Buying a school bus, driving it cross country, and converting it into a full time tiny house on wheels is honestly an idea that borders on insanity to the majority of people, myself included. I am a rational thinker and I make most decisions based on a thorough application of reason and judgement. The problem however was my wife and I had a dream, and it seemed to come from the heart and so we had to take the risks necessary if we were to make it happen. If we weren’t prepared to take risks this dream would nag us eternally but it would not come true, and so my friend Andrew and I flew to Colton, CA to drive this bus home, a wild but necessary first step to nomadic freedom.
Of course, this was a serious undertaking. I had not driven a school bus before let alone 40 footer. I hadn’t even driven cross country before! Questions surged through my head over the 12 days we had to prepare for our trip. Do we need insurance? If so, how will we get it? Is our bus going to break down? What can we do to prevent that from happening and what do we do if it does? Finally, is this even possible in the timeframe we’ve got? These are decisions that you will have to make for yourself, but here is what we did:
How to get Insurance For Your Trip and Why you Need It
It is my opinion that yes you need it. Some may find that their insurance will temporarily cover them while driving a new vehicle home, but will they cover a school bus? This to me is wishful thinking, so call your insurer. We did and were direct about our intentions and our insurer (Progressive) said no way would we be covered. Yes it will be difficult to explain to an agent or insurer what you are doing. We talked to half a dozen that told us “wow that sounds like a really cool idea, but no we can’t insure you.” We ended up being successful by calling a local State Farm agent, telling them that we needed insurance for a “commercial vehicle operated for personal use,” and they offered us the minimum legal requirements for $170 per month (yikes). It was risky taking the minimum requirements. We recommend you insure yourself based on your risk tolerance and your financial situation.
Do Your Homework Before you Buy or Suffer the Consequences
You don’t want to break down on the road. We would have to be towed to the nearest mechanic that was qualified to work on our engine (Detroit Diesel 6V92), and we would be stuck for an unknown period of time. If this had happened I would be calling out sick for work, scrambling to find transportation home for my friend Andrew who helped me drive the bus and calling his flight back from Charleston a total loss. Here is what we did to mitigate the risk as best we could: We bought from a dealer with a good reputation. We bought our bus from A-Z bus sales in Colton, CA. We had heard from others who had purchased buses from this dealer, we vetted them over the phone as best we could and we made it exceedingly clear to them that we would be driving this bus immediately across country and needed it to make it all the way home. They told us they had faith in this bus having inspected and purchased it, and we paid them to lube the chassis, change the oil, change the oil filters, and change the fuel filters. We considered having a mobile mechanic perform a thorough third party inspection for $500 but in the end we decided to be cheap, take the risk and trust our dealer. We probably got lucky. If you’re buying a bus from Craigslist or Ebay we recommend you have a mechanic check it out before you buy it. Even with publicsurplus.com and govdeals.com you need to have the bus checked out or buy at a rock bottom price and assume that everything that could go wrong will go wrong. Some bus dealers may buy buses from auction or take trade-ins, power wash the engine so that all your friends tell you “wow, that’s a clean engine,” detail it, and it will look exceedingly well cared for. But who really knows? We could have been more thorough ourselves and in the end discovered that our tachometer was off by 1,000 RPM, and our fuel gauge, dash lights and high idle didn’t work.
Things Will Go Wrong, So Get Roadside Assistance
Roadside assistance is a cheap insurance in case things go wrong. Get it! We paid $80 for 15 months of Good Sam Roadside Assistance and they do cover buses. Coach-Net may be another good option and for $250 per year they will send you a mobile mechanic if necessary in addition to towing, and fuel delivery. Yes, day 3 we did run out of fuel! I had been pushing our luck with the assumption that our tank was full of 100 gallons of fuel and that my bus would get at least 6 MPG’s. It turns out diesel fuel will bubble up as it enters the tank which will prematurely shut off the pump. It turns out we were 20 gallons short of full! We drove about 450 miles before we slowly started to lose power and we pulled off to the side of the highway. We called Good Sam and were back on the road in about 2 hours. We recommend that in dealing with Good Sam operators you be very descriptive and clear with your needs. They have my vehicle on file, they know it’s a bus, I told them I need a diesel fuel delivery for my bus, and an hour later (this was painful because we were so pressed for time) gasoline shows up. No diesel!! Good Sam didn’t even call us back!! So I called, got a new operator, got myself another fuel delivery, and believe it or not they had dispatched me gasoline AGAIN. Thank you Alabama fuel delivery servicers for taking care of us in spite of their mistake.
The Key to Success: Sacrifice
The last piece of the puzzle was actually executing this plan successfully and I can tell you now what it really took us to get home in time: we gave up almost all creature comforts and turned into dirty, disgusting animals keeping each other alert and alive with camaraderie, conversation, and we took care of each other as best as we could at all times. We missed our wives, I missed my baby, but we didn’t even have time to express it to them; we were stuck in survival mode. We ate the same sandwich as we drove over and over again. When ingredients started to run out we ate whatever we had which eventually was just hummus and bread. We kept our hunger at bay but we kept driving. We only had time for one daily priority beyond driving and sleeping and that was of course more fuel (and sometimes oil). Since our fuel stops were every 300 miles or so the bathroom was inevitably ignored most of the time. We slept in rest areas and truck stops in our hammocks with sleeping masks to keep out the lights but it hardly mattered; we were so exhausted that our allotted 6-7 hours of sleep came easily.
We did have some fun on the road if you consider manual labor to be fun which next to driving all day it absolutely is. We removed the seats and it was rewarding to see them pile up in the back as the miles slipped away, creating more and more space for sleeping and cooking. Luckily with the Gillig Phantom our seats were not bolted to nuts on the bottom of the bus as is typical, but simply screwed into the plywood floor with large bolts (a ½ inch socket will remove them, and you’ll need a 1/2 inch wrench, a breaker bar and a battery operated impact drill with 2-3 full batteries or a way to charge them). I worked on my kickflips in the back of the bus (maybe don’t do that, it’s plenty dangerous but if you’re a reckless skateboarder you’re used to risking life and limb so I’m not going to tell you what to do). Andrew hung a 2×4 from the emergency exit with carabiners and rope so that we could do pull ups and stay active.
We got home 77 hours after paying for the bus. It took long days that blended into short nights. We took I-10 the whole way and slept in Brenda, Arizona, Van Horn, Texas, and Denham Springs, Louisiana. Andrew was a champion behind the wheel. He drove many more hours than I was capable of as we pushed further and further each evening. In the end, we made it home 3 hours later than planned. Our first school bus adventure was behind us, and I was once again in the loving arms of my wife watching my beautiful daughter sleep peacefully, maybe dreaming of her future skoolie adventures.
A Few Quick Notes on Driving a Detroit Diesel 6V92
Our engine burned 4 gallons of oil in 2,600 miles. Check it at fuel stops (while giving it 10 minutes after turning off the engine for the oil to seat). Bring Delo 100 40W, the recommended oil for this engine.
Watch your temperature gauge. If you see it reaching 200 degrees the recommended action is to pull over and put your engine in high idle. You may have a serious problem that you don’t want to make worse.
When you’re climbing hills and your bus starts to lose power and slow down, shift down one gear until you clear the hill. The bus likes to run at a high RPM and if high RPM’s can’t be maintained when climbing a hill you can overheat your engine.
The DD6V92 will be cruising highways at around 1,900-2,100 RPM’s. It is governed from the factory and will not go over 2,100 RPM’s.
Listen to the engine while driving, if there is something wrong you should begin to hear an audible change in it’s sound.
Enjoy the sound of your two stroke diesel, because it sounds real sweet.