Choosing Your Bus

If you’re new to this (we were!), it’s tough that one of the first things you do is probably the most critical. There are a lot of decisions to be made to try to get the bus that’s right for you. This is the first in a series of posts aimed at helping to choose the right bus for you.

When choosing a bus, a common thing you will hear is to not get too new of a bus.  This seems counterintuitive if you don’t understand the reasoning behind it If you’re buying a car, you probably want the newest car you can afford, right?

Well, buses are a different breed.  This entire post can be summarized as such: Don’t buy a bus newer than 2003, and try to get ond older than 1995. Now let’s talk about why!

Diesel engines are a different animal from gasoline engines. They are far less complex in operation and construction. A mid-1990s Cummins engine is hardly any more complex than the original turbo diesels of the 1920s. One of these mechanical diesel engines can run just fine with only a single wire attached, literally just enabling the injection pump.

In the 1990s, things got a bit more complex, but a lot of it was cosmetic. Sensors started appearing all over the engine, but actually did very little with regards to the engine running. Your ECU now knew your engine’s temperature, oil pressure, turbo boost pressure, etc, but didn’t do much with it other than log events and turn on warning lights. Things got weirder as the 90s went on, suddenly you had things like Exhaust Back Pressure Valves and glow plug controllers that keep them on as long as 4 minutes after the engine is started. But these are relatively minor, they are fairly well known things, and the fixes are usually very simple and often free.

Things changed in 2004.

2004 was the first year of tighter emissions regulations pushed on the heavy duty diesel market. Even though they had 7 years notice, it’s fair to say these guys were caught with their pants down.  The introduction of the EGR system into these engines proved to make them fragile ticking time bombs. Probably the worst of which was Navistar’s VT365, also known as the Ford Powerstroke 6.0. These problems plagued the entire industry, and it wasn’t until 2010 or so that you could expect to buy a school bus that would last half as long as the one it was replacing.

The next series of engines brought in our new friend, Diesel Exhaust Fluid.  These engines have an added tank for this fluid, which has an active ingredient of urea (Yes, urea, as in pee.. But don’t just pee in your DEF tank!) that gets sprayed into the catalyst system to reduce emissions. These newer engines also further increased its dependence on its electronics, making them poor choices for a DIY-er. Also, while they aren’t so prone to exploding from a plastic part inside the engine melting, they have another really good reason to avoid them. Quite simply, the used market for late model buses includes schools and other organizations that use them as school buses. These companies are not afraid to spend $25k, $30, or more because they are still saving 75% from the price of buying new.

Most skoolies out there will have been built between 1988 and 2003. This is the sweet spot where you  can get a good price, reliability, affordable and easily available parts, in a platform you can work on yourself.

Is A Bus Right For You?

Thinking about getting a bus? Let’s explore the positives and negatives of a school bus, compared to other options.

Before we bought our bus, we looked at basically every other option too. Depending on your capabilities, requirement, and goals, you very well might make a different decision than we did. This is a high level overview so feel free to ask if there’s an aspect you’d like me to cover!

One thing I want to mention first, because it applies to all of these, is the choice between a gas or diesel engine. The simple truth is, on average, a diesel will get twice as far on a gallon of fuel, and have a life expectancy of at least double that of a gas option. There’s a reason semi trucks, cruise liners, trains, tractors, construction equipment, and even gas pipeline pumps all run on diesel.

Of course, all rules have an exception, and in this case it’s easy to point at: The Navistar VT365 engine (also known as the PowerStroke 6.0)  has several known flaws that result in premature failure.

Traditional RV

Let’s face it, a pre-built RV is a pretty attractive option. If you have the budget to buy new, you get something ready to go with zero headaches. You can be on the road the next day, without having to fabricate anything. Of course, buying new is really, really expensive! A nice motor coach will cost you comparable money to a house. Our budget was much, much less than that! On top of that, coach builders make opinionated decisions that may or may not jive with your own ideas.

Looking at the used market, we found a lot of options under $10k. Unfortunately, they all had gas engines in need of major repair. Most of them had visible body damage, spray foam filling holes, etc.

If you’re not planning to rough it on the road, and are good with frequently paying for a place with electric and water hookups, an RV is going to be the fastest way to get started. A typical RV will have tanks for clean and black water, a toilet that flushes, a functional kitchen, and a shower. With a generator you can skip the hookups for a week or two at a time!

Box Truck Conversion

I’m a big fan of the converted box truck option! I love the stealth factor. Nobody looks twice at a box truck in a parking lot, they’re the ultimate boondock option. Something like a retired U-Haul truck is a coat of white paint away from blending into the background.

Box trucks usually have 90 degree corners, so you’re really getting a box with relatively flat walls and no curves. It’s easy to mount things like solar panels to a flat roof. They’re much lighter construction than a bus, the box is typically made of wood with metal framing. You’re more likely to find good highway gearing in a box truck than in a bus. That combination adds up to better fuel economy and greater range. Many of them have large amount of usable space underneath the box for installing  things like water tanks.

Some box trucks have a “mom’s attic”, an area of box that goes over the cab. If you’re able, that’s a great place to put your sleeping area. Not having to fit your bed into the “general” area saves you a ton of floor space. Also, the roll-up door and ramp/lift setup makes a convenient garage or workshop area you can separate from the living area.

On the down side, the lighter construction of the box truck means you’re more vulnerable in an accident. The thin wooden box offers virtually no insulation (but its easy to add foam board insulation to flat walls). There are no windows in the box, and if you want access from the driver’s area to the living area, you’ll have to cut a hole yourself.  The roll up door is basically impossible to seal.  Many of them are based on cut-away vans, and have very limited access to the engine for maintenance and repair duty.

School Bus

There are a few basic bus platforms. Many short buses are cut-away van chassis, and share some positives and negatives with the box truck. The primary differences being a steel exterior and a rounded ceiling. These are Type A buses.

Most full-size bus platforms are available in multiple lengths, including as a shortie.  In short form, they’re Type B buses. The full-size options will be Type C (Dog-nose) or D (Flat-nose).

These buses are based on medium duty truck platforms (not to be confused with Ford/GM/Dodge super/heavy/whatever duty).  Don’t think F350, think 18 wheeler. Medium duty trucks are much heavier, and are designed to work hard for a very long time.

Of course, there’s a downside to that. You’re going to sacrifice fuel economy from all the weight, your engine will be tuned well below its limits in the interest of longevity, and many medium duty powertrains don’t have parts availability outside of dealerships. (But some do! The DT444E and Cummins 5.9 are good examples of easy parts availability.)

Buses have a lot of windows! But a lot of people don’t value them, and end up removing them and replacing with sheet metal. At a minimum you’ll need dark tint or curtains for privacy, but keep in mind that the windows offer no real insulation ability and usually don’t seal much at all. You also get open air from the front to the back, so at a minimum you’ll wait privacy curtains to block the view of passers-by.

A bus has a certain cool factor that you won’t get with an RV or a box truck. It’s about halfway between them when it comes to stealth. It’s kind of the fad right now, for better or for worse. Most of the extra attention you get will be positive, but people selling buses are also aware of the popularity and prices may reflect it.

A school bus is unlikely to have good highway gearing. Chances are you’ll find a top speed limited electronically, by gearig, or both, around 55 mph. Electronic limiters are relatively easy to adjust if you know someone with a diesel programmer, but gearing changes are not simple tasks.