendersons) and discuss this w/ him. It would be important feedback for his shop. Sorry you had to go through that trouble!


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