sparr: (cellular automata)
After buying the buses and tag team driving them from Iowa to California, the next step was to get them registered ASAP so that I could park them on the street. To a first approximation, there are two major requirements for registering a bus as a motorhome in California.

First, you have to remove most of the seats. There are laws about how many seats a vehicle can have and not count as a "commercial" vehicle even if it's not being used commercially. There's a lot of nuance and variation between different states, and in some cases specific cities. As far as I've narrowed it down, the punchline is that 10 seats is legal everywhere in the US, and 15 is legal most places and doesn't draw much attention in the 10-seat states if it's registered in a 15-seat state.

Fortunately I don't actually want my bus(es) to have a lot of dedicated seats. One thing I learned on the road trip to Burning Man last year is that with so much open space, passengers are much more likely to be comfortable on the sleeping surfaces than the sitting surfaces, given that the beds are cushy and the seats are not. They even spread out on the floor with cushions and sleeping bags. That might change if I had comfier seats, which could happen when I add a sofa. For now, simply ripping out every seat in the rear section and half the seats in the front sufficed. The remaining seats are the fold-up seats near the wheelchair securements, as well as the few seats that have bolts through the floor and require someone under the bus to remove. I got one bus that far on my own on Sunday night and Monday morning, and it was the first that I drove to the DMV in San Francisco.

Along the way, I stopped by my old bus to get the kitchen cabinet, with sink and stove, a water tank, and the toilet. Along with a bed, which we already had from the trip, those things comprise the general unofficial guidelines for a motorhome conversion in CA. The actual law just says "permanently altered ... and equipped for human habitation", which gets interpreted by various DMV inspectors in different ways. So far I'm 3 for 3 on big vehicles with a raised mattress, self contained toilet, foot pump sink, and propane stove. People get by with less sometimes, including as little as a bed and a camp stove, but that tends to be much riskier to try.

On the way to retrieve the second bus from its parking in Oakland I also picked up J and D from their hotel. J was already on the hook for a day of work, since our original negotiation had him still full-time driving through Monday. I extended my deal with D for drive time to include wrench time.

The first major wrinkle in the plan developed shortly after I got the second bus to the DMV parking lot, while I was still making logistical plans with J and D. While I was inside the DMV, J and D were going to be busy removing and stacking seats from the second bus. Interrupting that planning, a DMV employee came out and asked me to move my buses out of the parking lot. I said that I couldn't, in not so few words. Her manager came out shortly afterward and repeated it as a demand, to which I calmly and politely responded that I couldn't drive them on the street again until they were registered. I offered to move them to other parts of the lot, but she didn't like those ideas (those parts might still be needed for DMV operations later in the day, like motorcycle driving tests). In the end she said she would call California Highway Patrol (the lot is technically state property, being the DMV's) and I went back to planning.

When I had a free minute, I found someone in line just keeping a friend company. I talked to that person and gave them $10 to stick around in line to the end, with promise of $20 more at the end. They were happy to take it, and seemed incredulous at the deal. Overall, that $30 saved me about 2 hours in line, and is probably what made the difference in success or failure for the day. With that settled, I went back to getting the first bus ready. I cleaned it up a little and rearranged the living facilities.

While doing that, two CHP officers arrived. I greeted them outside the bus and they seemed friendly. Apparently someone had implied to CHP that I was somehow driving "both buses at the same time", which they repeated with incredulity. We talked about my options, and one of the officers went inside to talk to the DMV manager. Some fuss was raised about the second bus not being qualified for conversion yet, and the lead officer did not believe I could have it ready in the ~4 hours we had to get through the other process. In the end, he negotiated for me to move the buses to the positions I had originally offered to move to, with the caveat that I must get them out of the lot by closing time, and a promise from the DMV manager to sell me another one-trip permit to move the unconverted bus without plates (the same way I moved them from Iowa).

After a couple of hours I met my proxy near the head of the line and got some paperwork and instructions to get the bus inspected after filling it out. I had to ask a few questions; the form has changed in the last 8 months. I got it filled out pretty easily after that, then waited about an hour for the inspector. This is the same person who checks car VIN plates, and multiple cars came, waited, and gave up waiting while I was there. Eventually both inspectors on duty came out; apparently an opportunity for the senior inspector to do a motorhome conversion was a teaching opportunity for their junior counterpart. He was a little dubious that the kitchen cabinet wasn't bolted down, but happy about its general heftiness, and everything else looked good. He didn't ask me to demonstrate the toilet, which is sad because I love showing it to people.

Fun fact: the CA DMV website gives average wait times at each station, but those times start when you get a number. So, after 2 hours of my proxy standing in line, and another hour waiting for an inspector, I finally got a number and my official "wait" started, advertised to be about 30 minutes. As this was going on, J and D were finishing the seat removal (on which they did an amazing job) on the second bus. I asked them to swap the two buses positions and discreetly move the kitchen and toilet between them. I did the paperwork on the first bus, got its plates, and then went back to the "get paperwork" step for the second bus. Thankfully not the "get in line" step.

Inspection and paperwork for the second bus went smoothly. The DMV closes at 17:00, but handles everyone in line by 16:59, so we weren't even close to the last ones out at about 17:30. We drove the two new buses to the same block where I park my old bus, did a little bit of tricky maneuvering, and declared an end to the bus handling for the day. After dinner at a local pub J and D both went their separate ways, towards overnight plans and/or the airport.
sparr: (cellular automata)
I bought two buses at online auction, from the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART). I made plans with some friends to meet up in Chicago and drive them back to SF. There were some hiccups along the way, but (spoiler alert) we made it.

On Thursday and early Friday we all started to travel towards Chicago. I flew in from San Fransisco along with Z. D took a train from New York, and J drove up from Indianapolis with his friend M. I had breakfast in Chicago with Z and an old friend there. D, M, and J showed up shortly thereafter and we started driving west in the late morning.

The drive from Chicago to Des Moines was uneventful. We stopped for provisions outside of Chicago and made good time across Illinois and Iowa.

Once in Des Moines we were on a somewhat tight schedule. We went to the DART offices first. I filled out paperwork and the maintenance manager there gave me a walkthrough of the buses and their controls. We all spent about half an hour looking them over and testing various things. D was our resident mechanic for the trip and he poked at things under the hood. Sadly all of this took place after dark, so I postponed taking photos. After deciding both buses were roadworthy, we sent M back to Indianapolis with J's car. There were some contingency plans in place if one of the buses deserved to be scrapped at that point, but we didn't need them. We then went to a UPS store, where I'd had packages shipped ahead of time, and retrieved a bunch of logistical needs (mattresses, ratchet straps, 12V outlets, etc). The last stop in Des Moines was at an OReilly to get spare fluids and such, at D's direction.

After Des Moines we picked up some folks who responded to a Craigslist rideshare post that I had made. A family of five and their two dogs and 2d3 rodents. They had gotten stranded in western Iowa due to a family problem and wanted to get to San Francisco and Tucson. I offered to drop off the Tucson-bound folks in Denver, but they said they'd rather just all go to SF if I wasn't going any further south than Denver.

The next 1500 miles went by in a ~30 hour blur, trading off drivers and stopping for food and fuel and bathrooms every 4-6 hours. Along the way we discovered some mechanical problems with each bus. One was losing coolant at a manageable rate (4 gallons over the whole trip). One bus reports low oil pressure despite having apparently full oil. We also had occasional confusion about why a bus wouldn't go into gear or respond to throttle, although it's probable that we were just missing some interlock conditions rather than anything being wrong. My notes were not as good as they might have been, so it was only later that I narrowed down which bus had each problem.

As we drove through Nevada, we hit a bit of bad luck with timing. Donner Pass (the path through the Sierra Nevada between Reno and Sacramento) was experiencing freezing rain turning into snow, and CalTrans had declared a snow-chains-required condition. I spent 6-9AM calling truck stops and auto part stores and mechanics as they opened (what few were open at all on a Sunday) and in the end we found exactly four chains that would fit on the buses' ridiculously large tires. $550 later and we had the bare minimum number of chains that might get us through the pass, two per bus rather than the 4-6 per bus that might be required in certain conditions.

As we left the clear weather in Reno things got progresively worse on the way up the mountain, until we were in moderate snowfall and a few inches of accumulation at the top. At the agricultural inspection station we got a little card explaining which wheels needed chains on different vehicle shapes. There was no bus, so we decided to go with the 6-wheel 2-axle truck diagram. We pulled over along with all the other cars and trucks just before the chain checkpoint and spent ~30 minutes getting four chains installed. I learned a lot, and I think I could do them in 3-5 minutes each by myself next time, as long as I only had to do outer wheels. If I ever have to do my inner wheels, I'm just going to pull over and camp out if the storm isn't expected to be days long.

We saw a few idiots spin out, mostly people who had lied to CHP about having 4WD/AWD, or been too stupid to enable it at least. No disasters, just short delays as they righted themselves. Traffic was generally 20-35MPH through the pass, and this was one of our few chances on the trip to not be the slowest vehicle on the road.

About an hour later we pulled over again and removed the chains, another ordeal where I learned some tricks. Someone had abandoned a single chain-link tire chain for a large tire right where we pulled over, so I grabbed that. That much heavy duty chain and fasteners has a lot of potential uses, even if I don't use it as a tire chain.

We made it all the way to the bay area without further incident. Then, in the home stretch, one of the buses shut down and wouldn't restart. We got the nasty surprise that it had lost all of its transmission fluid. I drove one bus down to Hayward to drop off our Craigslist passengers while the folks in the other bus took a carshare to a store to buy fluid and fill it up. They got back on the road around the time I finished my detour, and we met up in Emeryville.

The end of the road trip proper was in the Home Depot parking lot in Emeryville. I've parked there before, and have a minor level of rapport with some of their security, all of whom are quite friendly. They seem to have no problem with overnight parking, possibly contingent on my actually doing some shopping there before or after, which I've always done.

Z caught a ride back home. I put J and D up in a nearby hotel, where we all used the shower. I left them there and went back to Home Depot. Along the way I'd started removing some of the bus seats, and that work continued on Sunday night.

Thus ends the story of retrieving the two buses from Des Moines. My next post will cover Sunday and Monday, getting the buses ready and registered at the DMV and into parking spots.
sparr: (cellular automata)
As mentioned previously, the bus that I bought 9 months ago has developed an engine failure that will be slightly to extremely prohibitively costly to repair. This has led to me shopping for a replacement.

As part of the shopping process, I re-evaluated my priorities from last time, and re-considered the pros and cons of different sorts of vehicles. Most of those conclusions remained the same, and I won't re-cover them here. There were a couple of significant departures, though.

I was under more time pressure this time. Last time I had my ambulance in good running condition for the duration of my quest. This time, my bus was mostly stationary and I'd lost a lot of the perks of having a home that is mobile (not to be confused with the idiomatic "mobile home"). The net result here was a loosening of some of my criteria.

Owning a bus from an uncommon manufacturer proved to be a mistake. I had trouble finding mechanics who would work on it, and found little to no information online about it. I eventually secured an operator's manual, but never managed to find a service or maintenance manual. Operations as trivial as finding and removing the air filter were painfully time consuming and difficult. My strong preference this time was to go with a "household name" brand.

I started the process by re-creating my email notification rules on and, the two biggest government property auction consolidation sites. Although I did occasionally check individual city and county and university sites, the bulk of my leads came from those two. I asked for emails about newly listed buses across the country, and bus auctions that were about to end, or as close as I could get with each site's notification settings.

Then began a waiting game. Most used buses sell for "reasonable" prices, which make commercial sense for a buyer with plans to recoup their investment, but not as much for an individual who just wants the vehicle. I saw and sadly ignored many auctions that ended, or even started, in that fashion. Anyone with a $10-40k budget can buy a much nicer bus at a more convenient sale than I need.

Along the way I pursued a few leads to some significant degree.

The Oakland CA airport sold off a small fleet of buses they no longer needed. I went so far as to schedule an in-person inspection and take a staggering number of photos in an attempt to locate the one I wanted. In the end it didn't matter; a local bus refurbishing company bought up almost the whole lot for $8-9k each.

The Livermore transit agency sold their old fleet, but I ignored it because the buses were longer than I wanted. I regret that now, and wish I had gone to see them.

A small town in Georgia had a bus that I was very interested in, with minor damage that would be inconsequential to me but require costly body repairs for a reseller or commercial user. I paid a friend who lived a few hours away to drive down and get photos and video of it. That one sold for an amount just slightly higher than I had bid. I would have enjoyed a cross-country road trip with friends from Atlanta.

I finally struck gold in Des Moines, Iowa. Their transit agency is in the process of replacing a whole 12-15 year old fleet, and opened the process with two bus auctions in parallel, and a third ending a few days later. The buses are longer than I wanted (same size as the Livermore buses I passed up), but otherwise a good match. I watched the auctions eagerly, and as they came to a close I jumped in and got the first two for $1520 and $2000 (plus taxes and auction fees totaling about 20%). I had hopes to win the third one, and placed a bid on it early, but got outbid with a few days left. This was actually good news; the later unit being bid up gave me a good idea that I had gotten a steal on the earlier ones.

While watching those auctions I had corresponded with some old friends about working together to road trip them back to San Francisco. Plans were made for the 2 or 3 bus eventuality, some plane and train tickets were bought, and I started laying logistical plans for RV conversion and registration once we got back to CA.

After winning the auctions, I pulled the trigger on the tickets and plans, and my next post will pick up with a flight from San Francisco to Chicago, proceeding through the retrieval and road trip back to the west coast.
sparr: (cellular automata)
Read more... )

I will continue living in this bus for now. I aim to drive it back to San Francisco, probably at night for a cooling bonus. I'll keep parking it in my 3 favorite spots near work, moving it every 3-7 days. I've got my fingers crossed that it will start and run for those few minutes every week for a while.

I will look for opportunities to get rid of this bus. I'll be taking some photos to post on Craigslist and elsewhere. Maybe someone wants it for a stationary tiny home. Maybe someone wants to keep it in their driveway and rent it out on AirBNB. Maybe some enterprising diesel mechanic wants to spend a few weeks and $10-20k and get a well-running bus out of the deal. I'm going to ask a few scrappers what they would give me for it, as a last resort, and that should be a decent amount because it's mostly aluminum.

Read more... )
sparr: (cellular automata)
It's been a while since I posted about the bus. I was working on it a lot for the first month or so, then I slowed down a lot. I didn't stop, and things picked up before Burning Man, and they have taken a turn for the worse recently. Here's what's been going on.

Read more... )
sparr: (cellular automata)
Tonight was going to be a great start to the weekend. Kelly had a ticket to A Night At Hotel Zeppelin for me. I got tickets to #TigerStyle. I left work on time and... then it all went to shit.

Read more... )
sparr: (cellular automata)
I've been trying and failing to get in touch with anyone at New Flyer, who bought NABI, who bought Optima, who manufactured my bus, who might have access to any sort of documentation on the bus. I posted to a few bus forums and someone pointed me towards an expired ebay auction for an almost-right operator manual. It's off by one year, and possibly wrong in other subtle ways, but I'll take what I can get. I contacted the seller and found they had re-listed it. I bought it, and it was waiting for me when I got back to San Francisco tonight. This post is me live-journaling my discoveries as I peruse it for the first time.

The "Summary of Changes" section of the book describes the revision history of the book. This is good news, as it indicates this book does cover my bus, it just happens to be one year newer than my bus. Better yet, the 2004 revision of the book contains no content changes, just copy editing and formatting, which suggests the Opus bus wasn't changed in 2004, so this book should be an exact match for my bus, barring any custom changes that the RRTA requested.

I am apparently supposed to inflate the tires to 110PSI, so my instructions to the Tire Pass folks to aim for 115 was a bit high. I know better, now.

My turning radius is 31' for the tires, 36' for the body. Ouch.

My bumper to bumper length is 34'5", with a wheelbase of 18'1". The height, probably including the heater, is 10'4", and the outside wall width is 8'3.2" (no idea why this one gets an extra digit of precision).

I am supposed to have a 75 or 90 gallon fuel tank. My estimate based on the fuel gauge and fill-ups was 80, so now I need to actually figure out which it is.

The driver's seat is a Recaro Ergo Metro. Knowing this will allow me to find spare parts! Apparently it's missing a non-optional headrest, which I would love to find. There's also apparently a seat adjustment control that we didn't see and I'll be poking around for when I return to the bus.

The light inside the engine compartment is on an 18ft retracting cord, which is long enough to drag it to the side to see the fuel tank, radiator, tires, etc in the dark. Spiffy!

There is a button on the dash with the engine retarder icon on it, which we couldn't identify before. Apparently my transmission has a built-in retarder, and now I want to get on the highway and check out its function. It claims to augment engine braking for steep downgrades. I wish I'd known that 3000 miles ago.

There are seven electrical system multiplexer nodes. I only found ~4 of them in my initial round of panel-opening. Now I know where to look for the rest of them!

My Allison transmission is apparently a B300 or B300R. That narrows down the possibilities significantly.

The section on the climate control system is a tease. It identifies which system I have, but won't tell me what the mystery buttons/LEDs are!

It may be possible to raise the bus suspension above the normal not-kneeled height temporarily, for crossing things like slope peaks and raised railroad tracks. This requires further investigation of a particularly arcane set of conditions and button pushes.

Apparently I'm not supposed to idle for more than ten minutes. This is probably why there's an automatic shutdown. The suggested failure mode is "overcooling" which will result in carbon buildup in the combustion chambers in unburned fuel in the oil. The internet already told me that unburned fuel in the oil could result in the weird oil levels I've seen. This requires immediate investigation.

Also I'm supposed to idle the engine for a few minutes before shutting it off, to promote even cooling. Good to know.

"CAUTION: Do not allow the vehicle to coast in neutral. This can result in transmission damage."... Also good to know!

I need to learn more about safe amounts of engine braking. I tried to balance load on the transmission and brakes while leaving the Appalachians, Rockies, and Sierra Nevadas. However, the manual suggests that all the way down to first gear is acceptable.

Apparently the broken air hoses in my doors go to some sensors that are supposed to stop the doors from closing on people. I probably want to disable that functionality, for primary and secondary reasons. And I could probably save a bit of wasted vacuum or air pressure by capping those hoses.

For some reason, this bus sold to a transit agency in Pennsylvania apparently doesn't have the optional front defroster modules, which would have been responsible for turning the cold air coming out of the dash and driver vents into warm air. I need to get under the front dash and see if they are installed and just missing the controls. If not, at least I know there's room under there to add them.

Apparently the lit up /!\ button and indicator on my climate control indicate a fault, and I can get it to read an error code out to me. I'm not lucky enough to have a key for those codes, but at least now I know what that does/means.

Apparently my powered windshield defroster (which has such cute tiny wires running through the glass) is coupled with mirror defrosters. I hope I don't ever need that feature again.

I never tried the emergency door release buttons because I didn't know if I'd be able to reset them. The operator manual sheds no additional light on this situation. :/

Along with knowing where all the multiplexers are, I now know where 3 more fuse panels are. I should document them.

Additionally, I now have a pre-flight checklist, most of which I will ignore. I also have a few hints at weekly/monthly maintenance tasks, which I will not ignore. Overall, this is a lot of useful new info. Sadly, there's still missing operational info, such as how to engage the baseboard heaters, the specs on the climate control air filter, etc. Hopefully I can find a service manual some day to fill in the rest of those gaps.
sparr: (cellular automata)
Why live in a vehicle?

Save money over renting or owning a building.
At least as customizable as owning a [tiny] building, far more so than renting.
Can move my house temporarily for events, permanently for relocating to a new city.
Can avoid some residential zoning laws.

Why live in a large vehicle?

My ambulance was good for 1-2 people for a trip. It's too small for 2 people for permanent living, or more than two for visiting. It's way too small for a party of any sort.
An upgrade from a van/ambulance to a large vehicle is like ab upgrade from a tiny studio apartment to a 1.5-bedroom apartment.
Existing school bus conversions can sleep 4-6 easily, seat 8-20 for social.
Large vehicles are safer on the road for myself and passengers (evil parent SUV rationalization)

Why not an RV?

RVs are not stealthy at all. It's obvious someone lives inside.
RVs come with a lot of preconceptions that I want to avoid.
Weak walls.

Why not a box truck?

High floor.
Wasted space above/around the cab and hood.
Weak walls.

Why not a step van?

Generally much higher used price than somewhat equivalent other vehicles.
Weak walls.

Why not a school bus?

Low headroom (~6ft?).
High floor.
Weak walls.

Why a transit bus?

Rear engine and unibody means no drivetrain under most of the body, keeps floor low and allows maximum interior headroom (up to 8ft!).
Rear engine is much more accessible than under a hood/doghouse up front.
Rear engine means less noise around the driver.
Side-front and side-mid doors appeal to me more than other combinations.
Unibody means strong walls and roof, including pre-installed interior rails and poles.
Heat/cooling for the whole interior.
Large designed-to-be-removed windows.
Usually excellent previous maintenance regimen.
Higher scrap value, for last resort disposal.

Why not a transit bus?

Less availability, usually farther away.
Less access to qualified mechanics.
Many more miles on the odometer when I get it.
Smaller community of modders/converters.
Not designed for highway speeds.

I’d appreciate any additions to these lists. I know that I have blind spots, and I want this to be a well reasoned decision when I finally pull the trigger.


sparr: (Default)

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