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Can someone explain to me what these are, what they do, and what some symptoms are of a broken one? i've been hearing a bit about them lately and am clueless as to what they are...

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The acculmulators in a trans. help to absorb the harshness of the shift by softening to application of the clutches/bands. They do this by "accumulating" fluid against a spring in a small chamber. This slows the application of the clutches/bands making for a softer shift.

The spring pressure works backwards against what you would think. A softer spring makes for a firmer shift since the accumulator compresses quickly and full pressure is applied to the clutches/bands sooner. A stiffer spring makes for a softer shift since it takes longer to compress and full pressure is reached more slowly.

Most of the manual valve bodies will remove the accumulator spring entirely which makes for a tire barking shift all the time but it's really tough on drivetrain parts.
 
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