Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Access Features Part 1 - First Peek

 For the last year I designed (and redesigned) Rolling Joy, my 30' school bus conversion. Sending it to the bus conversion folks meant I had to make some important access decisions from afar. I had to decide on the final layout, what types of systems I needed (solar? propane? shore power?) as well as where to put the electrical outlets and what kinds I needed (3 prong? USB?)

Because I use a wheelchair, I adapt and redesign every place I live. Rolling Joy provided the challenge of having to plan more carefully because in a space that's 25' long and 7.5' wide every decision is critical and in many cases permanent. I can't move the bathtub or toilet or bed later.

In this 2 part blog on Access Features I take you through some of the reasons for the decisions I made. 

One of the best pieces of advice I received on doing a custom build: "Figure out what's really important to you and then make those the priorities."

My priorities: a queen size bed with handrails; a series of eye bolts on the bed frame so I can change the bed without climbing on it; a kitchen counter with a built-in sink; a large table with clearance underneath; a soaking bathtub; a washing machine; two ceiling fans; a lift that drops me right next to the bus; a driver's seat on a rail to move back and swivel; under-the-bus locked storage cabinets; and enough solar and batteries to live off-grid for a few weeks at a time.

All of these require careful access considerations. What is the usable height of the bed? of the toilet? Where to put the electrical outlets? the important monitors (for solar/ water/ fuses)?  How to get in / out of a deep bathtub? So many questions. So few options.

By and large I made up the solutions based on what I know works for me and what I hope will work in a bus. After 2 years of research I only found a handful of wheelchair users who travel in an RV or skoolie (adapted school bus) independently. Nearly all wheelchair users travel with a nondisabled person. Based on their blogs and articles the nondisabled person does a lot of tasks that I will be doing myself.

In Access Features Part 1 I discuss the lift to get me into the bus and how I designed the kitchen area. Part 2 focuses on the Work Table, Soaking Bath Tub, in-bus lift, and toilet. 

Just for easy reference I am putting the layout here along with a front-to-back view of the inside:



The floor of the bus is nearly 48" above the ground. The bus came with a working industrial Braun lift. The conversion folks removed it (chopped it into pieces) when they laid down the floor (a sad story for another time).

As I evaluated replacements I also looked closely at RV parking spaces in campgrounds. A school bus is 8.5' wide. The parking spaces (i.e. space available for the RV and getting in and out) are usually 10' wide. Just enough room for someone to open the door and step out of the RV. Definitely not made for any kind of platform lift (i.e. a lift where you roll out onto a platform) and there's rarely, if ever, any additional flat space next to the bus in a typical RV campsite.

I assessed if I could make any type of platform lift work. Typical platform lifts require 3-8 feet of drop space. Even if I cut off the lift side wall (a common disability hack), I'd still need 3- 4' because of the way that the lift pulls away from the bus as it drops.

All this led me to look at Superarm lifts. Started by a wheelchair user, the Superarm is the ultimate bad ass lift. You are hanging your body with 1" straps attached to a single horizontal bar. 

Yup, all that's between me and a 4 foot drop is 1" straps attached to a horizontal bar. 

Take a deep breath because riding this lift feels as scary as the photos show. But I want to be clear, this is a safety-tested lift. I am safe as long as I follow their directions on how to attach the straps to my wheelchair and how to safely operate the lift. Superarms are reliable lifts and the owner (according to website photos) was also a large-bodied person. My fear comes from being a new user and the height I am traveling.

As the photos show I am still in the "I'm know I am going to die" phase of learning to trust the lift. But as I nail it, I will relish the freedom of a lift that positions me right next to the bus.

 Here's how it works.
A tall motor mechanism is mounted on the right side of the door opening (right as looking from the outside). It has an "L" shaped metal arm. The long side connects from the motor mechanism. Ths short side has 2 hooks. There is also a wired controller with 2 toggle switches (up/down, in/out). 

When I first got the lift, it came with 2 metal rings with two 1" strips of webbing on each ring. The device and straps are rated to safely lift 600 lbs. On each side I take the shorter strap and attach it to my wheelchair handle. The longer strap goes down to my wheelchair base frame. I adjusted them until I was comfortable when the lift rises.

I start by grabbing the controller (which I leave on the bus floor at the door opening when I am outside). I park my wheelchair with big wheels against the bus. The lift arm comes down in front of me. When it reaches the lowest point, I attach the 2 metal rings to the 2 hooks on the metal arm.

Then I lift myself a few inches off the ground. I am checking that the I can be lifted safely while I am still close to the ground. Once assured, then I bring the lift "up" about 2 feet from the ground.

The lift automatically stops when I reach the top of "up". Then I press "in" to pivot the long metal arm so while the short metal arm rotates keeping the hooks in a strong lifting position.

The "in" function is timed to move much more quickly than the "up" function. Once I am inside the bus, I am still a few inches off the floor so I press "down" to bring the wheelchair down to the floor of the bus.

After I am fully down, I disconnect the metal rings from the metal arm and press "out" to position the lift parallel to the door for storage. That keeps the lift out of my way when I am inside the bus.

I LOVE the freedom of a lift that brings me right next to the bus. This means that I only need the same space as someone needs to open the front door and walk out of the bus. The joy of this freedom is exhilarating. No more searching for spaces where I have 6-8 feet for the lift to come down and I can get off. Many many times I couldn't put a lift onto the sidewalk because there was not enough room - even with small minivan ramps. 

I also love that the lift takes up only a tiny footprint on the bus - that the door is usable even when the lift is inside the bus.

A few notes probably of interest to only a few folks. These photos were taken with my very old back up manual wheelchair. The one I use when I cannot use my power chair and someone (pre-covid) is driving me door-to-door. It doesn't have footplates because my disability has whole body weakness and I find using both my legs and my arms makes it easier for me to use a manual wheelchair. Obviously this doesn't work if I need to do anything more than move a very short distance.

Also I attached a thin rope to the controller. As I move "up" and "in" it's hard to hold onto the controller. I worry about dropping it and being stuck. So whenever I use the lift I tether it to the metal bar so that I can always retrieve it.



I wanted a small kitchen where the only built-in is a sink. Using my home sink for comparison I knew that a 18" x 16" sink with a 6" depth is plenty big enough for me. I also want the flexibility of preparing non-cooking meal with a flat open counter area. 

I decided to start with one induction cooktop (i.e. individual burner) with a second one as a back up. The induction burner will be pulled out of the drawer as I need it. Luckily IKEA's highly rated one was on half-price sale just when I was buying.

I looked at small ovens. I love my convection/microwave. But decided that it takes up too much space and the weight means I cannot move it around. I expected the toaster ovens to be a possibility but at an average of 25 lbs I rejected that option.

The kitchen countertop is 29" high, 4' long and 2' deep. The sink is 6" deep so that I can fit my legs under it. It has an upside "U" design so that I can have individual cabinet storage underneath.

After many conversations with the bus conversion folks, I couldn't figure out where to put the chest-style fridge/freezer.  Right now the dual zone (separate fridge/freezer controls) Dometic DZ75 takes up the entire knee space under the kitchen counter. I am not happy with it but couldn't figure out a better option during the conversion. To make things a bit more challenging, I cannot use the slides under it because it seems to require someone strong with a wide arm span who can lift and pull at the same time. Since it has to be pulled out fully to open the top, I need to find a workable, if temporary, solution in the next few weeks.

In this configuration I can get to the sink but not use any of the counter. Not sure if my temporary solution will be to put some wood between the kitchen counter and work table and put better slides on the Dometic - or - move the Dometic and have a usable kitchen counter.

SEE PART 2 for more access features.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Want list - First peek

This is part 2 of a three part First Peek. Part 1 looked at what I needed in the bus design. Part 2 is what I wanted. Part 3 is about the access features.

Building from scratch is a balance of what is needed (i.e. finished floor), what is wanted and how to make everything work for me (i.e. accessible to me).
I needed to have: a finished sealed interior; insulation in floor, walls and ceiling; hot & cold water with storage tanks; sink; toilet; bed; and desk.

Building is always a balance of what I dream, what is possible, what I can afford. For 2 years before the build I read a lot about what people love and hate in their moving homes. What they wish they had done and what they realized was something that sounded good but wasn't important to their mobile lifestyle. This blog post is about some of the choices I made.

This is going to be my hast home so I really focused on what's important for my comfort and lifestyle. I intentionally had the builders put in the structural basics I need but not do the finishing work. I want to select the colors, the interior storage and the style after I spend time inside Rolling Joy.

I've never had a brand-new mattress. I decided since this is my last home, I want a really good mattress. After a lot of research I decided on a mattress that got top ratings for large bodied side sleepers like me. I almost bought a Sleep Number bed which also had a high rating. But a disabled friend bought one and told me that the edges of them are soft and she knew I needed a hard outside edge.

One of the most common complaints people have about beds in RVs is that they get moldy underneath. So I had the builders cut long slots into the plywood base to prevent a moisture buildup.

I built the queen size bed into the back of the bus. I plan on having a futon seat/bed up front for guests. I like the idea of separate spaces when I have visitors.

People are often shocked to learn that I put a bathtub into the bus.

I love soaking in water. The deeper the water the better. They don't make a soaking bathtub that matched my needs so I adapted one. More on this in Part 3.

When people ask why I have a washing machine in a school bus conversion I reply: "I'm LOL. Leaky Old Lady." They rarely ask any more questions.

I hate being cold and I also hate air conditioning. So I put in 2 ceiling fans that can push or pull air; insulation in the ceiling, walls and floor; and a diesel heater with a blower fan. The bus windows are original - meaning the kind that are super hard to open and impossible for me to do. So opening doors will also be part of the temperature control system.

My goal is to park the bus under trees that are next to water. I plan to divide my time between making things with fabric - mostly quilted things - and - writing both fiction and nonfiction.

I need a large flat flexible space with adaptable storage underneath. Hence the Big Desk, an 8 foot long, 2 feet deep slab of maple butcher block.

I initially envisioned the space under the bed to be my main long-term storage area and the area under the Big Desk being my everyday storage area. But the space under the bed slowly got filled by the fresh water tank, then the power system, and finally by the diesel heater. (see Bed picture above)

I am pondering adding some external storage cabinets to the passenger side of the bus. Every first timer says they pared down their belongings to the bare bones basics and discovered they still had way too much stuff to fit into their RV. Especially because living in an RV requires purchases (and storage) that they didn't plan for like hoses and leveling blocks. The need for storage and where it goes will evolve as I move into the bus.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

First Peek at the inside - Needs

Here's the very first peek at Rolling Joy's interior. Since there's a lot to show there are 3 blogs on the interior - one on the things that I needed, one on the things that I wanted and one for the access features. The blogs will touch on some of the reasons for the decisions and the product I selected.

This is the final layout.

Looking to the back of the bus

I chose to have the conversion focus on getting things built but not fully finished. I want the fun of choosing finishes, paint and decorations.

I hate air conditioning. So I decided to install two MaxxAire fans. These have 2 way flows - in and out. With one pushing air into the bus and the other sucking air out of the bus I will have a decent air flow.

Both fans are in the top of the ceiling crest (the middle measured from side to side). The front fan is between the lift door and the bathtub. The back fan is between the kitchen and the desk. The fans went into the existing emergency ceiling hatches with some minor modification.

The kitchen counter is has a sink with rotating faucet and pull out sprayer on the left and an extended countertop on the right. The Dometic CFXDZ75, a dual zone chest style, is under the countertop. To open I pull it out on the heavy duty rollers and open the zone I need (fridge or freezer). The Dometic tucks fully under the counter but I show it as slightly pulled out in the layout graphic so you can see where it is.

For cooking I decided two IKEA Induction cooktops. I expect to use only one but wanted a second one just in case especially because I decided not to have an oven.

The on-demand hot water heater is tucked under the sink. This is the only thing on the bus running on propane.

Since I was converting from an empty shell I had a lot of toilet options. After lots of reading and internal debate about black tanks, power usage, and frequency of emptying I decided on a urine-separating composting toilet.

My two big needs are a large desk and lots of windows. I had hoped to have all 12 feet of desk plus kitchen counter on one side of the bus but in the end I got one 8 foot long desk.

I want the option for both shore and solar power since I need reliable electricity every day. I opted for a 30 amp shore power system. Folks are surprised and ask why I didn't build a 50 amp system. The 30 amp system meets my power needs and allows me many options for camping places since all have 30 amp spots. There are some 50 amp campground spaces but there are fewer of them and they tend to be in more expensive camping spots.

I put in a 600 watt solar system so that I have enough power to stay off-grid for a while and still meet my daily electrical needs.

I planned on dark blue window shades from IKEA. But covid made that impossible. So for not I have cheap plastic pull-down blinds.

I put in a diesel heater. In the images it's the round black vent at the bottom of the desk side. The fuel comes from the bus gas tank. I like that it's a closed system meaning that no fumes come into the bus. The vent is just sharing the heat from the warm pipes.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Dec 2019 update

JOY is home and now all cleaned out. The last owner donated a bunch of materials that we had to remove, sort and store. Now the bus is clean and empty.
I finally got to be inside the bus and really feel the space. I haven't taken exact measurements but have created the latest layout option.

Just to recap: my absolute requirements for this space are:
* separate sleeping spaces for me and the driver
* long work counter
* fridge, sink and kitchen counter with moveable induction cooktop
* deep bathtub
* recliner
* composting toilet
* washer / dryer
* independent way to get in and out of bus
* ceiling fans

For a long time I've been stumped about where to put the bathtub and second bed. Once I got into the bus, I realized that the front wheel wells provide a nice defined area that with a curtain can be a semi-private space for the driver. I plan to add a really comfortable driver's seat on a swivel.

So glad to finally have a layout I like. Of course, once I get in and measure everything and consult with the experts things will inevitably change. But for now, I am happy with how it looks.

Equipment on and off grid

I made some equipment decisions and still have some to go. Here's my current list. Dec. 18, 2019

EQUIPMENT TO HAVE and use ON grid (i.e. with power)

cooking - 2 induction burners
baking - no, though a future possibility might be a toaster oven
fridge - 3-4 cu ft fridge mounted 20" above the ground

washer/dryer - the LG 4 washer/dryer combo
bathtub - repurposed industrial tub - 24" wide x 48" long x 24" deep
water heater
water pump

diesel heat system

bed warmer - Electrowarmth half-bed pad
Sleep number bed (requires minimal power to keep inflated)

cell phone
wifi booster

Handcycle lithium battery charging

LED lights (overhead)
task light - OTT clamp light

EQUIPMENT  - NO power needed
toilet - urine-diverting compost - either a C-Head or homemade version
sink - 16"x16-18"
bed - platform bed with mattress and Hypervent Aire-Flow Moisture Barrier

under bed
under work table
under kitchen counter
under bus storage compartments
end of bed closet (12"w x 66" tall x 38" deep)

Sewing machine

Superarm wheelchair lift

OFF-Grid equipment to power
cooking - 2 induction burners
fridge - 3-4 cu ft fridge mounted 20" above the ground
cooler - Dometic

bed warmer - Electrowarmth half-bed pad OR USB Hot Water Bottle
Sleep number bed (requires minimal power to keep inflated) 

LED lights (overhead)
task light - OTT clamp light

cell phone
wifi booster

Superarm wheelchair lift

Handcycle lithium battery charging 

Getting in and out of the Bus

One of my priorities is to be able to get in and out of the bus by myself.

I traveled across the country in a bus with a standard bus lift. While it was reliable, to use it required turning on the engine. Diesel engines in old buses are noisy at 7am and did not make my camping neighbors happy.

To make it work, someone else had to start the engine so the battery wouldn't run down while I used the lift. Then they had to open the lift door. Then pass me the lift controls.  When I was down, they had to put it all back up.

A bus lift requires at least 7-9 feet of clearance. 4-5 feet for the lift itself then at least 3 more feet for my wheelchair to get off the front of the lift.

I always felt a bit trapped so for this bus I want a completely independent system. I have good use of my arms and hands so I figure it's possible.


I went looking for existing lifts and the only one that matches some of my needs is the Superarm lift especially the 129 Basement Motorhome model which works for 34-52" ground to vehicle floor distance.

But the Superarm lift has a weight limit of 600 lbs but that weight limit is too low for today's power chairs.

When I got my first power chair, the amazing Quickie P-200, it weighed 250 lbs empty.  The newer chairs, such as the Permobil M-300 preferred by my friends, weighs 450 lbs empty. With add-ons a power chair can go up over 500 lbs empty. So the Superarm won't work for them.

The weight limit seems fine for a manual chair. Here's a video of it being used by a manual wheelchair user getting into an RV.

The other problem with the Superarm is that it does not swivel. 

On the bus I need a lift to both get in and out of the bus but also out of the bathtub.  My most recent layout has the lift arm between the lift door and the bathtub.

Finally the cost is very high. For the motorhome model it's well over $8,000 new.


I began to look at devices that can lift up to 1,000 lbs, can swivel and are reliable enough for daily use.

I started to look at small industrial cranes like this Jib Crane. This one swivels 360 degrees, can be bolted down to the floor of the bus, lifts 1000 lbs and the arm can be extended.

Screen Shot 2019-07-26 at 5.09.41 PM.png

This particular model doesn't work because you have to hand pump it. But there are tons of variations on this idea where I can have the crane frame and add a small electric motor and straps.

The price of the cranes are so much cheaper than the Superarm - like cranes are in the hundreds and Superarm is in the thousands.

Hoping to get some bright brains working on this problem. I'll post as new ideas emerge.

JOY's First Logo

Some days a nice thing happens to make your day brighter.

Today my friend Marilyn Wann (of Fat!So?) brought me this beautiful gift.

Mercedes Straham made this by pressing into tin and then adding colors.

This 10" round logo has two concentric circles. Green flowing leaves swirl through the inner circle of blue with critters swimming around. The outer circle top contains the text "Rolling Joy" in calligraphy lettering and the bottom half shows a dark blue sky with golden stars.

Access Features Part 1 - First Peek

 For the last year I designed (and redesigned) Rolling Joy, my 30' school bus conversion. Sending it to the bus conversion folks meant I...