Operation Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Follow our progress on renovating our 1999 International School Bus into our Tiny House that will take us around the United States to find our next homestead location! Maybe you can pick up some tips along the way too:)
Remember last October when we announced we wuld be on Skoolie Today’s podcast? Well after overcoming technical difficulties, it has finally been published and is ready for you to listen! We did this interview after a long day at the lot, so we sound tired! But it was so much fun! And it encouraged us to start our podcast Talking Chitty! We had a great time and appreciated Oscar’s time and allowing us to share our story on his podcast!
Our names are Morgan and Ryon Crabtree and we live in a self-converted
1999 International Genesis school bus we named “Chitty Bang”. Our fellow bus
dwellers include our two daughters, Rion and Laila, our English Mastiff, Mila,
and cat, Micio. The bus is a 40-foot International Genesis flat nose with a
DT466 and Allison Transmission retired from the Independent School District of
Arizona and cost us $4,700, Ryon’s time to receive his Class C driver’s
license, and a plane ticket to Phoenix from Texas. With 253,000 original miles
on her, hrove her home where we started demolition. Overall it took us 13
months to get her 95% done and ready enough to move in. We made changes and
renovations as we lived in the bus this last year, figuring out the
functionality of these random thoughts we made into our home. We will continue
to do that this next year as well. Like every bus converter says, “you are
never really done with your bus”.
Inspiration to self-convert a school bus came in many shapes, forms,
experiences, successes, and failures over the years. We had been together for
over 11 years by 2014 and had a long history of “roll with the punches” and
adaptability. Ryon had served in the Army, did a 17 month tour in Mosul and
Baghdad, Iraq, and was then medically retired. We both had our corporate jobs,
owned houses, received our degrees, had babies, we had it figured out, right?
In 2012, we had moved into a new custom home on 3 acres, and just after a few
months of living there we experience a total loss house fire that stemmed from
the chimney while we were having a fire in the fire place. An “Act of God” is
what the conclusion the insurance company gave us. Rising from the ashes and
rebuilding was such a powerful experience that we swore we would be the ones
who built our next house. We got our little dream of a homestead up and running
with our chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and aquaponics farming and filled our new
house with lots of new furniture and “things”. As we continued to fill our
house, there was an emptiness we needed to fill. Morgan eventually lost her
corporate job and we both proceeded down a path of entrepreneurship. After much
self-reflection, we decided not to be in the rat race anymore. We knew there
was more to Life than keeping up with the Jones’. We checked all of the boxes,
now what? We began to take more control of our lives and really started doing what we wanted
to do. We wanted to explore with our children and watch them grow.
We started learning more about the Tiny House Movement and minimalism.
Eventually that led us to start selling all of our “Stuff” that we really did
not need. Every item leaving the house was a weight off of our shoulders. We
put our home on the market. We thought, if we wanted to learn how to build a
house, what better way than on a small scale? We had no prior building
experience other than our homestead projects, and not many tools since the
house fire. We didn’t have a truck to haul a tiny house at the time, and we
were not really confident in our abilities to build a tiny house on a trailer
from scratch. Then it clicked. Why not a school bus? It has the frame, can
handle large amounts of weight, and would be the perfect wagon for our pioneer
voyage to find a bigger piece of land to start a new homestead. We literally watched
every video on school bus conversions and tiny house builds that existed on the
internet by February 2015, and by the next month, Chitty Bang was in our
Our conversion plan was ever changing as the bus came together. We
gutted her and used Polyurethane caulk to fill the holes on the floor where the
seats used to be, and every rivet and seam on the roof and sides of the bus. We
took out, resealed, and re-installed all of the windows, only intending to
cover about four windows total at the time. Since the bus was from Arizona,
there was only a little rust on the floor, which we used Corroseal to convert
the rust and prime the floor for a fresh coat of Rustoleum. When she was
stripped down to bare metal we could really make sure we sealed as much as we
could, and trust us, you sleep better at night when it’s raining! Next we were
onto the actual build-up process.
We are happy to have the International Genesis, as this style has
taller ceilings than other Makes and Models. Still, Ryon is 6’2” and every inch
counted not only on the floor plan, but also on the height of the bus. For
these reasons, we did as much as we could without Ryon being uncomfortable. We
took down all of the school bus lights/speakers/exterior lights and covered
those and any other holes with 16 gauge cold rolled steel and a mix of steel
and aluminum 3/16” rivets. We also used that steel to cover 17 out of 30 windows,
which are mostly in the rear. Furring strips were glued and TEK screwed to the
floor and we decided the Foam-It Green DIY spray foam kit (a closed cell spray
foam) would be best for insulation, especially to help give it an overall seal
and structural durability. For the windows we decided on covering later due to
draftiness and functionality of the space, we used a 1” piece of foam and foil
tape to insulate the inside of the window then covered with wood. 4’x8’ sheets
of plywood were used for the subfloor and 2’x4’s for framing all of the walls.
Those are mostly ¾” & ¼” sanded plywood (birch and maple) and We painted a
lot of them a light gray, Planetary Silver by Behr, and some were stained with
Jacobean and Natural stains. We used trim painted white to really accent our
finishing work, complete with floor moulding, crown moulding, and everywhere in
between. For the electrical, we installed our outlet boxes after we put walls
up, so they are set on top of the walls instead of flush.
When entering our home you notice the RV door with a frosted glass window that we use where the school bus door used to be. We fabricated the frame with square tubing, welding, and a couple of L brackets. The steps are set off by a diamond plate backing with Purple Heart Wood steps. To the left is a little cubby with hooks to hold shoes, pet leashes and purses, and to the right are hooks to hold coats and umbrellas. We use the dog house of the bus engine to hold our English Mastiff’s food and the dash to hold our cat’s food, a fan to blow air down the long hallway, and gaming systems we may be playing. The driver’s seat turns into a laundry hamper holder and “outgoing” stuff catch all. If this were a full sized house and the driver’s seat was a room, that would be the one we would keep the door closed on. We use Reflectix to cover the windshield and driver’s windows, and cover it with a light gray curtain to add a homey touch. On the front head board of the bus, above the windshield, hangs a 40” flat screen, taken down while traveling.
Standing in the living room, you immediately notice the galvanized corrugated metal ceiling, set off by LED strip lights that run along the ceiling. The living room starts with an 80” long couch to the right, We originally topped these with some cushions Morgan made and upholstered, but recently found a memory foam mattress that we cut to fit. They are really comfortable! There is a nice end table top next to the kid’s couch with two cup holders made into it (That was Laila’s idea!), as well. This is our main living area where we eat dinner, play games, and watch TV.
Next, you would enter the kitchen area which is set off with a
beautiful, sleek white marbled granite countertops and backsplash, and a large
stainless steel sink perfect for big pots, on the left side. The custom
cabinets we built are ¾” sanded plywood and the cabinets and drawers are
installed with Blum Brand hardware so they would “lock” in for travel. We added
a floor to ceiling pantry on the right side of the kitchen which holds a ton of
food and cooking supplies. And above, the recently added Atwood 15021/15026
works as an A/C, heater, or dehumidifier and works really well considering the
length of the bus. We also care quite a bit about the quality of our water, so
we invested some money in an APEC Reverse Osmosis Filtration System with 5
filters. A few months into our journey, Ryon added a UV light to the RO system,
as well as 3 outdoor filters and a portable water softener. Since we never know
what the water quality is when we fill our fresh water tank, we figured the
more filters the better.
We use curtains to section the house off into different rooms for
privacy, climate control, and showering. This also helps also cut down on noise
through the house. Passing past the first curtain, the bathroom will be on the
left which houses our Natures Head Compost Toilet, our Precision Temp RV-550
water heater (covered by a custom wood box, cover for top coming soon), and a
32”x32” shower pan.
On the right, the utility closet is hidden behind a curtain and displays the brains of our electrical system. Hanging on the walls are the “house” breaker boxes which contains our 50 Amp set up ran with standard 12/3 Romex, and the Solar Set up.
Next is the
bunk room. This area has a large closet space on the right and the kids’ bunk
beds on the left which are covered with a rock wall face for climbing into the
top bunk, and fun on rainy days. The last room is the master suite complete
with a Queen bed, 2 closets with shelves, curtain rods, and organizing boxes,
and mirrors to open the small space up.
<Insert MasterSuite.jpg (Underneath the bed houses a 42-gallon RV water tank, the city water and fill-up inlet box, and a sur-flo pump. We decided to keep the water tank inside of the bus just in case were somewhere it was really cold. Our dog also has her bed under there as it is a nice, large space for her to lay down comfortably without being in the way.)
On the exterior of the bus, we added 6 storage boxes underneath on
either side and also extended the frame 3’ to add a “garage” area. We
fabricated a tool box and a propane cage that are bolted to the extension, as
well as a ramp/deck hinged off the back.
For safety, we also make sure to have at least 4 fire extinguishers on board, working fire/CO2 alarms, and propane sensors at each propane connection inside.
By November 2015 it was time to start our Maiden Voyage where we traveled through Texas just in case we had to repair or change anything before getting too far out. The only plan we really had in the beginning of our journey was to find a homestead. We gave ourselves 3 months in each location to decide if we liked the area/state/land/laws and then we moved on. We mostly visited friends in Family in Texas for the first few months since we had been building the bus that last year plus a few months. It gave us time to figure out a routine and how to even live in this thing.
We got the chance to partake in a Skoolie Meetup near Dallas where we met some amazing folks and had a great start our voyage to the Pacific Northwest March 2017. We took about 3 weeks and explored Roswell, the Four Corners, Southwest Colorado, and started speeding the journey up through Utah. We were finding that it was really easy to find water and parking for our big rig, which was awesome because We had no idea what to expect. We were able to easily use Solar power while parked at rest stops on the trip, or plug into shore power at an RV park. Everything was working like it should. The confidence we feel every day from that is just indescribable. If something breaks, we know we can fix it or at least figure it out enough to understand the problem!
We stayed in Olympia,
Washington for 3 months plugged into a friend’s house for water, and on Solar
Power. The panels did FANTASTIC during the cloudy PNW Spring. By this point, we
could fully clean the house in 30 minutes, had a regular school work routine,
and weren’t bumping into each other as often walking down the hallway. Traffic
flow is something we struggled with at first. We decided to get out of the busy
city for a while and find a quiet place to try Workamping for the summer. By
July, we found ourselves in Klamath, California in the middle of the Redwoods
where we spent the summer “disconnected” on the Klamath River, 1 mile from the
Pacific Ocean, and it was all one of the greatest things we had ever seen. Our
kids were in charge of the Kids Club at the campground and they learned about
managing an office and all that real-life stuff because they could come watch
and help their parents do it. Roadschooling at its finest!
September rolled around in the Redwoods, our time was ending and we found another workamping gig except this one we would also get paid. To dry out from the soggy Pacific North West, we headed down to Arizona to manage a pumpkin patch, Christmas tree lot, and fireworks stand for the next 3 months. Our opinion as first timers, it was good pay for what we put in and we will be doing it again this year. It was definitely a great way to save some money for our future homestead and get to know an area.
We have met some amazing people on our journey and having a little over
a year of travel experience under our belts, we are so excited for this year!
We have learned that traveling for long periods without stopping is exhausting.
You stress about the engine, your stuff breaking or being lost, and having to
always pack things away. Breaks from traveling are good. It also gives us a
chance to meetup with some homeschool groups in the area. We can figure out if
we like a place in 2 weeks. We can save and/or make money by Workamping. Go
when we aren’t happy. That is the point we live in a rolling home, right?
We have loved being able to give our children a childhood of adventure and being able to really spend quality time with them on our journey together. I know that when we are old and look back, that time we bought a bus and traveled with our kids will still have been the best decision we had ever made. It isn’t always glitter and rainbows. The point is Life isn’t meant to be lived in a box. Get uncomfortable. Let your inner weird out and embrace it. Without all of the money in the world, we have memories, experiences, and a closeness that we never would have been able to attain in another way of life. We think we can live with that. Until then, we will keep searching for our homestead and enjoy big living, living tiny.
I go over the 4 propane appliances we have been using for 2 years while living tiny in our skoolie conversion. We had the intention while building it of being off grid and boondocking more so we installed mostly propane with the options of shore or genny power. Over the course of the first year we added the toaster oven, plug extension on the fridge, and a rooftop ac/vent so when plugged in, we save on propane.
VIDEO EDIT* @ 15:28 The DRAIN Faucet is for the FRESH WATER TANK not the GRAY WATER! We don’t wash our hands with gray water! LOL!
2 years later I finally did another walk through of Chitty Bang Skoolie! The first one was 4 months into living tiny. Well, we have learned A LOT and changed a few things, added others, and overall have been chillacing and living the easy tiny house life! After the first year, we figured out tiny living and rving…this last year we have actually really been enjoying it even more! I show off our water filter system, our awesome boondocking efficient power system via solar and propane, and how we keep batteries charged when parked! I hope yall enjoy!! Will be adding the links to some products in just a minute, stay tuned! Thanks for watching!
The bathroom was a bit complex bc I wanted a shower that was comfortable for Crab to stand in, comfortable to use the large compost toilet, and have room to put in the American Made RV water heater we decided to go with, Precision Temp’s RV 550. The size of the bathroom was adjustable at this point, but we went with interior measurements of 32″ deep (The exterior depth was the same as the bunkroom located on one side of the bathroom) x 70″ long. (Measured with the corrugated metal we used as the paneling). Exterior length down the bus, the bathroom measures 77″. The shower pan was 32″x32″ from Home Depot. Remember, we ran our electrical after we built because we had no idea what the space would really look like or how it would function really until we built it. Total Newbies!:)
We painted all of the framing wood in the bathroom with Red Guard. Thus was suggested by a contractor We met. He swears by it. It paints on pepto bismol pink, but dries a red plastic covering over whatever you paint. So if water ever gets through, it will save the wood at least! We then used galvanized corrugated metal as the walls and used hex head screws with rubber washers to help seal where we had to install. I used a clear silicone to caulk the seams.in the shower and where the wall met the ceiling.
We had to cut a hole in the side of the bus to install the tankless water heater and allow it to vent properly. Well we cut it too big….and then hung a piece of metal to cover the mess up lol. We had some experience with metal work so this part no longer seemed so scary and daunting. Confidence was building:) We actually felt good about making a hole in the bus. Wowza…
The Plumbing for the shower looked like this:
After much research on youtube and seeing how people liked their composting toilets, we decided to not build a black water tank and just use a compost toilet! The Nature’s Head was what we decided on, as it was really the only one I could find! I wrote an article The Dirty Rotten Truth About Compost Toilets for an in depth look at how I like ours.
We positioned it in the corner of the bathroom so we would have space to sit comfortably, and be able to vent it properly, and plug it in to a power source so the small fan inside runs to keep it from being stinky.
Plumbing Propane: (link to full article coming soon!)
This happened towards the end of the build when we were finished with the propane “cage” we fabricated at the rear of the bus on the extension we also built on. This way, we knew exactly the distance and we were just measuring, cutting, and flaring. We had our great Mentor, Robbie, to show us how to do a double flarethat was perfect (we had a lot of re-dos doing the flare at first, but it is very important it is done without having cracks or uneven edges on the flare). A double flare is RV standard for double safety, basically, you can find this out on a google search. However, a single flare will do the trick, but if you already have the Flaring kit, you might as well do a double and be safe. (If you do this, have someone look at it that approves. Try a heating/cooling business, A/C repair. You can even have a licensed propane inspector check it out. Might cost $100 but its worth it if you are not sure. )
We ran copper piping from the propane cage we built underneath the bus up through the floor underneath the water heater. Underneath the bus, right underneath the water heater, we “T”ed a connection to also connect the RV refrigerator to propane since we bought a 2 way by Norcold (info on that in a future article) and it was just a few feet away on the same side of the bus.
And since we are talking about propane, lets talk safety. NO BUILD IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SAFETY. At every connection (2) inside of the bus, I have a Propane Sensor on the ground (PROPANE IS HEAVY AND WILL DROP TO THE GROUND NOT FLOAT) connected 12 V to the SOLAR battieries and they are on 24/7. That is not to say that spraying febreze or other chemical wont’s set off the sensors…that has happened…but I know they work! We also put on and off valves inside underneath the water heater and fireplace so we could turn off the propane easily in here without going outside.
Also, we wrapped our copper in foam insulation so that it would not rub against anything underneath the bus. REMEMBER VIBRATION IS YOUR ENEMY. ALWAYS THINK OF HOW THINGS WILL VIBRATE or TWIST while bumping down the road! And things move! We also attached the foam covered pipe with metal hangers securely to the frame of the bus with TEK metal screws.
Crab built a box to cover the plumbing, propane, and water heater and I put a basket on top of it for an air freshener, lotion, and TP holding area. We also trimmed around the bottom of the box and the doorways! We should have gotten a type of cover for the top, stone or wood, but we always keep our eyes open for something to add later.
I use a friend’s old shoe organizer to organize our bathroom necessities. With 3 girls and guy that shaves his head, there are quite a few pockets filled with feminine hygiene, extra soap, razor blades from dollar shave club, sunscreen, face and hair masks, all of our toothpaste and brushes…etc. It works Great!
We have a curtain for privacy when showering that we tuck behind the organizer when no one is in their. I also orginally had a towel hanger there but it was in the way a lot so it was removed and we have since found another place for towels.
DRAIN LINES: (another article coming)
When it came to installing the drain lines, again, this was something never done before. We read the lines should hang at a 1/4″ slant all the way to the end. This lets gravity do its job. So we used some of these awesome metal straps with holes in them (we used these for lots of stuff and hanging things) to hang the 1″ PVC from the sink drain under the bus to the shower, all the way to the rear of the bus to the Gray water tank we installed at a later time while on the road (that will be in the future drain line article).
A Look Back:
The Rv550 has worked decently the last almost 2 years. Here are the issues we had. The first time we installed it, the face that goes on the outside of the bus didnt really fit.
The company has great customer support. They sent us a new one, no issues. After about 8 months and tracking from Texas to Washington then down to Cali, the water heater sprung a leak shooting water down the outside side of the bus. At least it wasn’t inside. The company sent us another new one, took back the old one, all paid for. It just sucked to have to deal with. Over a year later we traveled from Cali to Arizona and have been exploring the state, no issues. It is hard to find the correct setting for how hot you need it, and lately the hose being in the sun is enough to get the perfect temp shower lol. If it craps again, though, and isn’t covered with the warranty I want to take out the box Crab made to cover it, and install an Eco Temp or other style I have seen other skoolie/tinyhousers use. And we will get some floor space back in the bathroom which would be a cool change:).