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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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!
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!