Ford Econoline E-350 driven in a dusty climate. Am I being ripped off?

This post came to my attention, and has named our company, so I thought I would respond (and hopefully turn down the volume on the rush to judgement here):

The OP took the van to Burning Man in the Nevada Desert (off road is prohibited under the contract btw, and our website specifically says Burning Man is prohibited). Upon return the van was covered in dust inside and out - inside cupholders, smushed into speaker grills, underneath seats, in carpets, and everywhere you could possibly look (and many places you couldn’t). I should mention that the bill the OP is upset about also includes the extra charges we incurred from the detail shop for a complete shampoo and getting the dust out of everything.

The engine was of course also completely covered in dust. We took the vehicle to a dealer mechanic within hours of the vehicle being returned in order to make sure that everything was ok. It was the dealer mechanic at Courtesy Ford who gave the service recommendations (air filter, trans flush, steering fluid flush, and replace serpentine belt) based on the level of dust. As our clients don’t typically take our vehicles into the desert, we didn’t have any reason to doubt the recommendation, so we authorized the work and paid for it.

For those who were thinking this was a backhanded way of having the OP pay for scheduled maintenance: the vehicle had received a complete tuneup (total over $2700) just a month prior to the OP’s rental. So there was no scheduled maintenance due for quite a long time.

Based on the conversation here I reached back to the service adviser who told me the steering system in an Econoline E350 is not a “completely closed” system, it does vent to outside air, and it is possible for dust to get in through these vents and contaminate the system (particularly in an extremely dusty environment like Burning Man - where the dust is the consistency of baby powder). Burning man is also prone to dust storms, so it’s not like OP just went up a dirt road for an hour or two. You can see some pictures here to get a sense of how extreme these conditions are:

OP signed the contract, and agreed to be responsible for returning the vehicle in the same condition he rented it. As a van rental company we have to prioritize safety, and we have tremendous liability exposure if we do not. If a mechanic tells us that the steering could be potentially adversely affected by dust, we have to address that issue. It really isn’t optional.

S. Laguana

Possibly myself as much if not more than anyone often cautions about there being two sides to a story and that many people often pick and choose the facts they present for obvious reasons.
Your website states no off-road and specifically no Burning Man excursions…

I suppose the “parked in a dusty climate” is a phrase I should have investigated a bit further as that can involve some word play.

Based on that, I humbly and wholeheartedly apologize for jumping to a false conclusion.

Holy Crap…Aliens do exist!!!

So the OP took the van to a prohibited site listed in the contract.

That makes things a little different.


Maybe cough the thinking by the van occupants during this excursion was a bit cough clouded…

blushing man…

That certainly does change things a bit. However, unless your rental policy has a clause to the effect of “if you take it to Burning Man you are liable for any expense we choose to stick you with,” then I still maintain that the transmission flush was unnecessary and OP should not be held responsible for it.

If things went as you say, then the dealership recommended an unnecessary service to you and you should seek redress through them, not require your customers to pay for your having been duped by the dealership.

That said, hopefully there’s a clause in your contract somewhere that adds several hundred bucks for breaking policy, because if OP really did take it where he was told not to take it, he should be taught not to do it again. :wink:

maybe they assumed he was running the crap out of it in the sand, or had evidence that he was…

What would that have to do with needing to change the transmission fluid?

well, I would keep it in low gear and run the heck out of my trans. to avoid getting stuck…

Shadowfax, this is what the dealer originally told us:

“So we looked vehicle no sign of engine damage. Did find air filter plugged with dust and serpentine belt coated with dust. Need to replace both of those for sure. There are a few fluids that are vented to air that should be changed, transmission fluid, power steering fluid and brake fluid.”

As I said, I double checked with the mechanic after seeing this thread on CarTalk, and he repeated that all of these fluids vent to air, and can be contaminated if the dust is fine enough.

Which, let’s talk about the dust here for a second: you might be hearing “desert” and thinking sand like what you find on the beach. This isn’t beach sand. This is dust with the same consistency as talcum, flour, or baby powder. It can literally float in the air. Furthermore it is alkaline sand, so it sticks to metal, has a deeply corrosive effect on electronics & rubber seals, and will damage the paint if it is not removed. Also you can’t remove it with just soapy water, you need a non-alkaline detergent mixed in. When the OP brought the van back every square inch of the van, inside and out, had to be cleaned.

Keep in mind the vehicle didn’t just drive down a dusty road for an hour or two. As the OP acknowledges, it was in several dust storms where the air was literally unsafe to breathe without protection, while spending over a week in the desert a mile from the nearest paved road.

So we have an expensive vehicle, covered with dust, and if it encounters any problems in the future as a result of this dust we are on the hook for everything: if there’s an accident, a breakdown, or even an unhappy client who feels the vehicle isn’t clean we can be saddled with lawsuits, repair bills, discounts, and bad online reviews. We are not a large company, and these are not abstract concerns.

All rental contracts specify that you are to return the item in the same condition it was in when you rented it, minus normal wear and tear. If the item is not in the same condition the renter is responsible for any costs to restore it to its original condition. This is true whether you are renting an apartment, a hotel room, a car or a leaf blower. OP states he did not drive the vehicle in the sand, but even accepting this statement at face value: how did it get out there in the first place? How did it leave? Are we supposed to just take his word for it that the vehicle is ok?

Flushing the fluids might strike you as overly cautious, but that caution is well warranted when you compare the minimal cost of flushing the fluids with the extraordinary risks we would incur by failing to heed the advice of the mechanic. Our maintenance records are discoverable in a lawsuit, and if the steering later failed in an accident a plaintiff’s attorney could point at our failure to follow the mechanic’s advice as negligence. Our hands were completely tied, and as I stated previously, this wasn’t optional.

Monday morning quarterbacking that the vehicle’s fluids were “fine” is easy to do if a) you have no idea what condition the vehicle was actually in when it was returned, and b) have no future liability exposure if you are wrong.

It is unfortunate that OP ignored or failed to read our website (the Burning Man policy has been up there since 2004 when two of our vans suffered electrical failure due to the sand, neccesitating over $2k in towing and repairs), and violated the terms of the contract. We haven’t charged “whatever we want” - we have only sought reimbursement for our out-of-pocket expenses stemming from service a licensed mechanic (who is not employed by us) recommended, and an exceedingly modest $115 cleaning fee that we paid to an outside detail shop.

bandango seems to be on solid ground. I even changed their name to a less offensive one, don t want to chase off your Italian customers… :slight_smile:


well, I would keep it in low gear and run the heck out of my trans. to avoid getting stuck…

It’s a playa, not quicksand. It’s hard-packed dirt. You’re not going to get stuck.

@bandango Look, I appreciate your position, and assuming you are telling the truth, then OP certainly owes you whatever is stipulated in your rental agreement for taking the van somewhere he wasn’t supposed to take it. I agree with you that OP should not have taken it there. I couldn’t find the clause in your rental agreement because your rental agreement is not available for review that I could see, so I don’t know how you make them aware of that when they actually rent the vehicle. I also don’t know what penalties, if any, you assign to breaking that rule. If one of the penalties is “whatever any mechanic tells us when we take the vehicle to him, we will follow whether it’s BS or not, and you will pay for it,” then you’re on more solid ground. However, if it were me in the role of customer, assuming I was enough of a jackass to take the vehicle somewhere you told me not to, I would pay what I owed you for actual damages incurred, and not work done based on unfounded claims.

Your mechanic was full of crap. It spent a week in the desert, not a vat of acid. The belt didn’t need replacement. The transmission fluid didn’t need replacement. Neither did the power steering fluid. At least, not because it was parked in a desert for a week.

As for liability, if you’re genuinely worried that someone could sue you because a mechanic tried to scam money out of you, you need a better company attorney. Not taking obvious money-fishing “advice” does not expose you to liability. Otherwise, crooked mechanics would be telling you that you need new tires every month. And, well, hey, if the guy gets a flat and rolls the van, you’re liable because the mechanic told you to replace the 3 week old tires and you didn’t. No, sorry, that doesn’t make sense.

we have that powder sand on the Chesapeake bay shores too, , if you don t keep it wound out the whole time, you are stuck. and neither of us knows where the OP drove exactly…

alkaline dirt, burning man? now I get it!!!

Edit: Have to admit I didn’t read all the posts with the other side of the story. Like I said though, read the fine print first and kinda out of luck if using it for a prohibited activity. You are not allowed to race rental cars either or use them in demo derbies. Who would want to go there anyway is the real issue.

I agree with the others but you first might want to read the fine print on the rental contract to see if it has additional charges for adverse driving conditions. You do need to contact the rental company first to resolve it before the AG. You don’t need to tell them you are contacting the AG since that is just a threat and the AG will contact them all by their lonesome to get their side of the story. Most of the time though the AG just tries to negotiate a settlement, kind of like small claims court and split the difference so that everyone is dissatisfied. Contesting the charge with the CC company might be easier but they would have already just charged the card for damages and not notified you. That’s what they do, tack on an additional hold out amount when you first rent the car, in case they need to charge more for damages.

I live in Reno, so I meet a lot of burners. That playa dust is persistent. There is absolutely no way to get it out entirely. There’s a reason people build custom scrapyard cars and buy cheap bikes for Burning Man, and it’s because the playa dust destroys everything mechanical. @bandago you might just want to weld a dragon onto this van and turn it into a dedicated Burning Man art-car.

This is not sand – it’s caustic, lung-burning silt. It forms a hardpan when dry (it’s rock hard, and covered in a crust of salt), and it’s easy to drive on. If it gets wet, though, it’s the absolute worst thing to drive through. Worse than wet Carolina clay or loose Mojave sand. This last year’s Burning Man was incredibly wet (they had to close the roads for a day or two), so I wouldn’t be surprised if the undercarriage and suspension of this van is coated with some of the hardest, saltiest, most caustic crud that you could glue to the bottom of a car. Mix up some baking soda, salt, talcum powder, and Elmer’s glue and you’ve pretty much got playa sand. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the Bandago cats at wanting to recoup some of the cleaning and maintenance costs, so long as they do it according to the contract.

I must say…in a “he said/she said” type argument, it speaks volumes that OP has gone AWOL since the additional facts have been revealed…

That talcum powder like sand also presents another problem. An air filter will only stop so much of the contaminants entering the engine. The finer the particles the more that enters so one has to wonder if or when the engine may start using oil due to premature wear in the cylinders and rings.

The salt flats about 40 miles from me has something like that; a mix of sand and salt saturated with briny water. People who go crystal digging there (and I’ve done it) leave with a vehicle that needs some serious cleaning work.

On another note, I used half a package of butter removing my size 12 boot from my mouth…

Like Shadow, I’d want to see the entire contract before switching sides. Often these exclusionary clauses are buried in a lengthy list in 4pt font on page 8, sometimes in legalese that no commoner can read.

Bandango, unless you post a link to your actual contract, which apparently is not available on your website, my sympathies will lie with the OP. You’ve posted no real evidence to the contrary.

Here’s a cut and paste below from Bandango’s website listed under “Policies”. Clear as a bell.

Do not drive our vehicles on unpaved surfaces or off road. Do not take our vehicles into the desert (yes, this means Burning Man! Sorry Burners we love you, but our engines do not love that sand at all).


I’m curious about one thing . . .

How did you know your company had been mentioned on the car talk website?

Are you a regular reader?

Or did some little birdie tell you?