Monday, May 14, 2018

Joe Omundson

BB007: floor removal

Before I talk about the floors, one last note about the batteries: this is what was connected to my positive terminal under the hood, maybe it's hard to see but the part that tightens around the terminal was almost completely worn through.

I brought the bus back to the battery shop. The guy who runs the place re-terminated my cables and got them securely fastened, in a much cleaner way than I could have done without the giant crimper tool they had. It was $12.20 for parts and he wasn't going to charge anything for labor cuz dude is awesome but I tipped him $5 anyway.

On to the floors: they are 3/4" plywood screwed directly onto the metal grid underneath. With an impact driver I removed every screw I could find, but some of the screws stripped, and others were so rusty that they disintegrated. There was also a very tough fiberglass weld between the plywood and the walls, which obscured a row of screws and was difficult to remove. Here's the first panel I worked loose:

I worked this up by placing a jack underneath the plywood panel, vertically placing a 2"x6" between the jack and the panel, and jacking it up until the weight of the bus forced the panel away from the frame.

I also removed most of the fiberglass paneling from the top of the roof. It's not in bad condition, but I don't want to use it in my build. It went to the dump. I hate that I'm not finding the time and space to find new purposes for these materials, but I'm kind of desperate to move forward with my build so that I can start to live in it and gain some more stability in my life.

I was able to remove the plywood flooring on the sides of the bus, which went to the dump with the ceiling panels. This cost me $28. Then, I went to the lumberyard and picked up 5 new sheets of plywood which have one side nicely sanded for flooring application. My dad bought me this plywood as a "housewarming" gift; I had been staying at his house for a couple weeks working on the bus, but I cleared out of his driveway and moved the bus over to Hillsboro, to work with the guy from facebook who offered to let me use his shop (David). It was awesome to get some quality plywood for free, as it's $42 per sheet.

By the end of the day I'd removed the rest of the plywood (except for the "cabin" section near the driver's seat, which I decided to leave for later). It was a long day, I felt like I got a lot done.

Here's a shot of the ceiling with the panels removed. You can see some darker strips running the length of the bus -- that's some kind of metal or epoxy or something, all the luggage racks were screwed into those parts. The rest of the ceiling is thinner honeycomb style fiberglass like you can see in the rectangle on the left (these holes were cut for speakers and lights).

The next day I did some shopping at AutoZone and Home Depot.

The rustoleum converter and paint are for the metal frame -- it makes a lot of sense to clean it of rust and protect it against future rust, while I have the floors off. Redgard is $52/gallon, I got 2 gallons, it's to create a robust weatherproof seal on the bottom of the plywood which is exposed to the road, worth the money in my opinion. I got these at home depot for $130.32  The rest of the items I got at AutoZone except I only got 2 U-joints instead of 3 and I got an air filter instead of a fuel filter. Instead of requiring 5 quarts of oil like a normal goddamn engine mine needs FIFTEEN quarts so it was 4 gallons of Rotella at $15/gallon and yeah, it got expensive ($177.86). The center bearing might help a lot with a wobble I'm feeling when I drive the bus.

Can you tell which filter is the new one? Ha. (There were actually two of these to replace.)

David and I took a break from working and he let me use one of his day passes at the bouldering gym he goes to. It was cool to get to know each other a bit outside the context of auto repair, and also I felt inspired to try to exercise more, it was really fun to climb and to get on a slackline again.

The next thing I had to do was remove the tracks that the seats were bolted to. The whole metal framework is essentially flat and ready for plywood throughout, except for these 2 rails which stick up above the level of the plywood and run for a total of about 27'. They are insanely thoroughly tack-welded on and it's taken me probably 3-4 hours of work to remove about 10 feet of track. I'm getting a bit faster at it, but it's definitely a pain in the ass. I just know if I don't remove them, I'm going to regret it later.

I asked David to take some pics of me grinding the rails off because I always feel badass making sparks fly and I guess I'm vain like that, haha.

Once I'm done deleting the tracks, I'll remove the surface rust from all of the metal and protect it using rust converter and then a layer of Rustoleum paint. Then, I can cut my new plywood to fit, coat it with Redgard, and screw it down -- I'll probably leave the top unfinished for some time as I continue to work on the bus, as I don't see the point in installing a nice floor when I'm still going to be doing so many things that could damage it in the next stages of the build.

The purchases described in this post bring my project total to $3,448.71.

I realize there's some ambiguity as to what counts as a build expense and what doesn't. Using my completely arbitrary intuition as to what counts and what doesn't, I've included title & registration fees but not insurance (actually I still need to buy that, but I won't include it when I do), because I figure titling fees are a mandatory one-time thing that count as part of the purchase price of a vehicle, whereas insurance is an ongoing cost and not a build cost; same with fuel. Yet other replaceable items like filters and wipers count as part of the build because they are tangible improvements to the condition of the vehicle. Tools or other items which I would have bought anyway (like recently I had to replace a multimeter after I broke it for an unrelated reason) do not count, even if they come in handy for the bus. Seem fair?
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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Joe Omundson

BB006: 2-week goals and battery work

I have two main goals for the next 2 weeks: 

1) replace the floor
2) insulate the walls

Once I replace the floor I can put things inside and sleep in there. Insulating will be a smart move long-term; I can make thermal curtains for the massive windows and have a fairly well insulated setup.

Since I want to build a home that can last for many years, I need to pay close attention in these foundational steps to prevent problems later on. Since my funds are limited and I don't want to skimp on quality materials, I'll need to make progress slowly, one thing at a time. With the floors and insulation done I can at least throw my things in and get on the road, drive back to Moab and start earning money to repay the loan and continue my build.

I made plans to replace the floor of the bus this Friday-Saturday, with David, the other vandweller who offered to let me use his shop with him. He'll be replacing the floor of his van at the same time.

To replace the floors I need to:
-pull up the rubber flooring to expose where the plywood is screwed into the metal frame;
-remove anything that is currently attached to the floor; this includes the rear heater, entry rail, and AC condenser unit attached underneath the bus midway on the driver's side, among other things;
-unscrew the plywood from the frame;
-cut new plywood to fit
-waterproof the plywood and screw it into the frame

...and probably about 20 intermediate steps that I'm not thinking of or will only realize exist once I've begun tearing the floor out. It wouldn't be a proper day of working on a vehicle if some unexpected pain in the ass problems didn't materialize. I might get the floors off and decide now is the right time to remove all the rust from the chassis, for example.

I disconnected the heater from the coolant supply/return hoses. Not much liquid came out.

Under the bus, I removed the brackets holding the hoses to the floor and found that they were attached to these ball valves w/ levers for easy shutting off; they were already shut off. This explains the relative lack of fluid in the lines. I should probably still terminate the hoses in a more secure way, but this is good enough for now.

Apparently when I am lying on my back under the bus I like to rest my dirty hands on my forehead (put all that surface area to good use?). My other favorite thing is when I knock bits of grime loose and they fall in my eyes, which only happens once every 30 seconds or so.

I'll get these floors prepped by Friday, but I've been working on my battery situation because if I let the bus sit for more than a couple days it doesn't want to start, and I want to be able to trust that it will start. I found out that the E350 actually has two starting batteries by default. The 1st one is in the normal position under the hood. Near it is a sticker describing the location of the 2nd battery.

The 2nd battery was 6 years old and dead. It lives under the bus on the passenger side, bolted to the chassis in a little box. It was not really easy to get it out of there. I wonder why they didn't just make the front panel hinged so you can open it and pull the battery straight out? I unbolted 3 of the 4 bolts and the ground wire in the picture below so I could pivot the box down and take the battery out the top.

I brought the old battery to the battery exchange place (along with some old dead batteries from my dad's garage, for a discount) and got a new battery for $104 (originally $130). They had options starting at $79 but I paid a bit more to have a higher quality battery with a 7 year warranty, an extra $25 well spent. Wrangled it back into place and got it hooked up, started the engine, and probed the battery just to make sure it was charging... and I'm glad I checked, because with the engine on it was still sitting there at 12.5 V rather than the 14.4 V I'd see if the alternator was charging it! I know the alternator works, because the other battery is at 14.4 V... so it's not connected properly. I followed the cable until I found where the ground line was bolted to the chassis, removed that, found some corrosion, cleaned, re-bolted (after breaking the bolt and finding another bolt that fit a nearby hole). Fixed the connection problem!!

I've been fortunate so far, whenever I've thought there might be a mechanical problem it's turned out to be a simple fix like corroded connections. After taking it for some more test drives, it really seems like the engine and transmission are working well. It seems as though this bus was well maintained. I've been parking it in the same location for over a week and it hasn't leaked a single drop of oil or other fluid. I'd still like to have it looked over by a mechanic before I leave town. There's a vibration which I suspect is due to old tires, I should replace those as well; it'll pretty much wipe out the rest of my funds for now though.

Progress is being made :) in the next week or two it'll really start to look different.

I returned 2 of the 3 quarts of transmission fluid I'd bought, for $15.66.
New total: $3,095.33
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Saturday, May 5, 2018

Joe Omundson

BB005: dump run and a video

Just a quick update today with a few thoughts.

From now on I'm going to format the post titles like I did for this post, BB005 instead of Bus Build #5. I chose three digits for the number because I think I could eventually reach 100 posts about this topic but not 1000.

I will try to make fewer updates with more content. Y'all probably don't much care to see pictures and descriptions of every single change I make! But when I reach interesting milestones or encounter unexpected challenges I'll talk about that.

Today I drove the bus to the dump and got rid of the luggage racks, the 4 bench seats, and some carpet that was on the walls. Cost $30. I also bought 3 quarts of automatic transmission fluid, but I'm an idiot because I thought the dipstick was coming up dry when really it just wasn't a high-contrast color and actually it has plenty of fluid. That cost me $23.49.

I made a video tour of the bus, just to give a better impression of the general size/shape of it, because the panoramic photos that I've been taking inside the bus tend to warp the perspective.

Cost today: $53.49
Total cost: $3006.99
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Thursday, May 3, 2018

Joe Omundson

Empty Inside: Bus Build #4

5/2: I sold the individual seats! Got $70 for them. A church in Hillsboro wanted them for their bus. I removed all the legs and drove the seats over there in my minivan. I happened to be going to Hillsboro and figured I could save them the drive. I used to go to that same brand of church back when I started college and it was surreal to be in a church environment again, to see the youth group kids playing basketball.

The other appointment I had in Hillsboro was to meet the guy I mentioned in BB#1 (BB is short for Bus Build now, OK?), the guy who is also building his van and offered to let me use his shop sometimes. Seems like we'll probably get along well and the shop area is pretty nice! I'm really glad to have that as an option right now.

5/3: In the morning I separated the legs from the bench seats and got them all outside the bus, finally. Cleaned out all the other clutter, gave it a good sweeping. You can see I've got the three back windows propped open a bit, too.

Empty floor, yeah!

The bus came with two entry handrails, one of which you can see in the above photo. I decided to delete the other one; the rail pictured above is actually much more useful for keeping momentum when entering the bus, and serves a second purpose as an attachment point if I decide to build my kitchen in that corner. I may decide to remove it later. But I know for sure I don't want the other one.

I deem this handrail to be superfluous

After removal:

Every cubic inch is precious! I can use that space for a shoe rack, or a plant, or a fan, or...

Later in the day I unbolted the luggage racks and my dad helped me take them down. They were actually way lighter than I expected, but at 13 feet / 4 meters long they are a bit unwieldy for one person. I left them in the bus because I'm probably going to recycle them tomorrow. I'll throw everything that I need to take the dump too.

Ahhh, so much more spacious without those racks! 

I started peeling up some of the rubber flooring in the back, where there's been the most leakage. There's definitely mold and rot; some sections where you can poke a screwdriver through the plywood.

It's especially rotten in the corner. You can't see the plywood here because I hadn't pulled up the flooring yet, but you get the idea from the general rust and grossness how rotten it might be).

That little box is a heater. It's crazy -- engine coolant runs along the bottom of the whole bus to provide the heat for it. That seems like an insane volume of coolant, and if it somehow ruptured anywhere along the bottom it'd make the bus undriveable until repaired. If I want to heat my bus, I'll use a propane furnace; I'm not going to start my giant engine and let it run up to temp just to use this shitty little heater. So I'll definitely delete that.

Anyway, since the floor is rotting, I think I'm going to replace the whole thing. It's just a layer of plywood. It shouldn't be too expensive, and it's such an important, integral part of the build. I don't want a bunch of mold and rot in my living space. Plus, if I take it all apart and build it again, I'll have a really good understanding of what I'm working with, I'll have more understanding and confidence to make the modifications that suit my needs.

I took this pic today just for reference, in case I forget the number in future years. My dad did the math: with 336,950 miles, and 23,670 hours of runtime, the average speed over the lifetime of this bus is 14.2 miles per hour. I predict that number will increase if I calculate it again in a year.

Since I actually made $70 selling the seats, that counts as credit against the overall cost! So now I'm down to $2953.50.
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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Joe Omundson

Registration and seat removal -- Bus Build #3

In the morning (of 4/30) I decided to go to the DMV and try again to get the bus registered. If they wouldn't let me, I'd pay for the 10 day trip permit. I prepared my talking points as I waited to be summoned: when I'd called the DMV before, the guy told me I could register it without bringing it in. Yes I measured my bus and it is 22 feet (I'd only estimated and it's actually 23 now that I measured). Yes of course it's already been rebuilt as an RV and has a permanently installed bed and stove which are not easily removable. I wasn't sure if the lady was going to buy it, but eventually she started filling out the form and I did an internal fist pump.

I hate lying and I'm not much good at it, but if it's a harmless lie and it's going to save me a lot of trouble then I might consider it. I wouldn't register my bus as an RV if I was actually using it as a business. But since its intended purpose IS as an RV, and getting it registered is an important milestone, and it'll be converted soon enough, I lied straight to the DMV lady's face. I was prepared.

Registration receipt and new license plates in hand, I went back to the bus to jumpstart it. But before I connected the jumpers I cleaned and tightened the connections on the bus battery. Got it running, pulled off the jumpers, and tested the voltage -- 14.25V -- hey, the alternator is working after all! It just wasn't making a connection. So far that's two headaches resolved today.

Drove the bus to my dad's house without issue, and he gave me a ride to bring my minivan there too. My mom came over and I showed the bus to both of them. She helped me remove the bench seats by ratcheting the top side of the bolts while I crawled underneath and secured the nuts down there. I got all the seats removed except for the 5 across the back.

The next day was mostly a rest day. My sister came to visit and I got to show her the bus. I got the remaining 5 seats unbolted. I have ads up for free bus seats, and one guy came to take a look but wasn't interested. I don't want to throw away perfectly good materials, but I can't have them clogging up my bus forever either.

Cost today: title & registration was $325.50
Running total: $3023.50
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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Joe Omundson

DMV & Anthony -- Bus Build #2

After removing the first seat

I took a closer look at the bolts holding down the seats. There are individual seats along the perimeter, and bench seats in rows. The bench seats seem to have another nut holding them beneath the bus that requires someone to hold it in place while a second person works on it from above (or else be angle-grinded out). But the individual seats have bolts along a track which are easily removed. I realized this late in the day, but set to work and removed 6 before night. So now there's a little more space to move around.

To drive my bus legally I need to have insurance,  and to get insurance I have to register it. The economical thing to do is to register it as an RV. I called the DMV and the guy said I wouldn't have to bring it in, just measure it, and it's supposed to have a stove and a bed installed. I went to the DMV and the lady asked me about the bed & stove and I couldn't bring myself to lie about it, so she said I had to install those things and bring the bus in. But I shouldn't drive it there without insurance -- and so I have a circular problem on my hands. I also haven't installed a bed or a cook stove, which is hard to do if I can't drive it anywhere. But I'm thinking about just driving it to the DMV and hoping they won't care that my bed is a hammock and my stove is portable. I'm not sure what to do actually. In the morning I hope I'll have a better idea.

I did a little more research about the company that made my bus. Ford provides the E350 platform and then this other company El Dorado builds buses out of them. Someone told me before I bought my bus that El Dorado was a desirable brand, and it looks like it's pretty common too, so that's positive. Looks like it probably cost something like $60,000 when it was new in 2002 although I have no idea really.

The guy who has offered to let me use some of his shop space is busy until later this week, so I might take it to my dad's for a little while to at least get the seats out and have a safe place to park it.

I went to start the bus to move it a little bit and the battery was dead. The alternator must not be working because I let the engine idle for a while earlier in the day. I'll have to jump it in the morning and hopefully there won't be any problems driving it to my dad's house, and I can repair it there.

At about midnight a homeless guy named Anthony approached me -- I was sitting in the driver's seat with the radio on quietly, on my phone, with the door halfway open, which I guess is as good an invitation as any. He wanted my help -- he'd spotted a free futon on the curb a couple blocks away and wanted to take it to his van which was maybe a 10 minute drive away. So we went and found it, loaded it up, and drove it to his van. He has a sad story about his wife dying, not having family and friends and getting into a spiral. He lost control of his bladder 8 months ago and is having surgery in a few weeks to correct it. Interesting dude. He deposited a handful of shaggy weed on my dashboard as payment. I hope his operation goes well.

I decided I want to keep track of, and be transparent about, how much money I spend on this bus. This will help give you an idea of how much a build like mine might cost, and also keep me honest if I'm tempted to spend more money than I need to.

Total cost: still $2698
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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Joe Omundson

I got a bus! -- Bus Build #1

Today I begin a new series of blogs documenting my conversion of a bus into a home.

There are lots of ways to survive. I've lived out of a backpack, a small car, the minivan now, and it's enough to get by. I can meet the minimum requirements of life this way. But there are plenty of days where all I want is a private space that's big enough to stand up and move around in, cook something, visit with a friend. Enough room for me and my modest belongings to be comfortable without a lot of clutter. A relaxing home base from which I can do my writing and still travel between various locations.

I've been weighing my options for some time now and decided it's time to buy a bigger vehicle that I can make into a truly comfortable, long term living situation. The minivan was a step in this direction, but I considered it a temporary measure, which is why I didn't spend much time repairing or building it.

I was on a roadtrip from mid-January til the end of March, starting in Moab and ending up in Portland after wandering around CA and AZ. The first place I went after I left Moab was The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, in Quartzsite, AZ, a meetup which has grown from less than 200 to more than 2,000 vandwellers in just two or three years. For me the best part is simply being immersed in a large group of people who live the same way I do: I'm used to being that one weirdo trying to be sneaky about where I park, but here I feel completely at ease and accepted as normal. When I see what my friends have done with their vans, I feel inspired to get creative and make my own best version of an efficient little studio on wheels.

When I got to Portland I started searching for my new home, on Craigslist and at auctions. Long story short, I checked out some step vans and some buses, did research about engines, found the local auction companies, and kept trying different avenues until I found something I liked for a decent price. I was open to different configurations but I wanted 1) enough vertical space to comfortably walk around in, 2) a reliable diesel engine, 3) something that didn't make me cringe when I looked at it, 4) overall in good shape, 5) as cheap as possible.

The winner was a bus I found at Copart auctions in North Portland. It's a 2002 Ford E-350 with a 7.3L diesel and I got it for $2698 after auction fees (my actual bid was $2100 and to be honest I was surprised how high the fees were, but it was somewhat my fault for not researching this, as it's explained on their website). The bus spent most of its life as a shuttle bus for Alamo/National, taking people between the airport and the rental car place, between 2003 and 2010. Since then it's been owned by a church and not used very much. I picked up the bus on April 26, 2018.

The good: the body is in overall good condition. It runs and drives. There's a ton of space inside (roughly 16' x 8' x 6.5' behind the driver's seat). Once I remove the seats and luggage racks I've got a blank slate to work with. There are lots of windows, lots of natural light. It drives more like a van and less like some kind of industrial truck, though it's still very wide.

The bad: it has over 336,000 miles on it. I didn't get to do a test drive before buying, and I haven't taken it to a mechanic yet, so there could be some unknown gremlins to deal with. The windows are nice but most of them don't open and I'm a little nervous about how hot it will get inside when it's summer (basically it's a greenhouse).

Why did I buy such a high mileage engine even though my intention was to get something with low miles, you might ask? Well, high mileage engines are a lot cheaper, which means with my limited budget I can still get something with a nice body to start building it and living in it, and then if the engine dies I just have to replace the engine. Also, this engine is well respected for its longevity so it's possible I could run it past 500,000 miles without issue, which might be enough for another 10-15 years of driving. At least, the above is what I've been telling myself. The real reason I got an engine with more miles than I wanted is because I'm kind of impulsive and impatient when I shouldn't be, and I wanted this bus even though it isn't completely ideal. There's a balance between waiting forever for the right thing, and just taking what's available and getting to work. I've been in this floaty open-ended kind of travel phase for a while now and it feels nice to have a focus. Everyone does things differently I guess.

Some may wonder how I was able to afford the bus. I worked at a restaurant in Moab for 4 months and saved about $4,000. Then I spent all that money on my road trip, so that's not where the money came from. I put out a facebook status explaining my situation and saying I'd like to borrow $5,000 to start this build, so that while I'm working to pay it off I'll have a good place to live. One of my friends showed the post to his mom and she was interested. So I met up with her to talk about it: she's in a situation where she's always wanted to spend more time traveling and camping in an RV, and has the funds to do it, but is struggling with the other logistics and how to get started. So on top of the monetary incentive of gaining the interest that I will repay on the loan, she wants to watch me go through this process and get inspired to do something similar one day. It's a pretty good fit because I'm more than happy to talk about the philosophy and the process.

As of this writing I haven't done any work on the bus. I picked it up from the auction, drove it several miles to inner SE Portland, and parked it there. I'm juggling the minivan and the bus now. Rigged up a hammock inside and smoked the mandatory celebratory joint that first night.

I'm in contact with a guy who might let me use some space in his shop, and he's got tools and experience and stuff too, which would be awesome. First step will be to remove all these damn seats. Last thing I need is seating for 27 people. Tried to unscrew the bolts, but they're spinning. One thing you can expect with a van build is that every simple step along the way will have hidden complications!

So: this is my introductory post about the bus. I got one! And I like it. And I'm excited to see what happens next. Feel free to write me with questions, comments, or ideas!
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