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Old 06-08-2017, 12:16 AM   #1
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Single Mom ready to find a shortie!

Hi! I'm a long time lurker, finally taking the plunge and looking for a shortie to house my little family (myself, my 2 year old, and 2 old dogs) and I'm getting confused by all of the conflicting opinions on motors/transmissions. I'd like a 6-8 window bus with the highest interior I can find (don't want to do a roof raise), and I have a very limited budget, so I'll probably be going with an older model.

What are the biggest red flags to look out for? Are low miles on an older bus a bad thing (meaning, how often should it have been run ... I'm not well versed on diesel engines yet). How much rust is a deal breaker? Any other tips you wish you knew about before you started?

I'm very excited and nervous to get started. Thanks in advance for any advice!
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Old 06-08-2017, 12:27 AM   #2
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Welcome,
I've been active on the site for some time now but I'm still a noob.
Are you looking to make a tiny house out of it, going on a trip, or just a weekend camper?
You mentioned that you have a limited budget, so I would suggest that you run through your possible build and take into consideration all expenses before any purchase.
Take the time to read and ask questions.
Others will give better input.
Good luck,
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Old 06-08-2017, 12:57 AM   #3
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I'll be making a tiny house out of it. We're currently in a travel trailer with a small slide out, but I'd like to be more mobile. Originally I was thinking about going with a full sized bus, but the more I thought about it, with the improved gas mileage, maneuverability, and cost (not just for the bus, but for the whole conversion), a shorter bus makes way more sense. I'll be working on it as I make money for it. I have very tentative plans for how to go about the actual build; at this point I'm mostly worried about the engine since I'll have to sell or trade my car to afford it, and will be building it up in stages. One of my favorite builds is Fern the Bus (they have a great Instagram account). Eventually I would like to have solar, but it'll take a while for me to be able to afford it.
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Old 06-08-2017, 01:09 AM   #4
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Welcome !

Fern does look like a great size for your crew.

Tell us what part of the country you are in, what your budget is (Lol), what your timeframe is and what your skillsets are. Will you be very mobile, in the mountains, or parked a lot in the plains?

Don't worry about an engine you don't own yet ! Read and ask about any particular configuration bus you are looking at and you will get opinions.
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Old 06-08-2017, 01:37 AM   #5
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The biggest red flags are rust. It is called cancer for a reason. Surface rust that can be brushed off is okay. Rust that is scaling, pitting, or bubbling is NOT okay.

Most school buses over the life of the bus will travel about 10K miles per year. When newer they go further every year (most schools like to rack up as many miles as possible while still under warranty). As they get older they get put on routes that are not as long. So it all averages out. A fifteen year old bus with 150K miles give or take 20K miles is going to be about average. If it is substantially lower in miles check the hour meter to see if perhaps the odometer was changed at some point. If it is substantially more, check the hour meter again. A high mileage bus with relatively low hours is probably a better choice than a lower mileage bus with 2x the hours on the engine.

Most school buses if you divide the miles into the engine hours you will discover most traveled over the life of the bus at less than 20 MPH. Which really means it spent a lot of time at idle. Which is normal up to a point.

As you look at buses try to find one that has the 12" windows rather than the 9" windows. The larger windows mean it has the higher ceilings. 3" is a lot of space for insulation in either the floor or ceiling or both.

Since you sound as if you are not all that mechanically inclined you want to spend your $$$ up front for the best bus mechanically you can find. Repairs, even on the smaller buses, can become expensive very quickly. $3K for a transmission is a bargain.

You can save a LOT of $$$ if you learn some of the basics so you can do the work yourself. Your local community college most likely has evening classes for people like you who want to learn to how to DIY for all sorts of things like diesel mechanics, body and paint work, welding, plumbing, and carpentry.

In regards to engines and transmissions, newer buses with the Allison 1000/2000/3000 series of transmissions are more desirable because they all have lock up torque convertors and OD in the top gear(s).

Most older buses that are smaller will most likely have the smaller engines and transmissions. Specifically the 6.9/7.3L/T444(E) engine or the Cummins 5.9L/ISB in HP ratings of 160-210 HP hooked to an Allison AT540 series transmission. As a package in a smaller bus those engines and transmissions are extremely economical and trouble free. Most of the issues with the AT540 transmission come into play when you max out the weight in a full size bus with a low HP engine. Which if you are getting a 6-8 window bus you will not come close to the weight a full size bus would be if it were a 14-row bus.

Don't fall in love with any one particular bus. Trust me when I say that if that "perfect" bus slips through your fingers a better bus at a more attractive price will pop up fairly quickly.

Good luck and happy trails to you.
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Old 06-08-2017, 01:57 AM   #6
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Right now I'm in Austin, but when I find a bus I will probably be headed towards Richmond for a while to be closer to my mom while I complete the build. After that, I have family all over the east coast, and LOVE the mountains out west, so I plan to be very mobile. I used to live in Wyoming and Colorado, and miss it terribly. I've discovered I'm the opposite of most people, in that winter is my favorite season, and as much as I try, I really don't like the heat. I can handle negative windchill just fine, but as soon as the mercury creeps above 80 degrees I feel like a vampire getting murdered by sunlight

I don't have a timeline simply because I don't have the money to. However, I'll probably be moving in as soon as I get the bare minimum done. I'm very handy, good with power tools, flooring, and plumbing, and decent with older gas engines. Diesel is new to me and I've read so many horror stories about every variety of engine and transmission out there that I have no idea which direction to go. The run-down on the differences was extremely helpful, thanks for that!!

I'm also pretty nervous about hooking up propane and electricity, but I'm taking it one step at a time. I'll be doing the work myself, with help from a few friends, mostly when welding is involved (paid in beer). I have a teeny tiny bit saved, but I'm trying to limit the budget for the actual bus to what my car is worth, either by selling it or trading it. Probably around 3k. I'd almost prefer a straight trade so I don't have to worry about the short period of being car-less, but I realize that's unlikely.
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Old 06-08-2017, 07:41 AM   #7
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If you know older gas engines, maybe you should stick with what you know rather than learning about diesels. I personally do not like diesels or the expensive repairs involved with them. Probably going to get flamed alittle for that statement... lol
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Old 06-08-2017, 11:51 AM   #8
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Hey, we don't flame anybody for their choices. We do like to try to get inside your head to understand why you make certain choices.

For those of us that have worked as diesel mechanics, obviously diesel engines are the way to go. Honestly diesel engines are easier to maintain than gas engines most of the time. There's a certain element of bus buying that resembles buying a used car. You can get a bad bus, but everyone here will try not to let that happen. Even with minor mechanical skills you can learn to work on diesel engines easily. They're simpler than gas engines, or they used to be anyway.

If you're looking for a mid to late '90s bus, it's likely going to be diesel. There are modern van/bus vehicles that run on gas. Choices, choices. Get what you're comfortable with working on, but consider how you'll use your bus in the future.
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Old 06-08-2017, 01:23 PM   #9
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Just throwing it out there.
I've seen older buses with gas engines go for $500.
If you don't plan to drive much and know about gas engines, you can find a bus for very cheap.


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Old 06-08-2017, 01:58 PM   #10
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Yeah, and I can also find a $300 car but I'd expect to have to work on it a lot and I still wouldn't want to drive it very far.
Actually I started out buying shorties for sometimes $400, and they ran. There are very good shortie gassers out there, and if someone is tired of seeing that bus sitting in their yard they are often cheap and sometimes free.
Personally I didn't want to be working on this bus while I'm on a trip. I've spent the majority of my time fixing up the living conditions of this bus, and because of the late '90s year of this bus it is in decent mechanical condition which doesn't require a lot of attention.
I think it is much better to buy a bus from the bus barn that has recently been decomissioned. The maintenance has been kept up and they're used to being driven, unlike the back yard buses that have sat for a few years and have things growing in them.
It's all about choices. Do choose what you're comfortable with. Don't buy the cheapest bus you can find. If you're going to do a lot of work to make a bus livable start with a solid platform, regardless if it's gas or diesel. The bus barns are selling good buses for $2,500 to $3,500, and sometimes lower. You'd pay that much for a used car in order to get a dependable vehicle so expect to pay at least that much for a bus that originally cost near $100,000.
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Old 06-08-2017, 05:50 PM   #11
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Thanks for all the advice so far! I'm pursuing a few leads, and hopefully one of them will work out. I have a bunch of questions while I'm in the planning stages, and would love any/all opinions! I over-plan everything.

Like I said, I LOVE the Fern the Bus build on Instagram (they're also on Facebook). I'm planning on doing something very similar, but with a bathroom. They have what looks like a floating deck on their roof. What is the best way to secure it (I'm concerned about leaks)? They also have hammock poles that look to be welded on to the window frames. Is that a bad idea because of the weight, or am I overthinking it?

Logistically, I'm trying to plan out the build so I can do it in stages, as I get money to pay for it, but I'm worried I'm going to skip something and regret it. The consensus seems to be that insulation is a top priority, but what would I have to plan/leave space for or do ahead of the insulation? For instance, a rooftop deck, electrical wiring, holes for solar hookups on the roof, and more holes in the floor for propane and fresh/gray water tanks that will most likely go underneath the bus. I was thinking I could start out with a 10 gallon water container and a foot pump, but is it a bad idea to drill through the floor later for the water tanks? Should I decide if I want a wood stove ahead of time, because of the flue?

I really love the look of the metal ceilings. How hard would it be to put the panels back in, after insulating? Is putting up new metal a bad idea?

I was thinking about doing a wet bath, but will have a composting toilet. Is this a recipe for disaster? Should I just separate the two somehow?

Obviously, I'm getting ahead of myself, but I'd still love to know what everyone thinks!
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Old 06-08-2017, 08:40 PM   #12
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A wet bath? As in a bathtub? Think of the additional weight, as well as the size of the water heater. The physical size of the tub would take up too much room and you'll be hard pressed to put in anything else.
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Old 06-09-2017, 12:03 AM   #13
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Sorry, I should have been more specific. I meant an RV style wet bath, where the toilet is basically in a shower stall - there is a drain in the floor, and the toilet and shower aren't separated. Usually this set up is when you have a black tank, I don't think I've seen one with a composting toilet. I was wondering if it has been done, and if the extra humidity makes the toilet smell.
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Old 06-09-2017, 10:19 AM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Caroline View Post
I've discovered I'm the opposite of most people, in that winter is my favorite season, and as much as I try, I really don't like the heat. I can handle negative windchill just fine, but as soon as the mercury creeps above 80 degrees I feel like a vampire getting murdered by sunlight
I'm right there with you. Born and raised in FL. Too damn hot and humid. Passed thru SC. Took 5 yrs to pass thru. Now in MD. Too damn hot and humid here too. And it's been way too long since my last move. I think I'm part gypsy.


Quote:
Probably around 3k. I'd almost prefer a straight trade so I don't have to worry about the short period of being car-less, but I realize that's unlikely.
You can get buses at auction nearly all day long at $3~$4k even after the damn exporters go and bid them up. They generally bail out around $3500.

Govdeals.com and Publicsurplus.com are two of the biggest.

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Originally Posted by leadsled01 View Post
Probably going to get flamed a little for that statement... lol
Should be a lot.

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Originally Posted by Robin97396 View Post
Hey, we don't flame anybody for their choices.
Just tar and feather. That's not directly flaming right?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Caroline View Post
They have what looks like a floating deck on their roof. What is the best way to secure it (I'm concerned about leaks)? They also have hammock poles that look to be welded on to the window frames. Is that a bad idea because of the weight, or am I overthinking it?
Yes you are over thinking it.

Insulate your bus with whatever method you like. You can always cut holes in it for stuff later (wood stoves, roof racks, etc.) For plumbing and electrical, run conduit. You want 37 lights in the back of the bus? Go ahead and run 37 wires even tho you aren't buying the lights for another 6 yrs. Run an extra empty conduit along both sides of the bus for future expansion; it's fairly cheap stuff. If you go to a reclaim place or even a scrap yard, you can probably get it used for next to nothing.

As for the hammock, window to window is fine. The hat channel in a bus is stout stuff.

Quote:
but what would I have to plan/leave space for or do ahead of the insulation? For instance, a rooftop deck, electrical wiring, holes for solar hookups on the roof, and more holes in the floor for propane and fresh/gray water tanks that will most likely go underneath the bus. I was thinking I could start out with a 10 gallon water container and a foot pump, but is it a bad idea to drill through the floor later for the water tanks? Should I decide if I want a wood stove ahead of time, because of the flue?
A hole saw will become your best friend. If you're putting in marble flooring and granite counter tops, you're going to need to do some planning. You are also going to need a bigger budget. Keep the floors/ceiling cheap, bare plywood as subs for as long as you can stand it. Since you want to move in quick, it'll give you time to decide those 37 lights suck and and need to be moved. If you have fancy paneling, you're wasting money like that. Cheap plywood who cares. It can be drilled, plugged, replaced.

Quote:
I really love the look of the metal ceilings. How hard would it be to put the panels back in, after insulating? Is putting up new metal a bad idea?
It's a lot of weight and a hell of a heat sink. Not very pretty either. Reclaim places will have the fancy tin cheap.

Everyone keeps telling me you don't need it for structure.

Quote:
I was thinking about doing a wet bath, but will have a composting toilet. Is this a recipe for disaster? Should I just separate the two somehow?
I don't like them (too cramped) but I have more room. My bus is 40ft. I don't THINK there is anything wrong with a composter in shower but I don't know.
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Old 06-11-2017, 05:38 PM   #15
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Thanks Bob! You've helped me scrap the metal ceiling idea, and now I'm looking into other options

Here's another question for you all - I'm looking at a mid-size bus right now, with a little more room than I was originally planning for, and had the idea of putting in one of those small square walk-in tubs that old people put in place of a shower stall. They still take about 40-50 gallons to fill, so it would be primarily used when I'm somewhere with hook-ups. My question is about the weight - with the actual tub weighing about 150 pounds, and adding me in at a sadly realistic 160, that's around 6-700 pounds when filled, in a space that's only about 3 feet square. How much weight is too much? This idea is only feasible if I can find a used tub anyway, but I haven't seen any in depth threads about weight distribution. If I find one I'll link to it with more questions haha
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Old 06-11-2017, 05:43 PM   #16
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I don't think I've seen one with a composting toilet. I was wondering if it has been done, and if the extra humidity makes the toilet smell.
Actually, the composting toilet has almost no smell at all. A vent hose is included, but the composting material, usually coconut coir or peat moss, takes care of what little smell there may be.
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Old 06-11-2017, 06:37 PM   #17
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Check out fiberglass tubs to save weight. Lowes gave me one for free,full size that was damaged a bit on the top side next to the wall. That's where I put my taps and shower head connections and you'd never know. I didn't want to shower all the time. In winter a hot soak in the tub with the woodstove going is pretty close to Heaven for this old body.
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Old 06-11-2017, 09:20 PM   #18
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RE: gas and diesel engines ...

Gas engines are fine if you are running a 1-ton chassis, such as a GM or Ford cutaway, I would expect one of these to deliver somewhere around 10 MPG on the highway, depending on how fast and hard you drive, how much weight you have, and anything that increases drag (both wind and mechanical).

Gas engines in a heavier chassis date back to the 80's. Ever since the 5-14-88 Carrollton KY school bus disaster, they have been mostly phased out - they were already on the way out even before this incident. The fact you're carrying around 50+ gallons of a highly volatile liquid (diesel is considerably less volatile), and gas engines in these bigger buses average half the fuel economy of their diesel counterparts ... school districts do have costs to consider. Over the life of a bus, a gas engine is cheaper to buy (and in the 80's, cheaper to do basic maintenance on), diesels were still fairly new and not many mechanics knew how to work on them. But the diesels could deliver much better fuel economy and it would only take 4-5 years to offset the higher purchase cost. They had the additional benefit of lasting much longer and requiring less frequent maintenance.

Sure, there are a few gas burner medium and full size buses built more recently, but considering the relatively low fuel economy and how much less power they have ascending hills ... and the vast majority of us pick up the retired diesels relatively cheaply ... I simply cannot see a full size gasser being worth buying if I plan to do much driving in it.
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Old 06-12-2017, 09:00 AM   #19
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Thanks Bob! You've helped me scrap the metal ceiling idea, and now I'm looking into other options

Here's another question for you all - I'm looking at a mid-size bus right now, with a little more room than I was originally planning for, and had the idea of putting in one of those small square walk-in tubs that old people put in place of a shower stall. They still take about 40-50 gallons to fill, so it would be primarily used when I'm somewhere with hook-ups. My question is about the weight - with the actual tub weighing about 150 pounds, and adding me in at a sadly realistic 160, that's around 6-700 pounds when filled, in a space that's only about 3 feet square. How much weight is too much? This idea is only feasible if I can find a used tub anyway, but I haven't seen any in depth threads about weight distribution. If I find one I'll link to it with more questions haha
Your welcome.

Why a walk-in tub? If you're rustic, get a small horse trough. If not, there has to be something cheaper. Never looked but I'm guessing those things are several thousands of dollars. First time the kid opens it while full, and there goes the new flooring.

As for weight, even a shortie should be good. Someone with one can weigh in on the GVWR (see what I did there? ). Anywho, a midsize will hav e a 20,000 rating? Mine is 33,000 and weighs 20,600 empty. Plenty of room for 700+ lbs. Put it as close to and centered over the rear axle as possible. Or counter weight it with the storage tank on the other side.
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Old 06-14-2017, 11:07 AM   #20
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Hi Caroline!

Love your ambition and hope to hear a long string of successes as you build. I have to chime in on the metal roof conversation, as I heard in a BlueBird video that the internal metal roof panels are part of a two-layer structural system (combined with the external metal roof panels) that provide much of the fore-aft as well as side to side shear-mitigation. (solid body versus squeaky and straining body that can cause structural deformation possibly causing leaks and damage)

As far as the tub, lots of people have used the galvanized troughs, sometimes with a small "deck" built at one end… when not in use a padded wooden oval (matching the trough shape) makes it into a great seating area, or if your little one is really small still it could become his/her bed on top! Just mount the crib on top securely. I have a shorty so I know how valuable multi-use space is!

My shorty is a Chevy cutaway, gas engine, and I get 13 mpg! (based on 650 mile round trip to Boise, average speed 55. Not bad!

Good luck and good for you for being willing to try this lifestyle.
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