You Want a What?
Michael has always had incredible ideas, but it has gotten to a point that I have to study his face meticulously to assess his seriousness. One day he’ll say that we should live in a studio one block from Venice Beach. Another, he’ll declare that he wants to travel Columbia for a month because he might want to do his masters there. These winning ideas are both things we’ve done because the they sounded adventurous and rewarding.
When he first told me he wanted to live in an motorhome, I had only known him for 2 years and I flat out vetoed his idea. This did not sound as if the experience was worth the trouble. He revisited the dream (this time with a bus and not an RV) when I was dog tired chasing our toddler Simone while carrying baby Max. By then I was too much in a new-mommy haze to refuse him. I said with much hesitation, “Maybe.”
Michael scoured the internet for the perfect motorcoach for us. He searched Craigslist, Ebay Motors, and used car lots. One particular dealership in Sacramento allowed us to enter several school and metro buses for sale. The kids and I walked around and got a feel for what it would be like in such a small space. Max and Simone were of course ready to live on what would seem like a permanent vacation. The walk-throughs revelaed that buses have a lot of potential for making a home. They are sturdy and spacious and safer than RVs. I started warming up to the idea and Michael took that as a green light.
Michael finally found what he was looking for on Ebay while he was on a business trip. He, among others, bid on it and at the literal last minute he bid $7,700 and …
He outbid everyone else with in an auction without a reserve limit and this 1978 MCI-5 Challenger became ours. The reality of now having to do the work of converting a bus settled in and terrified me. I felt one tinge of excitement at the thought of handcrafting our own furniture, but that was quickly overpowered by the amount of work we had to do. As always, it was a good idea to listen to Michael. I truly feel now that we won a solid bus, but also an opportunity to forge a desirable lifestyle for ourselves and our children.
We didn’t finish the bus completely before we left Tampa, FL, but we left it in good enough condition to use it as a shelter. We luckily had the bare minimum needed to survive on our first days as nomads.
Neither sink, toilet, nor shower worked despite their solid installation. We could not wash our dishes nor bathe, but thankfully our campground had a bath house nearby to which we could retreat. Without a fridge running, we used a cooler to prevent the milk and cheese from rotting. Only one light was hardwired and running, but we could have honestly survived without it. We could have grabbed some candles and lit them for light.
In our experience, the bare minimum in any nomadic lifestyle is air conditioning (or heat if you’re in a cold climate). Food can come in different containers: canned, dried or barren with the need for refrigeration. Environmental comfort however needs finesse and most likely some equipment to calibrate what is bearable in heat or cold. If you can hang out in your abode for a day – and an evening – you can couple this with adventure to truly enjoy bus living, skoolie living, van living, or RV living.
We relied on a Soleus Air 8000 Window AC to cool us down in Maryland and Virginia from July to the end of August 2014. If you think you’re not ready to head out on the road following your wanderlust, remember that you just need to be content hanging out in your abode night and day and you can solve the other necessities like food and water by moving closer to grocery stores, hunting for your food, bringing nourishment before you embark, or simply going out to a restaurant to eat. If you must bathe, head to a bath house, a cafe restroom, or a convenience store to splash yourself with water. Otherwise, you can wipe your hairy, smelly parts with deodorant or wet wipes. When one goes camping, the shelter is just a swath of canvas under which you can nibble on your rations. Bus living is not much different. It’s a metal cover under which you can survive a couple nights
With time you’ll find the strength to finish the projects to make your mobile abode complete. 3 months after we first started RV living, we finally got the kitchen sink running. I no longer needed to wash the dishes outside in the cooling October nights. Before snow fell, we connected the toilet to the manifold and no longer had to traipse to the bathhouse to relieve ourselves. The completion of the shower would take a year, but by then we were used to roughing it. Humans are resilient. You can be too.
Michael researched the best motor vehicle to get for our home on wheels and we chose a bus. Now we are in the market for home on keels and again Michael extensively reviews of what type of boat our family will enjoy. I was afraid at first that he was looking for a boat to renovate from the keel to the mast. I would do it, no doubt, but I’m getting too old to renovate a structure and I had imagined that the last physical effort I would make would be building the house in which we retire.
Imagine my relief when he said he wanted to buy a boat already built for living!
How Many Keels
He suggested a catamaran and honestly, I didn’t know the benefits of either a multi-hull or mono-hulled boat. As he did with the bus, he threw around the word “safety” and I was SOLD on the catamaran’s being the better option. Our expert friends have said that the luxury of the catamaran sacrifices the speed of the boat. This doesn’t bother me because I imagine our family toodling slowly around the Caribbean instead of racing across the Atlantic.
I have been on a catamaran before when I went on a day excursion with my dad in the Mexican Riviera, but the kids just recently tried one in D.C.’s Tidal Basin.
Ok, this isn’t the size of boat we’re thinking of, but it is a double-hulled boat. Feel free to correct me in the comments because we can use all the help we can get.
We are now researching which catamaran will satisfy the entire family’s needs. Simone will be a young teenager when we set adrift; she’ll need her own space to which she can retreat. Lack of experience does not give us the insight into the layout intricacies of the galley, salon, bedrooms, and the helm. But Time allows us to make a thoughtful decision as important as where and how will we live next. We will read, hopefully set sail in a beginner course, and daydream at sailboats near our campground.
After we acquired a bus, excitement filled the air and I couldn’t stop dreaming of what the converted bus would look like. But to get to that dream we had to do a lot of demolition. We had to wipe the slate clean, so to speak, because we wanted to know that the metal frame is solid and not corroding with rust. We unearthed the existing seats, baggage racks, ceiling and wall panels, insulation, and flooring.
When the kids and I stepped onto the bus for the first time, it did not look like the greyhound bus we envisioned. Michael had spent a week gutting the bus and this is how the interior looked when we got there …
And this is how the exterior looked …
The big ticket items such as the bus seats and interior walls were out, but our goal was to strip this bus down to its metal frame. We tackled any air conditioning or heating vents, finish wall panels classier than bell bottoms, and visible ceiling insulation poised to infect us with their toxicity.
Before we continued, our good friend Dick (an expert in bus conversion himself) came by with sage words of advice.
We started work on the bus immediately after Memorial Day, when Dick (Michael’s dad’s best friend) visited us and gave us such great advice on how to convert the bus. Invaluable advice like “save all the screws and label everything.”
Since we were going to tear down the walls (to remove the insulation and treat any rust) and then put them back up, we had to label the panels. “S” is for starboard, and the numbers started from the front of the bus and ended in the back. On the other side we used “P” for port.
We took out insulation from every pore of the bus. The ceiling frame had batt insulation within the hollow metal parts! My little fingers came in handy because I was able to get at the little pieces here and there. Michael had given up on the task and moved on to other manly things like grinding the rivets off, taking out the spare tire, and tearing off the wall panels. Removing the rivets was a two-parter. After grinding off the rivets from the outside, we had to pop off the stems that were left within the wall frames.
This was only half of the insulation we pulled out. Dick periodically came by to advise Michael and would always leave with some sort of trash to dump or items to salvage. Needless to say, he dumped the insulation somewhere.
This was only the first part of the demolition. There was more to do to before we reversed gears and started building our home on wheels.
I think we’re now wanting to head to the ocean because we have never been so far from it as we have the past two years. Michael and I have been together since the year 2000, and we have always lived in a city where we could access the beach in 10 mintues if not walk across a parking lot to get to the sand.
When Mike and I met, we lived in Los Angeles. We got married, moved up to San Francisco, bore our munchkins, and bought our bus when living there. In Tampa, we converted the bus before moving to Washington, D.C. The Pacific or Gulf of Mexico was always within reach and we took its soothing presence for granted.
Looking for Water
Now that we’re in the nation’s capital we have to drive 2 hours to get to the Atlantic. Sure, there is the Potomac River that runs through it, but it as a body of water does not have the same magnitude as the Gulf of Mexico nor the Pacific Ocean. The Chesapeake Bay does have Sandy Point State Park that has a beachfront, but we haven’t traveled the 1 hour it takes to get there. This might be our saving grace while we dream of sailing and living on a boat. In the meantime, we hear the sirens calling and are getting antsy.
Besides learning how to sail, what do you suggest we do in preparation for our desired lifestyle so far into the future? Respond in the comments below with your ideas and advice. We surely do appreciate it!
When traveling on a road trip, you can consider yourself a temporary nomad. Lugging your toiletries and clothes, you stop every night at a place of shelter: a hotel, motel, Holiday Inn, or a friend of family member’s house. Even A stranger’s house or couch is not out of the question! Despite the foreign surrounds, there is comfort that the real place where you lay your head is back where you call home. But what happens when you don’t have a stationary home and you go to sleep in different locations every few months, every week, or every night.
Our Journey towards Nomad-dom
It took us forever to finish up cleaning the house we were renting in Central Florida. Once we were wheels in motion, we only had a few hours to get to St. Augustine, Florida before night fell. We luckily didn’t have to worry about our kids because they were safe and secure in Los Angeles with their grandparents. So despite the long days of driving and short stays in a new town, we were excited to be on the road. Over the next few days, Michael drove the bus and I tagged along in a 22′ rental truck towing our SUV.
When we finally reached Northern Virginia on the morning of July 3rd, 2015, we wasted no time. We spent the afternoon putting our large furniture and work tools in a storage unit. After heavy lifting in temperatures as high as 103ºF, we summoned enough energy to gather a dinner of champions: beer, wine, chips and salsa.
Make It Memorable (Or At Least Remember It)
Sadly it is because we mixed such gluttonous consumption with a full day’s work that we cannot recount our first night as nomads. I can’t remember if we even took advantage of the absence of our kids to christen the bus with some sexy times. Sigh … I hope this won’t be the case for fellow converters waiting to embark on your nomad life. Whether you write it down, record your voice, or video tape your equal parts excitement and fatigue, we urge you to preserve the experience.
Comment below on what your first experience as a nomad was like. Feel free to link to your blog post that sheds light on that night.
We knew the blue speckled flooring (linoleum?) had to go, but we toiled with the decision to take out the subfloor or not. It would take a lot of work. Was it worth it? The condition of the existing floor was pretty good as is. Sure there were holes from the air conditioning vents we were going to take out, but we could always cover them up. Maybe it wasn’t worth it to tear up the floor. At that point, we only had 3 weeks left before we had to hit the road. Michael’s family thought it was a lot of time, but we knew there was so much more to do.
We decided to do it right, remove the flooring and plywood underneath and inspect the frame for possible rust.
What a godsend the air compressor was! Before Michael had time to show me how to use the tools, I had tried to use a paint scraper thinking my muscles would do the trick. Pshaw! My teeny, tiny muscle fibers were no match to the power that an air chisel has.
After the rubber flooring, we had to remove all the screws and bolts in wood subfloor. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. These fasteners are what we refer to as “the ticks of the construction world.” Their round head has been notched and bent in two places to create these “teeth” that lock into the plywood. Michael first tried to drill through the head, but that took so long.
Enter again the pneumatic chisel, which Michael used to tear up the wood around the bold heads. Once exposed, he had leverage to use the hammer to just chop off the head. We now can’t remember if it took us 3 or 5 days to get all the screws off. It was a looooong time. So long, in fact, that we skipped doing all the bolts, left about 15 % still on, and tore off the plywood in frustration
We were glad to have pulled up the original floor. We found some rust towards the front, we discovered that Michael had room to move his gear shifter from the right side to the left (more on that in another post), and we generally learned more about what we were dealing. It was a bear of a chore to lift up that sucker, but now we knew we could put a new, rigid, and more soundproof floor back in.
Chair Rail Welds
Another decision to make was whether or not to take out the chair rails. If we did, we could have a new subfloor that spanned the entire width of the bus. If we didn’t, we’d save time. Michael asked for advice on a bus conversion forum and contributors told him it was pretty easy to remove the welds that fastened the chair rails to the bus’s metal frame.
To take off the welds, we tried two grinders. One was a typical one seen at any consumer store. The other was a heavy mother-effer that only Michael could handle. Michael used this nylon strap as a sort of necklace that relieved his hands of some of the weight. It had belonged to his grandfather! Back in the day, factories made their tools out of steel, man! Not the aluminum and plastic we see these days! Anyway, Michael used that to get as many welds off as he could. Since his grinder was so humongous and thick, however, we needed to switch to a smaller, 4″ version to get in between the frame and the rail. And since he was pooped, he told me to do it.
The smaller one also let me do the job more carefully at the welds on the center chase side. Since we still hadn’t figured out which cables in the chase were important, we couldn’t afford to accidentally cut any tube. Michael warned that if I knicked the wrong one (e.g., the valuable cable that carries the gas from the tank to the engine), the bus could be rendered immobile! This added volumes of sweat to my already dripping forehead laden with humidity of a Midwest summer.
My Turn at the Grinding Wheel
Taking the welds off turned out to be not too bad of an endeavor, but it took some getting used to. I applied too much pressure and consequently caused the grinder’s engine to work harder. Michael would hear it struggle, give me tips on how to properly use it, and then give me a second-, third- and fourth chance at wielding it. By the time I finished the welds, I felt I had just gotten into a groove. It was a bit bittersweet when I looked around at what else I could grind off and found nothing! Demolition is addicting!
Dick once again gave great advice. He has converted 5 buses and one fire engine and knows some great tricks on doing things with less effort. Once we had pried off about 4′ of the track. We would bend it to about 45 degrees from the floor level and then swing it wildly from side to side. This motion used the weight of the freed portion of the track to pry off the next weld without our exerting ourselves!
Although I found the small 4″ angle grinder to be more agile than the relic found in Michael’s family farm, it’s not high on our list of recommendations. So here we present to you what we did use vs. what we would like to purchase as a Meyer Heirloom to pass on to our kids with pride.
The Chicago Electric 4-1/2″ Heavy Duty Angle Grinder that we used did the trick and we still use it for renovation projects around the bus. It’s very affordable and perfect for those on a budget or just starting out. Is it the one we covet? No.
What Michael wished we had money for was the Bosch bare-tool Cordless 18-Volt Lithium-Ion 4-1/2″ Grinder. Bosch is a good brand we personally trust – we have their cordless 18V driver and drill and their portable table saw. What really tickles Michael’s fancy is that it is cordless. He imagines himself frolicking around our future farm, grinder and torch in hand, ready to repair anything metal that needs mending.
Working on this bus has given me a clearer picture on how to combat rust. When I was first grinding it off the walls, I was trying to take it off completely. WRONG! My goal was to just expose a layer by roughing it up. Chemicals sold at our nearby Fleet Farm were going to stop the deterioration once we brushed a coat of it on the scruffed-up rust. We used the “Rust Converter” by Plastikote, which came out as a liquid and, after one day of curing, became this hard, black, impenetrable surface onto which we painted regular old spray paint. It was like the Magic Shell, but instead of covering ice cream, it covered rust.
We used any old spray paint lying around at the farm. The color didn’t matter because we were going to cover it up anyway. We went hog wild on any and all colors we could find.
If you’ve reached this page before reading the previous demolition articles, head on over to
Now that we had gutted the bus, we had to build it back up. The first task we did was desecrate our bus’s roof by installing a Fan-Tastic 1200 bathroom fan vent. Working in a metal and glass shell during a humid, Minnesota summer is not a comfortable experience. By cutting a hole in the ceiling, we at the very least provided an escape route for all that hot air.
Place the Fan Vent
Step one was to cut a hole. Thank goodness our tall friend Jeff was there to assist. Standing at 6’4″, he ripped through the roof like the he-man he is. Okay … he also had the help of a power drill and a Sawzall. We located the corners of the fan and drilled holes at those spots, in between which we drew a line with a permanent marker. This served as the outline where the Sawzall would cut. The problem was that the reciprocating blade was wider than the corner holes. Not to worry – a series of holes drilled anywhere along the marked fan perimeter creates a gap wide enough for the cutting blade.
Michael had chosen this spot so we could use the existing ceiling frame as support for the vent. Here he is punching out existing rivets that he first had to grind off.
Michael had to fabricate 2 metal frame pieces onto which the 2 sides of bolts would latch. It took quite a while to test, but it was a good thing we did it before we applied the sealant which had curing time frames. It definitely took about 2+ hours to test and widen holes where the bolts weren’t fitting in properly.
Seal and Adhere
One issue with a roof install is the curvature of the roof. See how the sides have a gap between the vent fin and the roof?
Well thank goodness for weather sealant and adhesive! Michael sent me to the store to get some sort of goop that would simultaneously adhere the fin to the roof and be waterproof. Who wants a flooded bathroom, right? I had no idea what to get so I asked. Unfortunately, the advisers at the store were just guessing themselves because they had never had to do something like this. Luckily Michael went in and found the right thing – a sticky globby substance that was terrible to work with. We’re not professionals so we erred on the side of more instead of less goop. I hesitate to recommend what we used because 1) I don’t remember what it was, and 2) there may be more advanced products now. Just look for something that seals and adheres.
I was frantic when we applied the sealant/adhesive. It had a 30 minute cure time and we had a lot of bolts. Michael slathered the sealant onto the bus, then dropped the vent and then push the bolts through, which also oozed the sealant through to the interior of the bus. Sounds fine, right? Wrong! This goop was slippery and abundant and I had to put 2 washers (one flat & one lock) and a nut through the bolt’s threads. In the end, we got the vent fastened in time.
Give Me Air
I’ll have to post later on how it actually works because we didn’t wire it up for a couple of years. It works well now and actually pulls the air out so powerfully that we can siphon out any hot air in the bus in about 10 minutes. But even with the power of ventilation, we withered in the heat and needed to pull in the bigger guns of air conditioning.
Where does one begin with preparing a bus for painting? Sanding and applying primer sound like easy enough tasks. Not if you are a newbie as I had been.
Step One: Remove All Decals
Michael initially thought a heat gun is the best way to remove any vinyl letters. I set out to do this but soon after starting the project, I realized we had broken Uncle Frankie’s heat gun! Never fear, my dear, fingernails prevail! Out of impatience, I started picking the decals with my fingernails and … lo & behold … the process was faster than the power tool!
Step Two: Sand the Existing Paint
I had two options for roughing up the existing paint: an electric orbital sander or a pneumatic one. Oddly enough, I did not like the latter. Sure, compressed air can be powerful, but pneumatic tools are heavier than their more ubiquitous electric counterparts. So unless you’re a strapping beefcake of a human, consider the more agile counterpart.
Your goal here is to just lightly roughen up the surface so as to take off the sheen. We used either a 180 or 150 grit paper to achieve this. There was a part in the back of the bus that I did not get to sand off as well because I had reached it at the end of the day. This didn’t matter in the end because the primer adhered just fine despite my novice paint-roller skills, or lack thereof.
Step Three: Mask
Cover the areas you do not want to paint. Duh.
I’d like to tell you the best brand out there, but it may have changed since we masked. We enjoyed using 3M because it was the right amount of stickiness. It is more expensive than the big box stores’ generic brand, but it’s worth it. The few times we used the cheaper version out of curiosity and frugality, the weak stickiness of the cheap tape caused us to use more material to keep our butcher paper from falling off the masked areas.
Step Four: Paint Primer
Before the bus, I had painted maybe two walls in my life. And I helped in the middle of the project so others had already done the prep work such as masking, stirring the paint thoroughly, and evenly saturating the roller. So when I slathered the first amount of primer on, Mike was on top of the bus unaware of the havoc I was wreaking below.
“Hey, Mikey, am I doing this right?”
Mike looks down from the top of the bus. Pause. “What are you doing?!? I thought you were going to do the edges first!”
“I was supposed to do that FIRST? I thought we just decided which tool to use – not which order to use them!”
Mike grunts and sighs. “Ok. Do you have the roller charged yet?”
“Charged? What does that even mean?”
“I’m coming down.”
He ended up doing the starboard side while I held the tray and “learned.” I put that verb in quotes because I’m hoping I remember it the next time I ever paint the outside of a vehicle, which may be decades from now. The primer ended up being so splotchy and textured that Michael congratulated me that I would be doing more work than had been anticipated. I had to sand that side down to be smooth enough for the finish coat.
Step Five: Throw Away the Paint Roller
Our friend Dick had tried to warn us nicely about rolling on the primer. He said that spraying is the best, but rolling could be done. He said that after we did rolled, we could wet sand it later here and there. It didn’t make sense to me until I was spending an entire day sanding the previous day’s primer mishap. As I was attaching my 6th 120 grit sandpaper onto the orbital, I cursed roll-on and brush painting.
Spraying is the way to go for primer and for finish coats on a bus.
When we converted our bus, we worried about the inside of the bus. Only 0.01% of our time was spent thinking about what it would be like to spend time outside it. For people with a tiny home, outdoor living is equally important to that of the indoors. Mother Nature is in yo’ face when you step outside and she bestows a lot on you!
Most people think sunny weather is the greatest. I do prefer it, but constant sun can dehydrate you and make you as miserable as a never-ending winter. The intensity of the sun can burn your feet in a matter of minutes! Ask me how I know and I’ll recount the time Michael needed me to hold a pole in 103ºF High Noon temperatures without shade while he fastened our tarp.
Anything that falls from the sky can put a damper on the furniture or equipment you leave outside. Waterproof furniture can arguably be the answer and be left outside despite the weather, but maybe you couldn’t afford such pieces nor have the room for them. You could transfer every item inside every time it rains, snows, or hails. Or you could prepare a cover that protects you as you sip your coffee on a rainy morning and protects your bikes that don’t fit inside the bus during a snowstorm.
Do It Yourself Awning Prototypes
A trip to an RV store in Northern California deterred us from buying a commercially made awning. The cost was more than what we were willing to pay for something we had a feeling we could make and install by ourselves. We didn’t really take the awning seriously until we took our first weekend trip in our half-completed bus. On the eve of our departure, Michael headed to Home Depot at 30 minutes before closing and returned with a hodgepodge of 1-1/4″ PVC pipe, fittings, bolts, nuts, and fat washers.
What he concocted was a canopy that held up for the weekend and for our first few months full-timing. Three poles, inserted into grommets on the tarp and tied down to 2 stakes each, held the awning to the ground. Parachute cord secured the tarp to brackets welded to the roof. This prototype didn’t last long because all the resistance to wind relied on those three pole connections and the several roof brackets.
The second version involved adding a beam connecting the poles to laterally distribute the uplift force. The roof brackets were still the points of connection topside. Despite this reinforcement, windy days still created worry in us. When gusts came our way, the entire tarp acted as a sail pulling the poles and stakes into the sky. Setup and Tear Down was a bear of a chore that if a new campsite was in the same campground, the kids and I would “walk” the awning. By holding the poles and walking the pace of the bus (as if we were pallbearers and the bus were a coffin), we didn’t have to detach the poles nor the tarp from the roof brackets. After much battle against the wind, the PVC beam started to bow.
DIY Awning 3.0
We dealt with the bowed beam for about one year. As our second Winter approached, Michael wanted to improved the design before the snow arrived. Our main issues were:
- prevent the beam from bowing
- allow wind to escape
- collapse easily when traveling on the road
Michael solved all this with the latest version by making a truss beam for the bottom of the tarp and adding another beam on the roof. The truss system stiffen the bottom beam. The top beam and our cord attachment system (seen below) allowed the tarp to release passing wind. With these two beams in place, we now just detach the poles, roll up the whole works and secure it to the roof with … yes, you guessed correctly … parachute cord.
Roof brackets: (To be done very early in the bus conversion, before applying bus roof paint) Remove rivets. Manufacture a bracket attached to a plate that is slightly larger than the area without rivets. Bolt plate to roof frame through old rivet locations.
The Roof Beam: Construct a PVC pole a little longer that the length of the tarp. Attach pole to brackets with a parachute cord winding through bracket hole and an eye bolt attached to pole. Use more cord to loop through tarp grommets and around the PVC pipe. The cord should not be snug – the distance between the tarp and pipe allows the wind to escape.
Tarp to Truss Attachment: Screw eye bolts through truss’s top chord and attach tarp to these bolts with parachute cord. Also shown is an intermediate post. We should have had a total of 3 (instead of our current 2) intermediaries across the 10-‘0″ span between major posts to prevent the slight bowing that has occurred. It’s not terrible, but the perfectionist in Michael is frowning.
Beam to Large Post : Note that the post attaches at a “Tee” on the top cord of the truss. The flex from wind forces can twist on the elbow to tee fittings without disturbing the large end posts too much. The large middle post, however, does attach to the truss bottom chord.
Frame to Stake: End posts of truss and at the middle of the truss beam have large eye bolts screwed through it at the top. With our trusty parachute cord, we secure the frame to the stakes.
Large Post End Detail: The large posts spanning from the truss to the ground terminate with a long bolt secured to it with a nut and wide washer. Pierce this pointy end into the ground to prevent the large post from sliding. If your site is not level, you can use a piece of wood with a notch drilled in to elevate the posts lacking in height.
DIY Awning Complete!
Share your thoughts on this project in the comments below. What have you done to construct your own awning? We look forward to hearing from you!
With the primer coat complete, we could turn our attention to the more gratifying task of giving our bus some color. We had decisions to make such as what paint color to use, how much of the trim we remove, and how to protect the windows. Again Dick had advice along with his wife Nettie who suggested we paint a sunset mural over the back of the bus. I grew excited at the possibilities of decor, but my private, introverted husband was having none of it.
We toiled over what color to paint the bus. Michael wanted to be very incognito, to not let anyone know we were a private coach, so no one would want to rob us. This informed me I needed to bring back a bunch of samples in grays. I had some in gray blues and Michael was actually drawn to it! I was so excited that we might have a more interesting bus. But we ultimately decided on Massey Fergusen Gray because of the nostalgic value it had with Michael. It had been his favorite color for tractors when he was a kid.
Aware of our final paint color, Michael decided to put on a gray primer on the starboard (un-Gigi-fied side) panel. The swatch of “color” you see in the photo above is the infamous Massey Fergusen Gray.
All metal trim we could unscrew, we did. I unfortunately was unaware of the value of the associated rubber edge trim and transitions. I cast them aside haphazardly like the Happy Meal toys that my children neglect, but we luckily found them later. Let this be a warning to fellow bus converters: label your shiz and tell your spouse if something is important!
The fun thing about being a newbie converter is thinking outside the norm of the construction industry. When one browses for drop cloths, there is this thick roll or brown paper lumped with the bunch. Painters traditionally use it for covering the floors. For the windows, they usually use plastic sheets, rarely paper. Well, we’re here to tell you that paper is the better way to mask windows and other parts of the bus that you do not want sprayed. It’s sturdiness allows you to reuse it for when you have to spray paint on the inside! It is also easier to handle in the wind than a flimsy sheet of plastic. Another benefit of using the brown roll is that paper is much easier to recycle than plastic.
The Art of Masking
Just as I knew nothing about applying primer, I knew nothing about masking surfaces. Call me the Jan Snow of Painting. To the rescue comes Michael with his instructions on layer masking. First, cut the masking paper slightly smaller than the window size and set it aside. Lay masking tape at the very edge where you don’t want the paint to cross. Smaller strips of tape (for me, it was about 12″ – 14″ long) allow you to be more precise.
The next phase involves your attaching longer strips of tape to the masking paper with medium wild abandon. As long as the tape sticks to the paper and leaves enough sticking surface to attach to the first tape, you’re good. If you’re being anal, you will now apply the second tape’s free edge right down the middle of the first tape. A person pressed for time will casually stick it somewhere on the width of the tape. This last part is not meant to be precise – it’s meant to cover fields.
Learn How to Spray Paint
As I mentioned in the post about priming a surface, the slickest way to apply any paint or primer is with a pneumatic air spray. It quickly and smoothly distributes the paint and it saves on the amount of paint needed. We used only a gallon for the two coats we sprayed on the bus’s side panels and stripe above the windows. Did we know how to spray paint before this project? Not at all. Can YouTube provide videos to help? Yes!
Another source of knowledge was our friend Jeff. After describing our goal to him, Jeff suggested we use a get a valve regulator to transition from the air compressor to the tube leading to the spray gun. I have no idea if the lack of this gizmo would have deterred our progress, but I can tell you that the outcome looked great!
How was your painting experience? Did you use rollers or brushes? Share below and spread the knowledge!
This bus conversion took all our energy and we dreamed daily of the days we would enjoy traveling and living in it. True to our outrageous ideas, we wanted to install a roof deck but knew we couldn’t build it right away. This did not prevent Michael, however, from planning ahead for its future installation. Before we could continue with painting and tackle the roof, he had to weld and install the brackets which were to hold the future Deck of Delight.
Bracket and Deck Design
For the sides of where the deck will be we fabricated triangular shaped brackets out of 4″ sheets of metal. Along the middle the shape is a mere rectangle.
The shape of the deck has to skirt the bathroom vent and end at the escape hatch. The brown shaded area in the picture below shows the shape of the deck avoiding the roof protrusions.
All brackets need to be attached to the bus frame to be able to support the weight of the deck, the family, guests, railing and seating. After being so inspired by other bus converters who have already built their deck, we want to push the vertical envelope and put sun shading elements up there as well. All such inanimate objects mentioned will be collapsible so as to maintain our inconspicuous look when traveling.
We located these brackets along the bus’s existing frame. Michael grounded out the rivet heads and popped out the stems. Then we laid the bracket plate over the roof’s holes to get the location of where we needed to drill new holes. As Michael was up on the roof holding the bracket in place, I was underneath with a sharpie placing a dot in the middle of the hole. Once we marked the metal, we drilled the appropriately sized holes. Then we tested all 16 pieces.
An example of test fitted bolts through former rivet holes.
We didn’t put any sealant until all pieces dry-tested well. This time, we didn’t use the black tar-like sealant/adhesive. Instead it was a WHITE goop that was only slightly less sticky than the bath fan’s adhesive. But we were prepared with wet and dry towels and ruined just small portions of my shorts. When I wash Michael’s socks, I still find hardened goop holding on for dear life. Well at least we know the brackets will stay up there!
With the brackets installed, we still could not paint the roof. To get onto our observation deck, we will go through the emergency exit hatch located in the master bedroom ceiling. It originally opened so that you exit onto the rear of the bus. We needed to reverse the way the hatch opened by putting its hinges on the opposite side to facilitate getting on the deck more easily.
Once we finished the escape hatch, we turned our efforts towards priming and painting the roof with a special reflective paint. Since then we haven’t done anything more for the Deck of Delight because there were so many other essential living items to finish. But now that we’re well-rested, we might revisit this project soon.
In addition to the insulation put in the ceiling cavities of the bus, we applied a special reflective paint to help the roof def the sun’s heat. Before we used it, the underside of the roof was hot. After the application, the ceiling was cool to the touch.
Michael chose Hy-Tech’s “Bus Kote” paint that has little beads in it that reflect the sunlight away from the roof, thus reducing the temperature absorbed and transferred to the interior space. He found it when researching what other bus converters had used.
First we sanded the roof lightly and then put two coats of Bond-It Primer from the same company. We still didn’t know if we were going to paint the roof completely white or possibly had a strip of Massey Fergusen Gray where the previous blue had been. My tired self said to keep it white all throughout. Let’s get on with it! But after applying the white, we realized Michael was right – as usual. The small 3″ detail ended up looking great because it decreased the prominence of the stark white roof.
Michael had ordered too much of the Sealant Flexi-Clear and after 2 coats, we still had a lot left. We didn’t mind because we knew that we would have to reseal the roof after 2 years, per the recommendation of the manufacturer.
The insulating properties of Bus Kote have been beneficial to our comfort. In our 35′ bus, we only use 2 air conditioners (ACs). A neighbor in a campground was using 3 ACs in his 45′ Prevost and was still uncomfortable. He didn’t know if he wanted to install another unit or think about using a paint similar to ours. We left the campground before we knew what he decided but it illustrated that the reflective paint helps get the heat off the roof of highly conductive metal.
As for the elastomeric qualities of Bus Kote, I am not thoroughly impressed. I don’t know if we painted our coats too thinly or if the elasticity is not as high as the company claims. Since it’s a cosmetic issue, we’re going to reapply the whole works again in a few months. We’ll sand, reprime, recoat, and reseal. We did paint a coat of the Flexi-Clear sealant 3 years after the first application, but I think we need to do a more thorough job next year.
Have you used elastomeric, reflective paint on your conversion? Or did you paint it a simple white? Let us know in the comments how you treated the roof.
Many people who convert a bus, van or trailer, have young kids – or at least kids whom you do not want to be handling a power tool unsupervised. When we started our bus conversion, Simone was only 5 years old and Max 2-1/2. I didn’t have to worry about feeding them breast milk, but I did have to fret about entertaining them during the long days of construction. We preferred that they be occupied for long stretches of time, but their attention span was as short as they were.
In the first month of the conversion, we parked the bus at the 8-acre farm of Michael’s Uncle Frankie. This was ideal for the gutting of the bus because we had space to dump all the parts eventually going to the dump and the parts we were reusing. Was it ideal for the kids? We thought it had its perks!
As former city-dwellers, our only contact with chickens and goats was in books or at a local petting zoo. At Uncle Frankie’s, the kids took on the chore of feeding the chickens every morning. The goats didn’t need to be fed, but they did need to be moved to different pastures around the homestead. Simone and Max sometimes rode on the tractor bed while Uncle Frankie traveled from one goat to the other, tying them to different posts with tall grass. If we didn’t have family around to help us with entertaining the kids, we might have had a harder time.
Other exciting things that happened at the farm were the birth of a new litter of kittens, climbing the barn’s loft, collecting eggs, washing said eggs, discovering swallowtail nests, and learning about the pecking order of roosters. The last experience actually elicited a sad emotion in us. The kids and I did not know that one rooster in a flock will be singled out as the “weakest” and will thus be the punching bag for the rest. The one at the farm bore so many scars & bleeding wounds. He had lost so many feathers that he looked as if he were on the verge of death.
Bus Conversion and potty training can be tricky. If your child is self sufficient, you needn’t worry. If they’re still in diapers or pull-ups, it’s not ideal but you know you have an amount of time free to work before you have to pause and change a diaper. If you are potty training a toddler, the process might disrupt the construction a bit. At a moment’s notice, your toddler will scream, “Peeeee, I need to pee!” If you’re in the middle of cutting a board of plywood lengthwise, do you kill the table saw switch or do you let your kid pee in his pants for the second time that day?
This doesn’t mean that one should forgo the training nor the conversion – it’s just another task you’ll have to deal with on top of all the others. But isn’t that how life goes? It doesn’t hand you completed goals on a silver platter. So knowing that it might be difficult to potty train and do construction, you can prepare yourself mentally and with some tricks.
Place a potty chair outside
When kids have a bowel movement, many times they don’t tell you until the shizz is about to go down! Instead of having to scramble inside the house or apartment to get to the throne, bring the toilet outside. We found our older daughter preferred this method instead of using the bathroom inside.
Have multiple bags of wet-wipes
Many parents may already sprinkle their house with wet wipes in every room. This becomes very important not only with potty training but with dirt in general. By placing a wet wipe holder near the outdoor potty, we gained a little bit of time not having to help with hygiene.
Time Your Intensive Tasks
Right before you and your partner engage in putting up the new 5mm ply ceiling, make sure your child has just visited the toilet.
Entertaining Your Kids in 10 Easy Ways
You need not buy a lot of toys to occupy children’s time. Bring them outside to join in the construction fun!
- I let the kids mimic us by buying them little construction tool toys that made sounds and moved parts.
- Get a scrap piece of wood and place different screws with different heads around the board. Give them screwdrivers with the corresponding bits and you’ve bought yourself about 30 minutes.
- If you’re more confident of their usage with power tools, give them a scrap piece of wood and a power drill.
- The short ends of 2x4s or 1x3s that cannot be used become new building blocks. Make sure you sand the edges so the kids don’t get splinters. You can also let the kids paint them, decorate them with permanent markers or just color them with chalk, which is what we did.
- Bigger scraps of wood can become the fulcrum of a see-saw.
- If you have a small incline in your yard, scrap 1/4″ ply becomes a ramp for scooters, skateboards or roller skates!
- Enlist the kids to paint huge fields of material. If a project doesn’t need accuracy nor masking tape, kids enthusiastically brush paint wood. Teach older kids to properly spray self-etching primer on metal fabrications.
- Make a swing! Again with the scrap piece of wood and thick rope, you can put together a swing hanging from a tree.
- Boxes delivered to your house contain equipment or tools for your bus. Save these boxes before you send them to recycling. Kids use them to make houses, forts, push carts, hats, and/or armor out of them. They also serve as a sturdy surface onto which you can paint scrap pieces of wood.
- Give them a camera. Let your kids snap photos of you building their future tiny home. You don’t always have the time to chronicle your journey, but they might. Their perspective also gives you a window into how they see the experience.
When all else fails, Netflix can babysit. I’ll admit that we would plop the kids in front of the TV and let them watch episode after episode of “My Big, Big Friend.” Sometimes fatigue overcomes you or the weather is too hot & humid to let any child outside to play.
Honestly, we fed the kids a lot of fast food during our bus conversion. It’s hard to make home-cooked meals while your husband works a full-time job and you’re left during the day to sand, paint, and spec equipment. It’s even harder when both parents work and the conversion is subjected to nights and weekends. When you can, throw in any kind of nutritious fruit or veggies that the kids can munch on.
My kids are such connoisseurs of chicken nuggets that they can tell you their preference for the best chain. But we tried to get some nutrition in by giving them strawberries, blueberries and apples. Edamame and peanuts gave them protein. Carrots, peas and corn provided more vitamins and minerals. Frozen peas have actually become a hit with the kids. Out of hunger one afternoon, they hunted for something to eat and found the little green orbs. They found it delightful to pop the frozen spheres in their mouth. I’m not saying all kids will like it, but the unusual can become a godsend.
The Kids Are Alright … I Think
I can’t say for sure that converting a bus and living in it full-time has benefited our family. Who knows if it affects our children negatively and they need a therapist in their young adulthood to sort through their childhood experiences?
The austerity we provide and think gives them the ability to exercise imagination may leave them with low self-esteem. The nomadic lifestyle may be give them more longing for stable friendships than the joy of adventure. The time we spent building a home for the family may have stolen time for playing with the kids. If we were wrong in choosing this endeavor then I can honestly say I’ll be surprised. It has brought our family closer and the kids are more adventurous than Michael and I were as kids in the 70s. My gut says we did the right thing in converting the bus and living a tiny life with our tiny humans.
One of the biggest reasons we chose a bus over a sticks-and-staples motor home is for the former’s reliable construction. They are built like tanks! An accident between a bus and a minivan/motor home/5th wheel trailer will leave the latter conveyances almost unrecognizable. To continue the solidity of the bus frame, we needed to weld components to the frame to continue its structural integrity where it counted: the walls, the kids’ bunks, and overhead cabinets.
Fabricating the Components
The floor and ceiling pieces for the walls consist of 1-1/2 inch “L” brackets that measure to about 2″ in length. The bottom versions sit on a plate that welds to the floor frame. The holes on both sides of the “L”s are staggered so as to not have the threaded ends bump into each other. For the cabinet supports we used 1″ flat stock about 2-1/2” long and rounded the ends where the fastener’s hole sits.
We used a band saw to cut the pieces and a bench grinder to round out the edges. A drill press with a metal-cutting bit ensured the holes were perpendicular to the face of the component. After we made a rough hole, we would slowly tilt the drill in all directions to slightly widen the cavity into which the bolts would sit. This gave the bolts some give when inserted.
The process might sound obvious to the seasoned handyman, but it mystified me until I tried it. Holding a band saw terrified me as did the drill press. Visions of cutting a digit and getting whacked by a “caught” metal or wood piece rotating on a drill press bite were all I could imagine in terms of my success in using these tools. But with Michael coaxing me that he was teaching me the safe ways to proceed with the machinery, I calmed down long enough to utilize these tools effectively.
It’s really not that bad! The mystery of new experiences is dispelled once you try it and survive it.
Weld to the Frame
The easiest method to attach the metal pieces to the frame was to stick-weld with a mix of Oxygen and Acetylene. The portable tanks allow us weld anywhere! Uncle Frankie had the supplies; all that Michael had to do was practice the technique. A plethora of time could have come in handy, but we did not have that luxury. We only had 2 weeks away from our departure and we still had not installed the insulation, subfloors, exterior wall panels, nor ceiling. The critical path lay stagnant because of these little metal tabs, so we abandoned the sticks.
Michael resorted to the method he had practiced: Mig welding. This required a couple of 50′ long cords plugged into the shed and supplying power to the welder we carried into the bus. We had never videotaped Michael doing a weld before so we took the opportunity at hand.
If welding is still a mystery to you, let YouTube be your teacher. This is how Michael learned. His craftsmanship may not be worthy of Instagram, but the tabs and “L”s he welded have held this bus together while barreling down the highway.
Some advice mentioned on the video is worth reviewing for your projects.
- Before you do weld on your bus, van, or car, first disconnect the positive battery cable
- Wear protective clothing despite how manly you are and despite how hot it is outside
- Tack first on one side and then weld on the other.
- Overhead welding can be tricky because the molten metal, via gravity, wants drip down away from the joint.
- Space out where you welding so as to avoid getting one particular area too hot.
- Roosters make nice background sounds to complement the crackle of welding
- Ugly welds still do the job needed.
The fabrication and attachment took one day to complete. There was no need to prime the pieces because they were not going to be seen. The initial setup cost about $200 to get the welder, flux core wire, welding helmet and gloves.
When we converted the bus in June of 2012, the United States happened to be experiencing record high temperatures. Looking at the forecast, we saw that triple digit highs lay in our future. While insulation would help us beat the heat, it would take longer to install than would an air conditioner or two.
The Air Conditioners
In our design stages, we had planned on having an air conditioner in the front, above the driver seat, and one in the back. We weren’t sure if the number of units nor if the power chosen for each would be enough. Here is where we warn you to improve on what we did.
During an East Coast Summer, it has not been sufficient to have a 12,000 BTU mini-split in the front and an 8,000 BTU window unit in the back because there is a hot spot in the middle of the bus that stays warm. We could have gone with a 10,000 BTU rear and 14,000 BTU front. Another option would have been to find a rear unit that threw the air farther. The downfall with this solution is that a more powerful fan means more noise. When we put our window unit’s fan on high, it is so loud that we can’t hear our TV very well. The forward mini-split however remains quiet in the front but it does not throw its cool air far out enough. We could have used one with a more powerful fan on that unit.
Air Conditioner Install
During our first month of bus conversion, we didn’t have time to research and buy a mini split adequate for our needs. We were desperate enough, however, to buy the less complicated window unit. Off to Fleet Farm we went and purchased an 8,000 BTU window unit for a whopping $89 at sale price, originally a couple hundred dollars.
Most window units project from a room’s fenestration to grab fresh air and to spit out the hot air made from making cool air. Just as we didn’t want to have anything popping out the roof, we didn’t like the idea of an air conditioner sticking out the back of our bus like a caught-and-forgotten toilet paper trailing down someone’s underwear. Faced with the criteria of keeping the air conditioner within the bus’s envelope and still needing to vent the unit, we placed it in the nook above the engine compartment.
With a load of fear and a dash of determination, Michael cut two holes at the bus’s sloping rear facade. These would accommodate the two vents we bought for a mere $14 each. Armed with a rivet fan spacer and a rivet gun, he covered the holes with vents initially intended to vent attic spaces. The next step was to create a box around the AC that also covered the air space leading to and from the vents.
With this sub-project complete we were now finally able to focus our efforts on insulating the bus walls and ceiling.
We decided to use a spray foam insulation because it was going to be easier to apply and more insulating than rigid or batt versions. Michael found a brand online and had it delivered to the farm early in our visit. We didn’t use it though until much, much later because of the tasks to be completed before installation. We had to finish all the welding, electrical and prepwork, like masking surfaces we didn’t want to spray and spot-foaming hard to reach places with a canister of cheaper foam insulation. This video illustrates the steps in applying Foam-It-Green insulation.
One tank ran out more quickly than the other, but that didn’t deter Michael for continuing to use the leftovers. Unfortunately, both chemicals are needed to make the insulation and we ended up with a blue liquid splattered here and there. In addition to that mess, the foam had blown up past where we needed it and a giant trim job lay before us.
I function like a work horse while Michael will spend extra time thinking of shortcuts. Before Michael had thought to use the Sawzall, I was using an exacto and slowly hacking away the excess insulation. It was actually quite meditative – a welcome change to the incessant labor! There was something satisfying about seeing a sharp blade cleanly slice off unwanted pieces. But I agree that it took too much time that we did not have to spare.
Exasperated with how much work we still had left to do, Michael grabbed his Sawzall and artfully & quickly trimmed the entire bus’s insulation in one hour.
Death Averted, Air Cool-Converted.
We luckily finished both the air conditioner and spray foam installation before Mother Nature blessed the Midwest with 3 days of temperatures above 100°F. Combining the roof’s heat-reflecting paint, the insulation and the conditioned air made a world of difference in providing us comfort. If we had to do it over again, the only change would have been to get a more powerful window AC.
What have you used or plan to use in your bus conversion? Technology has changed in the 4 years since we did ours – maybe you can provide insight on the better options.
Rivets are one of the easiest things to use to re-install a metal bus panel, especially if they were the original method of fastening. Our video Gut the Bus – Removal of Rivets, Metal Panels … shows how we removed the rivets to release the panels from their adhesion to the frame. This article and the video below will demonstrate how, with a pneumatic riveter, we completed the task in half the time we expected.
These panels go on the inside of the bus, but the interior side (the part that meets up with the insulation) received a special finish before installation. In an effort to reuse the residual Bus-Kote paint used on the roof, we painted the leftover onto the interior (insulation) side of the panels. We hoped that the Bus-Kote would act as a barrier for any heat that may have accumulated in the wall cavity. Is this what really happened? Who knows. It was a grander idea to try than to throw away the reflective paint. Plus, the kids had a grand time helping us roll-on the paint.
When the paint dried the next morning, we positioned the panels in their former place. Each panel had a “P” or “S” spray painted on it to indicate if it belonged on the port or starboard side of the bus. A number after the letter designation indicated how close it was to the front. For example “P1” meant it was the closest panel to the front on the driver’s side. “S5” was the farthest in the back on the side of the entrance door.
Installation with New Rivets
We used new aluminum 3/16″ diameter rivets that were 1/2″ long. Michael thought he needed a cleat to align the first few holes, but this turned out to be unnecessary. With me there to align most of the holes and Michael putting in the first rivet, we were able to easily refit the panels. Several times, Michael drilled slightly larger holes @ 13/64″ to fit the rivet shafts. The riveter we first used was a pneumatic one from Harbor Freight that did not last long. Our second one, bought at Northern Tools but still most likely an import , completed the job. It was a very quick process and beat our time estimate by 50 %! It only took about 5 hours to install.
The one tricky area was the top side of the panels. This edge lies underneath the windows’ weatherstripping. Any large protrusion would have affected the rubber and the seal. It was important to keep the rivet flush. To the rescue, were rivets and clamps normally used in airplane construction! Their heads are flat enough and, with a pneumatic chiseler and a bucking rod, Michael was able to finish the top edge without impeding on the weatherstripping.
We had not yet decided how we would finish the look of the panels. Paint would be suffice but too boring. Wood slats would give the place character, but might it be too busy of a look that our home starts too look far from classy. Doing both might have worked – a painted chair rail. We decided to end on a high note that day and just call the whole thing done.
Your spouse just dropped the bomb on you that he¹ would like to live in a bus. He may have also eluded to doing the manual labor of converting an old school or transit bus into your abode. You counteracted both suggestions with ridicule and horror. I know because I reacted the same way when my husband proposed bus life.
Let me proclaim that living in a tiny moving home is a wonderful experience! Converting a bus by yourselves is grueling work and another beast to tackle so this post will not address that. But if your husband wants to buy one already decked out with domestic luxuries or if he pledges to convert a bus by himself, I urge you to consider it a blessing rather than a temporary leave of his sanity.
When My Spouse Suggested a Bus Conversion
Michael and I started dating in 2000 and, after moving twice in 3 years, he proposed that we buy an RV and live in it on the streets of West Los Angeles. I was working full-time in an architecture firm and Michael was starting law school. In other words, I thought we were living a typically happy life and wanted to continue on the trajectory of normalcy. I didn’t want to be associated with weirdos, the dregs of society, nor hippies, so I shot down his suggestion. This only made him want to push the issue and instead suggest living on a boat! I compromised with living in a studio 1 block away from Venice Beach, California.
10 years later, married with two young children, Michael again brought up the idea of an RV, but he assuaged the scenario. “We can travel cheaply around the country for a year!” Maybe the seed he planted in my mind a decade prior had finally sprouted into a bud of acceptance. Perhaps I was too tired from taking care of a 4- and 2-year old to resist his enthusiasm. I possibly just caught his infectious glee as he scoured the internet for buses. Whatever the reason, I didn’t outright refuse the idea this time.
The process of building the bus to an acceptable camping shelter took two years. When we moved to Washington, D.C., to start Michael’s new job, we planned on living in the bus for the Summer while we looked for a house to call our new home. With rental prices in the nation’s capitol so absurdly expensive, a lease for a new abode never urfaced. We decided to live in the bus full-time and have been happily doing so for the past 2 years.
The initial setting I painted may echo your own journey. Or possibly your husband just blurted out the beauty of nomadic life. Another scenario could be that he saw a passing RV and uttered what a great idea it would be to live in one with you and your domesticated animals. You also could have reached this post after years of his nagging that a bus conversion would make the family closer and fulfill your desire to travel across the country.
You are not alone in your shock and awe that your spouse would dare suggest downsizing to less than 300sf. I sympathize with you, but I also urge you to consider that the lunacy bestowed on your husband may actually be a stroke of genius. After having lived in our 35′ bus with our kids, now age 9 and 6, I wish we had started this lifestyle sooner.
The Benefits of Living in a Tiny Home on Wheels
Let’s entertain your spouse’s idea and see what the advantages are to bus life.
- Cheaper Living: Many campgrounds offer affordable daily rates that would hearken back to rental prices 20 years ago. Sure, your home is smaller than what you could get in a 1 bedroom / 1 bath apartment, but you will also have …
- An Enormous Backyard: Whether you are camping at a resort RV park or boondocking in remote meadows, your space to explore is vast and only limited by how far you want to walk.
- Less Clutter: With less space to hold your wardrobe and knick knacks, you will downsize to unbelievably bearable amounts. That outfit you haven’t worn for 5 years will have no room in your bus. You need not collect the litter of toys strewn about. Gone are the end tables that need dusting every week. Cleaning the home takes only 20 minutes.
- Spectacular Settings: Enviable vistas are no longer limited to those rich enough to buy the house atop a hill. When you travel or stay at a campground, you can be washing dishes while watching the sun set over the treeline 50 feet away. You could wake up to the sound of sparrows, push aside your curtains and watch the osprey diving into the lake for their breakfast of fish.
- Flexible School Options: If you have school-aged children, all is not lost in keeping them academically current. Many homeschooling and virtual schooling options are at your disposal.
Just as there are wonderful things about bus living, there are hardships that we should prepare you to encounter.
- Mother Nature Relentlessly Visits. You will look at the weather forecast at least a couple of times a day. Predicted lows indicate if you need to turn on an extra heater near your freshwater tank. Wind speeds govern whether or not you need to pull in your awning. You’ll need to draw your curtains in to prevent afternoon heat gain and stress on your air conditioner. Cold nights require you do the same action to keep the heat inside.
- Gaining Weight Affects Everyone. Extra pounds deter not just your health, but it also encroaches on your family’s well-being. I have to exercise extra mindfulness lest I whack my kids in the face with my hips as I bend down to pick up a stray lego. For our growing kids, their increase in height needs extra acclimatization lest they whack their head on overhead cabinets and bunk ceilings.
- Easy to Clutter: Cleaning the bus takes 20 minutes, but young children easily clutter the space in less time than you can utter, “It’s so neat here!”
- Passing By Is A Dance. Two bodies cannot pass through the hallway or enter/exit the bathroom at the same time without executing a dance. When my husband leaves the bedroom and I must enter it, we skirt each other like two kids with cooties. The kids have resorted to climbing the bunks and closets so they can pass by as I put away their clothes under their beds.
- Homeschooling Takes Energy. If you are not already accustomed to homeschooling, roadschooling might overwhelm you. Virtual school relies heavily on internet connection – something hard to come by at times.
Red Light? Green Light?
Despite the awkward space issues and the required sensitivity to weather, we still love living in the bus. The disadvantages pale in comparison to the joy we feel in living simply and mindfully.
You now have a couple of questions to ruminate. Will you join your spouse in the bus life, and will you enjoy it? I hope this article has given you a glimpse into what it could be like for you and your family. It could be horrific, but it could also be the most positive transformation you’ve ever undergone. Our advice is to take the plunge, live outside the norm and embrace the adventure.
¹ I refer to the spouse as a man because most of those struck with the idea are male. But I have met several women with wanderlust that have a reluctant husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend. To make this article easier to write, I refer to male partners as the instigator of bus life, but be aware that women prompt the idea, too
Our subfloor sandwich is quite the cornucopia of materials and we were eager to install it right after reinstalling the metal wall panels. Once it was complete we could consider the bus’s interior shell complete.
First … Draw on the walls
That’s right … we grabbed a permanent marker and doodled on the walls before we laid down any material. We wanted the edges of neighboring plywood boards to meet halfway on the metal beams, but our first layer, a vapor barrier of felt paper, would shroud the frame entirely. We needed an alternate way to locate the beams.
By drawing 3″ lines on the walls to indicate the beam locations, we could still discern where to place our plywood’s edges. These locations also informed us where we could tie in interstitial fasteners to the frame.
Here is our subfloor sandwhich starting from the bottom (right above the bus frame) to the top which is visible inside the bus. It’s total depth is 1.625″ :
- Bottom layer = 30# felt roofing paper
- 2nd layer = 1/4″ plywood
- 3rd layer = 1×4 lumber framing with ¾” rigid foam insulation boards sandwiched inbetween
- Top layer = 5/8” plywood
We considered not putting insulation because we imagined that we would never be in a terribly cold climate. I’m glad we did because that’s exactly where we ended up spending our winters – in snow. Fellow converters complained on Bus Conversion forums that the rigid foam squeaked while the bus was moving. We solved this by leaving about a 1/2″ gap between the insulation boards and the lumber.
Application of the First 2 Layers
As I mentioned above, we layed the roofing paper across the open bus frame. With our beam locations indicated we were able have the edges meet equally on the frame. Unfortunately, we sometimes we had to cut off as little as 1/2″ from 4′ x 8′ board of plywood so that the edges would end up in the middle. We thought it was a worthwhile extra step so that the floor would be structurally sound.
Starting at the front of the bus, we tackled the most intricate part first. In addition to cutting around the wheel wells, we had little notches for frame pieces to consider. We actually had to redo this first piece because it just wasn’t fitting well. We hated to waste material, but we were getting frustrated jiggling and wiggling the thing in. I’m glad we saved our sanity at the cost of another sheet of ply.
As soon as the 1/4″ plywood was installed, we drew more lines to indicate the beam locations. This time we drew right on the board using the lines marked on the wall.
Application of the Last Layers
The 3rd layer required a lot of measuring and cutting because we were trying to match our lumber to the frame below. More measurements and cutting were needed for all the insulation boards that fit in between the 1x4s. After a dry fit test, we glued each board and lumber piece onto the 1/4″ ply with construction adhesive. Immediately after the 3rd layer was glued down, we put more glue on top of those pieces and laid a (precut and pre-tested) layer of 5/8″ ply on top.
The rain barrels (recycled 5 gallon buckets) Uncle Frankie had left out for the chickens came in handy as they were placed on top of the entire sandwich of wood and insulation so that the adhesive would dry with the pieces in the correct place. Don’t worry PETA, we left some barrels of water out for the chickens to stay hydrated.
Right after we put all the buckets down, Michael continued to really fasten the floor to the bus’s frame. He used 2″ and 2 1/2″ Tek Screws that self-tapped.
All in all the subfloor took about 2-1/2 days to complete.
Shortly after the subfloor install, we moved to Florida. Even though we had worked on the bus for only 6 weeks, we were burned out and had no desire to work on it during our first summer in the Sunshine State. (Much like my burnout in writing these build posts after having written the demolition posts). Not until the daily temperature highs cooled down in November did we even enter the bus again. Once we did get inside, we knew the next project to do was to install the ceiling. We needed to cover up that foam. Have some decency, Insulation!
Although we had already insulated the roof cavities with foam and applied a reflective paint atop the exterior surface, we regarded the ceiling as another opportunity to increase our R-value. Our first layer applied directly on to the bus frame was Reflectix, a thin assembly of reflective sheets and bubble wrap. Over that we bent 5mm thick plywood and screwed both layers with self-tapping lath screws that had a wide, flat head.
One of our biggest challenges was gravity. As the roof frame curved into wall frame, the ceiling had to follow suit. At the time, Michael was doing this task by himself. I was probably inside feeding the kids their 2nd round of chicken nuggets and corn nibblets (Who am I kidding? I was just taking photos while he labored away). Anyway, this information might be of use to you bus converters flying solo in your endeavors.
To keep the ceiling curved while Michael used both hands to insert the screws, he used a D.I.Y. holder-upper to force the thin plywood into its intended curvature.
The challenges did not end there. When we got to the rear, we encountered another problem of a telescoping ceiling. Even with the rear facade to help terminate the ceiling, we still had about 2 feet in which we had to narrow to a smaller radius/ellipse. We cut out material haphazardly because we were too tired to think of how to do it correctly and beautifully. Our assumption was that we’d come back and cover up our ceiling with headliner, but what we didn’t know is that our initial quick remedies always became our permanent everlasting solutions.
As for the front, we kept the original ceiling. It was too complex to recreate. It makes me think we should have kept all the original panels and just put them back on after we installed the insulation.
For painting the ply, we used a white paint with minimum gloss. That’s how we rolled back in those days. We wanted everything to be matte. Boy, were we stupid – except in the case of the ceiling. Any surface that needs to be wiped down (most likely not the ones higher than your head and far above any splattering of spaghetti) should have some gloss to it to make it easy to wipe down. I blame the artsy fartsy architect in me that thought “flat is all dat.” Anyway, the type of ceiling paint is not that important.
At the bathroom we later applied a different material on top of the painted ply. We desired a more wipeable, water-resistant, mildew-resistant material and chose this funky, toxic plastic sheet that I have to return to Home Depot to remember what it was. If it’s even still sold to consumers, I can describe it as a little thicker than the 5mm plywood, has a little texture to its front face, and feels like a curse when you cut it like jello with a jigsaw. Why a curse? Because when you cut it, miniscule particles of smelly plastic spring into the air to a destination unbeknownst to you. Most likely orifices that want to be left alone.
The ceiling overall held up well and we didn’t lose a lot of heat through the ceiling. The only problem we had were some of those screws rusting out. In the winter months, condensation trickled from the cold metal roof to the warm metal roof frame and down to the cozy heater-warmed screws. Some screws that were thinly painted and were susceptible to rust. I’d suggest finding a nonconductive screw (hee hee, that’s funny … and disappointing) or slather your fastener heads with paint. Go ahead – glop it on.
In our day to day living we barely noticed the ceiling. It was all acceptable except at the emergency hatch where there was no transition. We left that hole edge raw thinking we’d fix it later. Wrong! It stayed like that for three years. Was it ugly? Yes. Did we care? No, not while we slept comfortably or watched TV at dinner time.
The one place the ceiling looked grody was in the bathroom ceiling. We had chosen a quickly drying adhesive (I swear only 10 minutes passed) that held it’s goop shape even after we adhered the ceiling to the plywood. It was too gunky that its shape shown through. We should have used a more spreadable glue or at least applied it in phases. Bah! The strange plastic could have looked great.
We knew we’d scuff up our floors during our build process so we waited on putting in the finish floor over the already installed subfloor. But to protect the subfloor from water damage and scuffs, we applied polyurethane. Two gallons of polyurethane gave us only one coat because we slathered it on thick!
If we could do it over again, we would have done 2! But honestly, the 1 coat held up well during the build and for the first few months that we lived in the bus.
Finish Floor Installation
After two years of building the bus and then 4 months of getting used to living in the bus, we wanted to install the cheapest and least laborious floor cover. At one of the big box stores near our campground, we found an incredibly affordable carpet at $0.50 / square foot. And the color matched our color scheme!
We applied the TrafficMaster carpet with double-sided tape that is meant for adhering floors to subfloors. Another option was the gooey adhesive that one trowels on, but this carpet was meant to be temporary. Our intention was to pull up this carpet in 9 months when the weather was warmer and to install a more presentable material like engineered wood panels or vinyl slats that looked like wood.
One area in which we didn’t adhere the carpet was in front of the refrigerator. Michael still needed to do electrical work behind the appliance. and pulling out the refrigerator would just rip up the carpet if the latter had been adhered.
The bathroom is the one location we did not put carpet. It would have been a mildew and mold nightmare. In this area, we instead installed vinyl “planks” that overlapped one another by about 1/4″. Michael found the planks very easy to cut with a utility knife.
Once you install a floor, you will most likely not want to do it again.
If it’s vinyl planks you want, take the extra time and install them all at once. We didn’t want to use real hardwood because of the added height and task of sealing it. A thinner assembly such as laminated wood flooring was good option because its price is comparable to vinyl planks. Our concern, however, was that it was not scratch-proof. One can also scratch or nick the vinyl, but the imperfections are less glaring than on a laminate wood.
Carpet feels good underfoot, but the thin one that we got frayed too easily. Not just at the exposed edges at the removable portion in front of the fridge, but also right smack in middle of a field. With children and clumsy parents, lots of things spilled and it was hard to clean it up. A wipe-able floor would have been so great. The carpet miraculously didn’t smell rank with all the milk, coffee, and wine we spilled on it.