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Mary Johanssen
June 6, 2022
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A Common-Sense Bus Conversion (Part 1 of 2)

Editor’s Note: It has been said that Common Sense is not so Common. This is pretty clear in Mary’s article on how some people think they should convert buses. If you are following social media, you have probably seen some incorrectly done and even very dangerous bus conversions out there. In part 1 of Mary’s article, she talks about her experience as a professional bus driver and what she has seen, and what not to do when converting a bus.

Hardly a day goes by without seeing somebody’s dangerous bus conversion proudly demonstrated online. Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and Instagram are full of people proudly demonstrating bus conversions that frankly most people would really rather not drive behind, beside, or anywhere nearby for that matter.

It would be so easy just to publish an article full of photographs scavenged from the internet, pointing accusing fingers, and making people feel uncomfortable but that is not my goal in this article.

Social media is full of bad ideas, this is why a publication like Bus Conversion Magazine is so important for anyone converting a bus. BCM has been at this game for 30 years now, and they know what works and what does not work and what may cause expensive repairs or serious injury, all of which can be avoided.
Really and truly, most of the dangerous conversions I have seen are people making mistakes that have not been brought to their attention, and then when it is, the reaction is usually one of three of the following.
The mistakes are acknowledged and an interest is taken in resolving the issues.
The suggestion that they could have possibly made a mistake is unfathomable and thus the person bringing it to their attention is now public enemy number one.
Last, is the kind of person that agrees that a problem might exist but who won’t change anything until after a disaster has happened.

This article is aimed at the kind of person that doesn’t want to make mistakes, can’t afford to make mistakes or constantly redo things, and who really wants to be a safe driver. Everyone knows that it costs much more to change something that is not right than it is to build it right in the first place.

My background is in transportation. I have a Commercial Driver’s License and I drive school buses by choice. My bus conversion is a school bus. This is not the only thing I have done in my life but it’s perhaps the most relevant. It also brings me the most concern in terms of safety and particularly road safety.

Nobody likes to be driving along the road, up a hill, and them seeing the complete (tire and rim) of an articulated lorry (semi) come bouncing down the road in the other lane. One would hope and pray that it doesn’t hit a rock causing it to move into one’s own lane and to bounce in through the windshield. That happened to me not that long ago.

The tire bounced down the hill and past the school bus I was driving which was full of kids. Now imagine what would have happened if the bus had been hit and it had gone through the windshield and taken me, the driver out. The bus could have swerved, gone through a fence, rolled down a steep bank, and fallen into a lake.

What can happen if you do not properly maintain your bus.

What can happen if you do not properly maintain your bus.

By the time that would’ve happened, all the kids would likely have been unconscious and would have drowned. That wheel likely had poorly fastened lug nuts that had simply come undone. Twenty lives could have been lost over something as simple as somebody that didn’t check their lug nut torque.

As a general principle, nothing on a school bus, coach, or transit bus conversion should change the exterior dimensions of that bus/coach. Nothing should hang off the sides, off the back, off the front, or down underneath. Nothing should be mounted on the roof either.  Any appendages can modify the handling of a bus.

That means no VW Bus on top of a bus roof as has been seen online. Such a vehicle would quickly become shorter after passing under a standard bridge. It is even more likely that it would become a yard queen due to insurers regarding it as a bad risk before it is even registered.

One of the most popular but ludicrous additions is a big rear shelf, or a shelf and canopy. A canopy seen recently was bolted through the roof to God-knows-what. The problem is that wood won’t stand up to the vibration of a motor vehicle moving down the road and will start deteriorating the day the project is finished due to the perils of nature. Why else would vehicle manufacturers build using steel?

The fact is, wood is good used inside for things that don’t have to handle a lot of stress. Sure – wooden sailing ships exist but the wood in those is much stronger, better braced, and better quality than the soft pine available from the typical hardware store.

Even without the rear shelf being made of wood, the shelf adds extra length behind the back wheels. The pivot point of a bus is the back wheels. As the front turns one way, the back pivots on the rear wheels and turns the opposite way.

When driving a standard type C (engine in the front) school bus, the tail swing is an issue to be contended with. I can recall taking out a small palm tree with a tail swing, turning in a restricted space. Now that’s with a standard tail. Imagine the longer tail added by a back shelf. Then try driving it in a dangerous situation, in traffic, plowing down motorbikes, cars, pedestrians, or a baby carriage with a wide tail swing as depicted in Dave Millhouser’s article, Driving a Bus.

Then of course there are all those bumpy roads where the extra weight on the tail lifts the front wheels off the ground and the bus goes down the road doing a wheelie with the end of the back shelf extension grinding and throwing sparks on the road.

Another place where the extra-long rear shelf would be an issue would be railroad crossings. There’s one I used to use regularly where the slope up to the crossing was as steep as the downside and that did not allow much clearance under the back bumper.

That might be a problem too but not as much of a problem as your insurance company, which will not like nor regard as remotely safe, any extension to any side of a bus. Indeed, an extension could well put the vehicle into a different insurance bracket or vehicle classification and if they are not made aware of your addition, you may not be covered in an accident if all modifications are not disclosed to the insurance company in advance.

While we are on the topic of accidents, always leave in the roof escape hatches. In the event of a rollover, this may be the only way out of the bus. If you want to put in a roof air conditioner, cut another hole so passengers can always escape if necessary. Sometimes, the roof hatch is the only way out of a damaged bus.

School bus involved in a roll over crash. Notice the roof hatch was used to exit the vehicle.

School bus involved in a roll over crash. Notice the roof hatch was used to exit the vehicle.

Then there are the lights – so many people add these daft extensions and don’t add extra lights to let people know they are sticking out so far. Thus, the six-foot tail extension becomes a six-foot unlit traffic hazard.

Even if (I’ve not looked it up) the lights don’t have to be at the back and on the roofline with privately owned vehicles, the police are not going to care too much. The ticket and court date will be issued automatically and the police will let the courts sort it out along with the injured bicyclist that did not see the appendage hanging out so far when you turned the corner.

Imagine having to sit in the middle of Minneapolis with riots, looting, rape, pillage, vandalism, arson, and theft going on all around until the court date arrives then having to stay longer because the Coronavirus has closed the courthouse. All that time, savings are dwindling, employers are getting ready to fire somebody because they can’t get home due to a ticket, they got from something avoidable.

People often have household room air conditioners hanging out of the windows of a bus. Strangely, removing the regular air conditioner seems to be popular, and rather than spending $200 on fixing it and having a great system to keep everyone in the bus cool people seem to like to take it out, vent the ozone-depleting gasses on the way and replace it with a window unit that won’t cool the bus nearly as adequately and will not last more than a couple of years before needing to be replaced.

Perhaps the most hilarious thing is that they replace the custom, durable factory units with cheap imported units from one of the big box stores. Then they expect them to last more than a few weeks in a bus that shakes, rattles, and rolls like an earthquake whilst going down the road!

Not only do window air units not work all that well but perched, hanging out of a window while driving is simply not safe nor legal as it may end up making the bus, wider than allowed by law. The rear of a bus bounces a lot so anything secured but cantilevered out of a window behind the rear wheels is likely to act in the manner of Queen’s greatest song and break free. Then it will hurtle onto the hood of the vehicle behind and possibly through a windshield.

“The danger zone is the area on all sides of the bus where children are in the most danger of being hit, either by another vehicle or their own bus.” LowestPriceTrafficSchool.com

“The danger zone is the area on all sides of the bus where children are in the most danger of being hit, either by another vehicle or their own bus.” LowestPriceTrafficSchool.com

“These mirrors are mounted on both left and right front corners of the bus. They are used to see the front bumper “danger zone” area directly in front of the bus that is not visible by direct vision, andto view the ’danger zone’ area to the left side andright side of the bus, including the service door and front wheel area.” LowestPriceTrafficSchool.com

A very surprised driver will arrive at the Pearly Gates with a window A/C unit tucked under his arm, wondering how he got there. An equally surprised bus conversion driver will be transported from their bus to the local jail by some fellows in blue uniforms from where after a court appearance the bus driver will arrive in the real jail for a few years. Meanwhile, vandals will take care of their property in their bus before the bus and any remaining possessions get hauled off to the crusher.

Solar panels, decks, and smokestacks coming from the roof are another questionable area. Anything on top of a bus adds to the height of the bus and when bridge heights are questionable at best, this could cause some scary surprises. Solar panels are very popular and extend boondocking days to the length of your water supply, but they should be mounted as close to the roof as possible and should not hang over the edge making the bus any wider than the drip rail.

Locally a truck went under a bridge, damaging it to such an extent that the bridge had to be replaced. Replacing a bridge can be very costly to a bus owner and your insurance company will not be very happy with you. When the police investigated, the bridge was several inches lower than it was supposed to be due to resurfacing. Thus, at least a foot of clearance is recommended when you read height restriction signs. When extra “features” are added on top of a bus, that clearance might be eliminated.

Editor’s Note: Affix a label on your dashboard indicating the total height of the highest point of your bus and memorize it. It may save you a lot of hassle and money down the road.

It is not just the clearance that is important in the height of a bus but also wind resistance. A school bus won’t tip over until the wind reaches 100MPH in normal conditions. If the bus is on a side slope or going around a corner, the speed required to flip a bus on its side is much less.

With stuff mounted on the roof, the center of gravity of the vehicle raised, rendering it easier to topple when making sudden evasive maneuvers but also when in a strong crosswind.

When mounting anything to your roof, be sure to mount it securely. If you think ten screws are enough, use twenty. The last thing one wants is for a roof full of solar panels or a deck to peel off a bit at a time on a windy day going down the road, showering the windshields on vehicles behind with large chunks of junk that may go through a windshield killing the driver.

All of this goes without mentioning the frequent low-hanging branches that brush the tops of vehicle roofs on some neighborhood streets. Often, they’re enough to cause damage to vehicles and they just cannot be seen in the dark or against a background of trees or when you may become distracted.

You will be responsible when the man in the blue uniform comes to visit you when someone shows them their dashcam footage of your solar panels or roof deck when it comes crashing through their windshield.

One of the laughable things is people look at the mirrors and remove them because they are unfamiliar with how they work. If you don’t know how to use a mirror on a big rig, then practice now or just go out and buy another set today because you will need them if you travel down narrow or busy streets.

The cross-view mirrors that are mounted on the hood are the ones that people like to remove. Those help with both road positioning and allows the driver to see what’s in front of the bus but not visible from the driver’s seat like children and pets.

The bottom mirror shows everything on the ground beside the bus. The middle mirror is a flat mirror that shows everything behind and to the side. The top mirror gives a wider view of the side. That allows the driver to see merging traffic on a Y-junction and traffic merging from the next lane over. More mirrors are always worthwhile.

Editor’s Note: Next month, Mary will continue her horror stories with what some people do on the inside of their vehicles that can cause catastrophic injury to drivers or passengers.

Article written by Mary Johanssen
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