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Gary Hatt
March 28, 2022

Bus Chat -Do’s and Don’ts of Bus Conversion Design

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Post by: Gary

Attention all Bus Conversionites.

I am putting together a presentation of the Do’s and Don’ts of Bus Conversion Design for an event coming up later this month. Please help me by listing the things that you would look for if you were looking to buy a converted bus or what you would do or not do if you were starting to convert a bus from scratch.

I have a long list of ideas after reading every issue of Bus Conversion Magazine myself and seeing several poor design ideas on social media, but there may be things that I have missed. I am looking for your ideas as well to round out my list.

Post by: ol713

Outline things for a basic electrical house system. Also include info for a 12V and 24VDC system. One vs. the other.

Post by: Raymond smith

If you are building from scratch, make sure the shell and windows are sealed so they don’t leak. Easy to check with a garden hose or pressure washer when the shell is empty, you can see the leaks.

Post by: Utahclaimjumper

Three things I would place above all else when in the design phase would be:

#1. Design for minimum crash impact damage.

#2. Design for minimum fire potential.

sealing the traditionally front door, and move it to behind the front wheel.)
#3. Design in escape methods. (including sealing the traditionally front door, and moving it to behind the front wheel.)

The reason I included the door mod is due to an accident is we were involved in, with our 4106, that jammed the door and forced us to evacuate out a window. It would have been extremely difficult if the fire had been involved.

Post by: lvmc

Check for RUST, then check for RUST again.

Post by: Nova Eona

Don’t permanently cover any access panels during the conversion which you may need to get into in the future! This should be an obvious one, yet seems like a common mistake.

Post by: richard5933

When our 4106 was involved in a head-on collision with a Honda, our door was also jammed closed. Fortunately, the previous owner that did the conversion left an escape window in the front parlor just behind the passenger seat. Was pretty easy for us to get out quickly. I’d say that moving the door isn’t necessary, but having some viable means of getting out quickly is.

Post by: dtcerrato

We’ve maintained all the emergency escape routes that were OEM designed and not changed during conversion. That today yields us the regular entrance door, the rear emergency driver’s side door with steps (added), two swing-out large sliders on the passenger side (one is blocked by an awning arm the other deleted & paneled for the bath), and one driver side large slider (the other two were deleted & paneled for the kitchen). Plenty of fire extinguishers inside & out. Spare tire always as we go deep and don’t care for the wait for roadside assistance. Roadside emergency kits for marking the shoulder/lane for safety. Very important are fire detectors, LPG detectors, and CO detectors. Label as much as possible - not just switched but everything within reason as down the line - memory fades not to mention aids for first responders, to list a few.

Post by: luvrbus

Don’t start with an old wore out bus is the best plan. Conversion parts can always be found, the drive train is a killer on most budgets.

Post by: silversport

The first thing I tell anyone is to do a wire schematic on all changes they do to all wiring (12V or 120V). This can save hours, years down the road when something goes wrong. The second is when building, think how easy it is going to be to remove/repair down the road. It’s amazing how many times things are built/installed with no thought of removal.

Post by: Tedsoldbus

My bus was done when I got it, so I asked my 90-year-old in-laws who did 30 years in a 4106. They converted some of it, had some done by a shop that did buses.

Mom said: Number one complaint from the women that usually goes “unfixed” is a place to rest their feet in the passenger seat! Does not have to be a fancy tuck under the seat or pop down from the dash. But SOMETHING!”

Dad said: “keep wiring simple and if you live where it is cold, be able to drain all water lines and the water heater.” He also just did one big tank instead of black/grey. It was a big steel tank his friend welded up for him.

Post by: ktmossman

I’m not done with my build yet, but here are a few I’ve learned already:

  1. K.I.S.S. - I have already run into several instances where I was seriously overcomplicating the solution to a challenge, and ultimately landed on a painfully simple solution.
  2. Be flexible - (This is probably related to #1)
    I think many of us have probably done a good bit (maybe years) of planning before we started work. But when you are actually doing the build, sometimes being locked into the “plan” can create unnecessary complexity in actual execution. I try to focus on the functionality I want to have, not necessarily the plan I had for getting that functionality. That way, when the plan won’t execute the way I envisioned, I don’t get stuck trying to force my plan. I can step back and re-think how to get the functionality I want, not necessarily how to make my plan work.

I also agree with the egress planning. I decided I wanted multiple egress points no matter what the position of the bus in the event of an accident. So, I kept both roof exits, and three of the four exit windows. 

Post by: Lee Bradley

Figure out how many wires you are going to run for lighting, power outlets, new controls you may want to add; new relays, new sensors, etc. Then double that number of wires you run. Ready to build, double that number again. Can you control everything in the basement and the engine compartment without going outside in a driving rainstorm at 2:00 in the morning?

Post by: buswarrior

Ditto, why do Bus Nuts insist on building the coach electrical, such that you have to go outside in a storm to change the configuration when the campground power goes out?

Don’t disable the coach during the build. Nothing keeps the support for the dream alive better than using the coach. Many abandoned projects were undrivable, and the dream died.

Post by: dtcerrato

I totally agree with BW on keeping panels inside for easy inside resetting especially in inclement weather and again on using the bus during your build. Been there, done that.

Post by: luvrbus

I would just like to see more buses finished than getting sent to bus scrap yards. More get sent to the scrap yards unfinished, by far.

Post by: kyle4501

Build a realistic, practical listing of the cost involved to convert one. (ranging from DIY to paid shops).

It saddens me to see so many people who don’t realize how much it costs to service a heavy vehicle. Parts availability will be an issue for some models. Oil changes are in gallons, not quarts. One can easily spend over $500 for a complete set of new lug nuts - now add wheel studs. Not to mention brakes & tires.

Post by: luvrbus

Changing the fluids in the engine, transmission, generator, and generator antifreeze, with filters, I am at $1,200 - material only. Plus 2 days la-bor and 1 trip to the ER for 5 stitches. Cummins charged $500.00 for oil and filters on the engine and generator.

Post by: epretot

Surround yourself with others who know more than you. While this forum is a great start, I have a good mechanic that allows me to bounce ideas off of him. A friend of mine is a welder at GE and basically reminds me of MacGyver. Two electricians that make my head hurt when they are talking to each other about MY bus. And another friend who poo-poos my bad ideas (he has a bus too).

Post by: Tedsoldbus

I’ve had 4 RVs, but this is our first bus. We have had it for almost a year, and boy are they different. I always seek counsel from the two old bus guys we know from Rita’s dad’s bus days. They had shops and were no kidding real bus mechanics for a living.

Some conversions like Jim Blackwood’s won’t be done for a while, but run everything you CAN once a month. Old bus guys tell me “Get it on the road once a month if it runs, even if it is just for an hour”.

Run EVERYTHING. I check the engine oil and then start it. I start the generator and while rolling we run the one bus heater (propane), run the two roof breaths of air at the same time. Run the dash heat and then air. Turn on the water heater. Run both water pumps in all spigots. Doing more than just starting the engine (go somewhere) also gets all the engine stuff up to pressure and temperature. It exercises the wheel bearings, tires, airbags, etc., etc. The old guys tell me to basically try to run everything you would use on a long trip. Check headlights and blinkers.

On these short runs, I have discovered a leak here, an indicator light for the H/W heater burned out. A leaky water line that runs from the engine to the dash that we replaced. When I get home and the engine is hot, I check the transmission fluid.

I really do feel like I could fire it up today and head for Montana. Something will break, but it won’t be 7 things. As you convert, keep trying exercising what you think is done. The bonus is that when the conversion IS done, you will be used to running all this stuff!

That is advice from two bus mechanics. (I am not one). But is has served me well. Both mechanics said, “The worst thing for these old buses is to sit.”

Post by: chessie4905

I can see this on the Prevost conversion craze. People are doing whatever in the financing department to get one. THEN realize insurance, fuel costs, maintenance costs are more than they can afford. Expect to see many more for sale in a couple of years. A problem I can see is that to save money, they will avoid necessary services on them, like not changing oil, etc. Amazing how many you see for sale with relatively low miles with “new engine installed”.

Post by: luvrbus

All buses for sale have new engines with less than 10,000 miles. But the fact is buses are killers on engines. They just don’t last long back there. 4-strokes last longer when you get around 600,000 on series 60 in a bus, you better start saving your money. The 2-strokes are usually gone at 300,000 miles.

Post by: windtrader

Many, including me started off with the dream of DIY converting a bus into a custom RV. Those doing research soon find out how much of everything it takes to do one A to Z. There are a few unicorns that have the perseverance and tenacity to do it. Jim is a regular here and makes regular progress but is still a long way from realizing his vision. We all hope he gets it done and life doesn’t throw a curve. Still, for nearly all, do some deep soul searching, wake up, then just buy an already running converted bus and go on a road trip.

DIY or bought you can’t escape ongoing costs. Even knowing what was involved upfront, it still is eye-opening and wallet-busting to deal with keeping it on the road. Yes, everything is gallons, not quarts. Doing a full tread upgrade is as much as buying a commuter car for the college-bound kid. Parts and service are a hunt.

Post by: chessie4905

I’m talking about Prevost conversions that aren't that old or high in mileage. Running low on oil or overheating seems common. That 8V-92s on high horsepower settings seem to be hard on bearings.

Post by: Melbo

We started traveling on our bus in 2004. We have redone many parts and one complete clean-up. One new motor and trans (by B&B Coachworks in Las Vegas) and use it three to four times a year. When we start driving we take note of how long we travel before “The List” starts. Sometimes before we get out of town and sometimes after we have traveled for a day. We kind of have a permanent list that is really a “Wish List” and sometimes things get finished from that list, but the other list is for things that need to be secured changed, and added.

Drawers and cabinets that don’t stay closed, win-dow coverings that rattle broken window latches, etc. We do it once a year annual maintenance. Engine oil, trans oil, generator oil, check all batteries, complete lube, and adjust the brakes (also adjust brakes between major trips). We use tire monitors and battery voltage, monitors.

We have fun as long as we use it and we add and change as we feel the need. We don’t have a stove and we don’t use propane. We had a smooth electric cooktop we were going to install and after storing it for three or four years we sold it. For heat, we use electric cube heaters and thermometer, and a compass. If it gets cold where we are we need to head home or go south. Just our way, but that is the thing about a bus conversion. Do what works for you and be sure to get it on the road regularly.

Post by: belfert

I have an automatic transfer switch so I wouldn’t have to go outside to switch to the generator, but I never park at a campground so that is a moot point. My power panels were down below for the first dozen-plus years I owned my bus. The only reason breakers ever had to be reset was due to low voltage issues with my previous generator. I just finished up moving my power panels upstairs. I hadn’t put them upstairs in the first place due to space constraints.

My bus has been in various phases of construction since I purchased it. However, other than the first year I owned it the bus has been used every single year. My bus has never done less than 4,000 miles per year since 2007 and has averaged 5,000 or more miles per year since 2007.

Post by: Tedsoldbus

Having a bus is expensive and it sucks. I learned that, and still have one. I have fixed a few lights and hoses on the bus, have a fridge problem that won’t be cheap to resolve, but every time I walk outside and see it in the driveway, I smile! I Just think “How cool is THAT. A Prevost that is 35 feet! No-tag axle! Didn’t even know they made them this little and without mirrors in the ceiling, a fireplace, and a TV that comes up out of the floor. And when I fire up that 6V92 and watch it air up. Feels the same as when I fired up a fighter jet in my very younger years. It is just cool. And it cost less than a new pickup truck!”.

I’ve mentioned I’m planning a trip to Indiana soon to get the Amish fridge. Something will break coming or going. That is what they do. Parts are harder to get, but we work it out.

Our 2-year-old Allegro bus in a year of full-time use broke too. Levelers wouldn’t go up. The next trip wouldn’t go down. The slide wouldn’t go in three times. The water heater blew. The list goes on.

I am probably not very smart because I can’t wait to get this 40-year-old bus on the road to Indiana. Something will break, slow me down. But not going to sit here at the house and wait to die.

If starting from scratch, try to put in cabinets that can take a full-sized plate. Have all doors able to secure so they don’t open and if you can, they don’t rattle. We put the cool new stuff like our TPMS and navigation aids on the passenger side. We just ordered a dashcam to take away the argument on who hit who. Keep all plumbing as close together as you can and try to keep it out of exterior walls. Before you get one, no matter how good the deal; know where are you going to park it.

Post by: peterbylt

I agree with the keep it useable part. When we started with a seated coach the overwhelming size of the project was intimidating. We stuck with the axiom of, how do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time. So, every project we do is another bite out of the elephant.

If you focus on the end of the current project and not finishing the entire bus you will be much better off. Early on, the wife set a goal of the mini-mum function we needed to go camping..

The list: Working Toilet, Sink with running water, Bed, Refrigerator, some electrical outlets and an Air Conditioner (we live in Florida). That’s what we worked for, the rest was made up with folding tables and chairs. The first trip wasn’t pretty, but it was functional, we had a great time, and it keeps getting better with every enhancement added. The folding tables and chairs have slowly been replaced with Kitchen counters, cabinets, permanent seating, Dining room table, sofa, recliner.

My suggestion, get it usable as soon as possible keep it usable, and use it as often as possible. On the design and building aspect, one of the unexpected items was that the design of entire interior was designed around the toilet, it needing to be directly over the blackwater tank and the rest took shape around that. Wire and plumb everything before the insulation and walls go in.

Because we started using the Bus at such a minimalistic stage we were able to figure out a lot of what would and would not work and where to locate some things and other things that were included in the original design that were not needed.

Post by: Jim Blackwood

As much as I do enjoy the design process, it is all about being able to use the bus. Again, there are minimum requirements and they vary from person to person. If a 5-gallon bucket in the bay under the toilet is adequate that will do to begin with. That can very certainly be made to work.

In my case when the bus rolls out for the first time, I want it to be capable of making a 3-hr. trip and possibly staying on-site for six months, without hookups but with possible periodic resupply trips and only being occupied occasionally. But that takes a bit more.

Post by: kyle4501

Do’s & don’ts . . . . .

Do some homework learning

  • •What is available & for how much? 
  • What are your local rules concerning having an RV in the yard? 
  • What commonly needed repairs cost?
  • What “show stopper” repairs cost at home vs on the road?

Based on the above -- work out a budget and a plan to decide what you can get and proceed with care.

  • DON’T get in over your head financially. 
  • Don’t let your dream turn into a nightmare
  • Don’t forget to have a plan “B” to get home if the bus isn’t cooperating

Nothing worse than seeing enthusiasm replaced with misery & frustration. Nothing better than seeing a dream fulfilled with enthusiasm & enjoyment.

Post by: Tedsoldbus

Remember, Education is Important, but having a bus is “Important”.

Post by: TomC

As stated before, put all circuit breakers inside the living area where you don’t have to go outside to reset something (always cold and raining when that happens).

  • Keep your freshwater system above the floor. I have 130gal water, two 10gal electric water heaters, and two water pumps under my queen bed. Then it won’t freeze when you’re using it.
  • All my switching is done manually. In 25 years of use, never an electrical problem.
  • On-air suspension coaches, keep the automatic leveling valves but add electrical solenoids to manually adjust-makes leveling a snap when stopped for the night.

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Article written by Gary Hatt

Since July 2012, Gary Hatt has been the Publisher of BCM. Gary does most of his own work on his bus with the help of mechanic friends. He has owned tents, truck campers, travel trailers, and stick-n-staple motor-homes until he bought his first bus in 1997 which was a 1972 MCI MC-7 Combo. When he had a chance to buy a 1983 MCI MC-9 Log Cabin bus with larger windows he jumped at the chance. On Thanksgiving of 2014, Gary bought a 1967 Model 08 Eagle and has since been living and traveling full time in that.

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