- Written by Brock Butterfield
~ Solar panel mounting and installation tips for school bus conversions. ~
Guest Blogger: Troy Dickens – @WhiteWhaleSkoolie ~
Tilt Concept - Mounting solar panels in a stationary location such as on the roof of a house or in a field is fairly straightforward. Here in the Northern Hemisphere the basic concept for stationary panels is to tilt them toward the south at a certain angle relative to one’s latitude. By tilting panels toward the sun optimal energy is captured. But mounting panels on the roof a RV or Bus Conversion is a different story. The fact that buses and RVs are not typically stationary makes optimal panel tilt a bit of a challenge. There are however a few different options for dealing with this problem.
Flat Mount - The simplest of ways to mount solar panels to the roof of your bus or RV is to mount them directly to the roof. For some RVs the roof may be relatively flat, providing less than optimal but consistently flat panel orientation. The roof of a bus however is typically curved, which may cause panels to actually be pointed in the opposite direction of the sun at times. Some folks have added legs or racks to create a flat mounting surface. Though flat mounted panels are less efficient than properly tilted panels, this can be compensated for by simply adding more panels to your system. The nice thing about permanently mounted flat panels is that you don’t have to worry much about sun direction each time you park in a new spot, and solar gain will always be relatively the same.
Tiltable – A second option is to install tiltable racks to mount your panels to. These can be homemade or purchased from various solar dealers. The racks typically consist of hinged brackets that mount to your roof, which you can leave flat during travel, or tilt in a single direction once parked. If you are able to park in the ideal orientation where your panels can be tilted to the south, you can significantly increase your solar energy input. However, since these racks only tilt in one direction, you may often find yourself having to leave them flat. Another consideration is that manufactured tiltable racks are typically designed for one single panel. If you have six or eight panels on your roof, getting up there to tilt each one can be cumbersome.
The Best of Both Worlds – For our Bus Conversion we found a multidirectional adjustable system to be best for various conditions. We started with six 100w panels and separated them into two three panel arrays. We bolted each array of three panels together and mounted them on respective sides of the roof (one set on driver’s side, one set on passenger side). The panels are mounted to hinges along the center of the roof, and secured to brackets with finger nuts at the outer edge of the roof. Due to the natural curve of a school bus roof, when the panels are in the down position each array sits at a slight angle, in opposite directions. When traveling, keeping the panels close to the roof like this decreases the risk of damage from low hanging tree branches, and still ensures that at least half of the system receives good sunlight.
Once parked, either of the two arrays can be tilted up to match the directional tilt of the other. This means that the entire solar system can be adjusted to tilt toward either side of the bus at any given time, giving twice the flexibility of a standard single direction tilt rack. By simply removing the finger nuts that hold down the outer edge of an array, gas struts effortlessly lift the three panels into the appropriate position. By properly sizing the struts to the size and weight of the panels, the array can be held up without any further effort. To lower the array, simply pull down on the panels to compress the gas struts and reconnect finger nuts to brackets.
When configuring panels in such a way, one should also consider the way in which panels are wired. Because our panels are mounted in two separate arrays that may receive differing amounts of sunlight depending on orientation and sun direction, they must be wired appropriately in order to maximize efficiency. The three panels that makeup the driver’s side array are wired together in series, and the three panels that makeup the passenger side array are also wired together in series. The two arrays are then wired together in parallel to the charge controller. This allows each array to act somewhat as its own 300w system, without being adversely effected if the other array is shaded. When the two arrays both receive sunlight, additional amperage is generated.
What Works for You – When planning your system you can go as crazy or as basic as you like. You can just bolt a bunch of panels down and be done with it, or you can come up with fancy mechanized ways to tilt the panels at the push of a button. You should take into account things like; How much power do you need? How much available roof space do you have? How much money do you want to spend? How often do you want to have to climb up on the roof? At the end of the day you need to install a solar system that works for you. So think it through, ask around, research, and consider all the pros and cons of different options. And most of all, be creative!
Recommended Solar Products
- Written by Brock Butterfield
Been looking for the best fridge for a bus conversion? Here's a list of the most used fridge/freezers used in bus and van conversions.
*Note: These are fridges/freezers that are used the most in short bus conversions. If you have full size fridge/freezers for bigger builds let us know what you use!
Mr. Heater / Basecamp Systems 42 qt. fridge/freezer
This fridge / freezer has been tested and used by Bus Life Adventure for over two years and we find that the thick insulation and ability to add ice and have a drain in the bottom allows us to keep the load off our solar power in hot weather. It also has the ability to shut the fridge / freezer off if the level of the battery is getting too low. This is helpful in not running your house or vehicle batteries dead and leave you stranded.
- Rated as freezer 0-32 degrees F, Refrigerator greater than 33 degrees F
- Runs on 120 volt AC or 12 volt DC
- Average 12 volt DC consumption equals .74 A per hour
- Remote wireless readout showing internal temperature, battery voltage, and condition
- Digital electronic temperature control
- Adjustable battery cut out with three individual settings
- Internal LED lights in compartment and open lid alarm
- Exterior stainless steel, internal aluminum with wire storage baskets
- Drain for ability to add ice if no power is available.
- Product Dimensions: 21"H x 23.5"W x 17"D
- Price: $649.99 plus free shipping to US residential addresses (this price only offered by Bus Life Adventure here.)
Whynter 45 qt. Fridge / Freezer
This fridge / freezer has been used and tested by Mark and Karin in the school bus conversion and for their setup runs right off the motor battery.
- Capacity: 45 Quarts or 60 Cans (12FL oz)
- Operates as a refrigerator or freezer
- 8-feet AC power cord and 5-feet DC power cord and two removable wire baskets are included
- "Fast Freeze" mode rapidly cools to -8°F
- Voltage power AC (115V/ 60Hz – 65W/ 0.75A) or DC (12V/24V – 4.5A /2.5A Car Lighter Socket)
- Wattage: 65 Watts
- Product Dimensions: 18 x 28 x 20.8 inches
- Price: $494 (average on Amazon)
Norcold 68 qt. Fridge Freezer
This fridge / freezer has been used and tested by Dani and Roland in their sprinter van conversion for a few years. They did have some parts fail but NorCold is a widely known brand in RV's so it was easy to get replacement parts.
- Exceptionally quiet, hermetically-sealed compressor
- 12-volt fan aids airflow across condenser and compressor for improved cooling
- Off-level operation up to 30°
- Full-width freezer compartment; convenient, large container storage
- Expressly designed for reliability in marine and RV applications
- Reversible decorator door; black panel and charcoal cabinet
- Durable and easy-to-clean white powder-coated shelves
- Power Source: 120V/AC; 12V/DC
- Limited one-year warranty
- Interior Volume: 2.8 cu. ft.; Net weight 62 lbs
- Product dimension: 30-7/8"H x 20-1/2"W x 20-1/8"D
- Price: $1,288 (average on Amazon)
Generic 2.1 cu ft. Mini Fridge/Freezer Propane Gas - 110v - 12v
This fridge/freezer is a common one in RV's and I've seen a handful of skoolies who pull an old one from a junker RV. One nice thing is that it can run off LP (propane), 12v or 110v.
- Temperature Range: 32℉~50℉
- AC 110V or DC 12V Gas 3-way absorption small refrigerator fridge
- Rear Mounted, Reversible Door, 2 Balconies, Piezo Ignition, Flame Indicator, Automatic defrost, LED light, Sealed system, No Freon, no pollution, low energy consumption
- Product dimension: 18.7 x 18.9 x 26.6 inches
- Price $489 (average on Amazon)
- Written by Brock Butterfield
How to find a short, medium or large school bus for sale.
-Written By: Brock Butterfield-
Locating a school bus for sale doesn't have to be as hard as you may think. Granted it started out hard for me and I scoured the internet for hours every night searching for a short school bus for sale. My search was a little harder with trying to find a 4x4 short school bus for sale but I did learn a few things that I'd like to share with those of you looking to find a school bus for sale whether short, grande or venti.
First place to check is our Classifieds section of our website. If no luck there then onto the interwebs!
I found a nifty website that searches ALL Craigslist postings everywhere. This helped me find every possible bus that was for sale from a private owner. Craigslist comes with it's downside of scammers and such so be smart about it and as always go see the vehicle in person and inspect it yourself before handing over any cash. The website for searching all of Craigslist can be found by using this link.
Used Bus Dealer Websites
Depending on where you're located here are some websites that have used school buses for sale.
Don Brown Bus Sales - This is where I was able to locate my bus, flew out to NY from UT, inspected it and drove it home. One thing I'd like to mention is on the day of pickup we found a few other issues with the brake lines and heater fan so Don Brown put us up in a hotel for the night and gave us cash for dinner. I was very impressed by their efforts. However, they did fail to change the oil as I requested and didn't catch that the serpentine belt was cracked and ready to go which it did on the cross country journey leaving us crawling at 5mph until the next town. They have a large inventory of school buses for sale. Large buses for sale, shuttle buses for sale, short school buses for sale, etc.
Don Brown is one of the largest bus dealers on the east coast.
While I have no experience buying from Mid West Transit Equipment I have noted that there prices are right where they should be for used school buses. They seem to have a large inventory as well for those looking for a school bus for sale.
MidWest Transit has many locations across the midwest.
Western Bus is again another one that I don't have experience buying from but an option for those of you located out on the west coast. I do feel their prices are higher then they should be for what they are offering so bring your haggle pants and make sure you're not over paying. Again, a good inventory of school buses for sale.
Surplus / Auction Websites
Found this surplus / auction website for school buses for sale in my search and haven't used it yet. Never been much of an auction man but it can a way to score a bus for extremely cheap. Keep in mind you'll want to budget for any unexpected repairs that may pop up. Most of these auction vehicles are sold as is and don't allow you to inspect them to the bone before purchase.
Some auctions are online and others you have to be there in person. Most of the time it's a visual inspection only.
Local School Auctions
Support local. Start by calling your local school districts and let them know you're interested in buying a used school bus from them and ask to be connected with the best person to talk to about it. Some school districts will sell directly to you and others have contracts with auctions and can only sell them at local auction. If that's the case see if you can inquire to what buses will be up for auction and try to get a little info on them so you know which ones may need more work than others. I've met a few skoolies that have found a short school bus for sale this method.
The Important Thing To Remember
Don't give up on the search and don't buy something that isn't exactly what you're looking for. Be patient. You want a bus that is going to last you for as long as possible so make sure you spend your money right! Happy searching!
- Written by Brock Butterfield
Picking the right source of heat for your bus conversion.
-Written By: Brock Butterfield -
For those of you looking to live full time in your converted school bus and need a plan for colder climates there are a couple different options out there. I've put together some of the most common ones I've seen in bus conversions so far. Each with their pros and cons.
The four main types of heat sources for bus conversion are:
Determining what heat source is best for you will depend on your budget, space and desired comfort level. So let's start with the most common for it's simplicity and cost of fuel to burn.
The other white gas. I'll let you make an educated redneck guess to what the first is... Propane is fairly cheap and easy to find in most towns. There's a good chance you're already using propane for cooking so being able to tap into your existing line can be easy with a few parts.
You have two types of propane heaters to consider. Standalone portable propane heaters such as Mr. Heater products or vented permanent propane heaters for bus conversions.
I've used and tested both the Buddy and Big Buddy propane heaters from Mr. Heater in my bus conversion as they are indoor safe and easy to operate. For my 76 square feet living space I've found the Buddy heater will raise the temperature in my bus in the winter by 35-40 degrees in roughly 45 minutes. I use it the most when my wood stove has burned out during the night and I need a little heat to talk myself into getting out of my zero degree sleeping bag. They have an O2 sensor that when it detects the oxygen level is getting low it shuts off automatically. I always crack a couple windows to allow fresh air to flow in as a precaution and to help with condensation.
Mr. Heater Buddy also serves as my boot warmer in the mornings before heading out into the cold.
The other option for propane are the vented systems such as the ones made by the company Suburban. They can be accompanied by a thermostat to get the most out of your fuel by letting it turn on and off throughout the night. With only a 4.5 amp draw it wouldn't put much strain on your battery bank either. With venting to the outside of the vehicle you don't have to worry about cracking a window for ventilation.
Suburban's 30,000 BTU vented propane heater.
Ok, so now let's talk about the cons of propane heaters from my point of view which is also known as an opinion and we all know what opinions are like... Propane is a "wet" fuel/gas so you'll notice that you get a fair amount of condensation on your ceiling if you left it metal as well as your windows and windshield. My only complaint about this is I typically move everyday so if I've been running the propane heater then I either have to wait a pretty long time for the defrost to burn off the moisture on the windshield or use a towel if in a hurry. The towel method usually comes back to haunt me when driving at dusk into the sun and you see all the towel smudges.
With that said let's talk about a dry heat.
There's nothing quite like the feeling, smell and novelty of a wood burning stove. It's also currently the hipster thing to do for a bus conversion right now as I'm seeing people who don't plan to live in the bus full time or in cold climates for extended periods of time. But dammit to be able to claim you've got a wood burning stove in your bus conversion is something to brag about as you sip from the newest IPA at the brewery while wearing your lumber sexual attire!
For my bus conversion I chose a wood stove because I wanted dry heat for staying warm and wet snowboard gear drys out much quicker when your heat source is literally sucking the moisture out of the air. Wood stoves can heat a small space very efficiently which means they don't have to be the giant wood stoves that you've seen in your grandfather's cabin. My little Kni-Co Packer wood stove is only 16" tall, 10" wide and 23" deep and is MORE than enough for my 76 sq ft. I actually have to crack windows and the top vent because even in a t-shirt it's toasty.
Another popular and highly efficient wood or solid fuel burning stove for bus conversions is the Dickinson stove such as the one used in Will Sutherland's 95 Chevy Bus Conversion. It's also a very popular stove for boats.
The small yet efficient Dickinson solid fuel stove.
The only con and non-hipster thing about this type of heat source is that fact that you'll actually have to cut down a tree and chop wood. While this can seem like an inconvenience to some people it's also kinda therapeutic for me. It's also nice that I don't have to worry about making a trip to town when I run out of propane as I can usually step out into the woods, find a dead tree, use my chainsaw to bring it down and then haul it back to the bus for chopping. A drawback is the amount of space it takes to store wood as opposed to a tank full of propane.
If you go the wood burning stove route here's a few extras you'll want to look into that I've found to be a must.
- Windbeater Stainless Steel Chimney Cap - I had issues prior to getting this cap with wind back blowing into my chimney and filling my bus with smoke. This has withstood 65mph gusts during winter storms without blowing smoke back in due to it's design. It also won't blow ash around while you're driving.
- Metal Roof Pipe Flashing - Initially tried automotive high heat silicone to create a seal around the chimney pipe on the top of the bus roof and that failed. Have since swapped out with this high heat stove pip flashing and haven't had an issue yet.
- Heat Powered Stove Top Fan - This thing is amazing and works by generating electricity when hot air from your stove rises up through the metal. It circulates air throughout my bus rather than letting it all rise up in one area.
- Stove Pipe Thermometer - It is extremely important to knowing how efficiently you're burning and how hot your stove is getting. This thermometer attaches to your stove pipe by magnet and gives you your stove pipe temp.
- Inside Thermometer and Humidity Monitor - This is great for letting you know what the temp is inside the bus as well as the humidity level. If it's too dry you can set a pot of water on the stove to put some moisture back in the air.
- Outside Window Thermometer - I just threw this in because it's kinda rad to see how cold it is outside when you're wearing a t-shirt inside with a wood fire cranking.
If you're not too keen on being a lumber jack and will have a place to be plugged in all winter then you'll want to consider an electric heat source.
If you're lucky enough to have somewhere to be plugged in all winter than an electric heat source is a good option to look into. Most bus conversions I see running this type of heat source tend to like two different styles. Space heaters and oil filled heaters.
Electric heater for small spaces.
These in wall Cadet heaters are great if you want to plan them into your bus build.
Last but not least I'd like to talk about a great alternative to heating your bus conversion especially if you're already using the fuel source to drive around. Diesel!
I first heard about this method from an Alaskan who was living out of his truck with a custom truck camper or tiny home. The second time I was able to see it in person from the Native Eyewear sprinter van conversion. It allows you to tap into your existing diesel fuel tank and uses a drip system that is highly efficient. The most popular system is the Airtronic from Espar but you can find similar designs as well. I've heard from a few people that the installation can be a bit daunting but really isn't that bad if you're good with reading directions.
Diesel fuel heater taps right into your existing gas tank.
Now obviously a con can be the complexity that is required to install as well as you're tapping into your driving fuel source. You'd just want to make sure you don't post up for too long and drain your gas tank. An extra gas can of diesel is a good idea regardless as you never know when you could run out.