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BUILDING THAT FIRST BUS

- by Pete Snidal, Busbilder (C) 1998

Once you've won your bid on the best condition schoolbus you could find, (notice I didn't say "afford" - buy the best, forget the rest!), It's time to start the conversion. This basically means making a lot of decisions in the Planning Stage, and then building your systems, and then your cabinetwork.

The Planning Stage

One of the fun things about busses, like boats, is that they are all things to all people. Some folks just want a "party bus" - a unit to take a lot of friends on excursions - skiing, surfing, diving, camping, or just plain partying. So they make the concessions towards sleeping a lot of people, travelling light and fast, and short-term comfort. The kitchen area - let's be naughtycal and call it "the galley" - needs enough space for making canapes and mixing drinks, and the seating area needs little tables for putting them on. Good stereo and maybe video, cool carpets and lighting, and you're on your way. Hot water for washing up, maybe a furnace if it's going to be winter stuff like skiing, groovy paint work, and you've got a bus tailored to your needs. Storage space need only be enough for a suitcase or change of clothes for each, and maybe the racks and lockers for whatever kind of gear may be required on the trip. But it's only for a weekend or a few days at a time.

The other extreme is the "full-time live-aboard." This requires that there is a place for everything you're going to want to have with you for an extended period of time. You and whomever else constitutes your bus "family." Winter and summer clothes, games, toys, entertainment stuff, possibly even summer canning. Dried foods and provisions for at least 2 or 3 weeks at a time. Enough water and grey water storage for the same period. Of course, you have to "tune" your requirements to fit the space, as you tune the space to fit the requirements. But it's a lot easier to keep this one together on a bus than on a boat! (You run into a lot more shopping centers on freeways than on oceans. And a bus has a LOT more room in the same price class.) And yet, lots of people live for many months at a time on small boats.

There are other things to consider during the planning stage. Like insulation - are you going to be in very radiant-hot places, or very cold places? In either case, you'll want to insulate your walls and ceiling before you begin your cabinetwork. In fact, the next time I do a schoolie, if there is one, I'll start by stripping out all the interior sheet metal. Drill out them pop rivets and get all that stuff out of there - one steel shell is enough! And then glue styrofoam panels between the ribs. Then replace the steel panels with much lighter 1/8" interior panelling, or, if you can find it, "mahogany blank." - the stuff they start with when they make the panelling. (They print a picture of wood on mahogany - go figure!) While you're at it, remove and fill any windows you won't need. Or partial windows - counter top height is about right at the middle of the windows.

Speaking of windows, you'll likely want to retain the "wide open" feature of the emergency exit windows. You can design your interior around leaving them accessible, or move them to other window holes. But they're sure a lovely thing to prop open on a hot but breezy day on the beach or desert! So be sure to consider window placement when you start drawing those scale views of your final floor plan. Once you've settled on that, you're ready to get started.

Are we still in the planning stage? Yep, let's start thinking about:

The Systems

Boondocking or Trailer Parks?

First off, you have to place your intended use somewhere in the spectrum between being prepared for "full hook-up" "camping," and "boon-docking," - where you don't see a water tap, electricity plug-in, or drain hose receptacle for weeks (or more) at a time.

The "Full hook-up" rig can be as extreme as to have only 120V appliances, including fridge, TV, stereo, and even stove, a water system limited to simple distribution from your shore connection through a water heater (which can also be electric) to your taps. No tanks necessary, since you'll be depending on being hooked up for any system use whatever. The advantage here is that appliances are cheap and easily found, and tanks and pumps unecessary.

The other extreme is to be prepared for _never_ being hooked up to external systems. All your water must be pumped out of a supply tank, do what it does, and go into a holding tank. When the tanks are empty/full. you have to drive somewhere to dump and replenish. All the electricity you consume will start as 12VDC battery power, and hopefully be used that way in 12V appliances - water pump, lights, stereo, TV, shaver, blender, the sky's the limit. The few 120V AC devices you use will have to be powered with an inverter - 12VDC to 120AC; not 100% efficient, but sometimes a necessary evil. The batteries will be kept up by a generator and/or solar power. (If it's good enough for the space station, it's good enough for the rest of us. That is, the rest of us who can afford $7 a watt.)

(I should mention here that you CAN use 120V AC appliances and run a 120V generator every time you want to make a cup of coffee, or some toast, or run your hair dryer or electric blanket, but this is expensive, noisy, and often, in "camping" situations, not a good way to make friends.)

These are the extremes, most people will end up with a compromise somewhere between these two - some 120 stuff, some 12; your mileage may vary.

Click here for more details on planning your electical system

The main changes you make in converting a schoolbus to a motorhome are fairly obvious. You need all the same systems most people take for granted in their homes. You need water to come out when you open the taps, you need all that other stuff to disappear when you flush the toilet or drain a sink, you need a means of making the thing warm inside when its's cold outside, (and possibly vice-versa,) you need a cold place to keep your beer and other necessities, and you need a means of cooking meals. You can go really far into these things, or you can do it in a way which is more "roughing it.".

For example, you can build in a shower and full flush toilet, or you can depend on the outside world for your showers, and stick with a porta-pottie. You can put in a 4 burner stove with a full oven, or you can use a two or three burner unit built into a countertop. You can install a small fridge, or a full-size unit with a good sized freezing compartment.

You can put in a small convection heater, or a radiant catalytic model, or go for the full ducted forced-air furnace. You can even opt for the wood heaater and chimney, or even a full wood kitchen range. But don't forget:

Weight - Really Important!

Weight is a really important consideration, unless you're not planning on moving much. A few schoolkids don't really weigh very much, and schoolies - even newer ones - are notoriously underpowered. Consider weight in every decision. Watching the temperature gauge go up, and the oil pressure gauge go down every time you climb a hill gets real old. So does smelling your brakes every time you go down.

As for cabinetwork, you can set your rig up like a "party pad," with nowhere to do much of anything, but with lots of big, comfortable chairs, with little table spots to put your cocktails, or you can set up a big "kitchen table," with plenty of room to while away the in-harbour hours with serious projects, as well as having the space for a full-on sit-down dinner for six. You can set it up so there's lots of beds, or so that it'll sleep two, but have lots of table tops, counter space, and storage. I guess the main fun of building your own motorhome is that you can set it up just about any way you want! Here are our priorities, as developed in the three busses we have built:

A Late Word on Fridges

RV Fridges and Freezers - the propane kind - have a serious problem. They MUST be on a PERFECTLY LEVEL surface to work properly. In fact, if the capillary tube (inside thing) is not perfectly plumb, it will plug up after a time, and it's an extremely expensive specialist chore to have it unplugged - the dangerous hydrogen/ammonia mixture in there means that only a few places in the entire country will touch them. So here's the problem: So it turns out that, when you're travelling for more than a day at a time, you can't really depend on your propane fridge to keep stuff cold, unless you're prepared to go through levelling your rig every night when you're stopped. There is, however, an alternative, and that is the new compressor-type 12V electric fridges and even freezers. Check 'em out!

The Cabinetwork

Planning your cabinetwork is the biggest part of getting ready to start swinging that screwgun. To give you an idea, here's how we did ours:

As for furniture, we set up for one main bedroom, at the rear, with 6 drawer dresser, 72 X 51 inch bed, a writing/ham radio desk, full overhead cabinets, and cabinets under the bed. We made the bed high for max storage space, and even found room behind the bed for another little storage cabinet, close to the back door. We also found the rear header useful - the metal box at the end of the roof - for storing such things as power tools and carpentry stuff.

We built a two-window cabinet over the left rear wheel well (you soon find yourself measuring in terms of "windows" as a lineal measure), and, cheekily, used a lightweight but full size steel bathtub over the other wheel well. This and the desk I'd do without next time, and buy a bus 2 windows (12 pass) shorter. (Weight,) Full overhead cabinets here, too.

For the kitchen, we used three windows. The rear ones, immediately in front of the bathroom and closet bulkheads, were the spots in which we put the furnace and water heater. We put these countertops at window height, as we retained the emergency window opening option - great to prop those windows wide open to catch breezes on a hot day! Ditto for the windows at my desk and beside the bed in the bedroom. The next two windows in the kitchen, we removed, and replaced with "top half" windows made from the originals and sheet metal fillers stuffed with styrofoam. The counter tops are level with the bottoms of these top halves. Full overhead cabinets on both sides, once again, and of course kitchen cabinets under the counters. One counter top holds the stove, the other the double sink.

The next three windows on the driver's side are occupied by a "cafe-style" dining nook - two facing seats, utilizing bottom cushions from the original schoolbus seats for bottoms and backs, mounted on boxes which provide more storage space. Full length overhead cabinets on this side provide more.The full-size table of course drops down, and the seat cushions, with one more from the opposing "side seat," make a mattress for occasional users of the "2nd bedroom." The rearmost of the three windows thus occupied opens full, since it's one of the emergency exit windows. Great breezy place to sit on a hot day! the front - rear-facing - seat is back-to-back with the driver's seat - we retained a bus seat for the driver's seat, so the driver and co-pilot both get to look out the windshield, and even hold hands where appropriate. These two seats are mounted on a storage box.

On the other side is the fridge enclosure, immediately forward of the sink cabinet. It is of course enclosed by two bulkheads, with a large vent grille at the bottom, and a "chimney" through the roof at the top. The fridge is supposed to run on 120V and 12V, but never ran properly on 12, and burnt out its 120V heating coil soon after purchase. So we ran it all the time on propane. Since it's so sensitive to levelling, it only works well when we're on the move. Illegal in some states, but cool, if you get my drift. Since the air vent grille puts the pilot light about a foot from the gas filler, I soon got into the habit of using a locking gas cap, and keeping the key on a screw on the fridge control panel, to remind us always to turn off the fridge when fuelling. It's quite a rush to be standing there in the fumes rolling out of your tank and suddenly having your ears tune into the roar of the fridge pilot light. Something you only do once!

Finally, in front of the fridge, we built a sideways-facing seat, across the aisle from the end of the kitchen table, with a storage box, of course, underneath, and a folding back behind which we could stash more Stuff. Between this box and the front door was another narrow cabinet, with counter space and a drawer, with another half-drawer sliding over its top half, for music tapes - reachable by the co-driver. Sea rails on the counter top kept stuff from taking off as much as otherwise would be the case. Ditto for the small 1-window counter spaces at the rear of the kitchen counters. No overhead cabinets on this side, although there is a sea-railed shelf above the fridge.

That's about it for the storage space, except for the front header - above the windshield. More power tools and such.

Did you notice I seemed to mention storage space a lot? That's the main difference between a full-time live-aboard and a party bus. A place for everything, and everything in its place. We've been living in our house now for the past ten years, and that's the thing we still miss the most. In a live-aboard, you have to put things away when not in use, or they'll soon choke you, and you have to put them in the same place every time or you'll go nuts looking for them. Besides, that's usually the only place there's room to put it! So we didn't waste much time looking for stuff. Or figuring out where to put it - there weren't many places empty. Lately, I've noticed a lot more schoolbusses have basement storage bins in the skirting, accessible from the outside. I guess districts have come to find them useful for team equipment and such. Look for these in your purchase, you'll be glad you did!

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