The adventure of converting a 1989 bus into a cozy tiny home.
Retelling the work completed and progress made on our bus conversion is best completed in pictures, so, here goes:
Our First Bus Conversion
We found our first bus on Craigslist, by chance, while searching for other retro campers to renovate. Our bus was used as a prison bus in Virginia and was later converted into a mobile command center by the Sheriff's department there.
There are a lot of important questions to ask when considering a bus to purchase.
Upon touring the bus, we observed that there was minimal rust and the mechanics were in working order. There were three locking cage doors, four bus seats, four tables, dozens of power strips, metal server stands, and a 24-foot pneumatic mast antenna mounted on the back. It also already had electricity wired throughout and a Cummins Onan generator. The latter was a huge selling point for our off-grid living capabilities.
We spent the first couple of months slowly gutting everything out. We were still working our jobs full-time 8-5 so our free time was limited.
Demo can be quite gratifying at the end of the day. We removed the old floor, wall panels and ceiling panels to better insulate the bus. We wanted to take things down to the metal shell in order to assess and treat rust, as well as insulate for four-season living.
Here we are after removing the larger fixtures, seats, tables, etc. We highly recommend getting a good quality pry bar! That and a hammer, demo away!
Things started to clear up.
We removed one cage and repositioned the other two to maintain an open floor concept and maximize our minimal space (165 square feet!). You can see the back cage in this photo is about 4 feet up from the back door. We (PAINSTAKINGLY!) lifted and moved it all the way back, 8 inches up from the exit door.
Our fresh water tanks will fit nicely back there on either side. Yes, inside. We planned it that way because we knew we would spend SOME time in New England winters.
We discovered that one of the old a/c units in the back was leaking water through to the subfloor for who knows how long. This just confirmed our plan to gut the bus to the shell, just in case there were any other surprises.
What you see above is the original plywood subfloor. Not too bad for a 1989 bus. We also started removing the rivets on the walls to strip out all that funky old insulation.
Exposing the Metal Bus Floor
It's VERY important to strip your bus down to the metal floor to assess what you're working with. A bus conversion is a significant investment of your time and energy. This is one essential step in helping it to last longer.
Most areas of the floor and walls were in very good shape, but we did have several areas of rust that required treatment.
Here are a few essentials to treat rust on your bus floor and prepare it for painting and building:
- Wire Brush attachment for your drill;
- Rust Treatment #1 or Rust Treatment #2 (there are all kinds of options);
- Small Wire Brushes for detail work; and
- Rustoleum Paint.
I've seen some horror show examples of skoolies with serious rust throughout, pitting, holes, you name it. This stuff takes time to properly treat, clean, and seal prior to moving onto installing new subfloor. The back was the worst part where an old a/c unit leaked on the floor for an undetermined amount of timie.
We used multiple products, elbow grease, and time to treat and remove the rust as best as we could. Questions? Reach out to us for more information.
Ben did a PHENOMENAL job of priming the metal floors after the grinding, treating, cleaning, and everything was complete underneath. He was meticulous. He said it then and he still agrees, it was 100% worth the extra time and effort to do it correctly.
Registering a Bus Conversion
In summer 2016, we registered the bus at our local Town Hall in Maine. That was an interesting process. It's not every day that someone walks in and asks to register their 1989 Chevy bus. This was a learning experience and if ANYONE has any questions about this process in Maine, please reach out to us! We're happy to help.
The long story short is, be persistent and come prepared.
We did not retitle the bus, it wasn't a requirement. Instead, we registered it as a motorhome. All we had to do was come up with a ballpark figure of MSRP and pull the GVWR figure off of the manufacturer information plaque near the driver's seat.
Keep in mind, this was back in 2016, this process is probably a breeze now that bus conversions are so popular!
Here we see another coat of Rustoleum paint to really seal things up. Using silicone, we sealed up what felt like a trillion holes on the floor prior to laying any plywood.
Insulating the Bus Ceiling
We moved the focus to the bus ceiling for a bit. Our plan was pretty intricate: to create a thermal barrier with multiple layers of insulation. First, we removed all the metal ceiling panels. Ugh. Heavy.
We kept the ceiling panels aside to eventually put back on (great structural integrity) after the insulation process was complete.
Insulating the Bus Floor
We quickly realized we needed to protect the metal floor paint job we just worked so hard on so we moved onto insulating the floor (1 ½ inch XPS hard foam insulation sheets) and installing the plywood subfloor.
We also removed a few old heating and cooling units during this process. All the walls and insulation are out in this photo, too. The back cage stayed down like this for a while until we were ready to permanently install it.
For a deep dive in how we insulated our bus, check out this post.
The Important Air Gap
The best way I can describe the final functionality of our bus conversion ceiling insulation "system" is that it acts like a thermos. The layers from the exterior in are: metal ceiling, two-inch XPS foam insulation, foil bubble wrap layer glued right to the foam, air gap (we drilled wood spacers into the studs to create space), another layer of foil bubble wrap reflectix glued to the metal ceiling panels which we then reattached.
Overkill? We don't think so. It worked beautifully in the hot Arizona desert and the cold New Hampshire winter. That said, it was a tedious process. For our second bus conversion, we plan to do spray foam insulation.
Insulating the Bus Walls
Here we are with the metal panels reattached and a few of our walls up. Behind the walls we added fresh three inch fiberglass insulation on the top half and inserted panels of two inch XPS hard foam down into the bottom half of the walls. We sprayed Great Stuff foam into all the cracks.
In the future, we would go with 1 ½ inch hard foam OR spray foam insulation in the bottom half of the walls. Two inch XPS was pretty tight and was a super pain to install.
Resealing the Windows
In November 2016, as the season and temperatures changed, we discovered some water leaks.
Initially, we opted not to remove the bus windows, the seal seemed adequate.
Water is very sneaky and tends to find a way in, especially when you start adding, insulating and moving things around. This was a VERY frustrating process to narrow down where water was coming in and solve the issue before it caused permanent damage to our new subfloor, etc.
We removed some of our plywood walls to investigate. Eventually, we discovered that the windows were the major problem areas and decided to remove all eighteen of them to be sure.
The decades-old silicone seal didn't come off without a fight! But soon, it was done and we reapplied a fresh coat before reinstalling each window. This was a lot of work but well worth it for peace of mind.
This process along with some exterior body work and sealing solved our leaks 100%. Ahh...
We reattached our walls and moved on.
Carpentry and Built Ins
Everything is custom built in our bus conversion, and most things likely will be in yours too. You're working in a small space with unique dimensions afterall.
Ben continued to ROCK IT in the carpentry department and got cracking on the built-ins. Kitchen cabinets in the front, boxes over the wheel wells and our bed frame out back.
Pictured below is our slide out guest bed design. It pulls out to a twin size bed. Later that summer, we picked up twin sized memory foam mattress and cut it into four cushions.
Check out Longleaf Lumber for more eye candy in the reclaimed wood department.
Getting a State Inspection
Early May 2017 was another turning point for us. We needed to move the bus from it's winter home to it's new summer home a little over an hour away.
That meant we NEEDED get it inspected at the garage to make it road-ready and legal.
We had to find a shop that serviced and inspected heavy trucks and/or buses. Luckilly, there was one just a few miles away!
To say we were nervous to take our bus in would be a HUGE understatement. We put as much positive energy out into the universe as possible in the 24 hours that followed, waiting anxiously for that follow up phone call.
Visions of the hours and hours of work behind us...
We've heard really sad stories of skoolie converters taking their pride and joy bus conversion that they've been working so hard on into the garage only to be told it needs MAJOR work, expensive work.
The mechanic called me that afternoon and said...
"Where did you get this bus?!"
Oh my goodness. WHY?! WHAT'S WRONG?!
"This thing is awesome."
It turns out there was NOTHING wrong with it. It needed a quick transmission line replacement, and to have a few lights replaced. That's it. He said it was in excellent condition given it's age, and that we were very lucky.
I freaked out.
Right there in my car, I just started freaking out on the phone. I told him, "I know I may sound crazy for being so pumped right now, but, you don't understand how much work we've put into this thing so far!"
It's our 31 foot rollin' baby and future home, after all! 🙂
With that settled. We moved the bus to it's new home in the country and got back to work.
A Summer Test Run
Look, we have a bed!
We spent weekends at the bus while working on things, which was pretty tricky space-wise, but, it's oh so wonderful to get out of town and just BE with the bus. I highly recommend a "test run" of sorts with your bus conversion at some point during your build, if you're able.
Spending multiple days and nights in our bus before hitting the road was a great experience to test things out and adjust our setup and supplies as we go. We had the unique opportunity to try out tiny living and bus life before we go 100% full-time with it, which we're really thankful for!
I sewed up our guest bed / couch cushions, we added our countertop (still a work in progress), and started to put more things together.
Our composting toilet is housed in that box on the left near the bed. The box cover flips up. Our reclaimed shower/tub right now wasn't completed at the time, check out our Instagram for that and more.
On the left side you can see our lovely kitchen table. It's hinged and can be flipped down when not in use. It's a gorgeous antique reclaimed maple butcher block. We kept the surface original (added a few coats of tung oil) and back planed it to make it a bit thinner.
We added some reclaimed blue beadboard paneling behind it. LOVE.
We signed up for an adventure, and that's exactly what it's been. We're happy and moving forward in so many ways, little by little, every day.
A great friend of mine once told me, (in my early twenties aka the most tumultuous time ever) "As long as you're improving, in some way, each and every day, you're doing just fine."
Get alllll caught up in our bus conversion process:
- Part One - Debt Annihilation
- Part Two - Mad Max prison bus, anyone?
- Part Three - Work, work, and inspiration!
- Part Four - Then & Now