The Wild Drive #buslife Recap Part Four – Then & Now
The adventure of converting a retired prison bus into a cozy tiny home.
What a wild ride this past year and a half has been. Retelling of the work completed and progress made is best told in pictures, so, here goes:
Our bus was first used as a prison bus in Virginia, then converted into a mobile command center by the Sheriff’s department there.
There were THREE, count ’em THREE locking prison cage doors, four bus seats, four tables, dozens of power strips, metal server stands, and a 24-foot pneumatic mast antenna mounted on the back. It also already had electricity wired throughout and a Cummins Onan generator, huge plus.
The first couple of months were spent gutting everything out, which we actually LOVED. It requires focus, energy, and is quite gratifying at the end of the day. We needed to strip things down to the metal shell in order to assess and treat rust, as well as insulate for four-season living.
Prison cage discovery. Wu-tang fan in the house.
Here we are after removing the larger fixtures, seats, tables, etc. Things are starting to clear up. Did I mention that the bus had metal bars on the windows too?
Ben’s middle name is safety so naturally, he loved the cages and metal bars on the windows. But alas, marriage is all about compromise. We agreed to remove one cage and reposition the other two to maintain an open floor concept and maximize our space (165 square feet!). You can see the back cage in this photo is about 4 feet up from the back door. We (PAINSTAKINGLY!) lifted and moved it all the way back, 8 inches up from the exit door. Our fresh water tanks will fit nicely back there on either side.
We also eventually agreed on not reinstalling the metal bars, thank gooooooodness. It’s so nice to open up all the windows on a breezy summer day and just ENJOY. 🙂
More progress on the bus gutting front. We removed all the old linoleum.
What you see above is the original plywood subfloor. Not too bad for 27+ years old. We also started removing the rivets on the walls to strip out all that funky old insulation.
Most areas of the floor and walls were in very good shape, but we did have a few spots in the back with some water damage. It’s VERY important to strip things down to the metal to assess the bones that you’re working with.
We were THRILLED to pull up the old plywood and find our metal floor in this condition. She really does have good bones!
I’ve seen some horror show examples of skoolies with serious rust throughout, pitting, holes, you name it. This stuff takes time to properly treat, clean, and seal prior to moving onto installing new subfloor. The worst part was in the back, where an old a/c unit leaked for who knows how long onto the floor.
We used multiple products, elbow grease, and time to treat and remove the rust as best as we could. Questions? Reach out to us for more information.
Ben did a PHENOMENAL job of priming the metal floors after the grinding, treating, cleaning, and everything was complete underneath. He was meticulous. He said it then and he still agrees, it was 100% worth the extra time and effort to do it correctly.
This was around the time that we got the bus REGISTERED at the Town Hall, too. That was a fun process. It’s not every day that someone walks in and asks to register their 1989 Chevy prison bus. This was a learning experience and if ANYONE has any questions about this process in Maine, please reach out to us! We’re happy to help.
We did not retitle the bus, it wasn’t a requirement. We were able to simply register it as a motorhome once we came up with a ballpark figure of MSRP and pulled the GVWR figure off of the manufacturer information plaque near the driver’s seat.
Here we see another coat of Rustoleum paint to really seal things up. There were umpteen holes on the floor which we sealed up with a few applications of silicone prior to laying any plywood.
We moved the focus upward onto the ceiling for a bit. Our plan was pretty intricate: to create a thermal barrier with multiple layers of insulation. First, we removed all the metal ceiling panels. Ugh. Heavy.
Ben cut and applied strips of two-inch hard foam XPS insulation with foam board adhesive, directly to the metal and sprayed Great Stuff gaps & cracks in-between.
You can also see the front cage in this photo has been repositioned to be directly behind the driver’s seat.
We quickly realized we needed to protect the metal floor paint job we just worked so hard on so we moved onto insulating the floor (1 1/2 inch XPS hard foam insulation sheets) and installing the plywood subfloor.
We also removed a few old heating and cooling units during this process. All the walls and insulation are out in this photo, too. The back cage stayed down like this for a while until we were ready to permanently install it.
Back to the ceiling insulation – very important! The best way I can describe the final functionality of our “system” is that it acts like a thermos. The layers are like this: metal wall, two-inch XPS foam insulation, foil bubble wrap layer glued right to the foam, air space (we drilled wood spacers into the studs), another layer of foil bubble wrap glued to the metal ceiling panels then reattached.
It works like a DREAM on a summer day. It still gets warm, don’t get me wrong, but, if you put your hand on the outside of the bus, which is black right now, then feel the inside ceiling… SERIOUS difference.
Here we are with the metal panels reattached and a few of our walls up. Behind the walls we added fresh three inch fiberglass insulation on the top half and inserted panels of two inch XPS hard foam down into the bottom half of the walls. We sprayed Great Stuff foam into all the cracks.
In the future, we would go with 1 1/2 inch hard foam OR spray foam insulation in the bottom half of the walls. Two inch is pretty tight and was a super pain to install.
This was when a few water leaks started appearing. So sad.
Water is very sneaky and tends to find a way in, especially when you start moving this around. This was a VERY frustrating process to narrow down where water was coming in and solve the issue before it caused permanent damage to our new subfloor, etc.
So, we removed most of our plywood walls to investigate. We narrowed the leaks down to the windows and decided to remove all eighteen, clean off the decades-old silicone seal and reapply a fresh coat. This was a lot of work but well worth it for peace of mind.
This process along with some exterior body work and sealing solved our leaks 100%. Ahh…
We reattached our walls and moved on.
Ben continued to ROCK IT in the carpentry department and got cracking on the built-ins. Kitchen cabinets in the front, boxes over the wheel wells and our bed frame out back.
Ben is working on our guest bed in the photo above. SUCH a neat design. He’s amazing.
Now all we need are comfy cushions!
Things are starting to take shape here! Oh! There’s a fresh coat of paint on the ceiling panels, too. Huge difference!
Installing the flooring was a major turning point, mentally. We just LOVE it. It’s our favorite piece of furniture.
Love it, too? Check out Longleaf Lumber for more eye candy in the reclaimed wood department.
This was early May, and another turning point for us. We needed to move the bus from it’s winter home to it’s new summer home a little over an hour away.
That meant we NEEDED to bite the bullet at get it inspected at the garage to make it road-ready and legal.
To say we were nervous would be a HUGE understatement. We dropped it off at Ray’s garage and put as much positive energy out into the universe as possible in the 24 hours that followed, waiting anxiously for that follow up phone call.
Visions of the hours and hours of work behind us…
We’ve heard really sad stories of skoolie converters taking their pride and joy bus that they’ve been working so hard on into the garage only to be told it needs MAJOR work, expensive work.
The mechanic called me that afternoon and said…
“Where did you get this bus?!”
Oh my gosh. WHY?! WHAT’S WRONG?!
“This thing is awesome.”
It turns out there was NOTHING wrong with it. It needed a quick transmission line replacement, and to have a few lights replaced. That’s it. He said it was in excellent condition given it’s age, and that we were very lucky.
I freaked out.
Right there in my car, I just started freaking out on the phone. I told him, “I know I may sound crazy for being so pumped right now, but, you don’t understand how much work we’ve put into this thing!”
It’s our 31 foot rollin’ baby and future home, after all! 🙂
With that settled. We moved the bus to it’s new home in the country and got back to work.
Life is good.
Look, we have a bed!
We spend weekends at the bus while working on things now, which is pretty tricky space-wise, but, it’s oh so wonderful to get out of town and just BE with the bus.
Spending multiple days and nights here has been a great experience to test things out and adjust our setup and supplies as we go. We have the unique opportunity to try out tiny living and bus life before we go 100% full-time with it, which we’re really thankful for!
I sewed up our guest bed / couch cushions, we added our countertop (still a work in progress), and started to put more things together.
Our composting toilet is housed in that box on the left near the bed. The box cover flips up. Ben’s actually working on the built-in for the shower/tub right now as I write this. It’s being installed directly across the bus from the toilet area. Stayed tuned for a new photo.
We have a very simple one burner propane cooktop which works beautifully. It’s all we need. We also LOVE our Berkey water filter (right).
On the left side you can see our lovely kitchen table. It’s hinged and can be flipped down when not in use. It’s a gorgeous antique reclaimed maple butcher block. We kept the surface original (added a few coats of tung oil) and back planed it to make it a bit thinner.
We added some reclaimed blue bead board paneling behind it. LOVE.
There is still so much to do, which can be overwhelming at times, but then I look back and where we started and just smile.
We signed up for an adventure, and that’s exactly what it’s been. We’re happy and moving forward in so many ways, little by little, every day.
That’s all we can ask for.
Sure, it’s taking us a little longer than we expected, but we’re working on a few other REALLY important things, too: our health, happiness, direction, plans, and long term vision for the future.
A great friend of mine once told me, (in my early twenties aka the most tumultuous time ever) “As long as you’re improving, in some way, each and every day, you’re doing just fine.”
Amen to that.
Get alllll caught up in our prison bus tiny home conversion process: