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Old 11-18-2006, 10:14 PM   #1
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S-caper...Part 2

Well, it's more than Part 2! It's acutally a whole new bus!

We've had the white 1979 Blue Bird on the road now for the last 3 years. I originally did a "quickie" conversion so that we could use the bus for vacation and gets some ideas for how we wanted to do the "real" conversion. Geez! We came up with so many ideas that I realized the only way I was going to get everything in there was to buy a longer bus (it's hard to find the conventional "dog nose" buses in 40' lengths) or buy a transit-style flat-nose bus.

As things are wont to happen...I kept checking eBay and some of the bus sites to get a feel for what was on the market and how much a new bus was going to cost and I got attracted to one eBay auction in particular because it was for a Thomas flat-nose pusher, it was in my back yard (almost), and because the price seemed to be staying down. Part of this I think is because the seller (the State of Washington Surplus Program) had just sold three Crown buses the day before the Thomas auction went up; also they don't tend to have a lot of detail about the buses on the auction listing. On the final day of the auction I still couldn't believe the price was staying so low and decided to watch it when it ended on Monday night at 9pm on the west coast. Minutes before the auction closed the price has crept up to $1725...I couldn't take it any more and figured I'd sure be willing to spend $2000 on the bus so in went my bid; minutes later I owned a new-to-me 1982 Thomas for $1775.

When I arrived to pick up the bus (I had to wait a week due to transportation and work stuff) I wasn't disappointed at all. The bus looked good...really good. I noticed the placard above the driver's seat indicated the bus had a VT-225 Cummins Triple Nickel engine but there was a Caterpillar 3208 in the engine bay; the folks in the office called the school district the bus came from and found out that the Cat had been installed about 8 years ago. It runs out nicely and the Allison MT643 transmission shifts smoothly (much more so than the same tranny in my Blue Bird). The tires are in good shape too. I even have rear wheel sanders if I need them in snow and/or ice (I rather stay away from that stuff!).

That's it for now...more later. I've posted a few photos and a floor plan in the gallery (still under S-Caper).
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Old 11-19-2006, 12:24 AM   #2
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Nice! Keep us posted, I have thought about getting a new bus and starting over. Are you going to move things from the old bus or sell that one as it is?
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Old 11-19-2006, 10:12 AM   #3
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Hi Steve

I never really put anything in the Blue Bird that's worth the effort to move with the sole exception of perhaps the inverter; but it's a much smaller unit then we'll need in the Thomas so I'll leave it in for the next owner. In fact, I built the interior of the 'Bird so that I could disassemble it within a day's work; so the next owner of our Blue Bird can either use the bus as is (it actually works out well for camping) or strip the interior very quickly and start over.
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Old 11-19-2006, 11:19 AM   #4
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There were three things that always griped me about the Blue Bird...the road speed/rpm, the ride, and the engine noise. I knew when I got the bus it was limited to about 58 mph with the accelerator on the floor and I actually found running 55 mph wasn't bad but the part I didn't like was that the rpm was still up there around 2500 or so. I knew (or felt anyway) that the DT466 would be much happier around 2000 to 2200 given it's horsepower and torque curve. A rear-end gearing change was always on the To Do list. The ride was a different story...I just never remembered my time on school buses being so rough! Washington State has to have some of the worst bridge aprons (approach and departure) in the world...some were quite litterally bone-jarring in the Blue Bird (it's on an International S-1800 chassis). I put the bunks over the rear wheel wells and got more than a few comments from the occupants on our long trips to northern California! So air ride or at least new springs/shocks were on the list for the 'Bird as well.

Well...I gotta tell you...if I had ever driven a bus like the Thomas I just purchased I'd have skipped the Blue Bird (has nothing to do with the brand) from the get-go. In comparison the Thomas rides like a limo and handles like a sports car. The Thomas is cruising at 60 mph at 2200 rpm (the max rpm on this model is 2600) and tops out just under 70 (I didn't really run it up and hold it to find out yet). I'm not going to have to do anything with the gearing on this bus or with the suspension.

I knew the bus had a 3208 Cat and an Allison MT643 tranny but it wasn't until a couple of days afer I got it home and was able to get in over the (cool) engine that I found out the Cat is turbocharged, and not until I wiped the dust off the ID plate on the Cat that I found out it's rated at 250-hp (I was actually expecting a normally aspirated 210-hp version in there). And man, does the MT643 shift sweet in this bus; the same tranny in my Blue Bird is...how should we say..."positive"! It runs to almost redline in first gear and then when it shifts it really shifts! I had the Blue Bird checked thoroughly by the International dealer and they told me that's normal and the drive train on the 'Bird is in excellent condition. The MT643 in the Thomas feels more like an automatic does in a car; I can only assume it's due to the extra weight of the Thomas and the shift points. The tranny shifts from first to second in the Thomas at a much lower rpm.

I also have to mention the noise level. While tolerable in the Blue Bird (and I knew I could add better (and more) sound insulation) the engine is all but silent in the Thomas at cruise speed; the noise is from several windows that don't quite close, the front split doors that don't quite seal and the tires. At least the first two issues will be solved easily; the tire noise I hope will diminish with the extra insulation in the bus and better flooring.

The placard (above the dirver's seat) in the Thomas (which they had in the eBay listing) also indicated the bus had 11.00R20 tires. I have a friend that owns a tire store and he told me they were going to be hard to get a lot of places and to be sure and carry a spare. He said I should eventually switch to 22.5" or 24.5" wheels and find a tire with the same diameter as the 11.00R20s. The tires on the bus are in good condition and I hated the thought of changing them any too soon but much to my surprise (and delight) when I read the sidewall it said 11R22.5! Apparently the school district didn't like the 20" wheels either! The 11R22.5 is the second most popular tire for over-the-road rigs (the first is the 295/75R22.5) so I'll be able to get a tire at any truck tire dealer if necessary.

So...on the positive side of the scorecard so far we've got:
- Body in great condition (virtually no rust)
- A 250-hp turbocharged 3208 Cat that's 8 years old (and if the hubometer was installed with the engine it has about 59,000 miles on it)
- An MT643 that shifts wonderfully
- Good 22.5" tires
- Good cruise speed
- Good handling
- Low (realtively-speaking) noise level
- Under bus storage compartment (6' by 8' with 4 doors)

There has to be some negatives...and there are:

I didn't know when I bid on the bus that Thomas made three roof heights; one with a rise of 3", one that's flat, and one that drops 3". Yup! I got the one that drops 3"; this puts the headroom at exactly 6'. I'm 5' 10" so it's not a problem as is but...I'm going to have to be careful about flooring and about what I do to the ceiling for insulation and finishing. The biggest problem will the roof air. The rear unit won't be any trouble as it will be in the bedroom and won't be in the way. The front one will be the one that everyone (including me) will hit their head on. I can't think of any elegant solution with a roof unit so if anyone has any ideas let me know. I'm resigned at this point to going with a basement model A/C unit though I dread the thought of running the duct work (there's a ton of stuff under the bus!) and floor level ducts aren't the best. I could also used a mini split system but so far I haven't found anywhere to mount the inside unit (most of them for the size unit I need are around 36" wide and maybe 14" tall; I just don't have a wall that's 36" wide). I'll keep working on this one...I'm not going to raise the roof!

The other negatives are fix-it items...the driver's side air-driven wiper doesn't work (it moves at a standstill but not with wind pressure on the road), part of the main switch panel doesn't work (the marker lights, the windshield fans, and all the heater fans) but that same portion didn't work in the other Thomas (a twin to mine) that they had there when I picked mine up. That makes me think I'm missing a master switch somewhere but I've looked high and low and haven't found one. Part of the panel does work however for the warning lights and such. Hmmmm...

And those darn front doors (air operated) won't stay shut. At anything over 30 mph they open up about 6" which creates quite the wind storm! I don't know how air doors work so this is something I have to research. They'll eventually be replaced with a single entry door but I wasn't planning on doing that until later (unless I can't get the bus doors to work).

That's it for this installment!
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Old 11-19-2006, 03:57 PM   #5
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I believe I have the A/C situation resolved (gotta love the Internet!). I found this unit Celiera Mini-split A/C. The inside unit is only 31" x 7" x 11" and will (should) easily fit over the couch and/or deck area facing the centerline of the bus. I'll either use another in the bedroom or use a roof top unit there where its intrusion at the ceiling isn't an issue.

For those of us into "system" specs here's where I'm at thus far:

Air Conditioning: The above mentioned system.

Heat: Main heat is a Webasto hot water diesel fired heater. This will have a loop around the bus with various radiators as necessary (probably one under the couch, a toekick unit in the kitchen and a radiator in the bedroom). The bus heater hose will remain in place to feed the front bus heaters and defroster. On its way there the hot coolant from the engine will pass through a water-to-water heat exchanger that's in the Webasto loop. With the bus engine running its hot coolant will supply heat to the Webasto heating system via the heat exchanger; with the bus engine shut down the Webasto boiler will heat the water (and the engine block if necessary). This will also loop through the water heater for hot water underway.

Secondary (and backup) heat will come from theDickinson P12000 stainless propane fireplace in the living area. This is a direct vent unit made primarily for the marine industry. It has a glass-front and will give a bit of ambiance; it's also located close to the lounge chair (mine!) and since I'm the one that's always cold I can stay a bit warmer by the fireplace without driving my wife out of the bus (I hope).

Water: A 98-gallon ready-made poly fresh water tank under the master bed where it will stay warm and allow easy inside-the-bus plumbing. I'll use the typical water pump and accumulator to feed the system.

Hot water: Attwood 6-gallon 3-way (propane, electric, heat exchanger). This will be plumbed into the Webasto heater loop which means it can be heated by the bus engine or the Webasto boiler (in addition to propane or AC shorepower).

Waste: Two 50-gallon ready-made poly tanks in the under bus storage bay; one is about centered aft for the black water from the toilet the other forward and outboard for the grey water from the kitchen sink and shower (it will use a sump and pump the water over). The bathroom sink may feed into the black tank as well...we'll see. Both tanks will be equipped with holding tank heaters.

Propane: Four 20# Lite Cylinder composite propane tanks located in a sealed compartment built into the under bus storage bay on the driver's side.

Two tanks a time will be connected to a regulator and will feed the cooking range (a 3-burner Surburban unit), the water heater (6-gallon), and the Dickinson propane fireplace.

Cooking: A Suburban 3-burner propane range. This unit has one 9,000-btu burner so when it's time to boil the water for pasta it'll actually happen! I got the tall unit with the larger oven.

Planned above this unit is a GE Profile microwave/convection oven which is also a vent. This unit is still under consideration and we may change it.

Refrigeration: Norcold DE-0061, 7 cubic foot AC/DC model. This is a "real" refrigerator with a highly efficient Danfoss compressor and not an absorbtion refrigerator; so no issues with being off-level and such. This unit only draws 2 to 3 amps on DC and .4 amps on AC. It will be an easy unit to keep running with the battery system we'll have and I don't have to worry about propane for it. Which also means I don't need the big grate in the side of the bus and the roof vent.

Electrical (AC): 30-amp shorepower inlet feeding a Xantrex RS-2000 pure sine wave inverter (which is also a 120-amp mulit-stage charger). This unit has a 30-amp transfer switch which will automatically pass shorepower through to the main AC distribution panel (or switch to inverter power if the shorepower cable is unplugged). This may get upgraded to the RS3000 model after all the computations are done. All wiring is Ancor marine tinned boat cable.

Electrical (DC): We'll have <revised> 440 AH of battery power. I have decided yet which batteries I use and part of the decision will be based on where I can put them in the bus. I'd like to go with AGM for shear convenience but their cost-per-AH is high comparitively. A good set of Rolls premium batteries won't cost any more but I'll get more AH for the same cash and considerably longer life (if they're cared for properly and therein lies the "kicker"!). All wiring is Ancor marine tinned boat wire.

Electrical (general): All lighting will be DC. Space lighting will come from CCF (Cold Cathode Fluorescent) lights in the ceiling. Task lighting may be CCF, LED or Halogen as necessary. Where CCF isn't availalbe I'll use 12-volt fluorescent bulbs (like in the table lamp).

My main electrical distibution panel (or panels) will be by Blue Sea Systems; my first choice is the Model 8684 which has AC main plus 6 circuits and DC main plus 16 cicuits. Built for rugged marine use, well organized, and high quailty.

So here's a quick overview of the electrical system. The goal is to keep it simple to use, simple to find or isolate trouble, have it last for years and above all be safe!

I'm still unsure of the generator I'll use...there will be one because I don't know how to keep the Air Conditioners going on the road without it...but I'm still not sure which one (or even which fuel). For the purpose of my electrcial system it doesn't make any difference as long as it can pump out 30 amps (which means 3500-watts and above).

Near the Blue Sea systems main electrical panel will be a Blue Sea Systems rotary Source Selector Switch; this will allow me to choose between Shorepower or Generator. The output from the Source Selector Switch feeds the Xantrex RS2000 Inverter/Charger. The Xantrex simply transfers the AC power from shorepower or the genset to the Blue Sea Systems distribution panel if AC is present from the Source Selector Switch or supplies AC from the batteries if it isn't. The panel (thorugh the circuit breakers) then sends out power to the various devices as normal.

On the DC side the Blue Sea Systems main panel it connected to the battery bank and via its 16 circuits feeds the DC loads (lighting, fresh water pump, 12-volt entertainment circuit, refrigerator, waste tanks macerator pumps, shower sump pump, etc).

The bus has a 200-amp alternator. I'll install a Blue Sea Systems ACR (Automatic Charging Relay) between the positive post of the starting batteries and the postive post of the house bank. When the starting batteries come back up to 13.6 volts (usually after having just started the engine) the ACR kicks in and sends charging current from the engine alternator to the house battery bank. It cuts back out at 12/6 volts so the house bank can not discharge the starting battery bank. No voltage drop on this as there is with a battery isolator and it can be controlled at the drivers seat (or anywhere else) with a simple toggle switch (if for some reason you want to override its automatic functions).

Guess I've written too much yet again!
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Old 11-19-2006, 07:13 PM   #6
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That propane furnace looks sweet. I can see curling up by it on a cool evening being quite nice. I love the blue sea electronics. Their stuff is so well made. Pricey, but will last a long time. Why go with the huge price increase associated with the tined electrical cable? Why not heavy duty electrical extension cords run properly and chopped down? That would save you $$ also. What are you using for flooring? Floor plan? Do you links to the tank warmers you intend on using? How much of this stuff do you own already? What are you doing with your other bus?

Keep us posted.

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Old 11-20-2006, 10:55 AM   #7
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Old 11-20-2006, 11:30 AM   #8
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How much is that relay for the house batteries? My $5 Ford starter solenoid works, but I have bypassed it simply because it is not designed for constant duty. While I personally don't mind turning the toggle switch on and off every hour or so to cycle the batteries from a charging to discharging state, I don't know that other people who may drive the bus are so willing or even understand why. My battery compartment is well ventilated so hydrogen in't a concern, but I still don't like the idea of something glowing orange hot under there.
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Old 11-20-2006, 12:04 PM   #9
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Re: bus

Quote:
Originally Posted by captainkf
That propane furnace looks sweet. I can see curling up by it on a cool evening being quite nice. I love the blue sea electronics. Their stuff is so well made. Pricey, but will last a long time. Why go with the huge price increase associated with the tined electrical cable? Why not heavy duty electrical extension cords run properly and chopped down? That would save you $$ also. What are you using for flooring? Floor plan? Do you links to the tank warmers you intend on using? How much of this stuff do you own already? What are you doing with your other bus?

Keep us posted.

-Richard
Hi Richard,

I'm in the boat business...I'm a partner in a boat dealership and we're especially well-know for our high-end rigging and our willingness (ability) to do a lot of custom work that other dealers don't want to touch. [I think that makes us crazy but what the heck, gotta have a bit of a challenge!] The end result is that I purchase at wholesale and I'm used to working with high-quality stuff.

Now this is IMPORTANT...that doesn't mean that your idea of using extension cord as you say "run properly" is a bad idea at all; I'm just used to the Ancor wire and can get it (relatively) reasonably.

This bus for us will become a home and I fully expect (the fates allowing) that we'll use it for at least the next 20 years or so. With that in mind I'm installing what I percieve to be the best quality components I can get my hands on. That's going to vary a lot with the individual, the budget and the intended use of the bus conversion and there's nothing wrong with that. My budget for the conversion is $20,000 (with professional paint, aluminum wheels, new tires, etc); that's just a (mostly) educated guess at this point just running through the list so far. My kids are grown and on their own, my cars are paid for, and I don't have any bills other than the monthly suff (house, fuel, electricity, etc); I'm at a stage in my life where I can dedicate a bit of money every month to the conversion project. I expect to spend about 50% to 70% of my budget to do the basic conversion with most major appliances and such installed and the interior completed; the rest is for things like the paint, wheels, awning...in other words...all the fluff to make it look really nice.

The flooring in the living room and kithen is hardwood. The flooring in the bathroom and bedroom (what little of it there is) will be tile (or some high-quality vinyl if we find something we (she) likes).

I posted a floor plan drawing in the gallery (page 2) in the S-caper folder. Should be here if I've done this right!

The holding tank heater is here; I'm not familiar with the company I linked to, it was just the first one that popped up in Google but the specs and description are there.

The other bus will go on eBay soon. I just need to get out there and take some photos and move some personal stuff out. The weather here has been lousy and I've been hiding out in the house.

I already have the toilet, the range (and a vent hood), the water heater, and a few miscellaneous electrical components (shore power inlet, a electrical panel, and small stuff).
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Old 11-20-2006, 12:56 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by the_experience03
How much is that relay for the house batteries? My $5 Ford starter solenoid works, but I have bypassed it simply because it is not designed for constant duty. While I personally don't mind turning the toggle switch on and off every hour or so to cycle the batteries from a charging to discharging state, I don't know that other people who may drive the bus are so willing or even understand why. My battery compartment is well ventilated so hydrogen in't a concern, but I still don't like the idea of something glowing orange hot under there.
Uh...you're probably not going to like the price of the Blue Sea Systems ACR solenoid! It has a suggested retail of $234 and likely sells for around $160 though I haven't shopped it.

The fact is, it's still not the best solution and I'm not certain I'm going to use it. Even though my budget may seem high to some it's still a budget and with all that has to go into the conversion I'm still watching the dollars and where they're spent. What I really want is an Ample Power Smart Alternator Regulator but at $500 I'm squirming just a bit (ok, a lot!).

I've written reams about electrical systems; they're really a pain in the rear because there are so may components that all have to come together to form a system. Just like a good stereo systems all the components should be balanced to work at optimum levels together. It's hard to make blanket statements about what's right and what's not because as soon as one component is changed it very well could alter many other choices. Almost no two of us with buses will have the exact same setup (or requirements).

The problem for me is that I have a 200-amp alternator; it's nice in the fact that I have that much but it's bad from the standpoint that it has to be managed with components designed for that amperage. For the moment I've decided on four Lifeline GPL4C AGM 6-volt batteries; they'll be wired series-parrallel to give a 440AH 12-volt bank. The problem is that Lifeline doesn't actually limit the charge rate...for comparison most wet cell batteries can only be charged at 25% of their AH capacity (at 440 AH that means a charge amperage of 110-amps). I've arbitrarily set the limit on the Lifeline AGMs at 75% (the rate that's cited most often by the "experts") so that means they could easily draw 330-amps for charging. And that means my 200-amp alternator would be working under full load for a conceivably long period of time if the batteries were really down. In short...it would fry. Unless you've spent lotsa bucks on a "hot rated" alternator it can't put out its rated amperage on a continuous basis and to compound the problem as it gets hotter its output drops. The built-in automotive-style regulators are just not designed to charge deep-cycle batteries; they only sense voltage and as long as it's below the cut-off point the regulator will send as much power as the alternator will put out. With a large bank of deep cycle batteries you really almost have to have a smart charger that can current-regulate the charge...initially the bulk charge (to about 80%), the the absorption charge (to the mid 90% range) and finally the float charge (often as low as a couple of amps). That's exactly what the Ample Power unit does and it's expensive due to its micro-processor and because it's rated for 200-amps.

The solenoid (and you can find those rated for continuous use for not a lot of money...perhaps $50) will parallel the starting battery bank and the house bank and the house batteries will charge. The problem is that you can draw hard on your alternator and the charge amperage doesn't taper off as the battery voltage comes up. But...it's a lot cheaper than a $500 smart regulator and therein lies the choice. If I used the solenoids I might choose to use much less expensive wet cell batteries and replace them if they get killed off...again, it's all about system balance. I'm using AGM batteries because if you're using the batteries a lot they have a higher payback...they discharge deeper, they charge faster, they don't require maintenance and they don't gas. I wouldn't go that way if my bus were for casual use; the payback (other than if you HATE maintaining batteries) just isn't there.

I should mention here that you can get heavy-plate wet cell batteries that have even more AH then AGMs of the same physical size and will take a deep depth-of-discharge...and for a much lower cost per AH...but they can't be charged quickly (no more than 25% of their capacity) so that means you're running whatever it is you're charging your batteries with 3 to 4 times longer with the wet cells as compared to the AGM batteries and there's a cost to that. As oppossed to buying fuel for the generator to charge my batteries I might be better off spending the $500 for the smart regulator in the long run if I drive a lot; if the rig stays put a lot then maybe fuel for the genset is cheaper. As so it goes...lots of variables and no single answer.

And this comes back to use. I'm building my bus for full-timing use off-the-grid. I have to be able to re-charge the batteries quickly from the main engine, a genset, or solar panels. If I were going to have shorepower quite often I'd never spend the money on the system I'm doing. I'd get some good wet-cell deep cycles sized to stay above 50% depth-of-discharge and install a good multi-stage onboard charger (like a Xantrex TrueCharge 20); that would bring that batteries back up overnight in a very appropriate manner and the system wouldn't be too awfully expensive. Even better with 400 amp-hour or so of battery capacity would be an inverter/charger with 100-amp output or so for charging...that's puts it at the 25% level for wet cells batteries. That setup could keep you going for a couple of days at a time if you're careful.
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