Big changes, a dose of humility and a whole lot of gratitude

WOOF. What a month.

Where do I begin? The entire world has been turned on its head and everyone is just trying to make the best of a bad situation. We are no different. Three weeks ago, I had a rather rosy new blog post almost ready to roll out: Sarah and I had just celebrated her birthday by getting away for a long, idyllic weekend to St. Simons Island, GA. We rented a cute Airbnb for three days, borrowed a 40-year old powder blue canoe from my boss, went for an excellent paddle through the salt marshes of Gould’s Inlet with the dog, walked and sipped beer on the beach, and caught up on reading and dozed under ancient live oaks draped in spanish moss while being serenaded by recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. It was perfect. When we got back to Jacksonville, we had a two-day work marathon on the bus and got A LOT accomplished. Over two beautifully sunny days, we sanded, taped out, cleaned, primed and painted the entire roof of the bus. It was an incredibly satisfying way for us (me mainly) to wrap up our five days off together. We both headed back to work after our mini-vacation and we both stepped into a totally different world.

Gould’s Inlet on St. Simon’s Island, GA. My old stomping grounds when I was a kayak guide fresh out of college and where I bought and lived-aboard my old sailboat. Also a great place to escape to for a birthday weekend with my baby.
Charlie, Sarah and I cruising the salt marshes. Notice how Charlie is simply tolerating our instagram-worthy adventure. Silly puppy.

The three weeks after our trip to St. Simons were an emotional roller coaster. My Schooner shut-down for the foreseeable future due to social distancing concerns, I reveled in free time to work on the bus, I waa fortunate enough to land a gig stocking shelves at Winn-Dixie alongside Sarah (I’m sure she had to cash in some brownie points for that), I dealt with some major anxiety about getting sick (I’m sure everyone else has had this too), fought a mini-depression that all of our plans were going to completely fall apart, had a lot of love sent our way by friends, family and even strangers and finally, found the silver linings of this whole crisis. I get to spend tons of time with my fiancee, we have jobs, the weather has been beautiful and we still get to work on the bus! I’m a stocker instead of a captain for a few months, which, I’ll admit, I’m not crazy about but it’s exactly what we need right now. I will also add, it is very cool to be able to have lunch with your fiancee every day.

It finally feels like our roller coaster is slowing down (or at least leveling out) and I feel like we are both in pretty good places despite the times. I suppose this is all just part of the adventure. So, on to the neat stuff, here’s what we’ve got cooking on the bus:

We temporarily removed the crossing light shrouds on the roof and fully stripped all of the “SCHOOL BUS” vinyl sticker along with its big, black strip of cover-up spray paint off. We finally plucked In Transit’s unibrow.
Sarah climbed on the roof and scuff-sanded the entire top part while I went around the perimeter of the roof on the step stool and stripped old vinyl, sanded and generally cleaned up. The next morning white Roof primer went on and here’s the result after the first coat! Super exciting stuff.
The big girl looking more like a Skoolie and less like a derelict: Three fresh coats of elastomeric RV paint are finished! We used Dicor Elastomeric RV paint and I applied it with a 3/8″ nap roller which yielded thinner coats than what the recommended 1/2″ nap roller would have produced but seeing as the product isn’t really supposed to go on vertical surfaces, it gave me a lot more control of the thickness and kept the paint from getting too gloppy around the edges. Because I don’t have a ladder tall enough to reach the top of the bus, I had to climb on the roof and roll on what I could from the top and then use our step ladder to bring the coats all the way down to the tops of the windows.
We bought a Guest 5/5 Marine Battery Charger to keep our house batteries topped up while plugged into a power pedestal or when using the generator. We haven’t actually purchased house batteries yet, so the charger has worked great for topping off our old starting batteries. They’re about 5 years old and are probably near the end of their service life but we’re going to try keeping them going as long as possible! (Fingers crossed)
Skylights! Poplar frame with dovetailed joints, stainless and brass hardware, and 1/4″ UV-grade Lexan for the lens. It’s all sealed with 4 coats of varnish and the lexan is held in place with clear PL caulking and stainless steel screws and washers with neoprene grommets underneath to allow the Lexan a bit more room to flex.

Sky lights! I spent days days trying to figure out what to do about our escape hatches. Initially, I really just wanted to keep the plain school bus hatches and possibly upgrade to marine hatches somewhere down the line. Come to find out, all of the plastic mounting hardware on our stock bus hatches was super old and incredibly brittle; so much so that a thunderstorm ripped both hatches off early last month. A semi then managed to drive over one of them. I salvaged one hatch but the other was smashed and the only thing left serviceable was the gasket and gasket frame. In the interm, I was able to keep the rain out with a couple of trashbags and tape. New hatches and skylights moved way up priority status overnight.

As we’re parked in coastal Florida at the moment, I figured I could find some reasonably priced, gently used yacht hatches pretty easily. Unfortunately as it is in life, “good”, “cheap” and “easy” don’t usually come together. I only managed to find brand new hatches in the size I needed, and they were $690.00 each. This being a number somewhat out of our price range at the moment, I decided to forgo the “easy” part and just go with “cheap” and “good” and design our own hatches using the old escape hatch mounts. My target price for each completed homebuilt hatch needed to be around $100 each.

Coming up with the hatch design and finding the right hardware and materials that would look good, be functional and fit our price range took me a good month or so. First, I ordered the stainless hinges on Amazon because I knew more or less what I wanted them to look like and how they should function. I paid $10 for each hinge. I also found some very handsome solid brass screw-down latches that are designed for locking down sailboat hatches for $10 each at a local used boat part store. I initially wanted to use one solid piece of Lexan for the hatches, I figured it would give them a really clean look. However I would have needed Lexan that was about 5/8″-3/4″ thick to give me the rigidity I was looking for to make sure we got a good seal. The best price I could find was almost $200 for a single 27″×27″ sheet. Time to rethink the design. I went through about 6 different designs before I ultimately decided on this one and so far, I really like it. Part of the design started in my head and the other elements came together as I actually built the thing. I realized I needed to go with thinner Lexan to keep the price down and ultimately found a 30″×30″ .33″ thickness for $30.00 at Lowe’s. I picked up a bunch of 1/2″ x 1×2″ and 1 1/2″×1/2″ Poplar project stock at Lowe’s as well which cost me another $25. The idea was to first build a frame onto which the hinges and lexan would mount and then build stringers to mount the sailboat screw-latch to and to give the Lexan more rigidity against the frame itself.

I first ripped my poplar stock down to 11/4″ ×1/2″ on the table saw then hand cut the dovetailed joints (way more time consuming than just screwing it together but adds a lot more strength and gives it a nice touch). The Lexan was then scored and cut down to 27″×27″ square, holes pre-drilled, Lexan dry fitted and the stringers cut, sanded and dry fit as well. I added some 1/2″ square scrap to the outside of the center stringer to give the sailboat latch something more to bite into and to spread the load more evenly. Everything then came apart and poplar bits all got 3 coats of spar varnish (another $20 from the hardware store). After the varnish dried, I taped out all the edges, applied clear poly caulking ($10) and screwed everything back together using stainless screws I already had on hand. I payed another $35 for brass bolts to mount the sailboat latch, neoprene gasket-backed washers (to hold the Lexan to the frame) and more stainless bolts, locknuts and washers to mount the hinges to the hatch frame and to the bus. $8 for some weather stripping and the project was complete. Seeing as I didn’t use all of the varnish, caulking or weather stripping, the overall price to finish this one hatch was right at about $138.00. I over-shot my price goal but I kind of figured I would. Now I just have to build the second one!

Finished skylight rom inside. Note brass sailboat screw-latch installed on a scrap piece of poplar which gives the bracket more rigidity than if just screwed into the old plastic escape hatch frame. We spray painted this escape hatch frame with rustoleum hammer-finish paint class it up a little. I’m overall very pleased wth this little bit of our bus.

So now that we’re finished with sealing and painting the roof and we have two hatches that keep water out we’re pretty much ready for insulation right? Well yes and no. Sarah and I are both really sensitive to mold and mildew and she brought up a good point: won’t the insulation grow mold and mildew if we just install insulation now? The insulation should help with the temperature differential, the freshly sealed roof should help prevent moisture inside the bus but we also needed better ventilation. Even at this time of the year, the humidity is HIGH in Florida and we were both afraid that just cracking a window wouldn’t be enough. So my solution was to go ahead and install an active ventilation system. Because we have no power at our current truck yard that we could just plug into, that means going ahead with our onboard solar system before insulation. This also works well because it will give us the chance to through-bolt our solar panels to the roof before everything is covered.

Our port-side bathroom shower/poop exhaust fan installed. This one is made by Maso RV and is the high air flow model. A second identical fan will be installed on the opposite side of the bus in about the same location. The starboard fan will ventilate and cool our electrical cabinet and will be thermostat regulated. Eventually, as finances permit, a Maxxair automatic hatch fan will also join the mix and will be mounted where our current strobe light is located.

My plan to upgrade the bus from simply passive ventilation to active ventilation is pretty simple: install our first two 100 watt solar panels (the other two 100w panels will get ordered and installed once we have more money and shouldn’t be difficult to wire in parallel into our first two panels), install our solar wiring roof gland and temporarily set up our 40a solar breaker, 40 amp solar charge controller, two 6 volt 225 amp hour deep cycle batteries to power both exhaust fans. The fans will be controlled by a simple 12 volt thermostat (basically just a switch that opens and closes depending on temperature).

We received two awesome HQST 100w solar panels for the bus for Christmas from Sarah’s Mom and Step-Dad (I think they’re excited about the project too). The panels have just been sitting in our office at the condo for the last couple months so the finished roof and the need for power finally gave me an excuse to get to work on this portion of the build. My biggest problem wasn’t necessarily how to wire our PV (photovoltaic or solar panel) array (tons of info online about it) but how to mount the panels on a school bus roof in a way that would allow them to hinge on one end to face the sun in the winter months at higher latitudes (the sun being significantly lower in the sky at these times) and also be flexible enough to accommodate more Solar panels as we buy more. I searched for a good solution online but couldn’t find any products or designs that fit our needs especially well. So I came up with a simple bracket design that could use regular 2″ aluminum stock from home depot and I could crack out in an afternoon. We head to home depot, spend some money, head home, throw some steaks on the BBQ, pop open three of four IPA’s, eat and before bed, I draft out my cuts and dimensions on my aluminum stock and go to bed. I wake up the next morning feeling good and get to work cutting, shaping and bending aluminum for our solar brackets. They turn out nice and I head to the bus the next day to mount the panels and check another box on our construction to-do list.

So I learned that alcohol and drafting don’t mix. At least they don’t mix well. I over-estimated the height of the bracket needed to clear above the camber of the roof when the panels were mounted parallel to the frame of the bus. (The height of the bracket would’ve been fine if the panel was mounted perpendicular to the frame but I want to install a catwalk along the centerline of the roof so I need a bit more space.) Anyways, I set up one of the panels with my new brackets and it looked like this: pretty wonky.

My first generation solar panel mounts. About an inch and a half too tall. I blame the beer.
Closer view of our too-tall brackets. Here you can see the wingnuts and the slot in the top of the outboard bracket which will release this end and allow the whole panel to hinge inboard on the inner set of brackets.
Low-profile brackets finished and mounted. Just need another day off with Sarah to get the mounts dryfit, bedded with caulking and thru-bolted to our roof.

We have some very cool things on the horizon: About three weeks ago (or right after I got layed off) we sent in our request for registration with the state of Vermont DMV to have In Transit re-titled from a “Commercial Vehicle” to a “Motorhome” along with a check for $256 for processing, plates and sales tax. It’s a neat caveat in the law that you don’t need to be a Vermont Resident nor have a vehicle inspection to get your tags from the Vermont DMV; in nautical terms, we would call it a “Flag of Convenience”. Anyway, the money disappeared from Sarah’s account a few days ago so one can only hope that we will see our shiney, new pine-green ﹰVermont ﹰTags in the mail sometime very soon! We are both super-excited to reactivate our insurance and get the big girl back on the road for little adventures here and there during construction.

Along with our new registration, we’ve found a new home for the bus during construction, one that’s only a 10-minute drive from the Schooner dock in St. Augustine. Hopefully this new location will allow me to spend A LOT more time working on the bus in between trips once this whole pandemic starts to clear. We’ll hopefully make our big move towards the end of this month.

We just received another big shipment from Amazon, along with it most of the components for our solar and 12 volt systems. My stoke levels are super-high to get this stuff in use:

A whole lot of electronic goodness.

All things considered, we are really, really fortunate to be in the spot we are. We both have jobs, we both have a place to stay, the weather is nice and we’re able to keep working on our future travelling home throughout this crisis. I’d being lying to you if I told you I didn’t day-dream of being behind the helm of a nice big boat plying the Intercoastal Waterway every time I start stocking shelves again at Winn-Dixie, but we are overall, probably in the best possible spot we could be to weather this storm and for that, I am incredibly and deeply grateful.

Thanks as always for checking in, following along and being a part of our adventure!

3 thoughts on “Big changes, a dose of humility and a whole lot of gratitude

  1. Nice progress! Keep your head up Austin…it’ll get better. 🙂 There’s one nice thing about making brackets too long, instead of too short….it’s a lot easier to shorten them than to stretch them! Looking good, God bless!!

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