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Mary Johanssen
August 19, 2023
33 views

A Common-Sense Bus Conversion

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.

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, and 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.

The nightmare conversions some people display on social media don’t end with hanging items off the outside. The inside and underneath can be equally bad. Underneath, many like to install holding tanks and other items that hang below the bottom of the bus skirt.

Not only does something hanging low look ugly, but it can also grind on obstacles such as steel level railroad crossings. Then there are low-growing shrubs that can rip things fastened underneath the bus right off.

One of the popular things people like to do is to mount waste tanks under the bus behind the back wheels. That’s the area most likely to be scraped and most affected by bouncing, so anything mounted there has to be very well secured or even have a skid plate attached or it is very likely just to get bounced out of place.

A School bus was hit from the rear. Note that the car went under the bus.
A School bus was hit from the rear. Note that the car went under the bus.

Having a big waste tank bouncing about with the weight continually shifting, left, right, forward, back, up, and down is hardly conducive to good steering and even more – is likely to break loose or fracture and deluge the unsuspecting innocent soul behind with its delightful aromatic contents. I’m pretty sure that person would not enjoy the Vindaloo curry over rice, washed down with a little red wine as much as the driver did – at least not the second time around!

The majority of collisions with buses are from the rear. School buses have a high bumper so that any collision with a car directs the car underneath. A waste tank under the rear affords a car a very nice cushion to break their impact but the big problem is that with a wrecked waste tank, it’s going to be hard to continue on your trip and can be considered hazardous waste in most places which could cost thousands of dollars to clean up. Best put the waste tank elsewhere and keep the area behind the wheels free.

Now let’s move on to the actual construction of a bus and Newton’s First Law of motion. “A body in motion stays in motion”. What happens when something that is moving, stops suddenly? Inertia – the loose stuff and poorly secured stuff will continue the forward motion.

A Skoolie crashed and caught on fire.
A Skoolie crashed and caught on fire.

When I bought my bus – with the previous owner’s conversion already in it – I had to strip it all out. A big cabinet sat on the curbside of the bus that had no securement whatsoever. On the driver’s side, there were several steel-framed beds bolted together and secured by two small L-brackets and a single bolt. That would have kept it in place while driving but not in an accident.

The beds would have become projectiles hurling toward anyone in the driver’s area, or the passenger area if the bus hit an object on the right side of the bus. The driver and passenger of the bus generally sit in the front where all objects end up that is not secured down in an accident. Let that sink in when you are building your bus.

The whole aim is to go beyond just securing things in place during normal driving. The aim is to keep things in place in the event of a catastrophic accident. That means securing microwaves, refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers, and toilets – especially all the stuff that is really big needs to be very well secured.

If it’s not possible to secure it, it should not be in a bus conversion. If it’s temporarily secured, after a few sessions of securing and un-securing it will soon be forgotten. Anything that takes time to prep before moving may be missed as time goes on unless you are diligent with a checklist.

If just one item in your bus is loose, it can cannon into something else, knock that loose and the weight of both add to the weight of the third, breaking that loose too until eventually a single item from the back can arrive at the front with the poor driver and/or co-pilot crushed to death.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion is F=MA, where F (Force) is determined by the Mass (weight) of an object, times the acceleration (or speed you are moving) when you hit something in front of you.

Not a good way to leave this world! The way women should leave this world is surrounded by a large, loving family. The way men should leave this world is with a gun blazing in each hand and the blood of their enemies dripping on the ground.

Now let’s talk about the really hot item this year – the potbellied stove. In a word… No. Just say No. Why introduce something so difficult to secure and so hazardous into a bus conversion? It won’t secure well, will be a hazard in a catastrophic stop, or indeed just a mild bump. Any hot ashes will be spread everywhere and ashes can stay hot for days, igniting anything flammable in your bus and even on the outside. If you are incapacitated you could quickly become a crispy critter if no one is around to remove you from the bus.

In normal conditions, spits, and sparks from a wood stove, especially if you burn pine, can cause a fire inside and outside of your bus if there’s no spark arrester on the stovepipe – which I’ve never seen anybody install on a bus.

As far as insurance – the insurers would be running for the hills over that one so good luck finding an insurance company and if you do, be sure to calculate the cost of the insurance rider for your wood stove when you are calculating the savings of burning wood in your bus. If you fail to mention that you have a wood stove in your bus, and it catches fire because of the wood stove, then you may be liable for all damages to your bus and anything else that burned up around your bus.

Propane is another highly flammable fuel that needs to be taken seriously. Just stick with portable appliances that run off internal propane bottles to minimize risk. If those leak, they can be replaced. There’s no big propane tank to carry which can turn into a bomb if it gets punctured or your bus catches on fire.

Water heating can be done over a propane stove and cooking is best done outside to avoid getting steam in the bus. If you travel through tunnels, you may also be required to turn your propane tank off which can be a hassle.

Small portable gas cylinders are small and easily obtainable. For safety, they can be carried in a small, well-ventilated compartment under the bus. Also, remember that propane gas settles to the bottom of a compartment, so if you are mounting them in your bus, be sure to cut a hole in the bottom of your propane compartment for the gasses to escape.

Also, all propane bottles should be in a cabinet built just for them with a hole in the bottom and not in a compartment with batteries, heaters, electrical appliances, or anything that could cause a spark.

What happens in an accident situation? Amidst the chaos, flame, and smoke of a bad crash on interstate 666, the driver sits next to his jackknifed bus with cars blazing away as far as the eye can see. Systematically, the police are looking for survivors and trying to keep ahead of the Grim Reaper who is speedily collecting souls.

The insurance agent teleports in from headquarters to assist the bus driver that was five vehicles back from the epicenter – which was caused by an inattentive driver reaching in the passenger’s footwell for her phone on which he was doing a Facebook Live commentary on the bad driving they’ve seen up ahead.

Looking at his notebook the agent peers quizzically at the bus, recognizing it as a bus. The agent checks the VIN and sees it was a bus but some fiddling had taken place to retitle the bus as a motorhome. The agent checks against known motorhome manufacturers – not on the list.

The agent sees stuff hanging outside the bus beyond the legal width of the bus, or a pile of appliances sitting in the driver’s seat and says I’m sorry sir, the agent tells the driver, you’re not covered. But. But, but, spluttered the driver, you insured it. The agent looks severely at the driver – you conned us into thinking it was a motorhome when it’s a bus. Sorry, you are not covered.

This accident shows the importance of leaving the roof escape hatches intact. In a rollover, this may be your only way out.
This accident shows the importance of leaving the roof escape hatches intact. In a rollover, this may be your only way out.

That is why some insurance companies require photos of your bus before they will insure it. They are looking at what was added, how and where it was added and how safely the conversion was done. Did the converter take into consideration anything that would cause an accident or would make an accident worse than it would have been if everything was secured properly? If anything was added after the photos were sent in which may have caused personal injury or damage to your bus, you may not be covered.

Hearing that the driver was not covered and classed as uninsured, the policeman breaks into a broad grin and takes out his stack of tickets, and licks his finger. On this day, the policeman gets to make an arrest and you may spend the night in a very secure hotel.
Don’t try to retitle and hoodwink the insurers. It doesn’t work despite what you’ve heard online. Those that did are now not insuring bus conversions.

And why? Because of the vast number of really appallingly bad conversions out there. Don’t add to that. Do a good conversion. Continually think of what may happen if you have to make a sudden stop. It happens all of the time. Be an alert driver and always look ahead and keep a safe distance from the car ahead of you.

But what about “professional” conversions? Well, there aren’t any. Shocking? Well, all those “professional” converters are just rank amateurs that manage to spin a buck by persuading others to part with money for an already converted bus. From what I’ve seen of most of those “professional” conversions, they’re not vehicles I would feel safe driving and I am a professional driver!
Some people must have 120V – why? What purpose does it serve? My opinion is, if you want a microwave, hairdryer, electric shower, induction stove, etc. then you want an apartment, not a bus. Buses are meant to be primitive and not supposed to be glamped up.

We buy buses because we want to travel and don’t want to spend the money on a motorhome. 120V is not necessary in a bus conversion, it is a luxury and costs extra money, but some people like the comfort and are willing to spend extra money for it.

Two systems exist – 12V and 120V. Many people seem to want to run household appliances and go in for lots of wiring, generators, and so on. That to me is unnecessary. It’s about as nuts as the vast numbers of solar panels and batteries you see on some conversions now. Let’s cut with the overpower production and overpower consumption. It’s not needed, it costs money, and is bad for the environment

My big gripe with the 120V system is some people wire their bus like a house with three solid core wires. The solid wire should never be used in a bus as it will eventually fracture over time as a result of flexing from bouncing down the road and can cause a spark and hence a fire. Instead, use stranded wire as it is more flexible so it doesn’t fracture. Marine stranded wire is best as it is sealed in a rubber shield.

I’d say the biggest gripe is that people overproduce and overuse power. Sure – my bus has 120V but it’s only available when I plug into shore power. The rest of the time it isn’t needed. It really isn’t needed when it is plugged in because the things running off it – the fridge, microwave, slow cooker, and electric heater fan are non-essentials, and are luxuries in my opinion.

Sure – the heater fan is needed but only in severely cold weather. In cold weather, one is hardly ever in a bus but rather in a house or apartment unless you are a full-timer. But if one is, then find somewhere to plugin!

How much power do you need? Really! My bus conversion has two 10W solar panels producing all the power that I need for my door lock control. The door lock control is the only thing on 24x7. The essentials are ventilation (not A/C), lighting, water pumps, and (these days) phone/tablet charging. How much power does all that use? Not much.

Ventilation using fans can easily be replaced by ventilation via such simple things as opening windows and having window screens in place. Lighting can be replaced by using battery-powered hurricane lamps – assuming one can be found that doesn’t glare and which produces enough light.

Quit looking at lead-acid batteries. They’re just junk that lasts a few years if that.   Instead, spend the money and get lithium. Sure – it’s costly but it lasts longer and it charges faster. They also weigh a lot less. I’m just about to toss out my two, failing one-year-old lead-acid deep cycle batteries in favor of a single lithium battery.

Bottom line, you can convert a bus that is safe, energy-efficient, and is a pleasure to live and travel in. I have seen the photos of stick-n-staple motorhomes that have been involved in an accident or simply were blown over on their side in a stiff wind and I am shocked to know they would even insure those boxes of wood and fiberglass.

When they get in an accident, they send in a bucket loader to clean them up. With a bus, you have a fighting chance. Just be smart with your conversion. If you want to see what happens in an accident in a factory-built motorhome, a travel trailer, or 5th wheel, take a look at some of the photos of accidents on the BCM Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/BCMagUSA/ such as the one below and you will be convinced a bus conversion is the only way to travel.

Stick-N-Staple rollover accident.
Stick-N-Staple rollover accident.
Article written by Mary Johanssen
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