Electric buses and tips to reduce your carbon footprint on the road
By Elizabeth Hensley and Brock Butterfield
Imagine riding off into the sunset in your bus home without a gas station in sight. Not to worry, your bus is electric.
Decades have gone by and diesel-powered school buses have remained relatively the same. Links between emissions and health problems have been documented and with climate concerns on everyone’s minds, especially in the nomadic community, we started looking into options.
Whether ditching mortgage payments or saying goodbye to a typical 9-5 job, bus life means being more conscious about the lives we lead. Many of us chose to live in converted school buses to free ourselves from the pitfalls of mainstream culture. But one element we cannot escape is the environment. In that sense, driving around a diesel-sucking home on wheels is not exactly the solution.
The original idea for this article was to compare bus life to living in a home and what was better for the environment. There are too many variables involved to get a clear answer. But if you convert a bus and park it somewhere for long periods of time and it’s off-grid, then yes, the carbon footprint is smaller than living in a home. However, most in the bus life community buy buses to travel and explore while not having to pay rent or lodging during their travels.
In this article, we go over some exciting developments in the electric bus industry that will no doubt make their way to the bus life community in the future. In the meantime, we offer up some tips so you can get started reducing your carbon footprint as we make our way there.
So, what about electric bus life?
The LionA all-electric mini school bus. Courtesy of Lion Electric.
Bus manufacturers have been working on all-electric buses since around 2017 and they will be the future of buses being used by schools. Because of climate concerns and strides in technology, more bus manufacturers are realizing the need to bring electric models to the masses (cite articles). There are currently more than 385,000 electric buses in operation worldwide and the number is growing steadily.
One electric bus that’s been giving us life comes from The Lion Co. This bus manufacturer specializes in zero-emission fully electric vehicles including full-size school buses, trucks, and midi/minibuses that are built with attention to passengers with special needs. We think they would make amazing bus conversions! The LionA model is just over 26 feet long and weighs more than 22,000 pounds with a top speed of 65mph. On a full charge, it can go up to 150 miles. It has an 80 percent energy cost reduction and 60 percent maintenance reduction over a diesel engine. We hope this is what the future of bus life looks like!
But with price tags for new electric buses stretching beyond $300k, close to the national average for a house in the United States, it has been a struggle for electric school buses to make their way into school districts let alone into the nomadic community. Until e-buses become the standard, it seems we are still a long way from seeing them in bus life. We’ve heard rumblings of people tinkering with Tesla or Leaf batteries and even the electric VW bus. But realistically, what does it take to power a tiny home on wheels?
Solar panel views from the roof deck of Little House on the HWY at the United Tiny House Festival in Orlando, Florida.
While solar power in bus life has become the norm for powering everything from lights to AC off-grid, we took it a step further and asked the question: what would it take to power an entire electric bus engine through solar power? To find the answer we asked our good friend, Garret Towne, President of AM Solar. He gave us calculations. This gets super geeky but hang with us. The specs are as follows:
For a range of 150 miles, you would need a battery capacity of 168 kilowatt hours, and roof dimensions of 313” x 96”.
168kWh x 1000W/kW = 168,000Wh
168,000 / 3 = 56,000W of solar to take the battery bank (the big version) from empty to full on an average day.
200W solar panel dimensions: About 62” x 29” = 1798 square inches per panel
Let’s say you can utilize 70% of the roof’s space for solar panels (very optimistic)
313” x 96” = 30,048 square inches
30,048 x 0.7 = 21,033 square inches available
21,033 / 1798 = 11 panels
11 x 200W = 2200W of solar on the roof
2,200W / 56,000W = Miles per day / 150 miles
5.89 miles per day*
150/5.89 = 26 days to go from empty to full charge*
*These calculations are assuming a lot of things: no other loads or charging sources (shore power), very predictable weather that gives you 3Wh per 1W of solar panels, etc.
In other words, to quote Doc Brown from Back to the Future, “Great Scott!” That’s a lot of time and power!
So, if buying an electric bus or powering your rig’s engine with solar power isn’t exactly in the cards right now, here are some no-brainer solutions that can get you on the path to reducing your carbon footprint today:
Stay parked longer
It is no surprise that staying off the road longer will help reduce your skoolie’s carbon footprint. Many people opt to stay for weeks or months at a time in the same spot. If you can live completely off-grid, all the better! If you live in the United States, one way is to seek out BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or publicly owned land. If you want to work while staying in one place, Workamping is a good option to save for future adventures.
Number Juan Bus uses a motorcycle as their tow vehicle.
Buy a tow Vehicle
Good parking on the road, especially in a scenic area, can be hard to find. It’s not efficient to ditch an ideal camping spot with your entire home on wheels to drive into town for groceries or to a remote trail. Towing a vehicle like a motorcycle, electric bike, compact car, or truck to cruise into places while you’re parked can be very handy. On the flip side, consider the amount of traveling you will be doing with your vehicle in tow. If it’s a lot, you could end up burning more fuel overall, adding to carbon emissions.
Logan from Ramblin' Farmers shows a bit of their Havelock sheep's wool insulation in their bus conversion.
Choose nontoxic insulation
If you want to beat the heat and stay cool in the summer, insulating your bus is a key step in the conversion process. But when it comes to the materials, you have options. Fiberglass and spray foam are commonly used but they contain chemicals and carcinogens that can be harmful to you and the environment. One sustainable, nontoxic option is sheep’s wool insulation. Wool has been used for thousands of years as natural insulation. It is fire, moisture, and bug resistant too. Not only a good option for folks who want to be environmentally conscious but a good choice for those who have asthma and allergies as well. Ramblin’ Farmers shares their experience using Havelock Wool insulation on on our blog here.
Kildwick and Nature's Head composting toilets are made with tiny living in mind.
Composting toilets are an eco-friendly approach to doing your business in the wild. Instead of “black water” holding tanks loaded with chemicals, common in most RVs, composting toilets break down solid human waste into compost with the help of organic materials like peat moss or coconut coir. Two major composting toilet brands, Kildwick and Nature’s Head, go “head-to-head” on our blog so you can learn which one would be right for you and your rig. Click here to read the full article.
Jax Austin's video shows how bus lifer Kyle has been running his buses on biodiesel for over ten years.
Turning toward biofuels, how does it work? Is it for everyone?
Biodiesel is a non-toxic alternative to regular diesel that runs on fossil fuels. It comes from renewable resources such as cooking grease or vegetable oil that mixes with alcohol to run an engine. It burns cleaner and is biodegradable. YouTuber and bus lifer Jax Austin made the switch in his second skoolie to a biodiesel fuel system. Watch this video from his YouTube channel to see how and why he was inspired to make the switch. Maybe it could work for you too!
We had a lot of ground to cover here. From the state of electric buses, powering a solar bus engine, to ways we can all be more environmentally friendly on the road. Minimalism and off-grid living can definitely be a step in the right direction, but it will take everyone to really have an impact in reducing our carbon footprint over the long haul. Feel free to reach out with other ideas that can help: