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A Peoria couple is transforming a 77-passenger school bus into their tiny dream home

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Jody Holtz
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WCBU
Levi and Rachel Plouse in front of their school bus Bustav

A Peoria couple is looking to hit the road soon…in their 77-passenger school bus that has been renovated to serve as their tiny home on wheels.

Rachel and Levi Plouse have been working to renovate the 2001 Freightliner FS-65 school bus, now named Bustav, since March of 2021. They’re originally from Colorado.

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Levi and Rachel Plouse
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justbetweenbus
Levi and Rachel Plouse

“We love Colorado, it's our favorite place in the whole world. But it's so expensive…we were paying all this money each month for rent, and then we're not going anywhere because of the pandemic, so we were kind of trying to figure out if we wanted to move to another place in Colorado, or move to another state or do something else,” said Rachel.

Thus, the idea of a bus was born. Levi said he and his wife had talked about buying a van and throwing a mattress in it to travel around ever since they first got married. This idea took that to a whole new level.

“I really love to learn new things,” said Levi. “I'm really bad for picking up a new hobby, learning about it, and then moving on to another one. And this gives me a way to kind of get that energy out and put it to a really productive use. There's not so much of…an individual task in this project, as I say, if you're building an entire house, you have to spend weeks and weeks and weeks doing one thing. This, I finish one project and then move on to the next and get to learn a whole new skill set, which is really appealing.”

Bringing Bustav to Peoria

The Plouse’s bought the bus for just $5,000 in Denver. They picked it up Labor Day weekend of 2020 and drove it to Illinois immediately. From there, they headed back to Colorado until their lease was up, then moved to Peoria and began to rent an apartment on a month-by-month basis. The decision to bring Bustav to Peoria was spurred by the couple's familial ties here.

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Rachel Plouse
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Bustav parked in Illinois after the couple purchased it

“We spent those six months that we were waiting for our lease to be up in Denver sitting and spending hours and months, just planning,” Levi explained. “And looking at it, sketching it up in 3D software and sketching it out on paper, and then going back and refining it and redesigning it and redesigning it and redesigning it and changing things and nitpicking this that the other thing, and then when we got here, we completely changed it again,” he said.

Once they finally parked in Peoria, the first thing on the to do list was gutting the entire inside of the bus. After that, they cut the top of the bus completely in half to raise the roof up 14 inches for more head space. They documented that entire process here.

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Rachel Plouse
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The bus after the initial roof raise

Peoria’s Makerspace

The couple has completed several more projects on Bustav in the roughly year and 9 months they have been working on it. Levi and Rachel have also both been juggling full-time jobs throughout the majority of the process. They originally expected to be done with the bus in a year, but come to find out, this process is taking a lot longer than expected.

“We figured out that we don't want to rush it, because then subpar work gets done. So we want this to be a home that we live in for several years, and after that the goal is to eventually find a piece of land that we love in a place that we want to live in forever…and park the bus and live in it and build a new house and use it eventually one day as a guest house. So making sure that we're not cutting any corners and doing everything to the best of our abilities,” explained Rachel.

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Jody Holtz
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WCBU
Inside River City Labs in Peoria

One thing that has expedited the process significantly is the couple's discovery of River City Labs, Peoria’s makerspace. They became members about two months ago.

“Because now we have a space where we can actually pull wood out of the bus and cut it not in the snow, or we just finished painting it yesterday, the inside…we don't have to worry about the temperature when we're painting things. And I think that we'll be able to get a lot of stuff done still in this wintertime. But we still don't have a predicted date…I think I'm still secretly hoping for next spring. But we'll see,” Rachel said.

The bus is currently being parked at the makerspace, where Levi and Rachel continue to work on it.

Making a bus…a home

There are many plans in the works to make Bustav into the dream home Levi and Rachel envision it to be. The bedroom will have a king-sized bed with ample storage space. The kitchen hosts a large sink, full sized fridge, and stove. The bathroom is extra impressive and eco-friendly, especially since Levi is a plumber by trade.

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Jody Holtz
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WCBU
Inside the bus, featuring the kitchen and the back bedroom

“The shower in particular, I've designed so that there is a valve underneath the floor that controls where the water goes. It'll either send it to the grey tank for the wastewater, or it'll send it back through a filtration system, clean the water and then reheat it, and then back through the showerhead, all without sending it back to the water tanks, so you don't have greyer water in with your drinking water,” explained Levi.

Levi specializes in filtration systems, so having something like this on the bus was extremely important to both him and Rachel. Once they hit the road, they’re hoping to be able to use their bus to help out with disaster relief.

“We can give people clean showers and all that kind of stuff, if necessary, which is really awesome because of the awesome water filtration system we have,” Rachel said.

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Rachel Plouse
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The tiles in the inside of the bathroom

Equally impressive is the way the couple plans to heat and power the Bustav. The top of the bus is decked out with solar panels. And as far as heat goes, Levi has set up an extensive hydronic in-floor heat system.

“I have five different zones for 230 square feet,” Levi explained. “Two of them kind of keep the external compartments on the bus warmer so that you can charge lithium-ion batteries and so that the grey tank doesn't freeze and any of the plumbing in there burst.”

“And then I have three separate zones for the inside of the bus, kind of a front, middle and rear. So, because the flooring is at different heights, it'll allow more heat to get through. I wanted to be able to control that independently and keep the bus at a fairly consistent temperature,” he said.

Levi is an avid skier, and he said because of this, the heating system is a lot more intense than it probably needs to be. The love of the cold is a big reason why the couple chose to go with a school bus, rather than an RV.

“Most people in RVs don't go four seasons in them, and so we'll be able to follow whatever weather we want or stay in the cold,” said Levi.

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Rachel Plouse
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The solar panels on top of Bustav

Bus Automation

One of the most unique features of Bustav is the home automation system set up in it, something that many people don’t even have in their permanent homes. The system is called openHAB and runs off a little raspberry pi.

“It's an open-source home automation system where you can control everything from your phone, from your Apple Watch. It allows me to turn on all the lights and the pumps to run the heating system, all the heating is run through there, the lights are run through there, it's just a really cool system to be able to not have to get up and walk the three feet across the room to turn off the light,” Levi said.

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Rachel Plouse
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The Plouse cats, Phin and Tonks

Rachel adds another benefit of having openHAB is being able to track things in Bustav when they’re not there. This is especially important since their two cats, Phin and Tonks, will also be living in the bus.

“We have temperature sensors throughout the bus that allow us to track right from our phones, what the temperature is in different zones of the bus and have the heat automatically kick on when it hits a specific temperature and to keep the water from freezing, the battery compartment nice and toasty, stuff like that,” Rachel explained.

Just Between Bus

When Rachel and Levi first began this renovation journey, they decided they wanted to document the process for others interested in this lifestyle or for those looking to complete a similar project. They currently run a blog, an Instagram account, and a YouTube channel all under the name of Just Between Bus. However, as Rachel noted, that ended up being another full-time job in and of itself.

“We originally had a lot more lofty social media goals…I think that when we're on the bus, we'll get it back up again, because it's hard when you're working nine to five, and then you're working on the bus full time too, and then you come home and you're like, oh, I have to be online more,” explained Rachel.

Still, Rachel posts on Instagram frequently, and they have informational videos that demonstrate what this process has looked like in action. They also have some advice to give for those looking to create a Bustav themselves.

“Double your budget in both money and time…If you want to live like you're at home, it's going to take a lot. If you just want to throw a mattress in, that's easy,” said Levi.

Rachel stressed the importance of research.

“Try to get past the idea that it's never going to be 100% perfect, because it's a school bus. It's something I struggle with a lot with perfectionism. But yeah, just have fun with it. I think that our ability to learn so many things…we've taken welding and sewing, and we've met a lot of really cool people, just the experience has been really awesome,” Rachel said.

The couple says there’s a built-in community for projects like this, especially here in the Peoria area.

“You already have something in common, and you already have a similar spirit because of the way that you want to live. So, you know, we've already met…a couple that are doing a van here in the Peoria area, and we met them and we immediately hit it off because you have something in common that no one else really wants to do,” said Rachel.

Once Bustav is completed, their first stop will likely be to visit Levi’s little sister in Houston. And with family and friends all across the country, there’s no telling where the road will take them.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program director and host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and WCBU's morning news podcast On Deck.