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Old 09-26-2016, 05:07 PM   #1
Mini-Skoolie
 
Join Date: Feb 2015
Posts: 34
Year: 2002
Coachwork: Bluebird FE
Engine: 5.9 Cummins
Question Thinking of a Skoolie conversion as a 5th wheel hauler (toterhome)

Hi Folks,

I've been a lurker on these forums for a couple of years now and want to start by shouting out a big THANKS!!! to everyone who has shared their knowledge and experience here. It has been a wealth of information and good reading!

I am about to start a new Skoolie project and while I **THINK** I have my head on straight about it, I wanted to post the idea here and get some feedback and opinions.

My wife and I are planning to move to Alaska (yep - I know that means we're crazy, but that is the subject of another thread... ).

FWIW, we plan on chronicling the Skoolie build out and the move on a website we will create just for that purpose at:

Welcome to the Crazy In Alaska Website!



We have a 1994 Teton 5th wheel that was built in Wyoming, so it has a massive arctic insulation package (R15 walls, R17 end caps and R25 on the floors and ceiling). It also has storm windows on the inside - which is not that common from what I see. The unit is rated to -30 degrees (and we don't plan on heading to parts of Alaska that get that cold).

We are remodeling it and making it our own (things like new appliances, a residential 24" propane stove with a real oven, etc.). It is going to be very nice when we are done with it and we'll have a fraction of the cost in it that we would pay for one of the newer cheaply made fivers.

Now you might wonder how this relates to Skoolies - I'm getting to that!

My wife is not a camper. So once we move and get settled we will stay in an area for at least a year (to be sure we like it in all four seasons), then we plan on building a shipping container home (yet another thread all in it's own right...).

But the trip from where we are in the South to Alaska is a LONG one (I know as I helped a family member move there a few years ago). As we are moving with our four dogs, I wanted to make the trip easier than it would be in even a gia-normous one ton pickup.

I also wanted to have a bit more space (even though our 5th wheel has three slides and is about 424 sq ft). I write software for a living and need a bit of quiet to get the work done.

I also wanted something that I can take off "camping" (for real) when I go fishing or hunting up there.


After a LOT of thinking and planning about it, I decided that I wanted to purchase a flat nosed, forward engine Skoolie and convert it into a "toterhome" of sorts.

IMHO this would be a lot cheaper than buying any truck capable of pulling my 16,000 lb three axle 5th wheel AND it will be able to serve me in more ways than a truck can (I have a S10 4x4 cre cab truck that we will be taking with us).

It would also make the trip easier on us as the converted Skoolie will be like a motorhome and be a lot better than all that time with two people and four dogs in the cab of a truck.

Finally when we arrive I can use it for my office (and it will double as a guest house) until we decide to build and get settled.


I have looked at various threads on this and other forums and I see that I am apparently not the only person who has been infected with this particular brand of insanity!



I have studied all the conversions I could find and looked at buses until I dream about them and I feel pretty sure that this can be done.

What I plan to do is buy a big bus (14 window).

The first thing on my list (after removing the seats and all the inside panels and insulation) is to move the fuel tank forward of the rear axle and have the exhaust shortened and turned out in front of the rear wheel as well (if this is a bad idea - DO let me know).

I also plan to add an exhaust brake to the Skoolie as there are some pretty steep downgrades on the way up there.

The next item is to then remove the rear end cap. I think I can do that by removing the rivets and also by cutting across the floor a few inches out from the end cap (as I believe it is welded there). I base that from photos in this conversion thread:

Nat_ster's Haul All - Pirate4x4.Com : 4x4 and Off-Road Forum

Then I plan on removing sidewall and roof sections until I am just forward of the rear axles (enough space for my 5th wheel to turn 90 degrees and also maybe for propane tanks and a generator for the bus).

The end cap would be reattached at that point.

The frame would be cut off just behind the rear wheels.

Then I would either re-use the floor from the end cap back to just behind the rear wheels (with new diamond plate decking) and keep/trim out the side walls to make rails for the bed, or just remove it all and put some sort of flat bed deck back there.

Next I plan to mount a 21,000 lb 5th wheel plate so that it is centered about 1.5 inches forward of center on the axles.

My 5th wheel has a pin weight of 2700 lbs and an axle weight of 10,900.

I figure that I am removing so much weight off the Skoolie (between the seats and the metal skin) that even with the conversion of the bus portion, I should have no problems at all hooking it to the Skoolie.

I do plan on removing all the bus windows and am thinking of using the type of laminated aluminum/fiberglass panels that they use on the sides of tractor trailers to close in where they were.

The back door will probably be fixed so that it does not open (or removed all together).

I'll be putting in probably four double pane RV type windows (two per side) and also an emergency egress window in the rear. I would also really like to replace the bus door with a nice solid RV door (or something - open to suggestions there).

Of course everything will be insulated with closed cell spray foam and also probably a 2" slab of foam under the new floor.


That is the short version of what I am planning.


I am currently looking at a 14 window, flat nosed, forward engine Bluebird (that I believe is an A3) from 2002. It has a 6 cylinder Cummins 5.9 and a new Allison transmission. It also has new tires.

This bus has just came out of service this year (it was used all the way up through summer school).

From what I have been reading, that is one of the most important things to look for (and that I should avoid buses that have been sitting for any length of time).

Also while I realize that an 8 cylinder would be nice, we are not going to be in any hurry on the trip up and will not be driving at high speeds. So as long as the 5.9 can get the job done I am fine with it not being an overpowered speed demon.

Like I said, I have been thinking and trying to sort all this out for some time now. I realize that there are other details that will come up when I get started.

However since I have found what I consider to be a good candidate for the bus (assuming it checks out when I go to see it), I wanted to post here today and see if some of you good folks could see some giant hole in the plan that I had missed.

If this is not the right bus for the job (or if I really should be committed to an asylum!), then feel free to let me know.

I freely admit that I am not an expert on Skoolies at all and I welcome all comments (good or bad).

We are not wealthy people and while we can afford to do the conversion and related work, we need to make every dollar count.

Also if there is anything that I should be looking for when I go to inspect this bus, I'd appreciate those tips as well.

I know enough to get under it and look it over closely as you would any used vehicle. I have also driven a tractor-trailer rig before (some years ago), so I have a pretty good idea of how it should feel and drive.

But you folks here - you are the experts in Skoolies, so I highly value your input.

Thanks!

Charles
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Old 09-26-2016, 05:34 PM   #2
Bus Geek
 
Join Date: May 2009
Location: Columbus Ohio
Posts: 3,418
Year: 1991
Coachwork: Carpenter
Chassis: International S3800
Engine: DT360
Rated Cap: 7 Row Handicap
if you are going to tow i would look at a DT-466 and at least an MT-643 transmission, if not something newer that has the over-drive allison 2000...

I Love my AT545 transmissions but i wouldnt want to regularly pull mountains or tow a trailer with it..

-Christopher
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Old 09-26-2016, 06:52 PM   #3
Mini-Skoolie
 
Join Date: Feb 2015
Posts: 34
Year: 2002
Coachwork: Bluebird FE
Engine: 5.9 Cummins
Thanks for the input Christopher.

The Skoolie conversion will really only tow the 5th wheel on the one trip to Alaska.

After that I might use it to tow a boat (I do plan on putting a Class IV or Class V hitch on the back for that), but even then I doubt anything heavy would be towed on any regular basis.

I've been looking for DT-466's and such, but most of the ones I see are either out of my price range or even older (I'd found a couple of 2000 models). None of the ones I saw were from recent service, so that made me paranoid about them.

Do you think the AT545 (especially as this one has been replaced recently) is going to be an issue for me under the circumstances I described?

Thanks!

Charles
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Old 09-26-2016, 06:59 PM   #4
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Join Date: May 2016
Location: Georgia
Posts: 462
Year: 1987
Coachwork: Carpenter
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Engine: IH 9 Liter
Rated Cap: 66 + driver
Quote:
Originally Posted by CE42 View Post
The first thing on my list (after removing the seats and all the inside panels and insulation) is to move the fuel tank forward of the rear axle and have the exhaust shortened and turned out in front of the rear wheel as well (if this is a bad idea - DO let me know).
You'll probably find the fuel tank already placed toward the front of the bus, especially on a front engine bus.

Quote:
Originally Posted by CE42 View Post
I also plan to add an exhaust brake to the Skoolie as there are some pretty steep downgrades on the way up there.
Either an engine brake or retarder, either one will achieve the end result you desire.

Quote:
Originally Posted by CE42 View Post
The next item is to then remove the rear end cap. I think I can do that by removing the rivets and also by cutting across the floor a few inches out from the end cap (as I believe it is welded there). I base that from photos in this conversion thread:

Then I plan on removing sidewall and roof sections until I am just forward of the rear axles (enough space for my 5th wheel to turn 90 degrees and also maybe for propane tanks and a generator for the bus).

The end cap would be reattached at that point.

The frame would be cut off just behind the rear wheels.

Then I would either re-use the floor from the end cap back to just behind the rear wheels (with new diamond plate decking) and keep/trim out the side walls to make rails for the bed, or just remove it all and put some sort of flat bed deck back there.

Next I plan to mount a 21,000 lb 5th wheel plate so that it is centered about 1.5 inches forward of center on the axles.

My 5th wheel has a pin weight of 2700 lbs and an axle weight of 10,900.

I figure that I am removing so much weight off the Skoolie (between the seats and the metal skin) that even with the conversion of the bus portion, I should have no problems at all hooking it to the Skoolie.
It might be to your advantage to find a bus with minimal rear overhang to begin with; it will leave you more body length to use after cutting to length.

Quote:
Originally Posted by CE42 View Post
I do plan on removing all the bus windows and am thinking of using the type of laminated aluminum/fiberglass panels that they use on the sides of tractor trailers to close in where they were.

The back door will probably be fixed so that it does not open (or removed all together).

I'll be putting in probably four double pane RV type windows (two per side) and also an emergency egress window in the rear. I would also really like to replace the bus door with a nice solid RV door (or something - open to suggestions there).

Of course everything will be insulated with closed cell spray foam and also probably a 2" slab of foam under the new floor.
So far, so good.

Quote:
Originally Posted by CE42 View Post
I am currently looking at a 14 window, flat nosed, forward engine Bluebird (that I believe is an A3) from 2002. It has a 6 cylinder Cummins 5.9 and a new Allison transmission. It also has new tires.

This bus has just came out of service this year (it was used all the way up through summer school).

From what I have been reading, that is one of the most important things to look for (and that I should avoid buses that have been sitting for any length of time).

Also while I realize that an 8 cylinder would be nice, we are not going to be in any hurry on the trip up and will not be driving at high speeds. So as long as the 5.9 can get the job done I am fine with it not being an overpowered speed demon.
For your purposes, I think the 5.9 is going to be woefully underpowered, even on flat ground. The 5.9 is barely adequate in the hills *without* a trailer. Consider a DT466 or 8.3 Cummins.

Quote:
Originally Posted by CE42 View Post
Like I said, I have been thinking and trying to sort all this out for some time now. I realize that there are other details that will come up when I get started.

However since I have found what I consider to be a good candidate for the bus (assuming it checks out when I go to see it), I wanted to post here today and see if some of you good folks could see some giant hole in the plan that I had missed.

We are not wealthy people and while we can afford to do the conversion and related work, we need to make every dollar count.

Also if there is anything that I should be looking for when I go to inspect this bus, I'd appreciate those tips as well.

I know enough to get under it and look it over closely as you would any used vehicle. I have also driven a tractor-trailer rig before (some years ago), so I have a pretty good idea of how it should feel and drive.

Charles
This 5.9 bus might be a good candidate for someone, but not for lugging a 13,000 pound, triple-axle trailer up the mountains into Alaska. Even a DT466 or 8.3 Cummins will have its work cut out for it. The AT545 transmissions are OK for school routes, but not the best for your intended use. Look for a better transmission.

Since you are a former trucker (and I am currently) you should have a pretty good idea what to check - lights, tires, brakes (and you might prefer air brakes), engine and transmission fluids, etc. Probably the next most important thing to check for is rust.

I might have missed some of the finer details, but I think this should get you started.
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Old 09-26-2016, 07:09 PM   #5
Bus Nut
 
Join Date: May 2016
Location: Georgia
Posts: 462
Year: 1987
Coachwork: Carpenter
Chassis: IH
Engine: IH 9 Liter
Rated Cap: 66 + driver
Quote:
Originally Posted by CE42 View Post
Thanks for the input Christopher.

The Skoolie conversion will really only tow the 5th wheel on the one trip to Alaska.

After that I might use it to tow a boat (I do plan on putting a Class IV or Class V hitch on the back for that), but even then I doubt anything heavy would be towed on any regular basis.

I've been looking for DT-466's and such, but most of the ones I see are either out of my price range or even older (I'd found a couple of 2000 models). None of the ones I saw were from recent service, so that made me paranoid about them.

Do you think the AT545 (especially as this one has been replaced recently) is going to be an issue for me under the circumstances I described?

Thanks!

Charles
Considering my bus had been parked for a couple-few years before I bought it ... it was owned by some church and was acquired by a mechanic shop and driven 100+ miles there with no major issues. It was given a (mostly) clean bill of health before I bought it, and the things it needed were minor - new exterior lights, replace oil pressure sensor, wiper blades, little stuff like that.

The fact one had not been in service recently would not bother me nearly as much as one that had been abused, neglected, and cannibalized for parts. Sometimes the "spare bus" which spent the last 3 years parked on standby service was that one bus that proved so reliable that the district kept it around "just in case". As often as not, it was checked and maintained so that it was ready to go on a moment's notice.
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Old 09-26-2016, 07:21 PM   #6
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Location: North carolina
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Year: 1986
Coachwork: Thomas
Chassis: Ford
Engine: Detroit 8.2
Rated Cap: 60 bodies
I have an 8.2 Detroit with a 545 and while I am still debating rear gear changes in my bus I can say after a lot of research that a true 545 does not have an overdrive so after you hit 4-th gear? That is all you have. The biggest killer is running the 545 over its temp rating which for some reason I can't remember and don't have in front of me.
I love my bus
I bought it with a good power train for running a school bus route.
Now I am dreaming about re-gearing it to get above 49-mph?
I can pull tree stumps and go anywhere I want and TOW anything just not more than 49. I know others have mentioned better motors, trannies, but I can say within that combination you also need to look at the rear end gearing. For meThe 5 range will still give you some pull and the 4 range will give me highway speed but almost nothing uphill and that's without towing?
Hope this helps
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Old 09-26-2016, 08:28 PM   #7
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Location: Chapel Hill, NC
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CE42 View Post

<snip>

Do you think the AT545 (especially as this one has been replaced recently) is going to be an issue for me under the circumstances I described?

Yes.

The Allison AT545 does not have a lock-up torque converter. Putting a heavy load on these transmissions generates a lot of heat, resulting in a short lifespan.
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Old 09-27-2016, 07:30 AM   #8
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Join Date: May 2009
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Engine: DT360
Rated Cap: 7 Row Handicap
theres a couple forum members that have run 545's over the rockies without issue, I have run mine over the smokies, appalachains, adirondacks, etc.. but the highest elevation i hit issomething like 3400 feet withe the largest downhill grade being 7%..

if I let the speed go over 50, I couldnt downshift my 545 into D3, it would go into freewheel instead of downshift...

if I first braked hard down to 50 then downshifted it, i had great pull-down in 3rd gear with it....

going up hill the non-locked converter resulted in me usually pulling against the stall speed of the converter at fairly low speeds.. Ive done a lot of studying in the last few months on the converters in these.. the design is that when your foot is to the floor they let the engine rev a bit... its by design.. and yes will generate heat...

the AT545 is a work-horse and if taken care of they can and do last the full-life of the bus with nothing more than normal maintenance.. they are also everywhere for cheap.. many people will give them away to you if you blow one up...

if I were going to run my bus over the rockies alot id likely have opted for a different trans as mentioned.. if you are going to tow with your bus, id invest in an external cooler on any transmission you choose.. if the trailer is a one time thing and you are transporting it in cold weather, then id invest in a trans temp gauge (many busses have this factory installed).. and then take it easy when it syarts to get warm...

also i should note that all of my experience with AT545s has been in smaller busses.. my carpenter 7 row is heavier than many with aGVWR of 27,500 but i know my previous bluebird was rated well under 26k and this new one I got is i believe 17,500 or something like that... so my good experiences with it havent been of trying to use it for heavy heavy work.. and its been a fine tranny for me..
-Christopher
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Old 09-27-2016, 09:23 AM   #9
Mini-Skoolie
 
Join Date: Feb 2015
Posts: 34
Year: 2002
Coachwork: Bluebird FE
Engine: 5.9 Cummins
Quote:
Originally Posted by Brad_SwiftFur View Post
You'll probably find the fuel tank already placed toward the front of the bus, especially on a front engine bus.



Either an engine brake or retarder, either one will achieve the end result you desire.



It might be to your advantage to find a bus with minimal rear overhang to begin with; it will leave you more body length to use after cutting to length.



So far, so good.



For your purposes, I think the 5.9 is going to be woefully underpowered, even on flat ground. The 5.9 is barely adequate in the hills *without* a trailer. Consider a DT466 or 8.3 Cummins.



This 5.9 bus might be a good candidate for someone, but not for lugging a 13,000 pound, triple-axle trailer up the mountains into Alaska. Even a DT466 or 8.3 Cummins will have its work cut out for it. The AT545 transmissions are OK for school routes, but not the best for your intended use. Look for a better transmission.

Since you are a former trucker (and I am currently) you should have a pretty good idea what to check - lights, tires, brakes (and you might prefer air brakes), engine and transmission fluids, etc. Probably the next most important thing to check for is rust.

I might have missed some of the finer details, but I think this should get you started.
Thanks Brad!

As for the fuel tank location, so far the only front engine buses I have seen that had it forward of the rear axle were not flat nosed. But I would love to get one in that configuration.

I see some good prices out there on the typical long nosed buses, but I had hoped to find a flat nosed one since I have to watch the overall length of the converted bus / 37' 5th wheel and I do want to keep as much usable space inside as possible.

Based on responses so far I am glad I decided to post the thread here. I would have hated to have bought a 5.9 and ran into problems of not enough power. I was sort of on the fence about that one (knowing that I am not planning on dragging anything heavy other than the one trip), but now I'll focus on finding a bigger engine and better transmission.

Thanks for the other input and advice as well!

Charles
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Old 09-27-2016, 09:27 AM   #10
Mini-Skoolie
 
Join Date: Feb 2015
Posts: 34
Year: 2002
Coachwork: Bluebird FE
Engine: 5.9 Cummins
Quote:
Originally Posted by Brad_SwiftFur View Post
Considering my bus had been parked for a couple-few years before I bought it ... it was owned by some church and was acquired by a mechanic shop and driven 100+ miles there with no major issues. It was given a (mostly) clean bill of health before I bought it, and the things it needed were minor - new exterior lights, replace oil pressure sensor, wiper blades, little stuff like that.

The fact one had not been in service recently would not bother me nearly as much as one that had been abused, neglected, and cannibalized for parts. Sometimes the "spare bus" which spent the last 3 years parked on standby service was that one bus that proved so reliable that the district kept it around "just in case". As often as not, it was checked and maintained so that it was ready to go on a moment's notice.

I've been keeping an eye out for church buses too as I figure that they are using it at least semi-regularly and should be doing a reasonable job of keeping it up.

Any thoughts as to how old of a bus (at a maximum) I should look for?

I see some fairly decent prices on older (90's) long nosed skoolies and most of them seem to have the DT-466 in them.
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