Category Archives: Skoolie

A Warm Reception

  So after finishing the first bunk, we gave the bus a test.  My wife and I got invited to a multi-day wedding reception for a couple of our friends on another friend’s land out near Franklinville, NY.  The trip was only about an hour away, but it wound along the 400 expressway and then up into the edges of the Alleghany mountains on Route 16.  The weather was great, and the bus ran nicely.  When up to speed, I could take most all of the hills along the route in fifth gear, but we still ended up slowing some people down because I wouldn’t speed (much to the relief of my wife).
  For this trip, I brought an inverter and wired up a 12-volt outlet so that we could blow up a queen-sized air mattress while the bus was still idling and cooling off the turbo fan.  And the fan did get warm.  The land we were headed for was on a small 1 ½ lane road that I missed while we were looking for it.  Luckily, it was a nice, clear day, and there were plenty of places that farm, gravel, or other trucks and vehicles had packed down and could be used to turn around.  So we did. And we got on the road and drove happily along it.
  Having never been to this location before, we weren’t sure if the barn at the bottom of the hill just off the road was the one that we were supposed to park at or not, and so we drove up and set the air brakes half-way up a fairly steep incline where the reception was actually at.  After several hellos and a brief confirmation, we found that the barn (now behind us) at the bottom of the hill was, in fact, the right place, so again we were going to have to turn the bus around.  And, I’d have to get it going on the hill.
  Now, I learned how to drive on standard (manual) transmission vehicles, and I grew up in the mountains, but this was to be the first time that I had to put the bus with its diesel engine to the test in this environment. But it was surprisingly easy.  The very low gearing of first gear (that I routinely complain about because of the fact that I have to use it to get the bus moving, but then have to shift out of almost immediately as its top speed is 5 mph) was awesome for getting the bus moving, even if I couldn’t get it above 15 mph getting up the hill.   But, of course, just on the other side of the hill was, well, the other side of the hill going down.  Luckily here near the top, there was an intersecting road with a wide mouth at an angle that allowed for me to bring the bus along on it, back up a little, and then get the bus turned around. 
  Getting back to the barn was then easy, though I did find out that the seemingly big (to me) 7.1 L T444E engine, even with the low gearing, wasn’t enough to hold the bus back (in fourth, which I thought would do it, but I probably should have been in third).  Now, toward the end of making the bus stop for the parking space at the bottom of the hill, I used the brakes, which did slow the bus, but I now know that I didn’t use the “stab” braking that I should have, instead using steady pressure that would have, on a longer, steeper hill, likely overheated my brakes.  (Stab braking is a hard use of the brakes to below the ‘critical’ speed you need to stay below, and then a full release until you’re just above the ‘critical’ speed.)
  So, at the bottom of the hill, we parked the bus near the barn, secured it, set up the air mattress, and then walked back up along the road to the reception.  There, most people were camping in tents, so we were at a distance from them, but, our ‘steel tent’ was bigger.  But we brought up some camp chairs and our bocce set and had a great afternoon and evening, with DJs and live music by Penny Whiskey.
  We cooked in our ‘Toas tite‘ maker over the communal fire, and in the morning I made espresso over a camp stove and we had a half card table that fit perfectly between the two facing bench seats, so we had our breakfast there.  We stayed until late afternoon, and made our way back home, which was also a slower trip, but because of my adherence to the speed limits.  It turns out that there was some manner of motorcycle rally, and we were stuck in the ‘parade’ behind it.  Otherwise, the trip home was uneventful and fine. 

  We did realize that the narrow hallway along the bus was going to take some getting used to.  We spent plenty of time getting in each other’s way realizing the thing we wanted was at the other end of the bus, past the other one of us doing something along the way.  But we worked things out and, really, more organization would certainly help.

A July Bus Trip to Evangola

  So skip forward to now, and we just took the bus to Evangola State Park to stay for a weekend.  As of the writing of this post, the bus has some of the electrical system in and the three-way-fridge working on both the AC & DC settings (but all that’s another couple of posts).

  The trip was somewhat marred by the fact that the alternator had lost its regulator.  While the alternator had never put out really high voltage levels, they’d always been sufficient to charge the batteries and run the electrical needs of the bus systems.  With the regulator problem, the alternator would put out 13+ volts for the first few minutes of the engine running, then only put out between 5 and 9 volts.

   A couple of days before we set out on Friday, I had made my way up to the Tonawanda Res to fuel up the bus, and due to some poor weather, I had the lights and wipers on for that run, and these, then, ran off the battery, and the ammeter was showing that there was 12-13 volts over that time which seemed low, but okay for the way the alternator had been since we got the bus.

  Now you might be thinking, ‘Hey, wouldn’t you have realized this sooner?  I mean, on my car, if the alternator goes, it’s really dramatic.’  However, you have to realize that the bus is a diesel, so it doesn’t have spark plugs or anything consuming the electricity as the engine runs (well, excepting the ‘electronic brain’ that sucks down some 10 milliamps), and the battery bank is two big 8D batteries, which hold a whole lot of amp-hours (~950 cold-cranking each).

  So on Friday, we set out from our house to pick up our son from camp downtown and head the additional 26 miles to Evangola.  Unfortunately, two blocks away from our son’s camp, I was making a tight turn and shifted into fourth instead of second and stalled the engine.  Which then wouldn’t start.  I boggled for a minute, as my pre-trip had shown 13 volts, but the battery now was down below 10.

  I  quickly grabbed the jumper cables and used the house batteries to jump-start the bus.  Given that the AC/DC converter (used to) have a charging circuit, we headed on, picking up our son, and running another errand in the city before heading off to the campground.  It was a nice, uneventful drive, and our site was wonderful.

  Our site was maybe 60 feet from a cliff right on Lake Erie and had wonderful sounds of the surf the whole time we were there. There was a nice, flat, grassy area (perfect for playing bocce), and very light woods off toward the cliff.   It was a twelve minute walk to the beach along the cliff-side trail, and we had cool people in the campsites near us.  A couple people stopped by to see the bus, and seemed suitably impressed.  And, on our last day/night we even had a friend come out to stay over, so we could be hosts!

  Even without a functional kitchen, we were fine.  I had the refrigerator working, so we were able to keep stuff cool (including the ice-cream bars in the freezer!) and most of our cooking was done over the fire (except for one breakfast that was cooked over a propane camp-stove). I brought a keg of cider and the little CO2 cartridge pressurizer worked well (and since there was no driving going on, it was all safe!).

  We had a massive thunderstorm, and had a couple of leaks from the hatches’ vents, providing with another thing to check, although they hold up fine to regular rains.  On the other hand, the auxiliary air tank (coming up in another post) held enough pressure long enough for my wife to blow the four-chime whistle (same post as the air tank) at the parading pirates, much to everyone’s enjoyment.

 Now, the whole time we were there, I had disconnected the house batteries from the converter and used my jumper cables to hook the bus batteries up to the ‘charger’ part of the converter.  Unfortunately, the charger part wasn’t working so the bus batteries had no charge, and the house batteries didn’t have enough charge, so we couldn’t get the bus running when we set out to leave.

  Luckily, we have AAA with the RV upgrade, so I called and in 20 minutes or so Matt from Tick Tock Towing & Recovery showed up and spent the better part of an hour trying to jump the bus form his truck, pull-start it (since it’s a manual), then finally calling for the big shop-charger to be brought out.  In less than five minutes on that the bus was started.

  And so we were off, on our way home.  But it had started to rain again, so I needed the wipers on, and the lights.  And of course, that meant that these drained the already low batteries further.  To the point where the electronic tachometer and speedometer kept resetting.  So, again the house batteries came to the rescue.  I ran the jumper cables up to the power bus bar and everything electric perked up.

  We made it home safely, and the consensus was that we all couldn’t wait to go camping with the bus again.


The first bit of real, built-in furniture, the bunk beds.

(So, as of the time of this blog being written, I didn’t have any good pictures of the lower bunk, and it was blocked from easy view by some furniture-grade pine plywood and a large pile of 8/4 and 10/4 unfinished red oak planks that are 9-10′ long.  The bus has a wonderful capacity for cargo, right now better than the garage.)

  Not to downplay the seats, but there wasn’t much building to those past the cutting and welding I spoke of before for the sideways one (at this point). Some plywood screwed onto the back and they were functional seats, which for a start was all we needed.  (Later, they would get more fancy with woodwork and hinged backs, but that’s later.)  The next obvious furniture for the bus was a bunk bed.

  Why the bunk bed?  Well, even without other amenities, the bunk beds would allow for us to use the bus as a ‘rolling metal tent’.  Also, a large amount of the studs that got put up were the front, back, and (under the rear roof hatch) side of the bunk bed area. And with the wheel-well right there, the floor wasn’t as usable for other storage.

  In designing these bunk beds, I worked with the idea of using a standard mattress size (the common twin size), so that getting sheets and blankets would be easy.  That and so that people who slept on them would be comfortable.  After seeing what passed for a bunk mattress in some of the RVs/camping trailers at the County Fair, a regular twin mattress has tons of space.

These lovely wheel-well covers.

  The lower bunk was placed just over the top of the framework that I built to cover the wheel-well. This framework squared off the wheel-well so that it could be encased (with simple MDF in this case) and filled with fiberglass insulation to help keep down road noise.  Placing the bunk at this height also meant that the outside edge of the bunk would rest securely on the seat rail.

  The outer frame of the bed was done in 1×6″ oak, and included a 5″ wide ‘pocket’ at the head of the bunk to keep items in, and, if things were to jostle about during travel, they should end up in there and then not be able to escape afterward. (Recent case in point – one of our dog’s tennis balls was rolling around on a fueling trip.  Dropping it in the pocket kept it from ending up under my pedals.)

These are the future drawer openings –
note that you don’t need drawers for storage.

  Under the bunk, however, I ended up with almost 10″ of space, and I worked to set this up as storage space.  My plan is to build slightly sloped drawers that can be slid out into the walkway, but won’t open on their own as the bus rounds corners or hits bumps. I built this out of more oak, all fitted together with pocket screws from behind and then used 2×3 bits as drawer guides (which also work to keep stuff from sliding) for the future drawers.

  Several pieces of oak and then some plywood formed the base for this lower bunk, and an old mattress was slid in place, giving us a functional bed.  The upper bunk came months later, more from lack of time and materials than any planning issues.

  The upper bunk was centered in the remaining space to give about 23″ of headspace between the lower and upper bunks and then from the upper bunk to the ceiling.  This may seem cramped, but is well within the layouts for the RVs/camper trailers that I was able to scope out.  Even so, it’s not someplace you’ll want to sit up quickly first thing in the morning.

  The upper bunk followed the same design as the lower, but ran across the windows on the outside of the bus.  The windows can still be lowered in a conventional manner from the top bunk, but since I put an emergency exit window in the center of the bed, the lower occupant can open that window themselves (and these are easily held open with a length of wood) to get some airflow.

The upper bunk, showing the windows and storage pocket.

Again, this bunk was held up with more oak, but because the bottom of this would be seen by more than the contents of the storage drawers, I wanted to do something a bit nicer to the bottom so the person in the lower bunk would have some aesthetics to appreciate.

The upper bunk with slats in place.

  While the oak is very nice to look at, the sheathing-grade plywood I was going to use to support the mattress wasn’t.  But I did still have some MDF left over, and ended up cutting a sheet to underlay the plywood and provide a ceiling for the occupant of the lower bunk.  The little bit of wall under the roof hatch made this tricky, as it didn’t allow a full piece to be put in place.  Luckily the big oak slats do a great job at hiding the seams, and by staggering the plywood above (and screwing it in place), everything worked out.

  I’ll get some nice clean pictures of it for another post soon.