Jan 272009

In yesterday’s blog, a reader named Chris asked if we had it to do over, would we still buy a bus. In hindsight, yes, we would. I also got an e-mail from a fellow asking how much it cost to keep a bus running. I’ll try to give you an overview.

Our bus has been our home for over eight years and has served us well. She is 33 years old, and with over a million highway miles (yes a million) under her belt, she is old and tired, and requires some babying and coaxing now and then. We have to work within her limitations, but as long as we understand what those limitations are and exercise a little patience now and then, she’s probably good for more miles than we’ll ever be able to travel.

Bus conversions have many advantages. Since we built our conversion ourselves, we were able to customize it for our own lifestyle, rather than settling for a cookie cutter design someone at an RV factory (who probably never spent a night in a motorhome) decided would work. We also accomplished it for a whole lot less than we could have paid for anything on an RV dealer’s lot. You can see the complete story of how we built our home on wheels at this bus conversion link.

Among the advantages a bus offers are tremendous payload capacity. If we can find someplace to stuff it in or tie it on, we can carry it without worrying about weight. While many RVers have to travel with very little fresh water onboard due to weight limitations, we keep our 110 gallon tank full, so we can stop wherever and whenever we want to, and not worry about having hookups.

Likewise, we are not limited in our choice of tow vehicle. We tow a ¾ ton extended length Ford cargo van, usually loaded with hundreds of pounds of newspapers, kayaks, bicycles, and until recently a full size 1100cc motorcycle.

Buses are also some of the safest passenger vehicles on the road. Built to Department of Transportation standards, our bus has a series of metal frame members that cross the roof about every 28 inches, creating a super strong roll bar. Unlike a fiberglass RV, our body is steel and will not disintegrate in a crash.

However, buses also come with certain limitations. Most bus conversions (with the exception of professionally built units) do not have slide-outs. Many older models, including ours, are only eight feet wide. The extra six inches in width that most modern RVs have makes a surprising difference in living space.

Our old 8V71 Detroit Diesel engine is underpowered, and tends to overheat when we are climbing, in spite of all of the upgrades we have done. And they have never made a Detroit Diesel yet that doesn’t leak oil. You can tighten nuts and bolts every day of the week, steam clean it until it resembles a hospital operating room, and the next morning you’ll see oil dripping. There is a saying among bus nuts that if your Detroit Diesel stops leaking oil, put some more in, because it’s empty. Only I would buy a white van to tow behind a leaky old bus, but the good news is, it will never rust!

Overall, if you get a good bus to start with, it can be fairly inexpensive to maintain. We average about 15,000 to 20,000 miles a year. Every year we spend about $500 on an oil and filter change, replacing the two fuel filters, a lube job, etc. In normal use, you can expect about that.

But every year we have done a major project or upgrade. One year it was new brakes and six new tires, at about $5,000. The next year it was a complete suspension upgrade (new air bags, radius rods, new bushings, etc) for about $7500. Last year we replaced the steering box for about $3,000 and put on two new front tires for $1400. This year we had the rack run (like a tune-up for a diesel engine), replaced the starter, rebuilt the governor, added an engine block heater, repaired our Jake brake, installed a sight glass to make it easier to check our radiator fluid level, replaced our old style canister oil filter with a new style screw-on adapter with filter, replaced our power steering reservoir, and replaced several hoses. That was about $2,000.

But one thing to keep in mind is that on a bus, most of these repairs and upgrades are a one time thing. Once you do them, you never have to do them again, because in RV use, they usually will never wear out again.

Realistically, I would think that if you budget about $2,500 to $3,000 a year for upkeep on a bus, you’d be okay. Keeping in mind that a major failure (engine or transmission) could blow that right out of the water.

Thought For The Day Money will buy a fine dog, but only kindness will make him wag his tail.

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Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

  2 Responses to “Pros And Cons Of Bus Conversions”

  1. Thanks. That was a good read.

  2. Hi Nick,

    As I’m sure you know, if you want a Detroit that doesn’t leak get a Series 50 or 60 motor.
    Really hard to beat a Penske designed engine. Or course stuffing it into an MC-8 might be a little tough. Other then that I have to agree with you 100% on the rest of the blog.

    Have fun in Casa Grande,

    Jerry Ray

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