• Michael Fuehrer

Should you start a Short or Big Bus Conversion?



Introduction

I was talking with some friends the other day about work and travels, just sharing some typical life updates. When the conversation came around to me, I told them that I had just bought a new short school bus. The plan was to move out of my big bus and convert the little one. I was surprised to find that they were confused why I would want to switch from a large bus to a short bus. I’ll give it to them; I do have a converted 37 ft. school bus that is ready to head back out. It’s just that I decided it was time to switch things up. The conversation got me thinking though, why would someone want to start a short bus conversion vs. a big bus conversion, what really is the difference or benefit? School bus conversions can be difficult to start because the first thing you need to decide is what size bus you are going to be looking for. Unfortunately, once you buy a bus the only thing you really can’t change is the size. So, if you are looking to buy a bus and don’t know what size you want the, most important things to consider are your price range, floor plan options, skill level, and travel destinations. All these factors will affect your final decision. This article will discuss some major factors that will help direct your decision and get your bus adventure started on the right side of the road; regardless, if you end up with a larger bus or a little shorty.


How Much Does a Bus Conversion Cost?

The first thing many of you might be asking yourself when starting a school bus conversion is how much will it cost. This question deserves an article all to itself, but it’s still a valid point to make when thinking about buying either a large or short school bus. It might seem like an obvious answer: yeah, of course the big bus will cost more; it’s bigger. While this is true in many cases, some other conversion expenses will stay fairly level across the board. I would agree that the overall budget to build a larger 30+ ft. school bus would be more than a little shorty. However, while general material costs might differ greatly [you're simply buying more] some supplies and extra costs are the same. A lot of it depends on where you are putting your budget. In order to break down the general costs of a school bus conversion, I tend to think of the cost broken down in four categories: general building materials, systems, maintenance, and extras.


General Building Material Costs

The expenses that go along with general building materials are directly affected by the size of the bus that you purchase. If you will grant me these two assumptions: That an average short bus is around 18’ long, 7’ 6” wide and 6’ 3” high and we are going to be putting mid-grade sanded plywood on all surfaces [roof, side bus walls, floor…]: then we can use some basic numbers to start seeing the real difference between a short and big bus conversion. In this scenario for the short bus, you would need around 18-20 sheets of plywood to cover the entire inside walls. [Remember these numbers are not including new construction walls, cabinets, or minus window glass just exterior walls.] If you were to go to your local hardware store and buy 18-20 sheets of mid-grade cabinet plywood it would cost around $45/sheet. That means your little bus would cost around $810 - $900 dollars in plywood alone. In a similar scenario, a large bus, which we will assume is all the same dimensions except, will be around 30’ long. The large bus would need around 28 - 30 sheets to cover the entire inside of the school bus. At $45/sheet, this would cost you around $1,260 - $1350.

I know that every bus is going to be different and some people leave more windows in than others, but it still proves a simple point: Larger space = More materials. Just think about it, with commercial spray foam around $1.50 a cubic foot, the difference between a large bus and a smaller one could be an extra 200-400 cubic feet of space. That extra foam will begin to add up fast.


General Systems Cost

This category encompasses pretty much all of your ‘utilities’ or permanently installed gadgets, such as solar systems, water systems, electrical wiring, propane, and so on… Most of the time, I find that these costs are pretty universal across most school bus builds. Every build is unique and has different amounts of solar, water, and propane storage, but at the end of the day, most build ‘system’ expenses are the same. From my experience, I would suggest that if you're trying to determine if a short bus or a big bus is going to cost more in ‘systems’. My theory is that, if you were planning on adding a 1kwh solar system to support your lifestyle, you would more than likely put that system on whatever bus you get. Let's just say you want to buy a water pump for your freshwater system. It does not matter if you buy a less expensive model or a nice 2.6 gpm Shurflo water pump. A Shurflo pump on Amazon is going to cost $86.95. A less expensive model might cost $45.86. My point here is that water pumps don’t care if you’re driving a short bus, large bus, or soccer mom minivan: a 2.6 gpm Shurflo Pump is $86.95. It is important to consider the locations in your layout where you can place your water and electrical systems. But, when it's all said and done, I do not think it would be a major cost factor when deciding between a larger and small school bus.


Maintenance

This section is about maintenance costs. Yes, mechanical maintenance costs. I am sorry that I have to use the dreaded word ‘maintenance’ but it needs to be discussed. This is because while your brain is still accepting the fact that you have decided to buy a school bus, the next biggest hurdle for many is learning how to maintain your bus. The costs of maintaining a school bus are going to vary greatly between a larger school bus and short bus conversion and something to really think about. If you have ever owned a vehicle, it might be the case where you have never needed to work on it yourself or you just know to stop at the local oil shop once a year. Unfortunately, looking at buying a bus as your home means you will have to be a little bit more involved in maintaining the bus than your current daily driver. Since, no matter which bus you end up with, a large school bus or a shorty, 99.99% of the time it will have an engine. Unfortunately, there is no way around it. The difference here between a short and large bus conversion is going to be found in general maintenance costs. These costs include changing your oil, greasing your bearings, changing your brakes, and replacing tires. This is not to say you need to become a diesel mechanic to buy a school bus and cut costs, but it is helpful to know a little bit. If you don’t have a lot of skills or a background in engines or cars, with a little confidence you can learn a lot of what you need from surfing blog articles and watching videos.

Let’s look at my buses for example; if you are looking to buy a short bus like my 2004 Collins, it has a 6.0L diesel engine. A fairly standard engine you can find in many trucks and vans you see on the road today. Whereas, my larger bus has a MBE 900 for an engine, which is a bigger block diesel.

You may not know much about these engines or any engines, but I bet you can guess which one takes more oil during an oil change. That is right, the larger MBE 900 and because of that an oil change for my larger bus cost me substantially more. Another notable difference is in the cost of tire replacement. A little bus, especially if it is not a dually in the rear, will cost far less than new shoes on a big bus. Larger buses with bigger tires can run $300-500 a tire, depending on the quality. That would mean a full set of 6 tires could run $1800 – $3000. Where my little bus would cost around $500 - $750. These costs are typical with every bus conversion because just like every vehicle they need oil and tires changes eventually. You just need to consider this when looking at the size of the bus you are considering because a large bus vs. a smaller bus, in this case, can be a big difference.


Extras Costs

This category is what really takes a budget from $10k to $30k fast. If you have watched those HGTV shows where during the renovation the host comes up with some type of dramatic design idea that will make or break the build! Then you also know the budget is about to go up. Spoiler: it all works out in the end… every time. But, it’s true to say, design and ‘extras’ are where you can really blow your budget. The big difference between a larger bus and a short is more space = more possibilities and more possibilities = more potential extras. We have already established that building materials and your systems are going to have varying costs but extras are completely an individual decision and the size of the rig is not going to change where you decided to focus your budget. If you are the type of person who tends to get carried away with extras and ideas during the build, it might be a good idea to make sure you have a list of things you plan on adding to the bus before your start. This way you will have a better chance of staying on track and budget.


How does the size affect your travel opportunities?

I would imagine that if you’re reading this article you are a bit like me when I bought my first bus. Spending your days dreaming of the open road and camping under the stars. Unfortunately, if you’re like me, you too are probably not considering how the size of the bus will affect your travel opportunities and seeing those starry nights.


My first home was a 37 ft. school bus named Navi. I could never complain about that bus, it was the best travel companion I could have ever asked for, however it came with struggles. I don’t suggest this for everyone but, I used to pretend that Navi was actually a 4x4. So, when I was driving around looking for a camping spot if it was a dirt road, I drove it. With more than my fair share of branches and bushes hugging my bus, broken windows, and paint scratches, I can say that not every vehicle is created equal. Navi, my larger bus, has plenty of interior room but the 26 ft. wheelbase, 8 ft. overhang, and 37 ft. overall length really limited me while driving in cities, tight parking lots, and some national parks. For example, if you have a big bus and dream of driving the ‘Going-To-The-Sun-Highway’ in Glacier National Park, you can’t. It has a length restriction that most buses, except short buses, aren’t cleared for. If you took your big bus to Glacier you will be stuck driving around the edges of the park or would have to use the free shuttle systems. It is not the end of the world to use the park trolley systems but I found that they do not run super early in the morning and late into the night, so it can be difficult getting on those sunrise hikes. The size of your bus does not have to limit your travel abilities though. Here are some quick tips to work around the issues of size and turning radius. If you have a larger family or simply need the extra space for some reason, you should consider towing a vehicle. I know many families and people with larger school buses that either tow a vehicle or mount a motorcycle on the rear of the bus. If this was the case, you will need to leave your bus at the visitor center at Glacier but you could detach your car and drive anywhere. Let’s be honest, if you wanted to have complete mobility, you would most likely not be looking at a larger school bus. It is inherently harder to drive to some locations without finding a secondary solution. When deciding whether to buy a larger bus or short bus it would be helpful to think ahead to what style of travel you want or what places you will be traveling to.


Floor Plan Options:

Everyone has different needs in building their school bus conversion and your particular needs are what results in different styles of floor plans. I think we can all agree that it would be hard for a family of 4 to live comfortably full-time in a short bus conversion. Personally, I find it hard to design a comfortable layout in an 18 ft. long bus to put three beds. In this case, a family of four might be better off in a larger school bus conversion, where you could build bunk beds and a separated master bedroom. But, if you are wondering if your choice of a large bus or short bus will affect your ability to add a bathroom or substantial storage space, I say the answer is yes. One of the most common questions I get about short bus conversions is, can you have a bathroom in a short bus conversion? To which I always respond, “if you want one, you can have one”. The difference between a larger bus and a short bus is going to boil down to how much space you have to play with for a bathroom and how inventive you can be with the design.

I have a comfortably sized bathroom on my larger school bus. It has a 32 x 32 inch shower base, a Nature's Head toilet, and a full-size window. Whereas my little bus will also have a full bathroom, but it will have a lot less square footage. What you need to determine for yourself is how much space do you need to feel comfortable. I am 5 ft. 10 in. and can stand in almost any bus without hitting my head. On the other hand, one of my friends is 6 ft. 4 in. and a little short bus just doesn’t fit well without raising the roof.


Which is easier to convert?

You probably think that a short bus would be easier to convert than a large bus. It seems logical; one is half the size of the other. In some ways you would be right and in others you might be wrong. You would be right to assume that the amount of time and effort you will need to put into a larger school bus will be more. Though, this is simply because you have double the space to build. In terms of difficulty to convert, I do not think a short bus is much different than a larger bus. The reason it is equally difficult is that the steps to converting a school bus are the same no matter the size. I have had the opportunity to work on multiple bus projects and let me tell you, ripping the floor out of a small bus is no easier than a large bus. It just happens in less time. If you are trying to determine your skill level and what type of projects you feel comfortable tackling yourself, the size of the bus should not really affect your choice. Just know that the difficulty will be the same. It’s just that a large bus might take 6-8 months to convert and a short bus might take 3-4 months.


Conclusion

Now that you have the perfect school bus size picked out, the only step now is to find a bus for sale and get converting! Want more information about school bus conversions? Click here to get more information about how to convert your new bus conversions.



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