Mr Sharkey

Frequently Questioned Answers (Also known as ’Opinions’)

Lately, I’ve been getting mail from folks who are interested in constructing or purchasing a House bus or truck, and have questions that I am only too happy to answer. To save them some time and maybe help them to formulate new questions, here are the tips and tricks that I have compiled so far. Almost everything here is copy-and-pasted directly out of e-mails that I have replied to. Remember, the advice below is my opinion, and that is all that it is!
A: I don’t profess to being a ’guru’, but as far as I can tell, my site is the most definitive resource currently available on House trucks and buses. (You can call me ’Baba Shark Das’). Several books exist, all of which are out of print. Check the ’Book Reviews’ page in the Bus Barn for more information on these. Some of these are ’picture books’, great for getting ideas, while others are ’how-to’ manuals, imparting information to inform you about the actual conversion process.
You may find useful knowledge about converting a bus or truck in Bus Conversions Magazine, although it will be directed at those who convert buses with a big bankroll of money and want a sophisticated finished product. Installing the plumbing and electrical is the same in your funky rig as in a big cruiser though, and many ’how-to’ articles are available. (Or, like some, you can do only a little of each, using a hand pump for water, etc). Follow some of the URL links on my ’Links’ page, they will lead you to others who are practicing the craft, and their sites will have links to other URL’s which may help. If you come across a particularly good site, let me know, I’d love to put additional useful links on my page.
A: I spent a considerable amount of time on the Housetruck, replacing the engine, radiator, transmission, clutch, u-joints, wheel bearings, brakes, etc, before actually getting to the house building part. In 34 years, I have only put 7,600 miles on all of those new parts. I always wondered if a trailer would be a smarter way to go, one could then use the tractor to either pull it around, or for other jobs when the house is stationary. At least the Crown is in fine running shape. I hope to never have to take a wrench to it. The chassis has 609,000 miles on it! Given a choice, I would build my rig 8’6" wide (legal in the U.S.). It REALLY makes a big difference inside.
School bus or ’tour’ bus? Hard choice in some ways. Most school buses have been taken care of by the school district because of their precious cargo. Mine came with 20 pages of maintenance records. The drawback? Most school buses are underpowered and/or geared very low (low top speed), as they were designed for ’stop and go’ student pickup. Same for city transit buses. There are always exceptions. School buses are fairly cheap, less than $3,000 in most cases. If you are going to only move it occasionally, a school bus is a good choice. Tour buses are usually more powerful, but are also usually VERY worn out by the time the bus line sells them. Nearly ALL of the tour buses I looked at had bad rust, missing engine parts, wiring that had been cut and taped up, mufflers supported by bailing wire, etc. Add to this the price ($12-30k and up), and you will see that you will be entering into a major rebuild project unless you find that right one. MCI and Prevost tour buses are designed to go 1 million miles before they are put out to pasture. Tour buses are the right choice for a full time live-in rig that you will use to travel constantly. School buses usually use medium-duty truck motors and running gear, expensive, but readily available. Transit and tour buses use specialized running gear that may only be available at great cost. Although a reliable bus may never require service, the school buses can usually be serviced by ordinary mechanics, while the big rigs have to go to the dealer for repairs ($$$$$).
If you start with a truck chassis, you will have the maximum in design flexibility, and also the maximum challenge, as you will be building it all from scratch. A truck with a van body can be a good starting point, although they are somewhat boxy and it’s a real pain to seal up the leaks in the flat roof! Small rigs are very nice when started in a step van.
I’m going to do you a huge favor, and not even going to make you go visit the ’Links" page to find it for yourself. Visit this site: Pardo.Net <www.pardo.net/bus-0035/buses.html>, it will give you more information than your brain cells can handle, but it will help you make up your mind, bus/truck/transit coach/etc.
A: If you go to look at a rig, take along a mechanic if you’re not so inclined yourself. Mechanical stuff is second nature to me, but when I bought the Crown, I had a friend who does home inspection along. While I was negotiating with the owner, he was crawling all over and under the bus, checking stuff I never thought to look at. Having someone follow you in an auto while you are test driving it is also a good idea, watching for smoke, bent wheels, flapping parts that are supposed to be attached, major misalignment of the frame (crab-crawls down the road), and to verify the speedometer accuracy (wow, this bus will do 100 mph!). When I test drove the Crown, I wanted to see how it climbed hills. My chase car couldn’t keep up on the grade! I won’t be tailgated by diesel trucks in this baby!
A: Don’t buy any bus because you think you will even come close to breaking even in the deal. You will find out that the taste of the buyer will probably be different than yours when you converted it. Buy it because you want it, need it, and will use it. Remember that the people who are best suited to appreciate your bitchen’ home on wheels are the least likely to be able to pay you big bucks to buy it, while the wealthy retiree is going to go out and purchase a Monaco, Itasca, or Country Coach, if not a Marathon ($500k and up!).
A: What do you like? If you can put up with someone else’s idea of interior fashion, a completed or semi-completed rig might be for you. Not bothered by Formica, Naugahide and chrome, no problem. Like all of your spaces divided into little individual boxes? Go for an RV. Seriously, you may find something you like and with a little bit of remodeling, get a very satisfying result. Much of the utilities (tanks, plumbing, wiring, propane, etc.) may already be installed, which could save you lots of work, time in locating the appliances, etc. Buy an old travel trailer, rip out all of the plastic, and install your own custom fixtures.
A: During the planning phase of my project, I made it a point to go to recreational vehicle shows and sales and looked at as many different types of mobile habitations as I could. I also went to boat and yacht exhibits, and got better ideas there (it’s always easier to let someone else do your thinking for you, so I just copied the best I could find). One thing I have noticed is that many of the trucks and buses I have been looking at have several striking similarities, things which I can only attribute to the whole movement being a ’genre’. Certainly, there may be some copy-cat factors, but others look like a sort of housetruck ’genetic trait’. Every woodstove I have ever seen in a bus seems to have a couple of off-kilter angle joints in it (mine does). Did we all figure out simultaneously that old cabinet hinges, stained glass, brass doorknobs and funky metal signs were the cool way to decorate? Were oriental rugs invented just for us? Too much coincidence for my taste. This could be one for the X-files.
Gad, think of what would happen if Martha Stewart found this site!!!!!
A: Of course, all of the metals are purchased new. Much of the wood is recycled, salvaged from dumpsters outside of remodeling projects or purchased as ’seconds’. The local Safari RV manufacturer has a ’factory outlet’ where they sell scratch-and-dent supplies from the assembly line. (I got an $800 RV-sized washer/dryer for $25. It had a dent and needed a wire attached.)
Mostly, the furnishings and fixtures come from the flea market, garage sales, second-hand stores, and from buildings about to be demolished. Unfortunately, much of the ’junk’ that goes into the average Housetruck has been discovered by antique dealers and is now classified as ’primitives’, fetching top dollar to greedy upper-income yuppies. Even beat-up old-fashioned painted cabinets sell for hundreds of dollars, and true antiques are out of reach for most of us on a budget.
A: Wrong! Driving your new creation all over hell and gone is just about like going through a continuous San Francisco Earthquake during Hurricane Andrew! Regular wood and framing techniques just won’t cut in in a vehicle. Do yourself a favor and either learn to weld (it’s fun!) or find a partner who can. You can still have that funky cabin appearance, but you won’t have to worry about stuff coming crashing down with every speed bump you roll over. A steel frame is stronger and for the size lighter than wooden framing. Just about any kind of joint you can imagine can be fabricated and reinforced to withstand many times the stress that you will subject it to on the road. Save your woodworking skills for the appearance and cabinetry work.
A note about those cedar shingles on the roof and walls: Want to find out if your house is watertight? Get up on the freeway and do 60 mph for a couple of hours in a rainstorm. I imagine that the rough texture of shingles and siding would adversely impact the already dismal fuel economy of a truck or bus as well, due to wind resistance and weight (particularly when wet). Steel or aluminum is best suited for a rig that will travel much, and there will be fewer cracks for the bugs to creep in through as well.
A: In my opinion, there is no such thing as "over-insulated". Even if you have a rip-roarin’, wall-searing, tree-gobbling wood stove, when the fire gets low and goes out, the temp inside will drop fast. Trucks and buses don’t have diddly for thermal mass, and don’t tend to keep the heat for long.
Rigid insulation is the way to go, either styrene (Styrofoam©), or polyisocyanurate (R-Max©, etc). When I built the Housetruck, I used mostly fiberglass and rock wool insulation, because I was able to recycle some from a building that was being remodeled. Two problems with this are that this type of insulation needs to be fully expanded to give proper thermal performance, R-11 is supposed to be placed between 2x4" studs. Cramming it inside the walls of a vehicle compresses the air out and the R value goes down. The other problem is that this type of insulation absorbs and holds water vapor from the air, leading to even more heat loss, and worse, rust and rot of the body of your home. In a frame dwelling, with correctly installed vapor barrier, wood siding, vents and all the rest, the water vapor is allowed to dissipate. In a metal vehicle body, it just sits there and eats away at the metal.
If you use styrene, be sure to cover it completely and protect it from heat and flames. Once ignited, it burns viciously and emits clouds of black, stinking, poisonous smoke. For each inch of thickness, the isocyanurate sheeting is a slightly better insulator, somewhat less flammable, and about twice the price! Guess which I used in the Crown.
A well insulated bus or truck is also an asset in the summer. Yesterday, the Crown sat in the full sun from dawn until I opened it up to get some tools at 2pm. Outside temperature was 80°F, inside after all that time it was only 82°F. Of course at this stage of the game, I don’t have any side windows or skylights to admit light and heat, but even if the thermal performance is compromised a bit when they are installed, I think I can live with the level of insulation I have installed. Walls and ceiling are R-17, in two layers, 1", covered by 1¼. Insulation is positioned so that no metal extends into the living space without at least one layer covering it. The floor has R-19 fiberglass, I figure that it will breathe better, as the original bus floor is plywood.
About insulated glass: I’m not using it. My windows are being manufactured using ’energy panels’, which is a second layer of glass fastened, but not sealed, inside the window frame. It is removable for cleaning. The sources I checked with had a problem with a hermetically sealed window being driven up and down mountain passes, where they would be subjected to changing air pressure. Nobody really thought that the seals would be ruptured, but none would stand behind their guarantee if used in a vehicle, either. If you get some inexpensive used double pane units, go ahead and install them, it’s worth the risk f they’re cheap. The rear door and five windows in the Crown cost me almost $4,000 alone. That’s a lot of cash to experiment with.
One last note. Your well-insulated bus or truck will do well keeping you warm, but the better sealed up it is, the more problems you will have with moisture. Even when using a wood stove, supposedly ’dry heat’, you’ll find that the humidity inside will be uncomfortably high most of the winter. I have to run an electric dehumidifier several times a week, removing a pint to a quart of water from the air each time. Water will tend to collect under your mattress, especially if, like me, your bed is over an exterior space and insulated underneath. I have my mattress (5" of high-density foam) placed on ¼" hardboard "peg-board" (the type with all of the holes that is used to hang tools on), which is supported above the insulation and plastic sheeting cover with a 1" air gap. This allows the water to condense away from my mattress, and makes mopping it up when I change sheets a lot easier. In spite of all of this, I have to be vigilant, as the edges of the sheets and mattress tend to grow molds where they touch the walls. On laundry days, I have to shred up the whole mess and dry things out, using 75 watt reflector flood lights to heat the corners to drive the moisture out. During these times, the dehumidifier can remove as much as a gallon of water from the air, drawing it out of the mattress, hardboard and woodwork.
A: Well, the second story thing is tricky. Obviously, the downstairs area will have a just-above-your-head ceiling and the loft will be tall enough (hopefully) to sit upright comfortably in a cross-legged position. The low ceilings will get old really fast if this is a live-in, particularly if the entire interior is covered with the loft. Look at the pages on Grace, which has lofts at both ends, connected by side shelves, with a large open area in the middle. This relieves the closed-in feeling one would get from all-loft ceilings, and allows light, air, and most importantly, sight lines from below. Greg’s bus has a similar setup, with the bed over the kitchen, and the living room has a high ceiling.
I am building a loft-over in the Crown. As the frame rails stop just behind the rear rear axle, I cut the floor out, giving me a 10’ 6" height to construct a room below and a loft above for sleeping. The ceiling in the room will be 6’ 3" to the rafters, which is tall enough for me.
In any case, please don’t just graft a VW bus on top of your rig. It will squeak, leak and will provide very little in the way of useable space for the effort required to put it there. Any extension of the roof will cut into your already dismal fuel economy, make it harder to maneuver around trees and power lines, and add considerably to making the center of gravity of your vehicle higher, when lower is best. If you are going to go to the trouble of raising the roof, do it right the first time.
A: I have been living with solar power for about 18 years, and couldn’t recommend it more highly. All of the power for my lights, small appliances, computer and hand tools can be supplied by PV’s (photovoltaics) and batteries. True, it won’t power air conditioning, heating appliances, or big stationary tools without being excessively large and costly. Yes, the initial cost is high, but once purchased, it requires no maintenance, fuel, or repair parts, and produces no noise or pollution. PV panels last virtually forever. A PV/Generator (or PV/grid) hybrid system should be capable of meeting virtually ALL of the needs of someone living small in any sized vehicle.
Currently, PV’s are running about $4/watt for bitchin’-ass brand-new 20 year warranty units, so two 50 watt panels are going to cost $500, about the same as one of those cheap, noisy Briggs & Stratton 5Kw generators you see advertised at lumber and tool stores. When you decide to upgrade the solar to more power, you just buy more panels and hook them up along with the first ones, they don’t even have to be the same rating, size, etc (obviously, the voltage needs to match). The cheap generator, on the other hand, will need to be replaced entirely when it is too small, worn out, or you get tired of the noise, vibration, fumes and dealing with gasoline. You’re going to have batteries anyway, right?
True, a 100 watt solar array sounds small, but consider that it runs silently all day. 10 hours of sun times 100 watts = powering a 25 watt reading light for about 50 hours, or about ten evenings worth, depending on how late you stay up. And this is just one day’s worth of sun. In the summer, my 150 watt solar array powers all of my lights, stereo, and kitchen appliances, and runs the pump for the hot tub, and I still end up diverting power into the refrigerator to keep from overcharging the batteries. Wintertime, I get the lights, stereo, and appliances, but don’t divert any excess, because there isn’t any. Remember, I live in Oregon, where the sun seldom shines after October, so I get sufficient power out of the clouds to meet minimal needs. Imagine a user living in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, etc.
The point is that you can install solar starting with any size array, beginning with a $25 cigarette-lighter battery charger panel, and build it larger as your needs or pocketbook require. Smaller systems don’t require charge controllers, elaborate fuses and wiring, complicated metering, inverters, etc (inverters are another subject, they are awesome!).
My system is gargantuan mostly because I am an Engineer, and know how to make it that way. I have installed small systems that are perfectly serviceable and free the users from the candle and kerosene lamp scene, while allowing them to power modest loads like (!!!) coffee grinders!,
P.S. Question: Do you know why they put a single solar panel on top of a $750,000 Marathon Motor Coach? Answer: To keep the generator battery charged!
A: Everyone I know who lives in a housetruck/bus has ALWAYS had an adequate if not exceptional place to live. If the lifestyle is appropriate to you, then it takes very little effort to support, and the proper opportunities always present themselves. A more detailed reply would also take into account that most of these people are Craftsmen of some sort. Many of our living situations present themselves as an extension of self-employment. I have lived variously behind a Natural Foods store, at a 12 unit upscale townhouse project under construction, several private remodeling projects at residences in and out of town, at an estate overlooking the Monterey Bay, where the owner not only paid me, but fed me and took me to concerts, etc. I have lived as a caretaker, shared a 1906 one-room schoolhouse with an assorted household, and just plain rented, with the monthly rent being between $10 and $200 a month. I have lived in side and back yards here and in Portland, and lived on the street for a short time, but only by choice. I can’t even begin to imagine how much money I have saved because of living in the Housetruck for the last 26 years . Currently, I own the property where I park the Housetruck. Friends have had similar experiences, during one period, one was a caretaker for a 500 acre private valley. How do we get these situations? Well, they ’Just Happen’. Having the appearance of Having Your Act Together helps a lot. In my interactions with authority figures (police, managers, park rangers, etc), I have usually found that they are more interested in seeing the truck than hassling me. If your rig has an interesting, off-beat, yet non-threatening appearance, people will want to know more about it, information that they won’t be able to get if they come on to you with an adversarial attitude. Of course, this means you will also be getting a lot of attention from everyone else as well. I usually end up with visitors everywhere I go. Having Your Act Together also means projecting the image of responsibility. Creating the impression that you aren’t going to leave a mound of trash, sewage, or a pool of used crankcase oil behind when you are gone is important. When your Act is Just Happening, you will know it, because everything you need will present itself to you. When I began building the Crown, materials and tools just started coming into my life by themselves. The same thing happened when I built the first Housetruck. This is not to say that it is an effortless act, obviously, the Crown project (almost in it’s fourth year) involves a lot of labor, but most problems seem to solve themselves.
I know that the ’It Just Happens’ stuff sounds a little New-Ageist, but it really has worked that way for me. A couple of years into the construction of my permanent house, I realized that the Housetruck was still the Happening Thing for me, so I rededicated myself to that lifestyle. (I never moved into the house).
A: I have heard of the prejudice directed towards school bus dwellers, but have not experienced it myself. Probably the very most important thing is the appearance of the exterior of your bus. Get rid of the yellow-and-black scheme and paint it in a tasteful (but still interesting) motif. Not having a bunch of clothing, kitchen goods or other junk pressed against the bus windows from the inside will also spiff it up a bit. Neat personal appearance (and I don’t necessarily mean looking "straight"), and not traveling with six big, mangy dogs will be a help also (I hope I’m not insulting you in any way here).
A lot of this will have to do with the "Having Your Act Together" mentioned above, but also consider bringing something interesting or valuable along to share with your fellow campers. A display of crafts, photos or food (someone on one of the lists thought ice cream would go over well) might help you settle in with the others around you. Save the rave music festival for some time when you’re way out in the desert!
Generally, I’d think that the decision to allow a school bus or house truck into a camp would be made by the manager on a case-by-case basis. Coming on too strong (in whatever way) would very likely be a bad idea. On the other hand, if such a park or campground had a hard-and-fast "no buses" rule, it probably isn’t anywhere you would want to stay anyway, right?
A: Oh yeah, the old insurance problem. Well, first of all, you don’t want to tell them that it’s a school bus. If possible, have your local Dept. of Motor Vehicles change your title to passenger vehicle, farm truck, or maybe better yet, motor home. In most states, this means taking it down to be inspected to show that the seats have been removed, and perhaps that some motor home conversion has at least been started. Our DMV doesn’t require registration to get a title, so I buy Trip Permits (temporary registration) to drive mine. Motor Homes here are registered by length, and the Crown would be about $350.00 for two years. Ask them a lot of questions to get a feel for which is the best way to register your title before you actually do it. I insure the Housetruck through Farmers. When I purchased insurance for my other two vehicles, I also insured the Housetruck, telling the agent only that it was a 1962 Chevrolet Motor Home, nothing more about it’s construction, purpose, etc. I told the agent that the ’motor home’ sits 51 weeks a year, and is only driven on vacation one week. He allows me to cover the truck for comprehensive during that time for $11.00 a year. When I want to take my yearly trip, I call him up, tell him to give me complete coverage for a week, and send me a Certificate of Liability Insurance. This costs about $2.50 to cover it fully for the week’s use. After the trip, back to comprehensive only, and the insurance carrier doesn’t notify the state, because I am still insured, the policy doesn’t end, only changes terms. All of the above is on the level, I really don’t drive it any other time. The real kicker is, if the big walnut tree that it is parked under lost a limb and crunched it, I am covered with a $500.00 deductible! Such a deal!!! Other solutions to this problem may exist, and may be specific to the codes and laws of your locality. Of course, I would never advise you to drive around without insurance, or to try to deceive your insurance agent. You may be able to obtain liability coverage as I did, by being vague about the purpose of your vehicle, but remember that collecting in the event of an accident might be difficult. Someday (I hope), each of us will be judged by our own actions and responsibilities. Until then, we are just ’statistics’ and ’probabilities’ on the insurance companies spread sheets of profit and loss. Anyone who doesn’t fit the profile will be considered an unacceptable risk, regardless of their driving record.