(Click to enlarge pictures)
Since so many readers have asked us to keep them updated on our bus conversion project, we will present several articles on our progress in upcoming issues. Though the Gypsy Journal is an RV publication, to us the bus project is no more than building the ultimate motorhome for our personal needs. We hope to show readers our progress, and possibly inspire others who may be considering such an undertaking. We are by no means professional bus converters, in fact I have a reputation for being rather inept with tools, but in seeing the shoddy workmanship in our own, as well as so many other RVs, we believe we can at least do better than much of what is being sold today.
This is a long term project, done on a tight budget. So don’t expect us to be done in a month, or even a year. And if you are expecting the finished product to have the mirrored ceilings, track lighting, and glitz of some of the upscale bus conversions displayed at many of the RV shows, you will be disappointed.
Our goal is to make the bus livable as soon as possible, and improve as we go, to create a comfortable, workable, affordable home and office on wheels. By livable, we mean basic electrical, plumbing, and propane systems in, facilities for cooking, bathing, and working, and some basic creature comforts, such as television and seating. Even if you have never contemplated building your own motorhome, we hope readers will find our project interesting.
In The Beginning
We started fulltiming in a 1998 Pace Arrow Vision 36 foot Class A motorhome, which has been a consistent source of irritation and frustration. Regular readers will know why we refer to our Fleetwood nightmare as the Motorhome From Hell.
We have been plagued by constant breakdowns, including having the hydraulic system suffer major failures fourteen times in eighteen months. This has included having our bedroom and living room slideouts extend while going down the highway, having them refuse to retract when we make ready to hit the road, having the bedroom slide drop down and crack the fiberglass side of the motorhome, and, most recently, extending the bedroom slide and having it tear the bed, pedestal, and night stands off the wall. More times than we can recall, the hydraulic system for our stabilizing jacks has failed, and repeated trips to repair facilities have not solved the problem.
In addition, we have had several close calls with fire, due to wiring problems; the fiberglass side of the motorhome began delaminating within the first year we owned it; the stove and water heater both had to have major repairs; both slideout seals have leaked from the first day; and many other problems that have not been resolved, regardless of our many complaints to Fleetwood, both verbally, in writing, and through this publication.
Even worse than the structural and construction defects are the RV’s poor handling characteristics, as evidenced by the low highway safety rating given it by the RV Consumer Group. Difficult to handle in even a light breeze, stronger winds and passing trucks have literally blown us off the road more than once. And this is what our dealer, Earnhardt’s RV in Mesa, Arizona, calls Fleetwood’s top of the line gasoline model! I shudder to think what the lower priced units are like. We recently learned that Fleetwood admitted to the Arizona State Attorney General’s office that they had been engaged in selling recreational vehicles in Arizona that were buy-back units under other states’ lemon laws, and have every reason to believe that our motorhome was one such unit. A call to Fleetwood did not produce a denial to that accusation.
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In frustration, we began looking for an alternative to our Motorhome From Hell, and quickly discovered that many of the production motorhomes sold today, regardless of manufacturer, have the same defects and poor workmanship, though not usually to the extent of our rig. Others, the better units with better reputations, were out of our price range. We couldn’t afford anything better, since most of our nest egg was already tied up in the Pace Arrow. We didn’t want to give up our life on the road, nor did we want to continue living and traveling in such a poorly designed and manufactured RV. We also realized that, given the problems we continue to have with our present RV, it was only a matter of time until it became unusable. What to do?
And The Answer Is....
That is when we discovered bus conversions. Someone pulled into the Escapees Rainbows End park in Livingston, Texas in an old GMC bus conversion, and I wandered over to check out this unique motorhome. One look at the immense storage bays under that old bus, and one look at its solid construction, and I fell in love immediately. I began looking at every bus I spotted. If one pulled into a campground where we were staying, I knocked on the door and asked the owners about their rig. I began reading the two or three bus. conversion magazines published, devouring every word and photograph on the pages. I was hooked. I had to have a bus!
Miss Terry was skeptical at first, since she knows how little mechanical ability I have. But after dragging her through a few bus conversions, and after it became apparent our problems with the RV were only getting worse by the day, she began to casually leaf through my bus magazines, and started pointing out buses that she spotted passing us on the highway. I knew her bus fever was in full force the day she suggested we check out a bus parked in a campground.
Buses offer certain major advantages over production motorhomes. They are designed to go a million miles or more with regular maintenance, they are built to carry passengers in commercial service, so many safety features are built in to them, and their payload capacity is much more than standard motorhomes, which are often close to being overweight by the time you fuel them and fill the fresh water holding tank. The diesel engines on these buses, designed to carry 40 or 50 passengers and all of their baggage, are more than capable of hauling two people and their traveling home with no strain at all.
Okay, so we know we want a bus. But who can afford one? Don’t buses cost a small fortune? There was no way our tiny budget would stretch to cover a price tag that high. Or so we thought. When we began looking at buses seriously, we were surprised to learn that there are a lot of very good running, structurally sound older buses on the market that can be had for very reasonable prices. These are usually former charter or Greyhound buses that have been replaced when the fleet was upgraded. By shopping carefully, one can find a good bus that will still render many, many years of service for about what you would expect to pay for the down payment on a new gasoline powered motorhome. So now we knew we wanted a bus, but which bus?
We looked at a lot of buses, everything from ancient ScenicCruisers to modern city transit buses, and finally settled on a forty foot 1976 MCI 8, the workhorse of charter and interstate bus lines for decades. The MCI 8 came powered with a 8V71 Detroit Diesel engine coupled with an Allison four speed automatic transmission, power steering, and air suspension. Our particular bus spent its working life with Gray Line Tours, making the run from Las Vegas, Nevada to the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon. The bus was home every night, and seldom exposed to snow, which meant it had very little rust. The MCI also uses a lot of stainless steel, which helps fight rust problems often found in some other buses, such as Eagles. While a 25 year old motorhome would be long past ready for the scrap yard, we have seen many bus conversions dating from the early 1960s and even the 1950s still going strong. These machines are built to last forever it seems.
After leaving service with MCI, our bus was purchased by a gentleman who began to convert it, but quickly lost interest and ran out of time to work on it. He did manage to strip out the seats and overhead baggage compartments before selling the bus. Since it was on a day-run, the bus didn’t have a bathroom, removal of which can be a major undertaking.
Soon after acquiring the bus, we began stripping the interior, removing the inside metal skin and old insulation, which had years of smoke, perspiration, and dirt imbedded in it, from the sides and roof. This was a formidable task, accomplished with the aid of a power grinder, pry bars, and much elbow grease. The interior skin was held on by what seemed to be thousands of rivets, each one of which had to be ground off or drilled out.
While we were stripping the inside skin, we also removed the old linoleum floor covering, the ramp that sloped up to the floor from the entry area, and the fiberglass covering over the driver’s compartment. We pulled great piles of crud out from the fresh air intake under the floor after removing the ramp. Stripping a bus is filthy, sweaty, knuckle-skinning work, and we were more than glad when the job was over.
One major job was cutting out the old destination sign from the passenger side windshield area. Constructed of heavy steel and fiberglass, I quickly learned how handy a Dremel tool is. I went through several packages of cutting wheels, but the tiny tool managed to cut through the metal with few problems.
We hauled over a thousand pounds of metal and old insulation to the dump, as well as another 750 pounds of stainless steel and aluminum, which we took to a recycling center. We earned $63 for the aluminum and stainless, not a lot of money, but cheaper than paying to dump it.
At the same time we stripped the bus, Miss Terry applied two coats of white Seal Kote to the roof to aid in cooling. We were amazed at the effectiveness of the elastomeric material - sitting in the Texas sun, I could put my hand on the inside roof and feel a fifteen or twenty degree difference in temperature between sections that had been coated and those Terry hadn’t reached yet.
After stripping the bus, we left Texas and drove to Elkhart, Indiana to purchase some of the equipment for our conversion. Elkhart is the hub of recreational vehicle manufacturing in the United States , and several surplus stores in the Elkhart area sell RV furniture, appliances, and equipment at very deep discounted prices. By shopping these outlets, we saved at least half of what we would have paid at traditional camping stores.
What Comes Next?
So we now have a completely stripped bus. Now what? Terry has been drawing floor plans for months, adding something here, moving something there, and discarding ideas that originally seemed good but now may not work. With the bus stripped, we are using chalk to draw our ideas out on the floor, trying to come up with the best use of the space available. One of the biggest attractions of building a bus conversion is the ability to customize it to our needs, and not have to settle for a generic floor plan some designer in a studio somewhere came up with. A designer who may have never spent a night inside an RV.
In the weeks ahead we will be covering the floor, insulating and covering the walls and ceiling of the bus, and installing our propane, electrical, and plumbing systems. Then we’ll tackle the installation of our stove, furnace, water heater, and other major components. With a lot of planning, some trial and error, and a few false starts, I’m sure, we’re well on the way.
With the interior of the bus completely stripped out, our next step was to install the first layer of insulation to the walls and ceilings. There are several options when it comes to insulation. Many bus converters choose spray foam, in which a thick foam is applied to the inside walls and ceiling. The results are very good, with insulation and sound qualities very high. However, foaming can cost well upwards of $1,000, and once applied, the foam must be trimmed off, a very messy and time consuming chore to say the least.
Radiant Technology of Dallas, Texas www.radiant-technology.com supplied us with a new space age insulating product they have been introducing to the RV industry. Consisting of a thin layer of aluminum foil sandwiched between two layers of polyfoam, the insulation comes in rolls, is very easy to work with, and has amazing insulating qualities. We cut it into panels to fit the contours of our bus and affixed them to the metal walls and ceiling with a spray glue. The task was easy, and resulted in a dramatic change in inside temperatures. On a chilly Fall day in northern Michigan, with outside temperatures hovering around 45 degrees, by just switching a single 60 watt bulb from a trouble light on inside the bus, our thermometer was quickly reading 62 degrees.
We applied standard issue 3½ inch thick Home Depot Owens Corning rolled fiberglass insulation with an R-13 rating over the Radiant Technology insulation, both to add to the thermal and acoustic qualities of the bus. The result is a warm interior even before we have installed the furnace. While we were traveling from Michigan to Arizona in early November, we dry camped in a Wal-Mart parking lot in central Iowa and were comfortable sleeping under a couple of blankets, with no heating source.
Bus converters argue over which is the better way to handle the bus floor. Some pull out the original wooden floor, while others simply cover it over. We originally intended to pull up the old 3/4 inch plywood floor, but soon learned it was a daunting task requiring tremendous amounts of physical effort, and tools we did not have available. Ben Pearson and Dale DeWitt at Radiant Technology came to our rescue again, providing us with another space age product, 3/4 inch fiberglass composite sheets that are several times stronger than plywood, yet weigh considerably less than a comparably sized 4x8 foot sheet of plywood. Manufactured by a company called Penske Composites in Tennessee, the flooring material is a tremendous advancement over what we have had in our RVs to this point. The material comes in several different thicknesses for different applications. Radiant Technology’s sister company, Engineered Bonded Structures in Elkhart, Indiana uses the same material to create pre-fabricated RV bodies that are then shipped to Australia and assembled on a truck chassis for service in the rugged Outback.
There are two steel channels that run the length of the interior on our MCI-8 bus that were part of the passenger seating arrangement. The lips of these channels extend approximately 1/4 inch above the original floor. Removing them is a long, backbreaking chore best accomplished with a grinder, steel pry bars, and a couple of husky college kids. Having none of the above available to us, we instead acquired some oak lumber, cut it into ½ inch strips and screwed them down on the floor on ten inch centers to provide a framework to support our new flooring material and get it above the steel channels. We cut ½ inch Celotex sheet insulation to fit between the oak furring strips to provide additional support for our flooring and to aid in insulation. The finished floor is strong, lightweight, and will further aid in insulating our coach.
I keep telling people that I should call this project the Powder Puff Bus, since my wife is the mechanic in the family and has forgotten more about tools and how to use them than I will ever know. We wanted to remove the original bus windows, cover over the sides, and install new RV style dual pane windows. This seemed like a very intimidating task to me, but since Miss Terry has over twenty years experience in the glass business, it was child’s play for her. We removed the five windows on each side, which were held on by three hinges each.
With the windows out, we cut and fitted 1/4 inch waterproof lauan plywood on the inside of each window opening. On the outside we laminated 1½ inch thick Styrofoam sheets cut to fit, and laid an outer layer of the lauan over that. The wood was affixed with stainless steel screws, and lamination was accomplished with exterior quality construction grade Liquid Nails adhesive. The lauan and Styrofoam were caulked at the completion of every step.
At RV Surplus Salvage in Elkhart, Indiana, we purchased a forty foot long roll of 3/32 inch fiberglass used to sheath the outside of RVs. This roll measured 120 inches wide, which made for quite a bundle to move and work with. We rolled the fiberglass out on the lawn and cut two thirty inch wide by forty foot strips to skin the window area of the bus.
Skinning the sides was quite a job, requiring the help of three volunteers and lots of grunt work. Even cut down to the smaller strips, the fiberglass was still heavy and hard to work with. I made a simple cross out of a couple of 2x4s to hold the fiberglass at the right height, and as Terry applied the adhesive, two of us unrolled it, while two other helpers pressed the fiberglass into place and smoothed it. With the upper and lower drip rails back in place, the result is a smooth side where the windows once were. The bus is already much stronger than any production made RV, and the finished sides will add to its strength and insulation. Our next job will be to cut the proper size openings and install the new RV windows. Again, this is a process that Terry assures me will be relatively simple, and I bow to her experience.
With all of this accomplished, we will soon be ready to begin the interior work, including laying out the electrical and plumbing systems. I am finding that my complete lack of experience in things mechanical is slowly being replaced by at least a rudimentary understanding of what we are doing, and I am gaining a lot of confidence in my abilities. What once was a charter tour bus is slowly being transformed into a motorcoach that will carry us many safe and comfortable miles as we explore the country. By our next update, we hope to have the basic living systems installed and be able to move into the bus while we continue the project.
We’re On The Road Again!
In the last few weeks we have made major strides on our bus conversion project, and I’m delighted to say that we have reached the point where we can move in and get back to our fulltiming lifestyle. There is still a tremendous amount of work left to be done, but after three months of living with friends, it is well past time to be on our own again.
After removing the original bus windows back in Michigan and covering the sides with plywood sandwiched over 1½ inch sheets of Styrofoam insulation, then skinning them with fiberglass sheathing, we discovered that the driver’s side was coming apart. Apparently the Liquid Nails construction grade adhesive we were assured would do the job didn’t. In Kingman, Arizona we repaired the problem, and re-skinned the side with the fiberglass, this time using Weld-Wood adhesive, which has proven to be far superior to the Liquid Nails.
The next chore was a frightening task - cutting holes into the brand new fiberglass skin we had just installed to put in dual pane RV style windows. With the help of friend Tim Moran, we first scribed the outline of the new RV windows, then used a drill to open a pilot hole, and a jig saw to cut out the window openings. The task went easier then expected, and we began to install the windows.
This was a long involved series of fittings, shaving just a bit here and there, refitting and trimming again, until the windows slid into place. Miss Terry’s 20 years of experience in the window business really came in handy on this portion of the job. The windows are attached both with screw-on trim rings and butyl tape, and then all openings were sealed with silicone, to give us a tight, leak-free setting.
Our windows measure 26 inches high by 54 inches long, and are equipped with emergency opening devices in case of fire or accident. They are jalousie style, which crank open. We prefer them to the sliding windows found on most motorhomes, because they can be open even when it is raining, something we would have appreciated in the humidity of south Texas and Mississippi last year. We installed one window on each side at the rear for the bedroom. Up front, three were installed on the curb (passenger) side of the bus, and one more behind the driver’s seat. The result is a lot of light, which helps combat the tunnel effect of this long 40 foot metal tube.
After living for three years in a motorhome with carpeted floors, we were tired of the constant vacuuming they always needed. Terry and her Dad laid down a beautiful versalock birch floor made by Shaw over the fiberglass flooring supplied by Radiant Technologies and Penske Composites. The floor is free floating and installed in less than a day. The result is a tight, comfortable floor that adds to the overall light and airy feel of the bus and is comfortable to walk on. Since it comes with a twenty year warranty, we’re confident the floor will probably outlast us.
Tim and I mounted the generator in the bay once occupied by the bus air conditioning system, though time constraints have prevented us from finishing the connections to complete the installation yet. While most buses use a diesel generator, we already had acquired an Onan gasoline model, and will use a boat gas tank for its fuel source, saving us the several thousand dollars a diesel genset would cost. The generator compartment is insulated by a super thick sound and heat proof insulation supplied by Radiant Technology in Dallas, Texas www.radiant-technology.com.
My father-in-law, Pete Weber, and I next tackled the 120 volt electrical system, installing an automatic switch box that allows automatic switching from shore to generator power. The next installation was an Electrical Management System (EMS) supplied by Progressive Industries in Cary, North Carolina (919-462-8280). This is a device no recreational vehicle should be without, and I don’t know how we lived without it before.
The EMS comes in both a portable or hard-wired configuration, and we went with the hard-wired version. It protects the coach’s electrical system from over and under voltage, provides four mode surge protection, as well as protecting our electrical system and appliances from open grounds or neutrals, and reversed polarity. When we plug the bus into shore power, the EMS begins to blink, and does not allow power to reach the coach for just over two minutes while it analyzes the incoming electrical connection for any problems. If a dangerous situation is detected, the system shuts down and does not allow electricity past it to harm anything inside. The EMS comes with a remote display that constantly scrolls to report incoming voltage on both lines of our 50 amp circuit, tells us the amperage we are using, and scans for any problems. Having gotten zapped once at a bad campground outlet in Missouri, I feel much better about the safety of our coach and our computers, televisions, and other electronic devices.
We used a house style circuit breaker box, and installed separate circuits for computer, lighting, rooftop air conditioners, and the house style refrigerator we will be adding. Next to be installed was a Heart inverter, also supplied by RV Solar Electric. With the inverter installed, certain circuits were moved to an electrical sub-panel to allow us to use the refrigerator, television, and computer while running off battery power.
Twelve volt lighting came in the form of both flourescent and incandescent lights that we purchased at great savings from RV Surplus Salvage www.rvsurplussalvage.com in Elkhart, Indiana. We prefer the flourescent lights because they use much less voltage and operate cooler. We like a lot of light to work in, and installed a bank of six double tube flourescent fixtures down the center of the ceiling and in the bedroom, as well as extra fixtures in the bathroom and over the kitchen counter area. We still have more light fixtures to add, and the wiring is exposed, waiting for the ceiling to be further insulated and covered.
During her recent cancer treatments, Miss Terry would have paid a thousand dollars for the luxury of a bath, so we installed a 54 inch long mobile home size bathtub. We know our ten gallon hot water heater will not fill it, but we hope to add supplemental hot water capabilities down the road.
Cutting holes in the side of the bus for the hot water heater and furnace outlets was another frightening thought, but careful use of a Dremel tool with a cutting wheel accomplished the job easily, and we installed a Suburban furnace and combination gas/electric hot water heater. Both came from the surplus outlets in Elkhart, Indiana, again at considerable savings.
While at RV Surplus Salvage, we had also acquired a pair of 55 gallon fresh water tanks, and a single 90 gallon tank, which will serve as temporary gray/black water storage. We plan to replace the waste tank with a pair of 100 gallon separate gray and black tanks in the future. That will be more capacity than we will ever need, but will insure us plenty of room when we are boondocking or parked without hookups at an RV rally.
Installing the toilet was a relatively simple task, again taken on by Pete, and we followed it by enclosing the bathroom area. The walls are 3/8 inch plywood with 1½ inch Styrofoam sandwiched between for sound deadening. A bedroom closet was built backward from the rear wall of the bathroom. We have found that by careful planning and cutting, we are able to reduce the amount of scrap wood we have, and are using a lot of what is leftover from one project in another area. For example, the Styrofoam sheeting used to insulate the bathroom were leftover cutoffs from insulating the sides of the bus during the skinning process. With the bathroom walls up and a door installed, we added a simple shelf to support the stainless steel sink and to serve as a temporary vanity.
Construction of our bed platform was done with 3/4 inch particle board. As in other areas of the construction, this is probably overkill, but the bus is capable of handling the weight, and we are building this coach to last over many years of fulltime use. The platform is sixteen inches tall and wide enough to hold our queen size mattress, allowing for plenty of storage space underneath, which any fulltimer can tell you there is never enough of. The bed platform is somewhat higher than those found in most motorhomes, but still comfortable to sit on. Later on we will add hydraulic struts to aid in lifting the heavy platform top and mattress. Winter clothing, Terry’s sewing machine, and other items we do not need to access on a day to day basis are stored under the bed.
We had purchased three reversible Fantastic Fans, and installing them was one of the final steps before we moved in. Rooftop air conditioning units are still in our future, but the fans do a good job of providing both ventilation and a cooling airflow in most climates where we plan to travel. With the windows open partway and two of the fans running on low, we were comfortable inside on several days when the temperatures reached into the upper 80s.
With basic electrical and plumbing systems in, the bus is livable and we just could not wait to get into it and back on the road. Immediate plans include installing basic cabinetry and finishing the electrical system, then installing a refrigerator. We will be using a residential type refrigerator and running it off our battery bank and inverter when on the road. House type refrigerators are much less expensive than RV styles, are more efficient, and Miss Terry appreciates their added capacity.
Miss Terry Gets A Kitchen
While at the Escapees RV Club www.escapees.com North Ranch RV park we started working on building a kitchen in the bus for Miss Terry. We are the perfect couple - she loves to cook and I love to eat. But just as any artist or craftsperson needs the proper tools, my pretty wife requires the proper setting to create her culinary masterpieces. Truth be told, Terry could whip up a delicious meal on a campfire with no more than frying pan, a couple of eggs, and whatever else the cooler holds. But I figure than anybody who can both put up with me and feed me deserves the best I can provide.
Tim, Terry, and I spent a week or so building a kitchen counter with storage cabinets below, installing the stove and sink, and setting up a separate counter for the microwave/convection oven. By the time the job was finished, all three of us were tired, but proud of the final result. With Tim’s help we also repaired a hinge on a baggage bay door, installed a window over the kitchen sink, and several other jobs that made the bus more comfortable and ready for fulltime use.
This is a work in progress, and we still have a lot left to do. But we are getting there. In less than one year, on a very limited budget, we have managed to get the bus livable and are fulltiming in it. We think that is quite an accomplishment. Everyone who has seen the bus has commented on the light, airy feeling of it, something that can be credited to Terry’s hours of designing and re-designing the floor plan. It is really starting to feel like home.
We saved a small fortune on the bus conversion project by doing the work ourselves with the help of a few friends, and by shopping the many RV surplus outlets in and around Elkhart, Indiana. For a story on the money saving opportunities in Elkhart, see my article Building Your Bus On A Budget which was originally published in the Gypsy Journal www.GypsyJournal.net and later in Bus Conversions magazine www.BusConversions.com.
I have to admit that we are rather proud of ourselves. In just over a year, the bus conversion project has grown from an empty shell to a fully equipped comfortable home on wheels. We are far from done, but all systems are in and working and we are enjoying our coach as we travel and continue to work on it.
With the help of our friend Tim, we built the kitchen while parked at the Escapee Club’s North Ranch in Congress, Arizona in March. Quite a few people stopped by to check out the job and offer a suggestion or two. Miss Terry is quite a cook, and having a well laid out kitchen is important to her.
We roughed in the counters, and set a stainless steel double sink into a five foot long butcher block counter top. The counter butts up to a three burner Wedgewood Vision range with oven. Next to the oven is another small counter topped with white vinyl, upon which sets a Sharp Carousel microwave/convection oven. Since we both appreciate a light, airy coach, a small window was installed centered over the sink. We have yet to install shelving and doors in the counters. A three speed reversible Fantastic fan is mounted in the ceiling over the kitchen.
We were never happy with the Dometic refrigerator in our previous motorhome and had decided early in our planning to install a house style refrigerator in the bus. Since we are fulltime RVers, living out of a Coleman ice chest was quite a challenge, but we managed for three months. Then we really got into style, adding a new 18.5 cubic foot Maytag house style refrigerator that is very energy efficient and has a much larger capacity than anything we have ever seen in a production model RV.. Fitting is through the bus door as quite a challenge, and involved a couple of teenage helpers with strong backs. The fit was so tight that I don't think we could have managed if the refrigerator had just one more layer of paint. The refrigerator is powered by either shore power when we are plugged into utilities, or our Heart inverter when we are on the road or dry camping. If we spent weeks at a time boondocking, the choice of a house style refrigerator might not have worked. But since we do not usually spend more than a night or two in succession dry camped, it works for us. The secret to having a house style unit is a strong battery bank to supply power to the inverter. The extra weight the batteries add is no problem for our bus, and we have plenty of room in the bays.
We had originally planned to go with a side aisle design, but after getting the refrigerator inside the bus (no small feat in itself) we decided that it took up too much room with our original floor plan. Miss Terry made some quick modifications to her drawings and we ended up with a more conventional center aisle design that leaves us with a very roomy interior.
When we built the bathroom, we roughed in a closet in the bedroom on the curb side. We next built a second closet on the street side of the bedroom, and built in the Splendide washer/dryer combination in the hallway.
The toilet and stainless steel bathroom sink are enclosed in a separate room for privacy, while the bathtub is in the hallway across from the water closet. The bathroom counter is covered in easy to maintain white vinyl, and mirrors take up the wall behind the counter and a side wall. A four bulb light bar is mounted above the bathroom counter, adding to the light supplied by an overhead flourescent fixture. One of our three Fantastic fans is mounted in the ceiling of the water closet, while another one is in the hallway near the tub.
One hassle we wanted to avoid was having to move whenever we were parked someplace and needed propane. Our last motorhome had a large horizontal propane tank, and several times we had to stow everything away and break camp to drive to a propane dealer when we were staying in one spot for several weeks. In the bus, we bypassed that problem by installing two portable thirty pound tanks hooked to an automatic regulator. Now all we have to do is disconnect one or both tanks and take them in for refilling with our pickup instead of moving the coach. The twin tanks supply LPG to our stove, furnace and hot water heater. The 10 gallon Suburban water heater will also run off of 120 volt when plugged into shore power.
We had installed a Suburban gas furnace, and later picked up a nice propane catalytic heater. If we had known how well the space heater was going to work, we may well have not installed a furnace at all. While the furnace requires 12 volt power for the fan, and can drain a set of batteries overnight if you are dry camped in cold weather, the space heater requires no electricity, only a window or vent open a crack for ventilation. It also is much quieter than a furnace, since there is no fan noise. On some very cold evenings in Michigan this Spring, where snow fell on us as late as May, the space heater kept us warm and cozy.
We also added a layer of one inch thick Styrofoam sheeting to the inside of the roof, on top of the space age insulation supplied to us by Radiant Technologies. We then covered the Styrofoam with fan fold extruded foam insulation. The finishing touch will be sheets of 1/8 inch plywood sheathed in Ozonite fabric from RV Surplus Supplies in Elkhart, Indiana.
While in Michigan I began polishing the stainless steel on the lower half of the bus. Years of road grime had dulled the finish to a matte, and we really wanted to have the mirror finish we have seen on so many bus conversions. I knew going in that this was going to be a nasty, dirty job, but I had no idea just how nasty or dirty! Using jewelers rouge and a borrowed polisher I went to work, and after a false start or two, managed to get the front of there bus looking really good. Those who have done this job told me it is at least a full week or more worth of work. Michigan went from unseasonably cold to unbearably hot in a matter of days, and I found myself caught in the middle. Hopefully the high temperatures will abate soon and I can finish polishing the stainless steel.
Also outside the bus, we replaced several marker light fixtures that were no longer working, and mounted a porch light over the door. We have four high intensity "scare" lights that we will be mounting on the front and back of each side to warn away anyone who might come prowling around when we are boondocked somewhere, not that we have ever been bothered. These lights will be wired so we can turn them on either from the living room or bedroom. We also added another coat of the Kool Seal elastomeric coating to the roof for enhanced insulation.
A lot of buses, including ours, do not have a fuel gauge. They are expected to run on a regular route with pre-planned fuel stops along their route. For RV use, this presents problems. The simple solution is to use a dip stick and check the fuel level often. We have a 144 gallon tank, giving us a comfortable range of about 900 miles. But for peace of mind, I still wanted a fuel gauge. We picked up a gauge and sending unit on a visit to Caylor Supply in Rantoul, Kansas, and I installed it in a couple of hours one afternoon.
We still have a lot of work to do, but at this point the bus is capable of carrying us comfortably wherever we may wish to go. We have been somewhat hampered by funds, doing a bit here and there as discretionary cash becomes available. We have been very lucky to have friends, family and a couple of very understanding RV parks allow us to work while we were visiting, since we are fulltimers with no base location to work on the project from. Without the help of Terry’s parents, Pete and Bess Weber, and our friends Tim and Ann, much of the hard labor would not have been done. They all pitched in several times to help us, even traveling out of their way to meet up with us to complete some of the work.
Next on our list are running electrical wiring for as yet to be installed rooftop AC units and a ceiling fan over the bed, installing the finished ceiling panels, installing drawers and finishing up the kitchen cabinets and bedroom closets, and hanging a louvered swinging door of some type between the kitchen and hallway to give an extra measure of privacy when someone is taking a bath. While we were at North Ranch, Miss Terry was relaxing in the tub one evening while I worked at the computer. Someone knocked on the door and I absentmindedly called "Come in," leaving my pretty lady scrambling for a towel as she retreated quickly to the bedroom.
I have always been notorious for my lack of handyman skills, but Miss Terry is comfortable with tackling any project. Under her tutelage, and with the help of some very wonderful people, we have found the conversion project to be a fun job that has been well within our combined abilities. There have been some challenges, some real frustrations, and a time or two we thought we were in over our heads. But we are learning that while converting a bus is an intimidating project when taken as a whole, if we break it down into smaller chores it is not bad at all.
During some phases of a bus conversion project you can spend a lot of time and money, and while it adds to your overall safety and comfort, not all of it shows. A fair amount of what we have done lately fits into that category.
While we were in Arizona over the winter, we had six new tires put on, as well as new brakes on the drive and tag axles. While we would have been just as happy with Yokohama or Toyo tires, or any of the other imports we have heard good reports on, we actually found a great deal at a Goodyear dealer and went with new Goodyear tires on the front (steering) axle and dual on the drive axle. Since our front tires were still in very good condition, we moved them back to the tag axle. The new tires and brake job really add to our feeling of safety going down the highway.
While we were out west last winter, there were a few places we did not take the bus, because of the steep mountains. We overheated our old Detroit diesel engine a couple of years ago climbing the Beeline Highway out of Phoenix, Arizona, coming into the small mountain town of Payson. We did not do any permanent damage, but it was an experience we don’t want to repeat.
With the help of our good friend and fellow bus nut Terry Simpson, I installed a simple mister system to spray water on our twin radiators when the temperature gauge starts to climb. We wanted to keep the mister water supply separate from our fresh water supply, so I picked up a pair of nine gallon water tanks at RV Surplus Salvage in Elkhart, Indiana, scrounged up a used ShurFlo 12 volt water pump someplace, and had the basic components. Add in a 12 volt toggle switch, a set of plastic mister spray heads from a farm supply store, about 20 feet of hose, a few tee and elbow connections and we were good to go. It took a bit of experimenting with water flow and spray head placement, but now when our temperature starts to climb, all I have to do is flip the toggle switch on the dashboard for a few seconds and a cooling mist hits the radiators and drops that old needle back where it belongs.
Now that we are set up to climb those mountain grades, we needed something to help get us back down the other side in one piece. Our bus has an Allison 740 automatic transmission, which has a reputation for being bulletproof. However, the Allison is designed to shift to a higher gear to protect itself when engine RPMs get too high. So coming down steep grades requires careful attention and judicious use of the brakes. Overheat them on a long downhill run and one could get into serious trouble real fast.
The solution is a Jacobs engine brake, better known as a “Jake” brake. A Jake brake essentially turns a diesel engine into an air compressor when engaged, using the engine’s pressure to slow the vehicle. Everyone I know who has a Jake brake told me that once we got one installed, we’d wonder how we lived without it for so long.
Last winter we checked around Arizona and southern California getting estimates for a Jake brake and installation. Prices ranged in the neighborhood of $2500 and up. Some folks we met at an RV rally in Tucson suggested we contact Terry Bennett at Bennett Bus Works in McMinnville, Tennessee. Terry installed a Jake brake in their bus, and they were very pleased with his work and prices. I asked around, and several other people also had good things to say about Bennett Bus Works
After the Escapees RV Club’s Fun Days rally in Minnesota the end of June, we went down to Tennessee and had Terry install the Jake brake. Terry also changed the engine oil and filter, replaced a leaking power steering hose and a bad air line, adjusted the engine and did a few other chores, and the total bill came to $1948! What a bargain! Bennett Bus Works does very good work and I trust Terry completely to handle whatever our bus may need in the future. If you have a bus and need anything from a Jake brake to an engine or transmission, give Terry Bennett a call at 931-815-3080. He’ll treat you right.
What a difference the Jake brake makes in driving the bus! We’ve been in the Midwest most of the time since getting the new brake installed, so have not tackled any really nasty grades, but when coming down the hills in Kentucky and Tennessee on the way up from McMinnville it worked great. All those guys who told me how nice driving with a Jake brake were right on the money. I love it!
Another welcome addition has been a DuoTherm rooftop air conditioner. As fulltime RVers we hope to avoid weather that is either too hot or too cold, but that only works in theory. In real life we sometimes find ourselves stuck in a sweltering Midwest heat wave or caught in an unexpected cold snap.
While visiting our friends Terry and Connie Simpson in Mitchell, Indiana, we decided it was time to spring for at least one AC unit. Terry works at Roots RV in Mitchell during the summer, when he is not busy converting his own beautiful MCI bus, or helping deadbeats like myself who show up on his doorstep. Terry got us a great deal on the AC unit and installed it for me one afternoon in just a couple of hours. All of that great insulation we put in the bus in the early days of our conversion have paid off - during one nasty hot spell in Indiana where the temperature got up in the high 80s with humidity almost as high, the single 15,000 btu air conditioner made life bearable. We may consider adding a second unit down the road a bit, but we’re waiting to see how well we manage with just one for a while.
Until recently, Miss Terry has been sitting on a recliner bungeed to the wall behind the driver’s seat, facing sideways toward the curb. Not the best way to see America, and certainly not the safest, either. In Elkhart, Indiana we visited our favorite RV candy store, RV Surplus Salvage and came away with a beautiful pair of contoured gray reclining pilot and copilot seats with armrests and even heat to help work out the kinks on those long days on the road! The copilot seat also swivels to provide an extra seat for visitors who come calling when we are in camp. Miss Terry says the new seats are the best part of the bus project to date.
Miss Terry gets the credit for two very nice upgrades. While we were waiting for Fall escapade to begin in Goshen, Indiana we spent a while hanging out at Elkhart, Campground, our usual stop in Elkhart, Indiana. While I worked on some Internet and writing projects, Terry paneled the hallway and bathroom, a time consuming job that required lots of careful measuring and cutting with a jigsaw, and repeated fittings of every piece to match the unique curves a bus ceiling presents. With a bit of leftover paneling, she covered the short section of wall in the kitchen that fronts the hall and bathtub. Our control panels for inverter, generator, Electrical Management System, a digital DC voltmeter, and power switch for the water heater were all set into this bulkhead. Terry also precut an opening for the solar control panel that will be installed with our solar system in a few weeks when we get to Florida, covering the hole with a matching rectangle of paneling for now. The result is beautiful, and now we can’t wait to start on the rest of the interior wall coverings.
For months we have been living with just the outer door skin and frame. Terry insulated the door with styrofoam squares and then cut a piece of quarter inch luan plywood to fit over the inside of the door. The next step was to cover a second wood panel with foam padding and gray vinyl we picked up at Bontrager’s Surplus in nearby White Pigeon, Michigan. Adding on an oak handle we got in one of our excursions to the surplus stores resulted in a handsome door that is well insulated and cuts down on road noise.
When we built our bed, we included a large storage area underneath. But retrieving anything was quite a chore, involving me lifting the heavy platform and mattress while Terry grabbed what she needed, or propped the bed up with a sturdy wooden rod. Those days are over, because another addition was a pair of 85 pound struts to make raising and lowering the bed easier. Fitting the struts took a lot of trial and error, but it was worth it. Now Terry can easily raise the bed herself with minimal effort, and it stays in place until she gently pushes down and it drops softly into position.
Like so many of the goodies we have used in the bus conversion, the struts came from RV Surplus Salvage, along with another nice piece of equipment, a Jensen backup camera system. Using a high resolution camera and seven inch black and white monitor, the system will also accept a second camera if I choose to add one someday. My pal John Palmer, from Jolyn Enterprises installed the system in short order, allowing us to keep an eye on our dinghy when going down the highway, and making backing into RV sites much easier. The Jensen system also has one way audio from camera to monitor. This is one addition I was really looking forward to making, after we blew a tire on our Toyota pickup last winter on Interstate 10 and did not know it until a passing trucker honked his horn and motioned for us to pull over. By then the tire was shredded and we came very close to losing the rim too.
John Palmer specializes in RV inverters, solar systems, and other electrical needs. We have a 2,000 watt Heart inverter to provide 110 volt electric from our battery bank while dry camping, but John felt we needed just a little more, and I never question his wisdom. While we were hanging around Elkhart Campground waiting for Fall Escapade to begin, he installed a second, smaller inverter in the bus, a pure sine wave unit dedicated just to our computer and television, assuring us of the best electric power for our sensitive electronic equipment at all times.
John and I also installed a Cobra 75 WX ST 40 channel CB radio that also features 10 separate weather channels. I’m not much on swapping lies and dirty jokes with the truckers going down the highway, but I do like the CB to keep us informed of road conditions, and the weather channels come in very handy when Mother Nature is in a nasty mood. Coming out of Colorado on Interstate 25 a few years back, we suddenly noticed the truckers getting off the highway at every exit ramp. I turned on the CB and learned of a severe hailstorm raging right on the Wyoming border a couple of miles ahead of us. We sought refuge in a parking lot until the storm passed, sparing ourselves the possibility of some body damage or broken windshield glass. Times like those make having a CB worth the minimal investment.
All in all, we have made many significant improvements in the last couple of months, and everything we do makes our home on wheels more comfortable and functional. As Terry is fond of saying, we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and we don’t think it’s an oncoming train!
We Go Solar
We are really seeing some progress in our bus conversion project. This winter we spent some time visiting with John from Palmer Energy Systems on his property in Lake City, Florida and took advantage of having a place to work and John’s expertise to get a lot done.
John Palmer is my “go to” guy when it comes to RV electrical systems. He’s forgotten more about the subject than most us will ever hope to know. John was not happy with the original 12 volt wiring I had done for the house lights, water pump, etc. So under his tutelage I completely rewired the house 12 volt system, using shielded 12 gauge stranded wire. I also relocated the 12 volt circuit breaker box to the front bay where our house batteries and inverter are installed
We had been debating adding a couple of solar panels to help power our battery bank while we are dry camping, and while in Lake City John Palmer installed two 100 watt panels from AM Solar, along with an HPV-22 solar charge controller. While this will not eliminate the need to run our generator when we are boondocking, it will reduce the amount of time we need to do so. It’s nice on sunny days to look at the charge controller and see that we are quietly making electricity from the sun! Of course, solar is predicated on the weather, but under optimal conditions, our two panels should reduce our generator usage about 25 percent.
Our Heart Freedom 458 inverter has never worked right, using too much power while not giving our battery bank a full charge. While we were in Lake City John replaced several Hearts for folks who were having the same problems, installing the new Magnum Energy 2000 watt inverters in their place. We got in line and had John swap out our old inverter for a Magnum Energy as well, and the difference is like night and day! Our batteries charge up faster, charge completely, and maintain their charge much longer when dry camping.
My buddy and fellow bus nut Terry Simpson came up with an omni-directional Wineguard TV antenna, so while John was up on the roof installing the solar panels, he mounted the antenna at the same time. We have a Dish 500 satellite TV system, but there are times when we want to be able to watch the local news wherever we are staying.
One simple afternoon project has really made life easier, and I wish I had done this very early on in our conversion project. I added two weatherproof outdoor-style 120 volt electrical receptacles in the lower bays of the bus, one on the curb side in the front bay and another on the driver’s side in the rear bay, where our holding tanks and campground hookup connections are located The receptacles are wired into our inverter circuit, so now we can run power tools or whatever other electrical equipment we need to simply by opening a bay door and plugging in. What a convenience, compared to having to run a heavy-duty extension cord in through the door or an open window!
One very big improvement was putting most of the final covering on our ceiling. Early on in the conversion process we put three layers of different kinds of insulation in the ceiling. In Lake City we covered the bedroom ceiling with ¼ inch hardwood plywood in preparation for installing the finished ceiling. What a job it was bending that plywood to fit the curve of the bus ceiling and holding it in place long enough to secure it to the bus ribs with self-drilling screws! Several friends helped out, and by the time we were finished we were all exhausted! The next step was to add one more layer of ¼ inch extruded foam insulation to form a barrier to insulate the screw heads used in the plywood from transferring cold and condensation inside. Now it was time for the final ceiling treatments.
In the bedroom we used strips of tongue and groove knotty pine, which we finished with three coats of Olympic clear satin polyurethane sealer, which gave the wood a warm, rich look that we just love. In the living room and kitchen area we used the same final barrier foam insulation layer, and then tongue and groove knotty pine strips on both sides, starting just above the windows and following the curve of the roof up 25 inches on either side. We will cover the rest of the ceiling with padded white vinyl, except for a boxed in channel down the centerline of the bus that measures eight inches wide. This wooden channel serves as a wiring chase and holds all of our 12 volt wiring, as well as coaxial cable to the bedroom television and the cable for our backup monitor. It also serves as a base for mounting our ceiling lights. This same channel will be incorporated into the bedroom ceiling.
The walls in the bedroom were covered below the windows with a nice village birch wainscot paneling. We used the same paneling for the areas above the wainscoting that we used in the hallway and bathroom. The result is very pleasing to our eyes. We will use the same wainscoting in the front of the bus for the living room/kitchen area.
The next big project was to build cabinets across the back of the bus over the bed. This was one that intimidated us going in, but we are very pleased with the final results. I have to give credit for the finished work to Miss Terry, whom everybody knows is the beauty and the brains in our household. She completely built the cabinets while I stayed in the background encouraging her on. She used ¾ inch oak hardwood plywood and built shirt closets on both sides of the bed that measure 13 inches wide (inside dimension) by 48 inches deep.
The bottom of the closets have nightstands on either side with a single deep drawer 12 inches wide by 34 inches front to back, and a small cubbyhole below. Spanning the back of the bus between the shirt closets is a five foot span containing a pair of double door cupboards top and bottom, with an open bookshelf below and a small storage compartment below that. All of this extra storage is really going to be a big plus for us as fulltimers. Unlike the house we left behind, our home on wheels is limited in places to stow everything we carry with us.
Terry faced the plywood with 1x2 inch oak boards, giving the cabinets a nice professional look. The end result is as nice as anything I have seen in a production motorhome, and much sturdier. She built the cabinet doors out of the same oak plywood, using oak trim to face the door edges. We are so pleased with the results in the bedroom that Terry has decided her next project will be to build in new custom kitchen cabinets. We hope to have those done by our next update.
As you can see, it has been a busy time for us, but we continue to enjoy our project, and every task we complete brings our home on wheels closer to completion. It is very rewarding to see all of the planning and dreaming we have done throughout the course of the bus conversion coming together even better than we had hoped for.
Our traveling schedule and other writing and speaking projects have kept us so busy that it has been a long time since I have updated our readers on our progress on the bus conversion project. We have accomplished a lot since the last update. In fact, the bus is about 90% finished! Our friend John Palmer at Palmer Energy Systems in Lake City, Florida was kind enough to allow us to spend several months working on the bus at his place the last two winters, giving us the opportunity to complete some major projects.
With the bedroom cabinets finished, the next step was to take on the kitchen. We were not impressed with most of the prefab cabinets we saw at places like Home Depot and Lowes and decided to custom build our own. We tore out the temporary plywood kitchen cabinets we had built as a stopgap measure, and Terry used ¾ inch oak plywood to build new cabinets that suit her desires for a functional kitchen where she can practice her culinary arts.
Off the shelf oak molding was used on the cabinet edges, and the counter top is formica, and she edged the counter with an oak lip that really sets it off. Wanting to get the very most out of the space available, Terry made the cabinets extra deep at 28 inches. The shelves are all mounted on heavy duty rollers and pull out for easy access. The kitchen cabinets include extra deep drawers and a pull out pantry. The finished product is beautiful, functional, and gets a lot of rave reviews from everybody who sees them.
On the other side of our stove, Terry built an oak cabinet that holds our water heater, and microwave oven. Soon after we moved into the bus we acquired an Olympian Wave 6 catalytic heater, and it worked so well that from that day onward we never used our noisy, fuel wasting Suburban RV furnace. While building the new kitchen, we pulled the furnace out, and in its place Terry now has a deep drawer for pots and pans.
Anyone who knows us and knows anything about our bus project already knows that Miss Terry is the handyman in the family. She takes on the toughest job and astounds everyone with the results. Keep in mind that we have converted the bus while we live and travel in it fulltime. Now consider that when Terry built the cabinets we were dry camping with no electricity, using only our inverter and battery bank to power the saws and tools she used!
With that project out of the way, we next took on the ceiling. We have included several layers of insulation in the ceiling, and covered that with ¼ inch oak plywood. Bending the plywood and screwing it in place took several people and was a lot of hard work, but we rounded up some volunteers and got the job done in a couple of hours.
We put down a layer of extruded Styrofoam fanfold insulation over the plywood, so that we have no screws that touch the outside frame of the bus coming through to the inside, thus preventing condensation and cold or heat transfer, then added another layer of the oak plywood for even more insulation and strength. Next we nailed pine tongue and groove strips up about a third of the way on both sides.
We glued upholsterer’s padding over the plywood in the two center sections, and then stretched white vinyl over both sections the length of the kitchen/living room. We left the wood center channel, which contains our 12 volt wiring chase and ceiling lights, natural for the time being. With the ceiling finished in the kitchen and living room, we enclosed the front cab ceiling in insulation and plywood, covered it with the same padding and foam, and Terry built a handsome oak shelf over the top of the windshield, setting it off with pre-made oak ladder rail molding. We are very pleased with the results, and now the bus has a finished look we enjoy very much.
Terry finished off the lower half of the hallway and bedroom walls with wainscot bead board paneling, and trimmed it with oak molding. She also built a sturdy oak shelf in the bathroom to hold our toiletries. She used the same oak ladder rail molding she did with the shelf over the windshield to finish it off and hold everything in place while traveling.
Just like owning a house, a bus conversion is never finished. Just about the time you think you have it all just the way you want it, you decided to make some changes. Early on in the conversion process, my father-in-law, Pete Weber and I installed twin 55 gallon fresh water tanks and a 98 gallon gray/black combo tank in our rear holding bay. The tanks were adequate for our needs, but their configuration wasted a lot of bay space. On one of our regular trips to RV Surplus in Elkhart, Indiana we came across a 103 gallon water tank that was shorter than our twin 55 gallon tanks, but taller. We purchased it, then contacted Ameri Kart in nearby Bristol, Indiana and had them make up a matching 103 gallon gray/black combo tank. The nice folks at Ameri Kart spun on the fittings exactly where we wanted them, and on a hot weekend at Elkhart Campground I removed the old tanks and installed the new ones in our plumbing bay, then rerouted some water lines to a better location. The plumbing system is set up so that we can run gray water directly into the holding tank, or with the simple turn of a valve in the plumbing bay, it can run directly out when we have a sewer connection. Now we have much more storage room in the plumbing bay. We built a long, narrow two-shelf divider that sandwiches in between the holding tanks, preventing any shifting, giving them extra support on the sides, and that works perfectly for storing fishing rods, extra hoses, electric cables, and other gear.
Miss Terry has never been happy with the Splendide RV washer/dryer combo unit we originally installed in the bus, and after it broke for about the fourth time she said enough was enough. We pulled it out, reconfigured one bedroom closet and the hallway, and installed a separate compact apartment size Whirlpool washer and 120 volt dryer. The new appliances give us much better service, Terry can do larger loads in one wash, and they wash and dry much faster than the RV unit. She loves being able to dry one load while another is in the washer, something she could never do with the Splendide. The area over the washer and dryer now serves as a wide shirt closet where all of our hanging items are carried.
An artist needs the proper tools to work with, and anybody who has enjoyed one of Miss Terry’s meals knows that when it comes to the culinary arts, she doesn’t have much competition. She has never liked the RV stove and oven we originally installed. Shopping around, we found a handsome Avanti stainless steel four burner range with an oven, broiler, and glass window door that fits exactly where the RV stove was, and cost just about the same price! She loves her new range, and I sure love the goodies she makes with it!
Outside the bus, we replaced the Roadmaster Falcon 5250 tow bar we have been using since we started fulltiming with a 10,000 pound rated Blue Ox tow bar, which we find easier to use when we hook up and unhook our Toyota pickup.
As you can see, our bus has come a very long way since we first saw it, and about all we have left to do now is some interior trim and someday, when finances allow, we may look into a new paint job. But for now, it is the perfect home on wheels for our needs and we are thrilled with the results of our hard work over the last four years. A bus conversion is not for every RVer, but for us, it was the right choice!
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