When choosing a school bus for a conversion, there are so many factors to consider. The choices can be overwhelming. In this article I’m going to share what I know about bus size options, both through my own study when I bought a bus and from road friends with buses of all sizes.
So what are the sizes of school buses? Here are three main types …
- Mini Skoolies
- Mid size skoolies
- Full size skoolies and coaches
Mini scoolies include busses with a total length between 20 and 25 feet. These are usually suitable for one or two people and perhaps one animal. It can be a struggle for all of you to fit into a smaller bus like this, so building in storage is important everywhere. Nonetheless, smaller busses are more flexible, making driving and parking easier, especially in cities.
My friend and I live in full time on our 22-foot bus, so we couldn’t be happier. All of our main priorities (fixed bed frame, toilet composting, fridge, counter, wide couch) have been fitted without any compromises.
The only things we would wish for sometimes are a wood stove and a passenger seat on long drives, but we were not prepared to give up our handling and we were okay without them for over a year.
By building on a rooftop deck, we added substantially to our square footage. We store up there our bikes and our replacement tire and used to have a crash pad to climb up there. We could add a rigid rooftop locking box if we really needed more room, but the storage we had built into the bus so far was more than adequate.
The deck is a great hang-out space, starvation, tan, etc.
Mid Size Scoolies:
Busses between 25 and 35 feet are known as mid-size busses. This size of the bus is perfect for two people and some animals, although I saw couples with small children living in a medium-sized bus comfortably. In general, these busses look like full-sized busses with regard to style, wheel size and motors, but slightly shorter.
Our Zac and Tiffany friends from @rolling vistas have a 31-foot bus which is simple to mistake for a full-size bus at first glance. It has a flat front and huge tires, but the shorter length is perfect for the two dogs.
They also choose a Subaru when Tiffany drives behind the bus when they are on the move, allowing them to boondock in the middle of the night but also easy to zip into the city in the car to get food, or sail on rugged mountain roads that would otherwise be inaccessible by bus only.
Any bus that is more than 35 feet is considered full-size. The biggest school buses are constructed for 97 passengers and are 42 to 45 meters long, depending on the exact configuration. While they aren’t scoolies technically, coach buses can also be used for conversion, typically 45 feet long. Such secrets are great for families or if you want to get out of your bus.
We have seen families of six living in large busses, hair salons, leatherworks and jewellery shops built into conversions, as well as a living room.
Clearly, full-size buses need more preparation and thought when selecting your routes and finding a parking or camping. Many people we met with40-footers have a tow or car to park their bus in their campsites for the duration of their stay and take part in a car rental.
Our friends Adam and Elizabeth and their two daughters (@deliberatelifebus) live on the rooftop bus. They have beds for the girls and a lovely fully equipped kitchen. We both have a car and a dirt bike, so they have many choices to find places and execute orders.
Full size skoolies and coaches:
Bus length and quadrant footage estimation:
Most of the bus lists only include passenger capacity and not the bumpers and inner square pictures. If you want a certain length, especially if you can’t walk around the bus before shopping, it can be hard to shop. Luckily, the length and square footage can be calculated by looking at a picture.
Every window on the body of the bus as a rule is approximately 2.5 feet long. The interior is mostly 7.5 meters wide. Therefore, use the equation[ free windows]x 2.5x 7.5 to get a simple estimate of the bus’s square footage. There are five windows on my bus, for example, so 5x 2.5x 7.5= 93.75 feet square.
Our actual square footage is nearer to 100, given that the fifth window is extra long to house the lift door on the other side of the bus, but if you go shopping for a bus or the salesman doesn’t have the exact sizes the equation is a good starting point. If your possible bus is lifted with a wheelchair, the length of this may be 0.5 to 1 feet.
Front end design and motor placement–
where the motor of the bus also affects the entire length of the bus and the accessible inside square pictures. Many busses have front motors while others are on their back and the front style differs from front to front, tail, dog’s nose or flat.
Take your windows number and multiply them by 2.5 to estimate the total length of a bus and add the length to the front end type: about 10 feet for the neck of the dog and for the front of the van and 6 feet for the flat front.
If the engine is at the front, the total length of the bus that is not usable indoors is at least a few metres. The driver’s seat and entry steps can take a few feet more, depending on the arrangement of the front end. The engine and driver’s area occupy a large part of my 22-foot van front bus, so our building area was approximately 13 feet long.
The driver’s area takes a few feet in a flat front pusher bus (with the engine on the rear), but you must also consider the engine at the rear which can be taken into storage space under the bed (or whatever you decide to have there back).
These buses are different as you are a driver and not just behind the front axle like in an ordinary car, or the engine on the front. These buses are different from the driver’s position.
Factors to consider when selecting a skoolie length:
Where do you want to transform it? This is a critical part of transforming a bus: it has a workstation. Some friends of ours bought their coach and tried to convert it while parking on the streets of a city in California, but they racked up hundreds of tickets for various crimes, including parking in one place, street building, etc. They’re still working in the process of converting the coach on the streets in Boulder but at least one ticket hour has already been received. However, they have no permanent power source to recharge their batteries and stay with their four cats in the bus when attempting to do the conversion, which makes it harder to do anything.
I have also read of groups with homeowners having difficulties with parking busses on their homes for long periods of time, so if you live in a region that may be troublesome, look at the regulations beforehand. If you don’t have room in which to convert the bus, ask family and friends to use or rent a spot, or look for workplaces at websites such as the Craigslist.
My boyfriend and I were very lucky because his parents allowed us to park our bus on their property for the 8 months we converted it, and his dad let us use his shop and all its instruments. That saved us a ton of cash and stress. There’s nothing worse than buying a bus, and getting really excited about making your change, just to find out that you don’t have a big bus.
Train, conversion and repair costs–big busses are often cheaper to buy than smaller busses. The majority of people I spoke to with medium or full buses pay $2,000 to $3,000 in the region but the bus is at least several decades older, with smaller busses costing $5,000 to $8,000 and typically younger.
It might just be an anomaly based on who I actually spoke to but, even when I was looking to buy my own bus, that usually seemed to be the case.
But, you would probably spend more on conversion if you pay less and get a big bus based on the amount of materials required to build a larger space. See this post, which details the costs of a few different bus sizes to give you an idea of what to expect.
In fact, maintenance costs vary dramatically depending on the size of the vehicle. Our small bus has the FordE-450 van on the front, so that you get oil changes and other basic maintenance from any Ford dealer or daily store.
Although we were turned off a few shops because either they did not work on diesel engines or had insufficient bays to fit the bus, we were always able to find mechanics if we needed them without a lot of trouble. As you can imagine, it’s not just a 40 foot bus that takes you to a Jiffy Lube with an 18-inch roof lift.
Specialists with big bays that are usually more expensive than a regular shop must be found.
“Our bus has light truck tires so that, when the treads were soft, we were able to buy well used tires with a better stealing tread that saved us tons of money.”
Ultimately we plan to replace all 7 pneus (6 plus a replacement) so that they fit, but for the last year we’ve probably spent a total of $300 on a replacement pneumatics and rim plus two other replacements. Mid and full-size coaches have enormous tires of $500 to repair, and if not impossible it’s much more difficult to find used tires for sale. This is a very expensive apartment!
When you split up in a big bus, it can be much costlier and even more difficult to get a tow when there is not a large enough tow truck in the field. We heard stories of full-size bus owners waiting for a tow for several days. Even our 22-footer weighs about 6 tons and requires a heavy tow truck.
We have an membership in the Good Sam’s Club similar to AAA because we pay an annual fee and then have a security net if we need to be twisted or receive some roadside assistance. We haven’t had to use it so far, but it’s still reassuring.
A lot of people and pets on board— It would obviously not be feasible for a family of six to stay in a mini-school bus, but I know couples who have full-size busses because they want extra space. Make a list of all things without which you can not survive, draw a few diagrams with an average width of 7.5 feet, and see how long you have to accommodate anything you need.
If you are going to take your pets with you, make sure they have space to sleep, a place for food and water bowls, storage for bags or bags of food, if necessary a bottle or kennel and so on.
We saw some very cute dog kennels installed under the bed behind buses, usually in a medium-sized frame. This room is where we store all our clothes in dresser cabinets, and I’m not sure where we’d store it if we had a dog cabinet down there, so we probably would have to get a dog.
Clearly, beds often take up a lot of space. Just our queen bed takes 5 of our 13 meter long. So, if you need to add bunks for children or more than two adults, a full-size bus is a must.
The more people and animals you have on board, the more water, food, energy, shoes, etc. you need. Our 20 gallons of fresh water will last us approximately a week if we do not have any showers and just cook, drink, wash hands, and wash dishes. Families also transfer 100 gallons of water a week.
How much and where are you planning to go? When you intend to convert a bus and park it for a longer time, size is not really a limiting factor and probably better. However, if you plan to move a lot, you must take into account bus maneuverability, campground duration and park length limits, and so forth.
Bigger buses are also heavier and need more fuel, which is more expensive in turn. On the other hand, most of my larger buses have fuel tanks of 20-30 gallons while our relatively small bus has a tank of 55 gallons.
Depending on the driving situation, we get 10-12 miles per gallon while big guys usually get 8-10, and while we can go about 600 miles with one tank, they have to fill every 300 miles, or so. Our plant can easily fit into most gas stations, but a few large busses with roof lifts have trouble moving under the markers in gas stations or just turning sharply to the pump.
In fact, only having a range of 300 miles means you may be required to pay more than you want for fuel simply because multiple options do not always exist in the middle of the world. Be sure to check the capacity of the fuel tank while shopping for buses.
If you plan to boondock or camp in remote areas, you must also know how much space you have to turn around your bus.
Some of the roads for the forest service are narrow and filled with trees on either side, and it may take you miles to drive, or you may not be able to do anything, and you are going to be on a long bus all the way back, which is both hard and dangerous.
Will you have a tow or a vehicle to follow? Many people with medium-sized or full-size buses that I have seen on the road have a vehicle and they either tow or drive behind a bus independently (this can also make it easier to merge with anyone driving the bus by the way). With a car, going to the grocery store or making certain orders that are not feasible in a bus is much simpler. However, you pay for two vehicles for fuel and insurance.
Our 22-footer suits most of the parking spaces, particularly if we go back in and can hang the back of the curb to most food stores and park in the back of the lot for some extra space. We probably can’t fit into some parking areas (usually in big cities), but if that’s the case, we’re either going to an other shop or looking for street parking close by.
Often we wanted another car with four wheels and high ground clearance, so that we could go to some of the rougher trailways and hot springs, but it is worthwhile to have our house wherever we go.
We have bicycles that we use to go around cities or explore paths that were super convenient up to now, and when we’re on the go we strap them up to the deck.
If you choose to tow a car, another factor is whether your bus has the engine power to do this. If you build the bus with heavy materials and then fill it with all your things, you may already be getting to the maximum load the engine can handle, especially up hills. Adding a towing car will dramatically reduce your uphill pace.
There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to all sizes, but I hope this article will give you a few helpful guidelines and considerations to shop for your perfect school bus to convert!