Tuesday, November 27, 2012


"Refund this man his money for the power steering flush," barked the Jiffy Lube manager to his underling, snapping his head in my direction.

I think the guy -- let's call him "Jake" -- was so snippy this morning because he was trying to quit smoking after fifteen years. Jake said he was "doing it for my daughter," though he confessed it was "really tough." I learned all this later while immersed in the confounding mysteries of the proper power steering fluid for my wife's Nissan.

I had pulled into the Coburg Road Jiffy Lube early. The station's two open bays were mostly empty, but I stopped the car next to the station, got out, and walked over to the guy who was obviously the manager. I told him I usually came here and asked if he would honor my Googled $19.99 oil change coupon, which clearly stated it was good only at a competing Jiffy Lube downtown.

"Sure," Jake said. "The only difference from our usual service is we don't vacuum out your car, blah, blah, blah…" I tuned out, but nodded ok. "Pull on in," he grinned.

A few minutes later Jake came into the waiting room, which was tiny and spartan with a big window looking into the open-air service area. He had that look on his face that mechanics have when they bring you bad news -- read that, expensive news. I see that look and I figure they gotta be doing high-fives in their heads.

"Have you had your power steering serviced lately?" he asked. This can't be good. Jake quickly got to the point and rattled off a bunch of mechanic talk about "universal" fluid, which I apparently had, instead of "ATF" fluid, which is pink and is what I was supposed to have. He dabbed a finger-full of my offending amber-colored power steering fluid on something that looked like a paint chip sample sheet. I wasn't sure what the point was.

I caught, "I've been doing this for fifteen years…," but all the rest was a jumble. I made Jake slow down and repeat it all to me, but it still took three times (maybe it was four), before I understood that the wrong power steering fluid had been used the last time it had been changed and that was bad.

"We can flush and replace the fluid for $44.95," Jake told me.

The last place to work on the engine had been a garage in Springfield. They must have made the mistake. Every other major service had been at the Lithia Nissan dealer in Eugene, and I couldn't imagine them putting in a wrong fluid.
I silently cursed the Springfield mechanic and told Jake, no, I was going to take the car back there and make them fix it right.

As I drove away, heading for Springfield four miles away, a few blocks down the road I made a neck-snapping u-turn. "Screw that," I said to myself. "I'll pay the money at Jiffy Lube and be done with it. I could see myself getting stuck at the Springfield garage for hours.

As Jake sucked out the old amber-colored fluid and pumped in from a reservoir hanging from the ceiling the new pink fluid, I asked him, "So if it was the right fluid, it would have been pink, is that right?"

"Yes," he said quite clearly.

I paid my bill and made chit-chat with the kid at the register, and mentioned that this was one of the chores I did for my wife.

"Yeh, me too," he said, then caught himself and stammered, "no, no, I didn't mean for your wife. I mean mine."

* * *
"Jiffy Lubes are the bane of my existence," snorted the Nissan dealer's service manager.

Freshly flushed with proper pink power steering fluid, my wife's car had seemed to steer just fine as I drove it back to her office to swap for my own car. But then, it had steered just fine before the Jiffy Lube fix, too.

I checked the Nissan's owner's manual to see what it had to say about pink versus amber power steering fluid. Its chart of fluid specifications recommended genuine Nissan fluids. Microscopic footnotes, however, listed acceptable generic fluids, but I couldn't make sense of them. It seemed like they were saying that a certain kind of automatic transmission fluid was ok to use, and it didn't seem right. That's when I decided to go straight to the Nissan dealer, just a mile down the road, to get a straight answer.

The service manager -- let's call him "Mark" -- gave me that "well, what can you expect" expression when I mentioned Jiffy Lube. "They make their money by up-charging you for other services like that," he said.

I had to smile. One the one hand, I'm sure he was right; no way Jiffy Lube made any money on my $19.99 oil change. On the other hand, a guy like Mark who wears a nice suit in a greasy auto repair shop -- you know he's learned all the angles; I'm sure Mark, himself, is a master at the game of the up-charge.

When I mentioned (with an apologetic look) having gotten our last dealer-scheduled service at the Springfield garage, that "my wife had wanted to go to there," and they were the likely culprit, Mark nodded understandingly. He pulled out a board, however, displaying a variety of auto fluids in clear tubes that demonstrated new power steering fluid and dirty power steering fluid -- of the kind used in Nissans. The new fluid was colorless; the used fluid was amber-colored. None of it was pink.

It appeared, then, that the right fluid in my wife's car had been replaced with the wrong fluid by Jiffy Lube. I asked Mark how long I had before the wrong, pink fluid caused a problem. Would it make it until the next scheduled dealer service? After a fashion, Mark conceded that it would be ok to wait. After a further fashion, I got the impression that Mark wasn't really claiming that the pink stuff was all that bad. I walked back to my car, shaking my head.

Only one thing was now clear: whether or not the Springfield garage had changed out the power steering fluid some 25,000 miles earlier (and I later found that it had done that, and charged me $41), the Nissan's old fluid had been just fine, though a flush certainly couldn't have hurt, assuming the fluid was a safe kind.

* * *
Back a third time to Jiffy Lube. Jake didn't seem to recognize me since I got out of a different car than the Nissan. "Remember? Power steering fluid?" I hinted, and he immediately straightened. "You were wrong," I pointed at his chest but kept smiling. "The power steering fluid that Nissan uses is not pink; it's clear." I related my recent show-and-tell with Mark.

That's when Jake snapped about giving me a refund. When I didn't jump at his offer, however, he reconsidered. "Wait on that refund," he said to his underling. "I'm going to call Nissan."

A sharp-looking kid -- let's call him "Tom" -- joined us, holding out two fat car spec books opened to pages clearly spelling out non-dealer brand fluid requirements for my wife's Nissan, exactly the kind of power steering fluid that Jiffy Lube had used.

Jake left a message for Nissan's Mark to call him back. "Let's give him five minutes to call back and see what they say."

While I waited, I chatted with Tom out in the empty service bays. I was impressed with the neatness of his uniform. I learned he was leaving Jiffy Lube for a job at the Kendall Toyota dealer.

"Better pay?" I asked.

"Definitely," he said. "I've hit the ceiling here. There's nowhere else to go up in my job here. Jake's sure not going anywhere."

We both shivered in Oregon's cold morning fog. Tom mimed typing on a keyboard at his new job: "And warm," he added. "An inside job."

Jake had retreated to his closet-sized office and closed the door to meet with a woman from "Food for Lane County." In the cramped hallway were two huge empty barrels labeled for food donations. A few minutes later, he came out of his meeting and both were smiling. He told me he had signed a contract to help the food charity. "Good advertising. Give back to the community, and all that," he said, sincere but a bit sheepish, it seemed to me. Some "bane," I thought.

"Call Nissan back again," he ordered Tom, who finally connected with Mark, but then mid-conversation handed the phone to his boss with a look that said, "I can't deal with this asshole."

Jake was polite enough in his questions of Mark, but nothing sounded like it was getting settled. Then I heard Jake mention some federal law -- which I later learned requires dealers to provide auto fluids free for the life of the car to owners, if dealer fluids are mandated under warrantee and no generic fluids are acceptable -- and that's when Nissan's Mark hung up, leaving Jake talking a few seconds to a dead line.

At that point, I concluded that everyone had been partly right and everyone had been partly wrong, but that the pink power steering fluid was perfectly safe, and that it probably could have used changing anyway.

"Listen," I said, shaking Jake's hand. "I didn't come back here for a refund. I just wanted to tell you what I learned and see what you thought was going on. I got no hard feelings to you."

My wife claims that I'm easily entertained. That's apparently so, because when I pulled away from Jiffy Lube and into Coburg Road's traffic, I was still laughing out loud. You know what the blues anthem says: "Take your pleasure where you find it."

# # #



No comments:

Post a Comment