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Old 04-22-2012, 02:24 AM   #1
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Conversion planning phase

Hello all!

My name is Jon, and my wife's name is Amber. We're both 34, we've been married for 12 years, and we have 3 kids; 2 boys and a girl, ages 12, 8, and 5, respectively. I started back in school after losing my retail management job in 2009, and I'm going to be getting my BA in Interdisciplinary Studies next spring. Amber attended school for graphic design before we met, and she's always been the creative one. She's primarily a stay at home mom, but makes extra money reselling furniture. We live in Greenville, South Carolina.

After a bit of research my wife and I have decided to take our family of 5 on the road. Primarily due to our disdain at the current system, our goal is to become an example of sustainability while allowing us the freedom to see this half of the world. We have a basic 4 stage plan and are currently working on step 1.

My 4 steps plan is:
1) Buy a compact, 5-seat, all-mechanical diesel car, i.e. an older VW Jetta.
2) Set up WVO collection and biodiesel processing rig and start making fuel for next to free.
3) Buy a Class D front-engine 15 row school bus and convert it to an Eco-friendly self-contained motor home.
4) Buy land in my local county for permanent address and possible homesteading.

I've found a car that's about 4 hours away and am currently waiting on pictures to make the final decision.

I've got the basics on making biodiesel down. I plan to use ethanol rather than methanol so as to reduce the toxicity of the wastes. Amber is interested in making soaps and such from the glycerine. I've found a couple of tank places, but could use help with piping and pumping systems, as well as sucker designs.

As for the bus, I plan to use biodiesel for fuel and for the generator. I'm going to want to put in a high-watt solar system with an extra-sized battery bay. I'm going to be using a rainwater collection combined with a freshwater pump and ability to use hookups into a 200 gallon tank (I have size questions, family of 5 and all). I have a possible design for a composting toilet tank, using a water flush and possible greywater overflow that I will get into when its time comes. I actually have lots of conversion questions that will wait. I did have a few questions about this that I can't wait on:
Has anyone built a conversion with the salon in the rear? I was thinking of a 24"-36" roof raise in the front to accommodate a king-sized loft bed above the driver, then sloping down to a 12"-18" rear for roof mounted equipment. Then bathroom, then bunkroom, then galley with the salon in the rear.
What's the deal with internet? I see in-motion sets, and the MotoSat systems, but it looks like the rates are just out of control. I know I read a bunch a while back about folks in foreign countries being able to get tv and net for free, legally even, with the right equipment. I'm planning on going all over this hemisphere, what am I going to be looking at for communications.
I am very interested in getting involved with organizations who want to educate people on sustainability and international community. Any assistance in this would be much appreciated.

Lastly, I just want to say that I'm glad to have found this forum and have already found a wealth of information that has helped me in making these decisions. I look forward to you assistance and input as this project progresses.
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Old 04-24-2012, 10:04 AM   #2
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Re: Conversion planning phase

if i had kids, i would buy a 40' bus, as they are going to need all the space they can get if you are on the road.
Jesus Christ... Conversion in progress.
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Old 04-24-2012, 11:51 AM   #3
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Re: Conversion planning phase

We used to live in the Golden Corner of SC (Seneca/Clemson/Westminster). If you are going to homeschool your kids and use SC as your domicile, you need to be legal in SC for homeschooling. If you have never homeschooled before try to get into the homeschool thing (week long classes for the parent who will be teaching) they have in June at Bob Jones University. IF they still have it. I did not homeschool thru Bob Jones but it was a great experience and well worth the money. I ended up using an umbrella school to stay legal in TN. But the classes were very helpful in giving information on homeschooling thru high school (which we did). We lived in campgrounds for 1 1/2 years while homeschooling (Chattanooga area). You will have to be at a testing area as needed (usually 3rd, 6th, 9th, 10th, 11th & 12th grades) which is where having an umbrella school is a huge help. We used Family Christian Academy out of Nashville. We would go back to Chattanooga for testing (stayed in Chester Frost Campground in Hixson). I homeschooled my kids from 4th thru 12th. We unnschooled mostly.

We had two girls and had a 40 ft Eagle bus that we were going to put bunks in (in front of the rear bedroom). It was tight, but we did manage to fit it all in on paper. That never happened and we ended up buying a house in TN. I would suggest you either get a 40 footer (roughly 32 ft floor space) or get the shorter bus and buy a trailer for the kids to use as bedrooms, playroom and second bathroom (might want to invest in a wireless intercom system). Will give you privacy as well. Watch your overall height on the bus if you do a roof raise. You don't want to leave part of it at an overhead bridge or trestle. If traveling, you are going to run into length problems.

You need to stay at or under 65 ft overall. Past that and you run into major problems with length (both over length laws and park sites). With a separate trailer for the kids, you may be able to set the bus on one site and the trailer on a neighboring site. We are really pushing it with the 40 ft bus, 10 ft Overall cart AND the Jeep (Grand Cherokee). Luckily we have been able to fit on sites but barely.

I don't know that much about making biodiesel but the rigs we looked into were rather large (the size of a fair sized moonshine still) and we would have needed a trailer to haul it around. Then we looked into the WVO setup. But after learning how hard it was to get waste oil in our area (SW NC) we started thinking about trying to find WVO on the road. Decided that it was not feasible. And jet fuel for making biodiesel was not FREE. I would suggest you really look into making biodiesel while on the road as opposed to making in while in one location. You will end up spending any $$ you save from the bio diesel on your extra site that you will need to rent.

We use the parks free wi-fi. I used to log onto the internet using my cell phone. That has gotten cost prohibitive. I simply can't afford 6K for satellite internet equipment and still pay for a $60 monthly plan. I haven't hit the lottery yet. We do not boondock much (just overnight in parking lots) and have found free wifi everywhere we have been (with the help of an external antenna). While in TX, we stayed at a mobile home park and we had to provide our own internet and cable TV.

Free-to-air this is the outfit we used to use back when we had a 8ft C band dish. At that time we got a lot of the free-to-air stuff and slowly ended up with more and more as channels went digital (at which point we could no longer watch the digital channels without a decoder). What foreign languages to you speak? You can always watch Al Jazeera, they broadcast in English. Lots of Arabic and Japanese channels with some Russian and Polish channels. Most of the Free-to-air channels are broadcasting a few hours a day or you get clear sound with a scrambled channel. After talking with Skyvision about what we wanted to do (I liked my C-Band and this was before Dish got RV friendly), I was told I need the largest KU dish they made to reliably pick up the sat signals. That was more dish than we wanted to haul around. And more dish than what a campground would want us to have. The Free-to-Air programming is NOT what you think it is.

Check out Escapees Discussion forum. They have an Internet On The Road forum and you can probably get all your satellite questions answered there.
This post is my opinion. It is not intended to influence anyone's judgment nor do I advocate anyone do what I propose.
Fulltime since 2006
The goal of life is living in agreement with nature. Zeno (335BC-264BC)
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Old 04-24-2012, 12:46 PM   #4
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Re: Conversion planning phase

First let me say, John and Lorna, your well thought out response to these new folks is just what I had hoped for among Skoolies! Kudus to you both.

I'm too new to this forum to be able to give much advice but I would suggest that if you are'nt a mechanic that you enroll in say a junior college basic auto repair class and/or offer some time to a repair shop for free in exchange for some lessons in mechanics. The time will come when your bus will let you down and having some basic skills in auto mechanics could save you from being totally stranded. Of course you may allready have those skills and I may be preaching to the quior. Good luck with your build and I'll look foreward to hearing more as time goes on. Jack
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Old 04-27-2012, 10:38 AM   #5
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Re: Conversion planning phase

Wow.... this took forever to be approved.

Thanks everyone for the warm welcome and good advice!

Lorna, SC is now doing online classes for all grades, I think, and my 12 year old is going to be taking them next year, regardless of bus life. We plan to keep the younger 2 in physical school for at least the next year or 2 (the youngest starts next year and is excited to go). The initial plan is to boondock, or homestead, or rent a local lot monthly (there's several in the area) while living in the bus and traveling on weekends and holidays and all summer. Our middle child is not at all interested in school, but he's been getting reading and speech assistance and it has been helping (terrible case of middle-child syndrome, our fault, working on it). Personally, I'm not much for public school, as I see them as indoctrination farms, but I'll not go into my social and political views. We are very interested in unschooling as well.

Thanks for the length info, I've been needing that. We should be good; planning on a 40' bus and a 15' trailer (max) for the car and biodiesel processing. As far as the biodiesel goes, I am planning on being completely mobile. The car (likely a VW Jetta) will have a 100 gallon (give or take) vacuum tank for WVO collection. The processor will be set up in the front of the trailer (not enclosed) with storage for lye and ethanol. Ethanol is much cheaper and less toxic than methanol for processing; jet fuel is for mixing directly with oil to make a fuel, which is not what I'll be doing. I'm planning on making enough at once to fill all my gas tanks (I'll likely put a larger or second fuel tank on the bus), and have very little extra to store. I'm aware of the problems with finding a steady supply for WVO, that's why I'm planning on small as-needed batches. I spent almost 14 years in retail sales, so I'm not worried about asking some small business owners for their oil. Like I said, we're planning to re-use the glycerine, and I'll dump any waste water from cleaning back into my grey tank, which I plan to devise an evaporation system for so it doesn't need to be dumped. The plan is to be as "off-grid" as possible.

As far as net goes, I'm wanting to not have to go to parks more than completely necessary, and yes, phone tethering is limited and expensive. I had heard of free-to-air tv, I was wondering if net had anything similar. But honestly, I think there's a good chance we'll start seeing free wi-fi everywhere in about 5 years. The tech community is getting sick of the threat of government intervention, and they've been working on some wild stuff. Like servers in flying drones, and wi-fi swarms; '"clouds" of automated flying drones delivering free net. Wild stuff. But realistically, I was interested in in-motion satellite broadband, and I'm just not finding anything useful; there's lots of contradictory info. I'm not really interested in TV, most everything can be found on the web. I'll definitely check out Escapees; I've been there, but I started here because this is school-bus specific.

John, that's exactly my plan. Would you recommend a pusher over an FE because of under-carriage space? I'm really set on a back door! Have you looked at the new shingle-roll type solar panels? They are supposed to get better absorption at angles. However, I found a good deal of info that says RVs need panels that have a higher operating temp because they get hotter on the top of an RV than in a standard placement. But I also saw some guys using those roll-type on a bus conversion somewhere. Again, conflicting info.

As for layout, here's the big question: Why not build the salon in the rear? I've included a rough drawing of my concept. What I plan is putting a 2'-3' roof raise in the front 7', with a loft over the driver, and an enclosed "cockpit" below with a captain's and navigator seat; the remaining roof would get a 12"-18" raise, so as to leave clearance for roof-mounted equipment. Then a small master storage/dressing area, followed by the bathroom and then a bunk and desk area. Then the galley, with the salon in the rear. On John's mentioning of the tanks, I'm thinking I will need to put the galley and the bathroom together, and move the bunk area towards the front. Again, my question is: why not a "reverse" layout? And I am aware of height restriction due to bridges; honestly I plan to detour anything under 13'6"; I will attempt to stay at least 6" below that.

I am also strongly considering making this an educational project and setting up a nonprofit organization around it. Is anyone familiar with Reverend Billy Talen and The Church of Stop Shopping? I'm thinking of "evangelizing" for sustainability, environment, politics, etc. Make a whole "road show" out of it and go to schools and other community events and functions around the western hemisphere and maybe even the world. To answer another question, Lorna, I speak a bit of French and Spanish, and think that I would pick them up quickly if immersed. Portuguese is the only language spoken in this half of the world that I don't have some familiarity with; besides of course the many native dialects. But I'm interested to learn. I'm actually thinking the PhD program I'm looking to enter at Clemson may be interested in this idea, but my grades kinda suck!

Well, thanks again for the warm welcome and helpful input, I look forward to more!
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Old 04-28-2012, 04:11 PM   #6
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Re: Conversion planning phase

Test: Are all my posts needing approval before they appear?

I posted something very long, and it was before this post. Are there a lot of spam problems on this board? The week wait between posting and approval is dragging me.

But I can edit instantly? Strange. I'll give it a day to see if the on-topic post appears. If not, I'll rewrite it. Not pleased about it.
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Old 05-01-2012, 10:48 AM   #7
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Re: Conversion planning phase

no, i thimk just your first few in case uraspammer.
Jesus Christ... Conversion in progress.
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Old 05-01-2012, 10:52 AM   #8
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Re: Conversion planning phase

I wouldn't mind at all if it wasn't taking a week for each approval. I understand moderators are busy, perhaps they should add more. This is probably going to need approval.

Happily not. But now I'm going to have to rewrite a very long post again in response to this thread. I'll be back for it.
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Old 05-01-2012, 11:22 AM   #9
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Re: Conversion planning phase

So do I understand correctly that you are going to be running on biodiesel which you produce yourself... and you are going to be "on the road"? So you are planning to make biodiesel on the road?? I would think that would be very impractical. Perhaps it is possible, but extremely difficult and would take up a lot of space, and I think it would be risky to carry around those toxic reactants (ethanol & Lye) especially with small kids around, and then there is the risk of fire, etc. Now, if you were to convert to run on straight WVO, even that would be difficult to process on the road, but a little more practical than processing biodiesel. Also bear in mind that while you can run most WVO straight, you can really only use low-titrating WVO to make biodiesel, and that will be harder to find, especially on the road. Restaurants are not as eager to give you their WVO as some of these articles would have you believe - they are often getting paid for their waste oil, so why would they give it away to you? Lastly, the one variable that I personally haven't figured out in terms of processing either WVO or biodiesel on the road is how to get the water out of it. At home I use gravity settling, but that won't work on the road unless you are stationary for a few weeks at a time. A centrifuge would work but is cost-prohibitive (for me, anyway), and using heat to evaporate the water is time-consuming and energy-intensive. If you have a good solution to this dilemma please share! So anyway, I don't mean to be all negative, but just wanted to give you a reality check in case you haven't thought of all these variables.
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Old 05-01-2012, 01:11 PM   #10
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Re: Conversion planning phase

Let me start by saying thanks for all the great info and suggestions!

Yes, I plan on buying a 40' bus.

your set-up is very much like what I plan to do. Do you recommend a pusher over a FE due to undercarriage space? I've seen some FE conversions where they put lots of storage and such underneath in the rear, and I'm really set on a back door. How much have you looked into solar? I've read that you need higher operating temps if you want to use them on an RV, but I'm not 100% sure on the validity. I've also read really good things about the new "shingle roll" type panels; better efficiency, better absorption at lower angles, etc.

As far as homeschooling goes, our oldest is going to be starting online classes this fall, the middle is staying in public, and the little one starts this year. We plan to stick in the Greenville area during school times unless we decide to homeschool or unschool them; we're very interested in these things and have been in contact with the schools to help plan. Thanks for the legnth info, I really need that. Cell phone net is not very cost effective at all, this is true. I'm not too much worried about tv as I am internet connectivity. I'll have the whole bus set up with wi-fi and I'm planning an in-dash computer system for monitoring and gps and such; it would be nice to have an unlimited high-speed connection, but there's a lot of various ways to connect. I'm even looking into amateur radio and satellite; I want to be able to have full communications capability anywhere I go. i have joined Escapees and will be getting active on their forum as well, thanks!

Dan, Lorna, and biodiesel:
Yes, the plan it to run off of biodiesel that I produce myself. I plan to do it ad hoc while on the road. Ad hoc is not exactly correct; trips will be planned with staying in spots and refueling included. My plans include pulling a car on a 10-15 foot trailer which will also have the biodiesel processor set up in the front half to process around 100 gallons at a time. I understand ethanol is flammable, and that lye can be dangerous without protection, and these will have storage areas in the processor area. The processor rig, which I'm seeing they have about a 6'x4'x4' footprint, will be mounted to the trailer in the front, and will be enclosed, but with a removable structure for access. This will allow for safe and secure storage when traveling or not in use. I'm seeing that I can fully process 100 gallons in about 4 days, including wash, with a "fuelmaster" style 2 tank setup. I will be running solar with a diesel generator backup that will also run biodiesel. I spent 14+ years in retail sales, so I have no qualms running around asking people for WVO. I'm not 100% sure on the set-up, but I have seen centrifuge and heating pumps that aren't too expensive; I'm going do to Clemson to see their bio-diesel process and speak with more knowledgeable folks about it after May 11th. As far as the byproducts, we're planning to use the glycerine for soap and dumping whatever can't be recycled into the grey tank (the reason for using ethanol rather than methanol), which I want to design an evaporation system for so I never actually have to empty it. And of course, I plan to buy a diesel car and start processing before finalizing the plan to do so in a mobile fashion.

On the thoughts of layout and construction:
To start, I am fully aware of the advantages and disadvantages of a roof raise, and while I plan to stay well below the legal 13'6", I know many overpasses are under that, so I'm planning on plenty of detours! I have included a rough sketch of my plan, and I can tell it already needs revision. Based on John's comments about tanks and toilets, I'm seeing I'm going to need to put the galley and bathroom next to each other. What I'm planning is a high-front roof and a lower rear area; like I said, 2'-3' in the front, and 18"-24" in the rear. What I want to do is set the front up like a "cockpit" and put the master bed in a loft overhead of it. Then use a reverse design and put a the salon in the rear. My question becomes one of feasibility. I have never seen an RV with the salon in the rear. Is there a physical reason for this?

Thanks again for all this very helpful input!
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