Tips on Buying a Bus: What to ask and look for…

Tips on Buying a Bus: What to ask and look for…

How do you choose the right bus to convert into a tiny home on wheels?!

The beginning of a bus conversion adventure is SO EXCITING. You’re full of travel dreams and design ideas. We’ve gathered some tips on buying a bus here from our experience. We’ve had little to no issues with our bus in the 22,000 miles we’ve driven it and we like to attribute at least some of that with the preparations we made in selecting the right bus for us.

It’s important to be diligent and thorough during the bus buying process. It can mean the difference between a relatively smooth project and a headache inducing stress-fest.

Remember, you can spend weeks or months (in our case two years! hah!) designing a beautiful living space that you’re truly proud of. If your bus doesn’t run well, or if it is on the brink of cost prohibitive mechanical issues, well, that’ll be heartbreaking. This is where patience & due diligence comes in. If you read through and still have questions, reach out to us, we’re always happy to help!

A few quick thoughts to start:

  • Do AS MUCH research as possible ahead of time,
  • Take your time when viewing prospective bus(es), and
  • Ask a lot of questions.

A LOT can change in a year… 💙 Last summer we parked our half done bus on a sunny piece of farmland in western Maine. Ben and I drove up on weekends to work on projects and enjoy a slice of the DIY life ahead. It was still a bit of a shell. There were so many brand new days ahead. ——…—— You can have a rough plan and ideas for a future leap in life, sure, be prepared, of course. But nothing is really guaranteed. Things change and evolve. YOU change and evolve. That’s the best part, actually. 💛 ——…—— You HAVE to just try… even after you feel like you’re DONE with a new challenge — give it another day, another hour. Remember why you started. How can you shift your perspective to continue moving forward? ——…—— Eventually the pieces come together and frustrations transform into progress and momentum. Stay open and enjoy the ride. 💛

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We hope in sharing our personal experience and lessons learned we can help others better prepare for their bus conversion purchase and adventure ahead.

Let’s dive in.

Evaluate your bus conversion project budget (money + time, etc.)

Budgeting for a bus conversion doesn’t just mean considering monetary cost. It’s also about the amount time you have and are willing to spend converting your bus.

Have a spend range set in your mind, write it down. Mull it over.  Just like a vehicle, remember that you’ll pay more for lower mileage and a better overall condition. If you have the resources to put in a little extra time perhaps a less expensive bus and extra elbow grease is the better way to go.

Curious what our bus conversion cost numbers were? Take a look at how much our bus conversion cost.

Tools – to buy or to borrow?

When mulling over your budget for the bus conversion build, don’t forget to factor in the cost of tools. You’ll either need to acquire them yourself or borrow them from family/friends/connections.

Work your network and see who you can find to assist you along the way.

Purchasing your own tools does have worthwhile benefits. If you have space to store them, they’re an investment that you can use for future projects and repair. At the very least you should own the tools necessary for mechanical repair and upkeep.   

Patience – How much do you want this?

Converting a bus from scratch is NOT EASY. It often seems like every project takes twice as long as you planned and if you want it done right, it’s not always cheap.

You can’t anticipate everything that will come up during your conversion project, TRUST US. You can at least think in broad terms about work you’ve seen others do that you’re not interested in embarking on for simplicity-sake, etc.

For example — one thing we didn’t really want to get into is metal work, patching, welding new panels. It’s just too far out of our wheel-house.

Considering that fact ahead of time, we made sure to buy a bus that had SUPERFICIAL RUST ONLY. BUT — if you have the connections, skills and resources to do this type of work then it wouldn’t be an issue for you.

It’s important to have these conversations ahead of time.

Parking/Storage

Where are you going to park the bus during your build project?

This is an important consideration. We found it absolutely necessary to have a power hookup (or generator), trash collection or nearby transfer station, water hookup and plenty of space to work. ESPECIALLY during the demolition phase.

We lucked out over the two years of our bus build with GREAT places to park and store the bus. We parked it at a campground during the off-season (when the park was closed) and also at friend’s houses/land.

We worked our network of friends/coworkers and luckily never had a problem finding a spot to work.

Don’t be shy, ask around. 

Skills – essential & potential know-how required for a bus build:

There are several skill sets that you or someone you know will need to possess in order to survive this project. We approached this project as a major opportunity to GROW, learn and acquire really valuable skills for the future. It can be frustrating at times but in the end very rewarding. You’ll need to dive into:

  • Carpentry
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical (solar/auxiliary systems)
  • Mechanical
  • Welding (maybe)
  • Safe driving of a LARGE vehicle.
  • I feel like we should add resilience & problem solving here too. 🙂 There will be times to want to drive your bus straight into a junkyard and never look back. It’s TOUGH, but you find ways to push through.

You can always hire out for certain projects but if your goal is to save money, DIY determination is your friend. Ask your friends, co-workers and family for referrals too.

Our experience: We did everything in our bus build ourselves with the exception of solar. Ben assisted a mobile solar specialist with the install but knew that it would be much safer the first time around to be lead by a professional. He learned SO MUCH.

Special note of caution here: Solar panels collect electricity regardless if they’re installed or not. Be VERY careful if installing on a sunny day.

Where do I FIND a bus to purchase?

craigslist bus conversion

There are a lot more resources now vs. during our search in 2016. Woohoo! Dive into good old Google for “used buses for sale”. You can also scope out used bus dealers or vehicle auctions in your area. Sometimes you can get lucky locally like we did!

We found our bus on Craigslist. Our seller was knowledgeable mechanic, which was a HUGE HELP. There are plenty on there as well as on eBay. The prices have gone up a bit since our purchase. Forums like skoolie.net have a lot of information on specific engines / models you can scope out ahead of time.

BE CAUTIOUS, just like any other substantial purchase you make. Communicate directly with the seller.

What TYPE of bus should I purchase?

You saw how scary our bus looked before, right? This is it now. 🙂

School bus, prison bus, church bus, short bus, full size, charter bus, etc. — there are so many options.

Which is best for you all depends on your preferences and goals. There are pros and cons to each bus size and type.

  • Will you be living in it full-time or just traveling part-time? Size matters.
  • Where do you want to go with your bus? Clearance, tires, length, power matters.

How a bus was driven in it’s previous life is an important consideration too.

Our Experience: We have a 3/4 retired prison bus / mobile command center. It’s 31 feet. It’s substantial enough for two people but we can still take it and park it almost anywhere. IF we did another conversion though, we would go for a shortie bus (20-ish feet). Again, it’s all personal preference. 

How to Review Prospective Buses:

Find the Bus Manual online (if possible!)

This should be done before even going to look at the bus. It will give you specific knowledge necessary to understand each individual bus’s needs.

We luckily found our 30 year old bus manual online as a .pdf. I bookmarked it and we refer to it ALL THE TIME.

No, we don’t expect you to memorize the entire thing. There are a couple key points that will REALLY help you during the inspection process. Write them down on a note pad and bring it with you. 

Maintenance Schedule – This will show the factory recommended basic upkeep so you can compare it to the actual maintenance history of the bus you’re reviewing.

Engine operating parameters –  Peak horsepower, peak torque, minimum rpm’s (idle), and max rpm’s are a good place to start. This will be very helpful when test driving.

Keep an eye on speed relative to rpm’s when shifting gears and in your last gear to gauge the safest top speed. Make sure the bus isn’t idling lower or higher than the recommended minimum rpm’s.

Conduct a Visual/Mechanical Inspection

The overall message here is to look for signs of neglect and age. Look for rust, leaks, damage, etc. If you have time to be this thorough, DO IT. Again, we lucked out with our bus but we’ve heard a lot of stories of cost-prohibitive issues that arose post-purchase, etc. — better safe than sorry.

Body Condition

Inspect the exterior, underneath and interior of the bus. Check for wet spots, mold, rust, etc. If you can see linoleum peeling/lifting, that may be an indication of leak issues and could mean moldy subfloor and a rusty floor below that. Both of which are fixable, but, less mess is obviously preferable.

Crawl underneath the bus with a flashlight and inspect. Many buses require regular manual greasing. Check grease points on your axles, steering assembly and drive shaft. There should be globs of grease coming out of the surrounding area. If they are very dry it could be an indication they were neglected and could result in premature wear of the area.

Evaluate surface rust vs. deep rust and pitting — the former is simpler to treat and mitigate while the latter requires more work, grinding and potentially cutting and patching, etc. — How much work do YOU want to dive into? 

Tires

Inspecting tires is more than just looking at tread wear. Find out how old the tires are. These are NOT cheap but safe tires are a must. There is a four digit date stamp after the DOT code on every tire.

The first two digits are the week of manufacture and the last two digits are the year. Any tires six years or older should be changed. Another big killer of tires is stagnation. Check for signs of dry cracking regardless of age.

If you’re considering chancing it with old or worn tires then STOP! Yes, replacing all 6 tires is expensive but it’ll save you money in the long run.

If you’re lucky, a blowout will only cause significant damage to the area where it occurred. This can be thousands in repair costs on top of the cost of new tires. Now consider having a blowout and loosing control of your bus on the highway… No explanation needed here. You do the math.

Fluids, hoses and belts

Take a look at your transmission fluid and oil dipsticks. The transmission fluid should be bright red and clean but chances are the oil will be dark regardless if it’s been recently changed or not. Dab the dipsticks on a white paper towel, let the fluid seep in and check if there’s any grime/debris left behind. If it’s super dirty chances are it hasn’t been changed regularly.

Check your oil pan and all the lines. Check for seepage. Hoses are easily replaced, but you want to be aware of what you’re starting with. Look at the fuel filter canisters/filters, etc. They might have a date on them, otherwise make sure they don’t look 100 years old!

Open the radiator and look at the coolant. If it looks really dirty and nasty it will need to be flushed and the fluid replaced. Doing a coolant flush might be something you’ll want to do anyway. It allows you to chemically clean the radiator which will boost efficiency and give you a chance to replace any hoses that are old and cracking.

Belts should be tight, straight and free of cracks and frays. Changing them is cheap and easy and should be done right off the bat to establish a good starting point for your own maintenance schedule.

Batteries 

Check the batteries for any corrosion around the terminals. If you’re lucky there will be a date on them as well.  Most vehicles show the battery voltage on the dash. It should read about 12.5 volts with the key turned and around 14 volts while the engine is running. High voltage (15v and above) is just as bad as low voltage (under 12v) and can damage your batteries. It is, however, okay for a minor spike when the engine first starts, but it should level out quickly.

It’s just a good idea to evaluate the potential financial impact a prospective bus will have beyond the typical build process (mechanical, structural, major work/repair, maintenance).  A record of regular maintenance and upkeep is always a plus.

Start it Up and Inspect Some More:

Now it’s time to start the bus. Pay attention to how it starts. Let it idle for a while. Remember to refer to your manual notes here. Watch your RPMs and dash lights/sensors. Take a look at the temperature rise.

Exhaust Smoke Color – When the bus has warmed to the normal operating temperature the exhaust fumes should be fairly clean and transparent. Don’t worry about a short period of white smoke after start up especially if it’s cold out. However there are a few indicators to look out for before purchasing:

White/Gray Smoke –  This only should be a concern if the engine has completely warmed and the exhaust hasn’t cleared up. It could be an indication that coolant is being burned in the combustion chamber. Take this very seriously, it could be a death sentence for the engine or a VERY expensive repair. 

Black Smoke – Too much fuel is being burned in the combustion chamber. Commonly known as running rich. Refer to your manual for corrections and calibrations.

Blue/Gray Smoke – Oil is being burned in the combustion chamber.  The cause list is long here. Refer to manual and evaluate cost.

Keep inspecting functionality…

Toggle the lights, signals, radio, fans, heat/cooling etc.

When the engine is warm open your vents. If there’s no heat coming out then there could be a circulation problem and a new water pump might be on your list of to-do’s 

Look under the hood while it’s running. Sometimes an otherwise leak free vehicle will show it’s true colors at this point. 

Belts should NOT be bouncing up and down wildly or slipping on their pulleys. 

Take it out for a Test Drive

Be curious, ask questions, look around.

If you can take it for a test spin, please do! This is hands down what sold our bus to us. It was a freakin’ horror show aesthetically (black chipped paint, that classic prison bus charm) but it started right up and drove beautifully.

If you can’t drive it, perhaps the seller can and you can ride along. It’s just a great indicator for what you’re starting with and how things feel.

How’s the power up hills, how does it handle, etc. Keep an ear out for knocking sounds, anything out of the ordinary.

Monitor the engine temperature gauge to make sure it’s staying at the appropriate levels. An engine that regularly runs hot would have been subject to high stress and potential damage.

After the test drive, take another peek under the hood and under the bus. Again, are there any leaks? There are a lot of things under pressure when the engine is running so post test drive is a great time to inspect for drips & leaks.

Go home and think about it.

Sleep on it.

It’s so easy to get starry eyed about a new adventure like this. Go home and do some research. Take another look at your budget, etc.

Use your negotiation skills and see if you might be able to get a lower price, etc. — sometimes patience pays off in this regard.

Questions to ask yourself and the seller…

bus conversion condition evaluation
The things you discover when you embark on demo. 

What type of engine is it? You should know this at this point but still google it. Read up on everything you can on your bus engine beyond what your manual tells you. All engines have their pros and cons.

What’s the fuel economy, horsepower torque? Is it rebuildable or not? Where are it’s weak points? Do they still make this engine? Is it expensive to service?

What type of transmission is it? Same deal as up above ←-GOOGLE IT!

Where’s the title? Make sure you’re able to get your hands on a CLEAN TITLE for the bus.

  • When was it last inspected and registered?
  • Do you have any maintenance records?
  • When was the oil last changed, filters, etc.?
  • How long the bus has been parked/stationary?

Post-Purchase – Tackle those Tedious Logistics:

registering a bus motorhome

Temporary Plates

You’ll need to get your hands on a temporary plate from the DMV. This was actually really easy to do. I think it cost us $15 – $20.

Vehicle Registration

If you want to be able to legally drive the bus on the road after purchase/during the build you’ll need to get it registered.

Bus registration steps vary depending on your state. Ask your town hall/local DMV.

To give you an idea of logistics/needs, in Maine, in order to register our bus as a motorhome, we needed to know/have:

  • The GVWR (listed on a plaque near the driver’s seat)
  • Approximate MSRP, this was fun… we negotiated using another skoolie pal’s bus in Kennebunk (a few towns over) as a precedent.
  • The title (we didn’t end up needing it because it’s over 25 years old)
  • Bill of sale (to pay sales tax, ugh…)
  • proof of insurance*

State Inspection

In order to be road legal, Maine and New Hampshire require state vehicle inspections within 10 days (or so…) of registering. Check your state’s regulations.

Our experience: We actually waited a FULL YEAR before getting our inspection sticker. We kept the bus off the road and parked for this time period.

Looking back, we wouldn’t recommend doing it this way. We lucked out with a well maintained bus that only needed a new transmission line BUT — it could have gone the other way.

So much work had been done on the interior at that point that it would have been devastating if they found something major wrong or wildly expensive to fix.

Our suggestion: Get your inspection done as early as possible! If the inspection station has a scale get it weighed empty before you start the conversion. If they don’t then find one and get it done. You can compare this number to the GVWR which will give you an idea of how much weight you’re able to add during the conversion.

*Insurance

When we bought our bus in early 2016, our build hadn’t started yet and bus conversions were less popular than they are now.

At the time, our bus was set up like a mobile command center with a few bus seats and server tables/stands, very simple. Progressive insured us under a commercial auto policy, no problemo.

Progressive and many other insurance companies have since reevaluated their policies and chosen not to insure school bus conversions.

There is still a company who will, check out National General Insurance.

Our Experience: Moving from Maine to New Hampshire

We re-registered in New Hampshire this year and it was super easy. Again, we registered as a motorhome.

All we needed was our Maine registration and proof of residency.

New Hampshire doesn’t require insurance, just as an FYI.

More Awesome Information & Resources:

Patience & vision pays off! 

Check out our other posts on converting a bus!

Visit our Wild Drive Life Shop – All things we’ve tried and loved. Quality + value. We’re always adding new gems you can pick up on Amazon. 

Shop our bus build – favorite items, essentials and things we used in our bus build.

Want to hear more about the finance side of things? Check out our free Wild Finance Guide.

Follow @wilddrivelife on Instagram for daily bus views, real insight into the real bus life, outdoor adventures and lots of stories involving our dog Moose.

Congratulations on preparing for your bus conversion project adventures!

Whatever your reason is in pursuing this lifestyle make sure to have as much fun along the way as possible. We hope our notes help ease the stress of your buying process so you can have more time enjoying yourself.

Contact us for questions, we’re always happy to help!

Shop our Bus Build: Bus Conversion Project List

Shop our Bus Build: Bus Conversion Project List

Making your Bus a Home

It can be overwhelming trying to piece together the essential tools, materials and products to make your old shell of a bus into a cozy home or camper. We’ve been there! A bus conversion project doesn’t have to be too fancy, expensive or over the top at all. It just has to work for you and your goals. Bonus if it fits your design vision and you love spending time in it!

If you’re looking for our tested product recommendations, read on. I break it down by “room”, haha, area of the bus. If you need some more tips on things to consider before buying a bus, feel free to start with Ben’s guide here.

If you’d like to see all our recommendations in one place with less words, I’ve gathered them all here for you:

Decide What Your Priorities Are

Our goal was to seek a balance between quality and affordability in our bus conversion project. We intended on really using this bus and traveling with it extensively. We wanted to be both comfortable and safe. Decide what your priorities are in your bus build and you can find the right mix of things to make it happen.

bus conversion tiny home build wood stove
Our tiny wood stove is our FAVORITE part of our whole bus…

Research, Read Reviews, Repeat

We did a lot of research, maybe too much at times in order to source & select the features and amenities in our bus tiny home. Price was always a consideration, as were reviews and recommendations from people who had tested these products. Whether it was Reflectix insulation or a composting toilet, there was a lot of information to dig through!

In an effort to help others in their bus/van/tiny home build journey, we put together the list below with links.

bus conversion build tips wild drive life

Bus Conversion Project Considerations

Ben and I have always valued quality over quantity and we try to do more with less whether we’re bus living or home renovating. We pay close attention to our income and expenses because that equation drives what we’re able to accomplish.

We sourced a lot of things second hand. We love supporting our local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Search for one near you!

We like knowing and/or appreciating the companies we source products from, so that’s always a bonus when we find a cool small business like Tiny Wood Stove.

bus build project products tools wild drive life tiny living

Entryway

bus conversion entryway

Laminate Floor: We used a 12”x12” peel and stick vinyl tile. The one we purchased isn’t available anymore but there are other options.

Small Area Rug (washable): Laura Ashley Butter Chenille 20” x 34”. If you go with rugs anywhere, make sure they’re washable! 🙂

JUMP SEAT: Jump Seat 06 & 3-point belt – Suburban Seats

PEEL & STICK WALLPAPER: Bohemian blue & orange

Multi-purpose MAGNETS – Perfect when you have all kinds of metal surfaces around you.

MAGNETS with hooks, Multi-purpose strong magnets for hanging towels, solar lights, etc. We couldn’t live without these!

Living Space / Heating and Cooling

bus conversion tiny home living room couch

WOOD STOVE – 4kw Dwarf w/ enamel door add-on – Tiny Wood Stove

WOOD STOVE INSTALL KIT 4” flue rv/bus  roof exit bundle – Tiny Wood Stove

Roof Vent Fan – We installed two of these two-way fans. You can run them off solar power. These were a real level up in staying comfortable in toasty summer temperatures!

Phillips dimmable vintage LED light bulbs –  Amazon

Reclaimed Factory maple flooringLongleaf Lumber

Reclaimed Blue Bead board Wainscotting – Longleaf Lumber

EnVogue Cool Dog pillowHome Goods

70’s Uncle Sam’s 3-Coin Register Bank – family heirloom

Windup alarm clock – Antique 1960’s  Westclox Big Ben Style 7 – gift

Vintage Tensor gooseneck desk light – Yard Sale

Antique “Captain” coat hook – Arundel Outdoor Flea Market, Arundel, ME

Dining Room

bus conversion tiny home decor ideas

Retro Compass – Common Lensatic Folding Compass – gift but you can get it on Amazon

Le Creuset mugs, Caribbean color, we’ve had these for years and I haven’t broken them yet!

GORGEOUS flowers courtesy of – Fruition Flowers

Reclaimed hickory to make the custom folding chairs – Longleaf Lumber

Vintage Leviton utility lamp w/ clamp cage – gift

Vintage Fire King Oven-Proof Mugs (Blue) – Vintage Junky, Berlin, NH

Dining Table, Fold down reclaimed butcher block – gift

Kitchen

bus conversion tiny home build kitchen ideas
We cook all our meals on a single burner butane cooktop. It ROCKS. Sometimes simple just wins. It all depends on your preference! We do a lot of one pan, healthy vegetarian meals.

Magic Chef Mini Fridge 4.4 cu/ft, Stainless (runs off our solar)

Big Berkey Stainless Steel Water Filter System – Check out our full review of these AMAZING water filters.

Toaster Oven – We went simple with our kitchen appliances with a toaster oven and cooktop combo (see below). We don’t regret going that route at all! We were still able to cook delicious meals each night without issue, just a bit more planning and timing.

Butane Cooktop, portable, simple alternative to an inset stovetop. This thing ROCKS and has better control than some home gas ranges I’ve cooked on!

Northeast Mountain Inspired Illustrations – Sherpa Ant

Le Creuset Utensil Crock in Cobalt – Amazon

Delta Faucet w/ Sprayer (looove the sprayer OMG)

Countertop Mirror Coat – Glaze for the countertop, it took about three coats and wasn’t too much of a pain to work with.

Countertop lumber, reclaimed barn board we found at a yard sale!

Double Bay Sink (GAME CHANGER, for us anyway…) – second hand from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore < We highly suggest visiting one of these stores to source materials and support a GREAT cause.

Bedroom

Super simple overall. We love our memory foam mattress & homemade pillows most.

Queen memory foam mattress, adaptive foam, great value overall and EXTREMELY comfortable

Queen Sheet Set – Cheap yet pretty awesome.

Assorted throw pillows – Homemade by Meag & a few on sale from HomeGoods & TJ Maxx

Antique TRAILMOBILE sign – gift 🙂 You can find them on eBay though.

Driftwood Whale – handmade by Meag’s Dad – Caught fresh off the coast of Maine! 

Bathroom

bus conversion bathroom ideas composting toilet

Composting Toilet – We have the Air Head but you can find a VERY similar, probably more popular model (Nature’s Head) on Amazon

Hot Water Heater, tankless 1.6gpm – Amazon

Water Pump, Shur-Flo – Amazon

Accumulator Tank, Shur-Flo as well – Amazon

Shur-Flo Twist on Pipe StrainerAmazon

Antique Brass Tub Faucet – Vintage Junky in Berlin, NH

Bathtub Lumber – Reclaimed Southern Yellow Pine – Longleaf Lumber

Note: The shower is a reclaimed wood tub base. We hang a simple shower curtain to the ceiling with magnets to use it. Easy peasy and it keeps our open concept. 

Note: The composting toilet is on the left side there. The top flips up and door opens so we can use it. Don’t bother calling us out for not having full walls. WE KNOW. IT’S FINE. 🙂

Additional Resources

We hope this list of bus conversion project products we used in our bus build was helpful!

Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. Simple & it keeps us writing & rolling! 🙂 Thanks!

FAQ’s

FAQ’s

What led you to purchase the bus and pursue a mobile life?

We were interested in something alternative for some time before we decided on the bus. Small cabins, yurts, tiny homes, refurbished RVs, we considered them all. At the time it wasn’t so much about mobile living or tiny living, as much as it was about affordable living. Our debt freedom was on the horizon (we had $100,000 to start!) when we started looking. The idea was to find something we could customize and make ourselves without getting into debt; a beautiful space of our own without the debt.

It wasn’t long after we started the bus conversion process that our own wheels started to turn. There was potential here for real adventure, something more than just a debt free life.

Over time that idea slowly started to take shape, and one Sunday in July 2017 while on a hike in the White Mountains of NH, almost a year and a half after we bought the bus, we decided to set a date to leave our jobs and pursue a life of travel, adventure and entrepreneurship.

How did you find your bus?

We found the bus on a random Craigslist post out of Massachusetts. The description was really detailed and well written. It’s a retired 1989 Chevy prison bus converted into a mobile command center for the Fairfax, Virginia Sherif’s Department. With chipping black paint, locking prison cages and bars on the windows — it was irresistible!

Where did you find all your products/systems?

Composting toilet, water filter, wood stove, etc. you name it — there is SO MUCH to research & find. We put together a full blog post broken down by room to help others source things for their build. Check it out here.

What kind of bus is it? What are its origins?

Our bus is a 31-foot, 1989 Chevy B6P 8.2T Detroit diesel with a 4-speed automatic Allison transmission.

Before it was our home, it was used as a prison bus and then mobile command center by the Sheriff’s department in Fairfax County, VA.

How much did the bus conversion cost?

We wrote a whole blog post on this. Check it out here…

Did you do the bus conversion work yourselves?

Yes. Everything from the cabinet doors to the curtains and our bed frame is completely custom and handmade by us. We used as many second-hand or found materials as possible. It’s bright, rustic, and cheerful. This makes us love our bus even more because there’s a piece of us everywhere; it’s uniquely Ben and Meag.

Ben managed a reclaimed lumber company for several years so using wood with a story throughout our bus was a MUST. We have reclaimed factory maple flooring from a textile mill in Massachusetts, baby blue bead board accents from an old building in Portland, Maine, a handmade white pine barn board kitchen countertop and more! Our fold-down kitchen table is an original butcher block from an actual butcher that’s over 100 years old. We love reclaimed wood.

We prepped and painted the outside of the bus ourselves, which saved thousands of dollars. The color makes us happy.

Are you trust fund kids?

YES. The secret is out.

No, we’re not. Not even close. Things have been in our own hands since we started dating (20 & 21 years old).

We played around for a couple years and one day realized — holy crap! Our huge loans are going to come out of deferment and we have RESPONSIBILITIES!! WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING!

So… we worked really hard at our jobs for five years during our debt payoff and preparation to go full-time mobile by 2018.

We also modified our lifestyle and habits to have less overhead and expenses. I (Meag) freelanced on the side and we did as much for ourselves as possible to save money. We spent less and stayed committed to our goals.

Tough as it was, I’m thankful for the challenge in the end. I’m glad we had to go through this ourselves because it taught us so much and inspired our desire to help others with their finance journeys.

How do you make money on the road?

The answer to this question is always evolving. There are so many avenues to explore and ways to make it sustainable. We live in a really unique time full of opportunity to make money on the road and online.

To prepare: we paid off all of our debt (huge help), minimized our recurring expenses (also a huge help) and saved up as much of our income as possible for almost a year. Read our free finance guide here for more information.

Freelance work: I (Meag) freelance in web design, graphic design and marketing. I started doing this a full year before we quit our full-time jobs to get a feel for it and build up a few client relationships. This made the transition much easier.

Online Income: We write, take photos and create content for brands we love and products we use and we’re also Amazon affiliates.

We’re also designing a personal finance course for students and hope to combine that with our public speaking engagements with our bus! Contact us if you have questions on this!

How long did the bus conversion take?

We bought the bus in February 2016 while still working at our jobs full time. We began renovating mostly on weekends in the spring, summer and fall and only worked on fair weather days in the winter.

After leaving our jobs in December 2017 we were able to start working on it full-time. But just like a house it’s never really done and we were very limited by the northeast winter weather.

It’s now summer 2018 and it’s a beautiful and comfortable living space and were still working on it, always trying to make it better. Before finishing one project we’re already dreaming about the next upgrade. It’s a big, blue labor o’ love.

Do you have a bathroom?!

Yes & no.

We have a composting toilet and a reclaimed southern yellow pine tub base that we shower in. Both are in half height built ins that double as nightstands by our bed. We do not have any full height walls because we really wanted to maintain an open-concept.

Also, let’s be honest, we’ve known each other for 15 years and we’ve seen it all. We’re LIVING IN A BUS afterall…

Take a look at the photo above. 🙂

I don’t see a stove/oven, how do you COOK AND EAT?!

We kept our kitchen SUPER simple.

We’ve been able to maintain our healthy, homemade food diet (maybe even more so!) since moving into the bus full-time. We just use a simple butane cooktop (portable) and a toaster oven when we have access to shore power.

We’re both vegetarian and eat a really simple, whole food diet. We do a lot of one pot/skillet meals with a base of protein/starch (lentils, beans, peas, rice, etc.) and LOTS of veggies, spices and different homemade sauces.

Are you off-grid?

Yes. We kept our systems pretty simple too, being off-grid was essential.

We have a 40-gallon fresh water tank inside (expanding by another 40-gallons before we head west this fall).

We have a composting toilet which eliminates the need for a black tank. Our toilet and our reclaimed southern yellow pine, sit-in tub/shower are both are in cabinet-style built ins which keeps our space open. It’s different not to have full walls for the bathroom, we know, but… it works for us! The shower has a curtain, of course and our windows are all tinted. We’re not animals. 🙂

We have two 300-watt solar panels with a battery bank system. We have plenty of power for our refrigerator, LED lights, water pump, composting toilet fan as well as electronics & small appliances. Being able to comfortably boondock for a week plus is AMAZING.

Our bus came with an installed Cummins Onan 8000 generator and shore power hookup, which are great back ups.

Our main source of heat is our 4kw Dwarf stove. It’s also a focal point of the bus. Everyone LOVES it. Ben built a beautiful white washed brick hearth with a granite base (recycled from a yard sale kitchen cart we found!).

We’ve been parked full-time in northern New Hampshire since late February so we’ve seen our fair share of COLD days and nights so far. Our stove keeps us cozy.

debt freedom wild drive life

How is the mobile life treating you?

Social media might like to portray that every single day is sunshine and rainbows when you travel and live tiny full-time. It’s not. We really try to share a bit of everything in what we do because this lifestyle is actually one of extremes, highs and lows. That said, we love it. It’s taught us SO MUCH about each other and ourselves.

Right now this lifestyle allows us to say yes to opportunities that come our way, discover more about who we are, what we want, and where we want to be. It’s not just a mobile life, it’s a creative livelihood and opportunity for us to impact others in a positive way.

Our equation is always evolving and we hope that it continues to grow and shape itself into more great things. We’ll keep you posted!

Who’s idea was it? Do you guys still like each other after living in a bus for six months?!

I feel so fortunate to have Meag as a partner to collaborate with, not a lot of people would be comfortable with the leap we’re taking together. Obviously, being on the same page is key in any relationship, but try moving into 165 sq./ft and NOT being on the same page, it won’t be pretty. We made an agreement long before purchasing the bus that when it comes to our living space we both need to be comfortable with what we choose.

If one person feels uncomfortable and the other is 100% all in, the deal is still off. Ironically we looked at houses and multi-family properties to purchase before pursuing bus life and nothing felt quite right. It wasn’t until the bus came around that we were like, “Yup, this is the one!” And honestly, I don’t know if it was my idea or Meag’s, I think it was something we both were interested in from the beginning and eventually it just sort of happened.

We’ve learned SO MUCH about ourselves and each other through this experience that started as a project and is now our full-time lifestyle. We still love each other and wouldn’t have it any other way. There are REALLY hard days, we won’t lie, but we’re enjoying the ride.

What’s next for you two?

If you follow us on Instagram @wilddrivelife, you know we LOVE hiking. We’re about to start a thru-hike of the New Hampshire 48 4,000 footers and the Cohos Trail. We were fortunate enough to be selected for the 2018 Thru Hike Syndicate and can’t WAIT to start.

Next up in September is exhibiting at the New York City Maker Faire! We were invited to participate in this AMAZING event and can’t wait to showcase our bus and our story at the show.

We’re heading south and west for the winter months and will be busy developing our personal finance course for students, writing, hiking and sharing updates along the way. We have BIG goals and can’t wait to dive in and keep moving.

The Pocket Hole Jig

The Pocket Hole Jig

The Essential Bus Conversion Tool: The Pocket Hole Jig

 

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Now that we’re on the tail end of our bus conversion project, it’s great to reflect on the ESSENTIAL tools that helped us get here.

For many people the idea of building their own cabinets seems overwhelming. The body, the doors, the drawers, the frame; where do you begin!?

There’s one tool that helped me (BEN!) significantly in this job and in so many other places during our bus tiny home build: The pocket hole jig.

The Jig

 

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Side note, Meag is pretty pumped I used this photo of her for the jig section. “Look! I’m helping!”

I’ve used two different brands of pocket hole jigs in the past: Kreg and Drillmaster.

Both have their upsides and downsides but I would have no problem recommending either of them. I personally own the Drillmaster.

I went this route because I was already purchasing a lot of tools for our bus build and the Drillmaster jig was only $75 compared to Kreg’s $100 jig. There’s your first upside to the Drillmaster. I also love that it has a full aluminum construction and larger base.

This is one of those rare cases where the cheaper option can last just as long as the more expensive options out there. The pocket hole widths are also adjustable on the Drillmaster so you can custom fit it to what you’re working on.

However, there is a minor flaw in the design. Where you clamp your workpiece to the jig there’s a cut away leaving a gap for sawdust to collect. This gap almost always results in tear-out due to a lack of contact pressure on the wood.

This isn’t the end of the world as most joints are hidden, but for those that are not it takes a little extra work to clean up. I also find this gap to make it more difficult to clamp narrow pieces because instead of sitting at the correct angle, small pieces fall into the gap. I rarely run into this problem as there’s not a lot of instances where I’m working on such small pieces, but when I do it’s very frustrating.

The Kreg jig doesn’t have this problem at all. It’s built so the workpiece sits flush against the entire jig without any airspace making a much cleaner pocket hole.

The drill guide is made up of hardened steel and the body is made of a composite glass nylon. It may look like just plastic but don’t be fooled. The Kreg jig is sure to last just as long as the Drillmaster’s solid aluminum body.  Worth the extra $25? I think so.

For the serious DIY builder out there it just makes sense to get the package deal. You’re going to end up needing a locking c-clamp, screws, plugs, and extended driver bit anyway. Kreg has a few bundle deals with their jig, this bundle is their highest rated.

The Joint

 

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At this point you’re probably asking, “What the heck does the pocket hole jig do?!”

Simply put, the jig holds your workpiece up at a right angle and guides a two stepped pilot hole down at a steep angle and stops just before the edge of the piece that will be joined to another. It’s similar to “toenailing” two pieces together but has a much stronger joint. Add glue and it’ll be sure to last a lifetime.

There are so many types of wood joints out there and a whole lot of them can be applied to cabinetry. So why choose the pocket screw joint?

The quick answer is it’s easy for anyone to use, it’s fast, and it’s strong. There’s no messy glue joints that need to be clamped for hours on end, which means a lot less downtime.

I glue a lot of my joints anyway, but because it’s held together with screws I don’t have to clamp and can keep on working. You also don’t need a router to shape the edges. Less mess, less stress.

The majority of people don’t have a full wood shop at their disposal, probably even more so for those of you who live in or are building a tiny home or working on a bus or van conversion.

That’s yet another beauty of the pocket hole jig, it fits anywhere! Heck, I did most of my cabinet builds in our apartment kitchen!

I even took it on the road with us in case I felt the itch to get some more work done…yeah… that didn’t happen. 🙂

 

Accessories

 

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It’s not that you absolutely need any additional tools to help with the jig. In most cases I use my super powerful arms (yessss) to hold my workpiece in place while I screw them together.

THAT SAID… there are a few accessories that can make your life a whole lot easier.

My favorite complimentary tool to pick up is the bar clamp.

Do yourself a favor and STOCK UP on these babies. We have several clamps and have never felt anything other than, “We need more clamps!”. Trust me!

For any two objects that are going to be put together there’s a special clamp for it. But I’m a huge fan of versatility so my first recommendation is to get a few parallel clamps.

These simple guys can be used for pretty much any application including joining cabinet carcasses and face frames.  And if you plan to make any countertops, doors, stair treads, or tabletops your going to need them anyway. I’ll use them over pipe clamps because it’s easier to keep your glue-ups flat and to use with one hand without having to fiddle with pipe clamps falling out of plane.

Now, you can definitely get by with just parallel clamps. BUT if you plan to be going to town on your own built-ins there’s nothing wrong with springing for a few specialized clamps.

The pocket hole clamp is a no brainer. On one side there’s a screw clamp and the other side there’s a rod that is designed to fit into the pocket hole. Great tool but pretty much has only one application.

Another essential addition is the right angle clamp designed for pocket holes.  Great for the cabinet carcass but again, not a whole lot more uses than that. The two that I absolutely love and have a little more versatility are the locking c-clamp and the corner clamp.

LOCKING C-CLAMPS are great for keeping pieces flush and in plane like when joining rails and stiles for cabinet face frames. They’re also perfect for clamping just about anything to your workbench or when doing small glue-ups!

THE CORNER CLAMP makes quick easy work out of this (I also LOVE the name, “Can Do Clamp”) and many other applications.

The corner clamp holds any two pieces being joined at 90 degrees. Great for face frames, built in boxes, and drawers. It also has the very convenient ability to hold two mitered ends together at a right angle without them slipping out of place. I made our toilet and bathtub covers with mitered ends and didn’t have a corner clamp. It was very difficult to keep them from moving out of place while I tried to join them, what a pain!

EXTENDED BIT — Another very important accessory is the extended bit. I like using Kreg screws that have a square drive so I have a 6” extended square bit. You can use a couple magnetic bit holders piggybacked on top of each other but they tend to wobble a lot when your driving. Just get this one, it’s cheap and totally worth it.

POCKET HOLE PLUGS — This last one I don’t know if I’d consider it an accessory or not but I’m going to mention it anyway. If any of your pocket holes are going to be seen you’ll need to pick up some pocket hole plugs. They’re sold in different wood species or just paint grade. Simply pop them in the hole with a little glue and sand flush.

Wood putty will clean up any seams.

 

The Screws

 

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You’ll have to get special pocket hole screws to do the job right.

Most of the time you’ll be joining ¾” and ½” thick material so you’ll only really need a few lengths. Whatever your application make sure to get more than you think you’ll need. I’ve been in too many scenarios where I’m almost done a project and I run out of screws, so disappointing. You can’t use pan head screws as a replacement because it’ll split the pilot hole so off to the hardware store you go!

I’m a big fan of the Kreg screws here:

 

These screws have a nice big head and a self tapping tip to help with wood splitting problems. The square drive head also holds in the bit more securely so you can one hand it without dropping screws all over the place.

 

Expert Tip:

This comes from my background in reclaimed lumber. When working with wood, instead of trying to hide a flaw, accentuate it. Even the best wood fills have a hard time matching color exactly and grain patterns are sure to give it away regardless.

I like to crush up a tiny piece of wood charcoal into a powder and mix it with glue. This makes a jet black putty that makes the workpiece pop. It looks like it was done deliberately rather than trying to mask it.

If done with an artistic eye and a little creativity it can really give a cool and unique look to your workpiece. it’s great for antique wood, nail holes, mends, knot holes, and even pocket holes and other joinery! Try it out and let me know how it goes.

 

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Have fun!

Whether it’s for a tiny home, bus conversion, or homestead, for your next project pick up a pocket hole jig. You won’t be disappointed with how quick and easy this little tool gets the job done. Good luck and (insert cheesy jig pun).

Driving the Bus: Simple Tips, Maintenance & Lessons Learned

Driving the Bus: Simple Tips, Maintenance & Lessons Learned

Driving our Bus Conversion: Simple Tips, Maintenance & Lessons Learned from the road…

 

Big, loud, bumpy, and a whole lot of fun! That’s what it’s like driving our bus. But it wasn’t always that way.

The first time I sat behind that oversized steering wheel I was so tense I could have made diamonds out of coal. Every day got a little bit easier but it was a “long road” to knowing what I know now (yeah baby, I’m all about those cheesy puns).

If only there was a simple guide out there that explained everything there is to know about driving a bus, hmmm….

 

Under the Hood

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It’s not like I went out on the road blind. It’s important to get to know YOUR BUS.

I knew that our particular bus liked a light touch, no flooring it. Not that I could if I tried. I knew I had an 8.2L turbo Detroit diesel engine with a 4 speed automatic Allison transmission. But I really didn’t fully understand just how much these behemoths like to be babied. And I sure as heck didn’t know anything about the relationship between engine, transmission, and driving style.

It’s not like there’s an on-board computer tuning the performance to get the best horsepower, torque, and mpg. Some of our buses are OLD, ours is 30 years old!

Sure I did some research, but it was a little discouraging.

If you want to find the internet’s largest collection of testosterone visit a car forum. For a guy like me who had little to no automotive knowledge they might as well have been written in Arabic. Powerband, differential, gear ratio, shifter linkage???

Uhhh, can someone just tell me in a practical way if I need to know anything special about driving a bus?

I’m embarrassed to admit it took about 3,500 miles, a little luck, and a whole lot of effort before I really understood what I had under the hood.

A fellow skoolie and veteran truck driver pointed out a seal that’s attached to my engine that shows, among other things, the rated power output.  A maximum of 225 horsepower at 2800 rpm with a redline at 3100 rpm. Okay, now I was getting somewhere.

 

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After that I was inspired to dive into to the engine and catalog every part that I could. I mean this literally. I had the top half of my body inside the engine bay and my legs sticking straight out into the air. I recommend you do the same.

I was also able to find more information online after gathering the specifics. For instance, I found a pdf with exact specs on the engine and transmission including the torque specs. My optimum torque advantage was 495 ft. lbs. At 1700 rpm.

The great thing about these older buses is you can basically walk right into the engine bay and see it all. Look, there’s the alternator! In today’s tightly crammed vehicles it’s difficult to make heads or tales of what’s what under the hood.

 

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Technique: Highways and Hills

Let’s go back to horsepower and torque for a minute. I had the information, but how did it apply to my driving? Well first it’s important to understand the difference between power and torque. Power is the ability to do work and torque is how fast that work can be achieved. Simply put, and I know this isn’t exactly right, horsepower will translate to how fast you’re able to go, and torque is the ability to accelerate there under load.

There’s nothing like a long straight highway with plenty of lanes for people to pass while you chug along at 60 mph. At least that’s how it is for me. Here I can hang out between 2,600 and 2,800 rpm depending on how flat it is. This puts me between 55 and 65 mph. Anything above that is in the danger zone for my bus, yours may be different. This is well above my peak torque rpms, which is fine and normal because I’m just cruising on flat road and not accelerating up hills. Hill driving, that’s a whole other animal altogether.

When we hit the rocky mountains everything about driving changed. When you weigh over 10 tons it doesn’t take long to slow down on an uphill. You want to put the pedal to the metal to give it as much power as possible here, right? WRONG! While it’s true I do accelerate slightly BEFORE a hill to gather some momentum, you don’t want to be driving the engine hard at a high gear up the hill. This will put your engine at a significant gear disadvantage and put you into the dangerous realm of lugging!

 

Lugging Your Engine

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Lugging your engine makes it work harder than it normally should. It causes temperatures to rise and can result in significant damage if sustained. You’ll notice no matter how hard you press the accelerator your speed and rpms still drop. It’s time to downshift.

Remember when I said I have a peak torque output at 1,700 rpms? Well that’s pretty much where you want to hang out while hill climbing.

I like to manually downshift into 3rd and hang around that 1,700 and 2,000 rpm mark depending on how steep and long the grade is. Yeah, it’s much slower than everyone else, but you just have to get used to it because that’s the bus life we live.

Very important to flip on the hazard lights here. Daydreaming little cars that don’t need to think about this stuff can easily smash into your big tail end. You’ll never appreciate truck lanes as much as you will in the Rocky Mountains.

So you’ve made it up the hill, but don’t be too quick to upshift just yet. Ten tons of bus sure can rocket down a steep grade. Long straight downhills are one thing. I usually upshift back into drive and let the bus zoom for a little extra mpg, know what I mean? But steep curvy roads are wildly dangerous.

Keep the bus in the gear you climbed in or downshift again. This will keep your speed down and allow you to brake less often.

NEVER RIDE YOUR BRAKES ON A DOWNHILL! If you have to continuously brake going down then you’re in too high a gear. You risk burning out your brakes and losing them completely, hence the runaway truck ramp.

 

City Driving

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Few things are as stressful as driving a big bus through a congested urban area. Merging, heavy traffic, confusing intersections, the list goes on. But with a cool head and a little confidence it’s really not as bad as it’s usually anticipated.

 

Mirrors

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One of the most important tools you have at your disposal is your mirrors. Our bus comes equipped with seven side view mirrors and I use all of them. The two mounted at the front corners of the bonnet should be positioned to see the corresponding side of your front end and down the length of your bus. They’re great for seeing cars that would otherwise be in a blindspot and to see the lines in the road so you can stay in lane.

The flat mirrors on each side of the cab windows are to judge actual distances of vehicles and other people/objects around you. Lastly the convex mirrors help with more blind spots but also can help to see multiple lanes over.

A keen awareness of your surroundings is so important. It’s not enough to just know what’s in front of you. Scan often to have a clear mental picture of what’s all around you.

 

Signage/Clearance

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Reading signs just got a lot more important in your 10’-12’ megaton machine. Before you set off on your adventure climb up on your roof with a tape measure and find out your exact height.

AC units, solar panels, and roof decks don’t look good when they’re all over the road. Know your height and add another 6” for good “measure” (Another pun! Zing!).

 

Weight

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Knowing your weight is equally important. You should have the gross vehicle weight rating on your buses plaque up front. You can also go to a truck stop with full tanks and get yourself weighed to know exactly where you’re at. Bridge and road weight limits are nothing to mess around with.

A great app to download is CoPilot GPS. You can enter all your vehicle’s specs and it’ll keep you on routes that don’t include any restrictions that your bus falls under. We’ll further discuss the best road apps in another post.

 

Irregular Maintenance

We all know to get oil and filter changes. But buses require a little more attention than your regular vehicle. There’s a lot of time and money invested into your bus house and for some of us it’s the only home we have. It’s worth the extra time it takes to do regular checks around, under, and inside your bus.

Fluid levels and tire pressure should be checked daily. It’s also good to do a lightbulb check on all your directionals and hazards. Have a couple extra bulbs in your tool kit to avoid a trip to the automotive store. For some of the old buses the headlights can be hard to find. Order two extras before setting off just in case. It’s never fun worrying about getting pulled over when you know you have a light out, and it’s just plain hard to see.

One other very important bit of upkeep that’s often overlooked is to regularly grease. If you crawl under your bus you’ll see a multitude of grease fittings around your steering assembly and wheels. Check your manual if you have one for locations and schedule. If you don’t have a manual crawl under there with a flashlight and start looking. Expert tip: You probably missed one. I never had a manual so I just do it every 3,000 miles or so. If your driving in a lot of dusty areas check it more often. Spring for the better quality grease guns preferably ones that can be operated with one hand, it’s much easier to use when you’re contorted under your bus.

Make sure you see fresh grease coming out of the joint to ensure any debris is purged. If you have any grease fittings that won’t take grease they’re probably clogged with debris. Have no fear, there is a solution! First step is to buy a grease fitting cleaner kit. This simply forces a three in one oil through the fitting to purge the clog.

If this fails all you need to do is unscrew the fitting and replace it. I like to have a package of new fittings in my tool kit in case there’s any problems on the road.

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Tips and Tricks

  • Boondocking means you need to do a little off-roading. Big tires and a high clearance make easy work of rocky roads. But with duallies in the back you need to check for rocks getting stuck between them. I’ve pulled rocks the size of softballs out of my back tires. At 60 mph that’s one nasty pitching machine for the underside of your bus, or the car behind you…
  • Have a bottle of antigel with you at all times. We went from desert one day to the high elevation of Bryce Canyon the next and woke up to a chilly seven degree morning. A diesel engine without fuel additives just won’t start in these conditions. Makeshift wind blockers and a mirror pointing sunlight at the fuel filter helped to get the generator started which in turn powered the block heater. It only took all day. Don’t get stuck like we did, anticipate freezing temperatures.
  • Turn off the A/C and turn on the heat when climbing hills in hot temperatures. Yeah, it sounds like torture, and it is, but it will help bleed heat from the radiator and cool the engine. We have an old radiator style heater next to the driver seat with a valve on it that acts as the heat dial. Looks like something out of a steampunk anime but the large amount of coils actually make a difference when it’s really hot out.
  • If you don’t have a backup camera, don’t be a hero when going in reverse, use your co-pilot. Your mirrors are helpful but it’s just plain hard to go backwards. An extra set of eyes will help you avoid a whole lot of headache. If you don’t have a copilot then get the backup cam. Better to be safe! This one is great for bus applications, it’s wireless!

Depending on the bus you have your driving style will be different. My bus likes to operate at higher rpms than most others. Where’s your goldilocks zone? It’s time to dive into that engine bay and “jumpstart” (Really? Come on) your bus driving skills! Have fun and godspeed!

 

Epilogue

All joking aside, I think you “car guys” (and gals) are great at what you do. I’m just jealous at how in depth your knowledge is. Keep doing what you’re doing otherwise us lamens will be left sitting on the side of the road next to our smoking buses scratching our heads. Thanks for your expert knowhow!

Have any tips of your own to share? Or maybe you have a cool driving story to tell. Or maybe you just want to tear me a new one because you’re a car guy and I’m not and I didn’t mention quadrolight camshifts on the rotary splint (don’t bother looking this up, it’s not real). Feel free to comment below!

Insulating our Bus Conversion

Insulating our Bus Conversion

How did we insulate our bus conversion for four-season efficiency?

The difference between insulating a bus conversion well and skipping that step altogether is equal to the difference between livable and not so livable space.

Insulating our bus conversion was one of the first major interior projects after the demolition process. It’s without a doubt one of the most important parts of the entire bus build.

If you really want to adventure, I’m talking scorching deserts to white peaks, you need to be prepared for any and all weather. It all starts with meticulously insulating your space.

See What’s Inside

After removing all our old panels we got to see how much of a crap job was done to insulate the bus during the manufacturing process.

Squares of 2” fiberglass insulation sliding around with major gaps at the edges, yuck.

I didn’t even know they made fiberglass batt this thin! Clearly we were going to have to start from scratch.

insulating a bus conversion

Getting Started

There’s more than one way to go about insulating a bus conversion or tiny space of course. With a bus you’re working with thin walls and a whole lot of conductive steel.

I want to preface here by saying this was my first major project during the build and the only thing I knew about insulation is that it was itchy (the fiberglass batt kind). To the internet and YouTube I went!

Radiant barriers, XPS, ISO, EPS, closed cell SFI, open cell SFI, fiberglass, you get the point. There was a lot to choose from and each one claimed they were better than the last. At the very least I knew it was important to find the highest r-values per inch for our thin walls and ceiling. While that was true, I came to realize I could do better if I also incorporated a radiant barrier.

Let’s rewind for a moment and talk about the different factors involved in insulating. Before we get into this you’ll need to pause here and get a formal six year education in classical and statistical thermodynamics…(Jeopardy theme song)…Great, your back! Okay, let’s start with the different forms of heat transfer: Convection, conduction, and radiation.

The Science

Convection: Heat is transferred through the movement of matter in the form of a fluid. Example: Water swirling in a pan before boiling and air movement in the atmosphere creating wind.

Conduction: Heat is transferred via direct contact of two materials. Example: A hot handle of a wood stove burns your hand, OUCH!

Radiation: Heat is transferred through electromagnetic waves. Example: Sunlight through windows heats the inside of a car or bus.

In our universe all heat is trying to reach equilibrium and will move from a hotter temperature to a lower temperature. In other words, if it’s 95 degrees outside the universe wants it to be 95 degrees inside. Since we can’t argue with the universe we can never really stop this from happening, but we can slow it down in the form of, you guessed it, insulation.

Insulating Materials

Most insulating materials are designed to slow the conduction of heat,  and is described in r-values. The higher the r-value the slower heat will conduct through it. However, they are not so good at blocking heat in the form of radiation. This is why you can have a well insulated attic with high r-value materials but it will still be hotter than the outside ambient temperature on a sunny day. That’s where the radiant barrier comes in.

Reflective surface insulation (essentially plastic bubble wrap with an aluminum polyester coating) can be used to block 90%+ of radiant heat. I’ve seen these types of insulations used in so many bus and van applications but one of the most forgotten aspects of this installation is the air gap.

There NEEDS to be a ¾” or greater air space between at least one side of a radiant barrier for it to work. Although aluminum works awesome at reflecting and not emitting radiation, it IS, however, a great conductor of heat. If it’s touching two surfaces without an airspace it will simply conduct all the heat you’re trying to block right through it.

What about Convection?

You might have noticed I’m not really talking at all about convection. Well, that’s simply because I didn’t really do anything during the insulation process that does or does not affect convection.

Not to say someone couldn’t play around with this concept and use some form of convection to their benefit. I just can’t think of a good application other than heat shields around a wood stove, but that doesn’t really add a heat benefit, just safety. If you have any creative ideas please share them below.

Our Bus Conversion Insulation Process

Okay, so we know we need to insulate to slow conduction AND we want to create a radiant barrier to reflect radiant heat. But what products are we going to use and how are we going to apply them?

Here’s what we did: I’m going to focus on the ceiling right now since that’s where you’ll have the most heat loss and gain. First thing to do was remove all the interior panels. After this we could see there was about 2” of space to work with before you go beyond the frame ribs.

We chose to start with 2” XPS rigid insulation here. It boasts an r-value of 10 which is pretty high for just 2”. However, the key word here is rigid, which meant it came in a flat, unbendable sheet THAT WAS BY NO MEANS BUS CEILING SHAPED!

Cutting for the Curve

I had to cut over 200 individual pieces to follow the curve of the bus roof. Each piece was placed and glued ¼” apart from each other then Great Stuff Spray Foam was used to fill in the ¼” gap.  Yeah, I didn’t really think this first project through very well. It took three weekends to complete and was extremely messy. By the time it was finished it looked like the inside of some xenomorph alien cocoon.

IT WORKS SO WELL THOUGH. So I guess that’s a positive. 🙂

Great Stuff

No matter which way YOU choose to insulate your bus, Great Stuff Gaps and Cracks is going to be involved. I wish I would have counted how many cans I bought because it was a lot more than I thought I was going to need.

I probably made five plus trips to the hardware store and each time thinking I had purchased enough. PLUS, if you pause for too long the nozzle clogs and the can is wasted. It would have made a lot more sense to buy the professional level cans in bulk and use their reusable spray nozzle.

insulating a bus conversion roof xps foam

Radiant Barrier

Next step to insulate our bus was the radiant barrier. We used Reflectix double sided insulation here. First a layer was glued and stapled to the xps covering the entire ceiling. It’s important to use a foam safe glue when adhering something to XPS, other adhesives can actually melt the foam.

Make sure you tape the seams with reflective heat tape, not insulation tape. You’ll otherwise lose the radiant reflection in those areas.

Air Gap

Next I took 1” thick wood blocks and tech screwed them to the frame ribs. These would serve as the spacers to achieve the air gap needed for proper radiant reflection.

Lastly I used more of the Reflectix and glued them to the backs of the interior panels, then tech screwed them back to the ceiling. At the time the bus was still painted its original prison black and it was one hot summer. If you touched the outside of the bus it would burn your skin. After the insulation went up it was completely cool to the touch on the inside even when the sun was beaming down.

We’re getting somewhere!

reflectix insulation bus conversion project

I built out the walls to about 3” and simply went with 3 ½” thick fiberglass insulation with an r-value of 13. We didn’t go to crazy with insulating the walls since all our windows would pretty much counter any extra efforts put into making them better.

insulating our bus conversion tiny home view

Insulating the Floor

I did choose to insulate the floor on our bus conversion, something only short people have the benefit of doing unless you do a roof raise. Luckily Meag and I are both 5’6”; well I’m 5’6 ¼” and Meag is 5’6”. Yes, it matters.

I used 1 ½” XPS glued to the floor then ½” subfloor ply glued to the XPS and tied in with L brackets at the walls.

Our flooring is ¾” reclaimed maple and with the ceiling dropped an extra inch we only had 6’ clearance at the center of the bus. No one’s doing gymnastics in our space. I don’t regret the height loss at all, though.

Our floors are still pretty chilly in the winter but I can only imagine how cold it would be if we didn’t have any insulation. Expert tip: Wear cozy slippers.

What about the Windows?

At this point the biggest areas of heat loss and gain are the windows.

We could have chosen to lose some and replace them with paneling but we wanted to keep as much light in our tiny space as possible. Besides, it’s wonderful being able to open all the windows and doors on a summer day.

We don’t have any air conditioning, but with a little breeze and the windows open the bus stays relatively comfortable even on hot days. No, we can’t be in Arizona when it’s 100 degrees, but I don’t know anyone who’d want to do that anyway.

What I’d do Differently

Don’t get me wrong, our insulation works great, but if I could go back in time there’s a lot I would do differently.

First off, I would spring for closed cell spray foam insulation walls to ceiling and all the ribs. The reason I initially shied away from it was because it’s very expensive. Tanks, spray guns, and a professional application can run into the thousands. But after spending way too much time cutting and installing the XPS I think it’s worth it. You also get a little more r-value per inch, around 6.5. And it coats the ribs of the bus which is one area that conducts a lot of heat.

Special note

I’ve seen videos of some people spraying foam inside holes they drilled in the ribs. The idea is to fill the air space with foam and insulate the ribs. Don’t waste your time with this. Heat simply conducts through the steel around anything sprayed inside.

I still highly recommend the radiant barrier, it makes a huge difference. However, I think the second layer might have been a little overboard. Yes, it added R-1 to everything but it isn’t enough to justify the cost. Only one layer with air space on one side is necessary. Plus it would have been time saved.

I think a radiant barrier would have been beneficial on the walls as well. This is especially true at sunrise and sundown when the sun is hitting the side of the bus the most.

Lastly, and I’m still thinking about what to do here, I want to do something about the windows. I don’t want to cover any of them permanently but perhaps some removable insulated panels at night or really hot sunny days. The problem is the hassle of putting up and removing them daily and then of course storing them out of sight. Curtains have helped but are no match for Northeast winters. If anyone has any creative ideas out there, share it below.

There you have it my friends, the space between the walls. Good luck out there and stay frosty. Wait, no, stay toasty. Wait, no, stay both frosty and toasty depending on your meteorological situation.

Check out our post about our tiny wood stove keeping us cozy year-round!

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