SCHOOL BUSES 101 -- BASIC INFORMATION ABOUT BUYING AN OLD SCHOOL BUS FOR CAMPING IN BLACK ROCK CITY
[19 July 2011: There is a technical problem with this post. I've tried to repair it -- no promises. Elliot]
SCHOOL BUSES 101 -- BASIC INFORMATION ABOUT BUYING AN OLD SCHOOL BUS FOR CAMPING IN BLACK ROCK CITY
Old school buses are often mentioned as possible Burning Man art-haulers and camping-vehicles, so here are some tips. “School buses 101”, you might say. What I write here is either based on my own experience and stupidity, or on the collective ramblings of the folks on the skoolie forum http://www.skoolie.net/forum/
- a few of whom are even burners.
De-commissioned school buses are a good transportation value. They have generally been maintained extremely well. They are often sold because of an age limit imposed by the school board; not because they are worn out. And school buses are built like tanks. For example, when a school bus rolls onto its roof, it is supposed to -- by law -- still look like a bus.
Supply and demand
As with everything, supply-and-demand decides the price. Based on the number of buses rotated out of service in the USA and the number of Americans who might want to buy one, a 15 to 20 year old school bus should cost 50 cents -- or scrap metal value, whichever is higher. However, there is a large market for used school buses in Central and South America, where they are put to use in everything from public transit to plowing fields, so a good bus is still worth a few thousand in the USA. For the huge amount of cargo space you get, a “skoolie” is still a fantastic value.
Where to buy
By far the best source of a good used school bus is a nearby school district. The actual transaction may be directly with the school district or with somebody else, but I recommend you get a bus directly out of school bus service. That way you avoid taking over somebody else’s bungled project.
Many school districts farm out the operation of their buses to a contractor. The biggest may be First Student, and they list their re-sale buses on their web site. If the name Laidlaw comes to mind -- First Student has bought Laidlaw. I got both my buses from First Student.
Many school districts sell their de-commissioned buses thru an auction. These days, auctions are often held on the internet. This is a perfectly good way to buy a bus, but I recommend you only bid on a bus that is near your home so you can first inspect it and maybe even talk to the bus mechanics. As for waltzing into the local bus barn and striking up a conversation... I have yet to meet a school bus employee who was anything but super friendly and helpful. Most seemed to enjoy the idea of putting an old bus to a new fun use.
You can buy a bus at a used bus dealer, but they do tend to shoot for profit.
I bought my first bus in early 2006 for $250. It was a 1981 International conventional with a gasoline engine. It had petrified tires on split rims, so I spent $2.200 on new ones.
Here it is on the Playa - white with red stripe. (The KazBus -- on the left -- is a school bus also.) Drove it to Burning Man and one other event, then gifted it to the nearest scrap metal recycler. No, I kept the new tires and rims!
Its replacement, in December 2006, cost $5.500. (The tires were OK, but I had the new ones so I sold the old ones.) It is a 1992 Blue Bird flat-nose with a diesel engine. Here she is on the Playa in 2007 -- just peaking out from under a giant tarp and our Camp sign:
Her name is Millicent. I love her and will probably keep her until I die. Two burns and a bunch of Kinetic Sculpture Races already. You should not need to pay more for a reliable bus. In fact, I paid “full retail” to get just the type of bus I wanted, when I wanted. There are lots of fine buses for $2000.
What to buy
The school bus industry has their own system, but I consider skoolies to exist in five forms:
This is the kind with the engine sticking out five feet in front of the windshield. The entire hood-and-front-fenders is hinged at the bumper, and it is wonderfully easy to work on the engine. The downside is that the engine compartment consumes a lot of the total length, so there is less room inside. And I have yet to see a conventional that was more than 35 feet long overall.
2. Flat Nose Front Engine:
These exist up to 40 feet long -- which is the legal limit many places. The engine is tucked into a hole in the floor under a hinged cover (“dog house”) next to the driver, and this placement maximizes interior space. However, -- and this is a Major However -- it is d#$%^&*d difficult to work on the engine. And you have to climb over the dog house to get to the driver’s seat. The dog house is impressively well sealed and insulated, but you are still mighty close to the noise and fumes.
Millicent is such a bus. I wanted maximum interior space AND I wanted to build a “garage” in the back. If I did not need the “garage”, I would not have bought a Front Engine Flat-Nose. Also called a Forward Control bus.
A “pusher” is a “Real Bus”. The engine is in the rear (“pushing the rest of the bus down the road”). These buses are quieter, ride better, and are all around better vehicles. Pushers are also up to the full 40 feet long. It’s really no contest -- if you do not need a “garage” in the back, buy a pusher. You can use the “shelf” above the engine for a bunk, and thus the engine placement does not cost you much space.
There are a number of types of smaller school buses based on vans and whatnot. I don’t know much about them. But there is a section on the skoolie forum dedicated to them. I’m under the impression that they tend to cost more per foot than the bigger buses -- go figure.
5 Mid engine:
There are not many of these around anymore. To my knowledge, the only brand is Crown, which is out of business, and possibly Gillig, which took over Crown’s product line for a short while. Legend has it, Crown went out of business because their buses were too good -- they never needed replacing. Mid-engine Crowns are practically collector items now. They have large engines that are unique and expensive to repair. For advanced users only.
The chassis of a school bus is largely assembled from the same standard parts as medium duty trucks, so the brand name is not all that important. A typical bus might have engine from Cummins, transmission from Allison, rear axle from Rockwell, frame from Freightliner, and windshield wiper motors from Delco, so you will not often find yourself “orphaned” for parts, regardless of what brand of bus you buy. Need an air brake treadle valve for your Carpenter bus? Your local Freightliner truck dealer can probably fix you right up.
The school bus specific parts vary more, of course, but are seldom critical to the bus’ basic function.
Some brands have expired, and others have changed names (and presumably owners) and I don’t even try to keep up with that. Major brands with long stable histories include Blue Bird (two words) and Thomas.
(If you press me to name one brand to avoid, it would be Carpenter. Carpenter went out of business after a bus rolled over and the roof collapsed. (Luckily, there were no children onboard.) Turned out, they had built a bunch of buses with bad welds.)
Conventionals and vans carry two brand names; the name of the chassis-and-nose, and the name of the bus body. Thus you will see such combinations as “International-Ward” and “Chevrolet-Thomas”.
The choice is between diesel and gasoline (...and the occasional propane, which is a gasoline engine with a propane carburetor.)
Diesel engines are more durable, have more low-RPM power, use less fuel and are generally the “grown up” way to propel a bus down the road. Millicent gets at least 9 MPG.
Gasoline engines cost less to purchase and are easier to work on for an amateur mechanic, but they use more fuel. Sometimes much more. That first bus of mine got something like 3 or 4 MPG. And unless you have a hot rod engine, it may be horribly slow, like 20 MPH up a steep hill.
A skoolie will always be a slower vehicle than you are used to. For maximum hill climbing power (Wadsworth to Gerlach!), look for the International DT466 and the Cummins 8.3 (C-series). These engines are also famously durable. The Cummins 5.9 (B-series), same engine as in Dodge pickup-trucks, is also good, and very common. These engines are inline six cylinders -- just like in 18-wheelers.
Practically all diesels have a turbo charger, and many have an intercooler (charge cooler, after-cooler). There is no reason to consider any diesel without a turbo, and the intercooler helps too.
A word about the Screamin’ Demon. Detroit Diesel (GM) used to build two-stroke diesel engines. They are called “Screamin’ Demon” for a reason -- think two-stroke motorcycle. On rare occasions you may find one in a large school bus. As these engines are kind’a obsolete, major repairs may be expensive.
Most school buses have an automatic transmission, all made by Allison (GM). For our purpose, they come in three sizes: AT545, MT643 and the HT700-series. The AT (Automatic Truck) 545 is most common and least desirable. The MT (Medium Truck) 643 is much better, primarily because its torque converter locks at cruising speed, saving fuel and improving durability. The HT (yup -- Heavy Truck) 700-series is rare in skoolies -- used only with extra large engines in buses like Crown.
Repairing an Allison is frighteningly expensive, so its condition should be a high priority. Heat is the primary enemy, so the climb from Wadsworth to Gerlach is a serious concern. An extra cooler with its own electric fan is a good idea. Clean fluid is also important to Allison longevity. They usually have an external spin-on filter -- change it often.
Unless you are a klutz with a clutch, keep an eye out for a stick shift. They are rare, but they are out there. You’ll get better fuel mileage and it won’t “melt down” in the mountains. Granted, a clutch can also wear out, but to my mind this is a lesser problem. When driving a diesel engine with a stick shift, avoid revving the engine when you start out from a standstill. Slipping the clutch is what will kill it. A diesel is much gruntier at idle than a gasoline engine, so you engage the clutch quickly with the engine at minimum speed, and then ease into the power after the clutch is all hooked up.
Some stick shift buses have a two-speed rear axle, which you shift with a little knob on top of the regular gear shifter stick. I have never driven one, and know nothing about them. Except... I’m told that it is quite easy to break them, so get knowledgeable coaching to drive it correctly.
There are three kinds of brakes: air brakes, hydraulic brakes, and a couple of hybrid systems. Real buses have air (pneumatic) brakes, just like 18-wheelers. You need to read up on them, and get used to them, but they are definitely the way to go. (You may be surprised that large vehicles still use drum brakes.) Much info here: http://www.saferoads.com/vehicles/sbcv_airbrakes.html
and here: http://www.newbiedriver.com/ABCsUpdates ... kes101.htm
The smaller the bus, the higher the chance that it has hydraulic brakes, like an automobile. Hydraulics work fine also.
There is an oddball brake system out there, which name escapes me at the moment, and that I know nothing about, but that is to be avoided like the plague -- according to the guys on the skoolie.net forum. Maybe Lucas-Girling.
Tires are very expensive, so pay close attention to their condition. School districts sometimes put marginal tires on buses that are being sold. Commercial tire shops and big-truck wrecking yards may have used tires that can be a good deal. Don’t worry about whether you have “high profile” tires with designations like 11Rx22.5, or the “low profile” tires like 275/80Rx22.5. Their condition is much more important.
But DO make sure they are tubeless! Tubeless tire designations end in “.5”, like that 275/80Rx22.5. The bead is still right at 22 inches in diameter. But if the designation is ...22, then it is not a tubeless tire. It’s not that buses and trucks did not go down the road in the days of inner tubes, but it is now almost impossible to find mechanics who will work on them, and tires in this size range are not DIY material. Which brings us to...
...wheels. The wheel is the steel or aluminum thing that the tire mounts on. In contrast to passenger cars and pickumup-trucks, there are several kinds of bus wheels, and all kinds of names for them. I’m going to make it simple for you:
First, about lug nuts:
If the wheel fastens to the vehicle with a small circle of lug nuts like a passenger car -- this is good. Anybody with a big enough lug wrench can change this wheel.
If the wheel instead has nuts close to the tire, with little angle-shaped steel wedges under the nuts, this is not so good. This wheel requires skill, or at least common sense, to mount properly.
Second, about “split rims”:
If the little air filler valve stem that you put air into has a nut at its base, that is good. This is a tubeless wheel.
If the valve stem has no nut, and comes out of a slot in the wheel, this is bad. This is an inner tube, and the wheel may be a “split rim”. Perhaps there exist one-piece rims for inner tubes - I don’t know. But odds are this is a split rim -- two pieces that are held together by the air pressure in the tube. Run, don’t walk, away -- or to the nearest commercial tire shop and buy six tubeless wheels and tires.
The one drawback to school buses is the ceiling height, which is usually only a couple of inches more than six feet, and that’s in the center of the vaulted ceiling. Lots of folks seem to feel that this is not much of a problem for occasional use. But some of us raise the roof. Yes, we cut the roof completely loose from the walls, jack it up a foot or two, and weld in new “studs” (window pillars). Finally, we cover the gaps and much of the old window openings with new sheet metal.
Sure, this is a lot of work, but it is not really difficult for those who have a fair amount of metal fabrication talent. The main thing is to keep the roof firmly supported while it is detached. I fabricated four telescoping steel guide posts. The actual lifting requires surprisingly little force -- car jacks or simply a handful of your buddies. There are several roof-raising jobs chronicled on the skoolie forum, including mine.
And here I am...
... lifting the roof on Millicent. The “farm jacks” turned out to be overkill -- very little force was needed. The whole sordid story, with far too much extraneous prattling, is here: http://www.skoolie.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1709
How high can you go? Millicent was about ten feet tall originally. Now she is 12. Maximum legal is 13’ 6” in some states; and 14’ in many.
Once the bus is safe, reliable and legal to drive, and most of the seats are out of it, you have a humongous automobile and a completely wind-proof tent. You are already “miles ahead” on the Playa. Anything else is gravy. Different people have different priorities. You may want a nuclear-power stereo. I wanted indoor plumbing. We gifted some showers in Millicent this year, and Oh Yeah, that was popular!
Now... we’ll run out of space if I keep prattling on, but one thing is important: Do NOT install a residential toilet. The water WILL splash out of it. Not only will you have a mess, but once the trap is no longer filled, fumes from the sewer tank will waft up into the interior of the bus. You must use an RV toilet, which has a mechanical valve like an airliner toilet. It installs on a normal waste flange in the floor. Thetford makes a wide spectrum, from a portable plastic “box” that you pick up and empty into a real toilet, to a $600 porcelain throne with electric flushing.
Also you must use a chemical additive in your sewer (“black water”) tank. You will be amazed at how well it works. Very little is needed, and it completely stops all odors. And single ply tissue, like in the Black Rock City JOTS (porta-potties).
Regulation vary by state, but generally a converted bus can be registered as a Motor Home -- commonly called an RV (Recreational Vehicle). Typically, it will be required that most of the seats have been removed, and camping equipment like bunks and cooking facilities have been installed. Photos, receipts, or possibly an inspection may be required -- or not. I simply filled out a statement on a form.
Once the thing is a Motor Home, you should not have any trouble getting liability insurance. If your regular agent can not help you, there is a whole section on the skoolie forum about such things.
A private Motor Home can generally be driven with a regular passenger car driver license, although some states may require you to get an endorsement for air brakes. Do read up on it in your state’s driver handbook.
Hot dang -- over 3000 words! I apologize. Even worse, I’ll be back to answer questions later -- whether I know the answers or not.
Oh... Last minute edit: Millicent...
...and why she is not a pusher.