"It gave us the freedom to shop around without the pressures of a mortgage, rent, or needing [to find] a place for our family to live."
Interview by: Brock Butterfield
School Bus Conversion: Spencer Family
Make: 2001 Blue Bird
Model: All American RE
Cost of bus conversion: More than we wanted to spend, but super happy with how it turned out!
Ethiopia!? What moved you guys there and how has living there translated to living bus life?
My husband co-founded a clean energy business that operates in East Africa, selling fuel-efficient stoves and solar products to customers at the bottom of the pyramid. We lived in Ethiopia for three years setting up the business there. A little over a year ago my husband had the idea to convert a bus into our US home base, since we spend a few months in the US every year. I honestly thought it was the world’s worst idea, but the words that came out of my mouth were: “Cool babe!” That was all the encouragement my husband needed to start researching to find us the right bus. I figured that this bus idea would die a hard death at some point, but it never did, and eventually not only did I get on board, but I actually got really excited about this bus adventure. We found a bus after a few months of research. Then we had to find a tiny home builder that was willing to take on converting our bus, since we aren’t handy people and also lived in Ethiopia at the time. Thank you to Wind River Tiny Homes for taking on our project.
At the end of 2018, we moved back from Ethiopia and into the bus! I was thinking that transitioning to the bus would be way easier than moving to Africa, but I was wrong! The transition to the bus was very stressful because we were trying to learn all the systems and understand the engine, while gearing up for a cross country road trip in the winter (we aren’t very smart, but very ambitious). Don’t get me wrong, we loved the bus from day one but I think we had some unrealistic expectations about how easy it would be to take our home on the road right after picking it up.
The first day, we blew out our fridge hooking it into 220 (it’s a long story) and we ran the side of the bus into a rock while pulling it into the driveway. The first day of our cross-country road trip we busted a fuel line and spent two nights on the side of the road waiting for parts in 25-degree weather, and we hadn’t figured out our off-grid heating (true story). Our engine froze twice in subzero temperatures in Utah, since we didn’t have an engine block heater. Believe-it-or-not, this is just a small sample of all the challenges we faced in those first few weeks. Looking back on it now, I feel so stupid, but it was all part of the adventure and a steep learning curve.
I spy a little bus dweller. What has been the most challenging part of raising a kid on the bus?
Having a baby on the bus is awesome. I can’t speak for older kids, but toddlers and infants are perfect for bus life because they don’t require much space and they just want to be with you all the time. I love that we can see our toddler at all times inside the bus, and I think she actually likes being close to us, even if she is in another room of the bus playing while I am cooking. The only real challenge is when she is sleeping. My husband has a standing desk in the back of the bus and her bed is in an enclosed space in the middle, across from the bathroom, and you have to pass through her room to get to the front of the bus. When the baby is sleeping, Greg is trapped in the back of the bus, speaking in hushed tones—unless he wants to risk waking her and the wrath of his wife (that would be me!). Don’t worry, if he needs food or sustenance I pass him snacks from the outside through the bedroom window. At night when she is asleep we have to sneak through her room to get to our bedroom, but it’s really not that big of a deal. We really tried to come up with a way for her room to be closed off from the hallway, but we just couldn’t make it work with some of the other features we were wanting.
Are you constantly on the move or are you settled somewhere in the bus?
We travelled cross country three weeks after getting our bus. We started in North Carolina and somehow made it all the way to San Diego and back in two months. It was so fun to see friends and family along the way, but we had our fuel lines bust twice, which I am still traumatized over. The first bust we took it to the Cummins dealer in Nashville and had them rebuild the fuel lines, since some of the brackets were missing. We got all the way to Nevada, in the desert, and it busted again. Fortunately, it was still under warranty. The Cummins dealer in Nashville had apparently put one of the fuel lines in backwards. It cost us five days in Barstow, California, and I am not bitter at all. I was very happy to get the bus safely back to North Carolina and park it for a little while. I joked with my husband that I was going to drive the bus into wet concrete when we pulled it back onto the land! I am excited about another road-trip, but I need some time to just enjoy living in the bus without all the hassle and expense of traveling. This May, we are going to Uganda to launch our business there but will be back in the bus for a few months over the holidays.
What was the most challenging part of living in a school bus conversion?
The cold is interesting to manage in the winter. Here are a few mistakes we made in making our bus winter ready; not insulating our floors better and not putting in a propane heater!! We did use spray foam insulation on the rest of the bus and replaced the bus windows but the cold still really comes through those floors. We put a lot of heavy rugs down which really helped with the floor situation and this winter we just used electric heaters when plugged into electricity. It isn’t cheap to run two heaters to heat a 40 ft bus in 25 degrees. We will have to regroup for next winter and hopefully put in a propane heater.
What advice would you give someone who is interested in converting a school bus?
We did a lot of things wrong along the way (as you have read), but that is also our personalities to figure it out as we go, and that means that mistakes and missteps are part of the adventure for us. That being said, I wouldn’t go on a road trip through Wyoming in the winter again; if you do, make sure you have an engine block heater and there aren’t any snow storms. My husband and I have made a blood pact to not take the bus to Denver, Wyoming, or Utah in the winter again, because of the scary winter storms we found ourselves in and all the engine trouble for subzero temperatures.
It was also very shocking to me how hard it is to insure bus conversions. I am probably naïve, but it never crossed my mind that we might only be able to get liability insurance on our bus. It is stressful when you are traveling with your home down the road. If any of y’all have any tips or tricks to getting more comprehensive coverage let me know. I would definitely warn others before building their bus about only being able to get liability insurance.
Aw man! I wish we would have know each other earlier! I wrote a whole blog on how to get your school bus conversion insured. Doh!
What are the benefits you have found with living in a school bus conversion?
When we were moving back from Ethiopia, we weren’t sure what was next for us except for living in the bus. But because of the bus, we weren’t worried about finding jobs, or picking a place to live, or signing a lease. It gave us the freedom to shop around without the pressures of a mortgage, rent, or needing [to find] a place for our family to live. We thought about living in a lot of different places, and ultimately, we were able to wait for the right opportunity to come our way. If we hadn’t been living in the bus, we probably wouldn’t have been able to wait for the right thing to come our way—we would have had to jump at something to pay the bills and give us some stability.