So, you have had the good fortune of being put in charge of selecting and purchasing a new bus for your church. Now what?
You need to acquire a vehicle that is properly equipped to perform as intended for your particular organization. Clearly defining the church's objectives is a very important initial step in the bus purchasing process. If you get the right size bus, with the right engine, the right alternator, from the right dealer, then many of the rest of the issues, such as accessories, will just be a matter of preference.
First, do not confuse purchasing a new bus with purchasing a car. There are many considerations to weigh when buying a new car, but many of them are subjective. Purchasing a new bus is more like purchasing a piece of capital equipment for a business. Success depends on acquiring a vehicle that is properly equipped to perform as intended for your particular organization. Clearly defining the church's objectives is a very important initial step.
First, does your church have a school? Will the bus transport the students who attend that school to various school-related activities? If so, you must purchase a bus that is certified to comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) set out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for school buses, or MFSABs. Otherwise, you will be providing transportation to your students in violation of federal law. Please note that this does not apply to transporting school-age children for church-related activities. The age of the passenger is not the issue. The issue is whether the passengers are being transported to and from school, or for school-related activities. Churches are not required to transport children in school buses for church-related activities.
The next step I recommend is identifying a dealer that is equipped to guide you through the process and show you the type of buses that you wish to purchase. Preferably, you should choose a dealer that has the product support capability to assist you with your service or maintenance needs after you take ownership. A bus isn't a new book or a pair of pants that you can return if you don't like it. Our best customers are those who make the effort to become educated buyers. That means visiting dealers to look at buses and considering all of the options.
The next important step is to determine your passenger capacity requirements. It is very difficult to assist someone who doesn't know how many people they need to transport. It's a little like trying to fit an article of clothing for someone who can't tell you their size. Consider the following important points.
A bus that will accommodate more than 15 passengers, including the driver, requires a commercial driver's license (CDL). There are great alternatives to stock 15-passenger vans that provide full standing entry and interior headroom that do not require a CDL. These small buses are essentially mini mini-buses. Their dual rear wheel axles give them a wider stance for greater stability and safety than stock vans, and their spacious interiors and easy access make it actually possible to get 15 people in one without stacking them.
The next size threshold is 24 passengers, which is what most churches purchase. These small buses are most often built on Ford Econoline chassis, which gives them the feel and appearance of a very large van. They are affordable, relatively easy to drive, easy to maneuver in town, and practical to service.
The next size bus will most often be built on a Chevrolet 5500 or International 3200 chassis and will accommodate up to as many as 36 to 40 passengers. These buses often have price tags that exceed $100,000, offer fewer outlets for service and repair, and require greater skill to drive. That is not to suggest that these buses are not a good choice for your church, but it is important to consider the eligibility of drivers for a bus of that size and determine where you will take it for chassis-related warranty work.
Now that we know what size bus will meet your needs, equipping it correctly is important.
The small buses built on Ford or Chevrolet chassis are available with either gasoline or diesel engines. Historically, diesel has proved to be more reliable in heavy-duty applications, but most churches do not accumulate high mileage on their buses and, consequently, do not realize the benefits that diesel engines provide. For buses below 24 passengers, we recommend a gasoline-powered engine for greater reliability and serviceability. The larger buses with capacities over 24 are often only available with diesel engines, although Chevrolet does offer an 8.1 liter gasoline engine in its 5500 model.
Getting the right air conditioning system in some parts of the United States is critical, just as it is to get adequate heating capacity in the cooler climates. Purchasing from a dealer in your region of the country is important because one size certainly does not fit all. The next size air conditioning system is not that expensive relative to the overall price of the bus; however, it's not an upgrade that can be easily made once the bus is built, so pay attention to this detail.
A bus won't start if the batteries are dead, and that's what the batteries will be if you do not have the right alternator. This is a very important issue on small buses that accommodate 24 passengers or less. Ford's standard 135 amp alternator is adequate for many applications, as it carries Ford's 3 year/36,000 mile warranty and is relatively inexpensive to replace. But, if your usage is mostly local, or if you use your bus as a parking lot shuttle on Sundays, or if you equip your new bus with a wheelchair lift, then you should upgrade the alternator. All of these types of uses suggest low alternator output, many times with the air conditioning system on high. This can discharge the batteries quickly.
The tradeoff of upgrading the alternator is that it will add about $1,000 to the cost of the vehicle and make replacement a bigger issue than it is with a standard alternator. The biggest disadvantage of a high-capacity aftermarket alternator is replacing it while on a long-distance trip.
This is such an important matter that we give our customers a form at the time of purchase that explains the pros and cons of their alternator choice, and we ask them to sign it to acknowledge that they understand the issue.
If you get the right size bus, with the right engine, the right alternator, from the right dealer, then many of the rest of the issues will be a matter of preference, such as:
* Seat style - High back or mid back
* Upholstery level
* Side sliders
* Fabric covered interior or hard surface that is easier to maintain
* Overhead storage
* TVS & DVD players
* Paint stripes and lettering
Finally, please keep in mind that the price of the bus is only one factor in calculating the cost. You may be the person leading the purchasing process, but who is going to be the person that supervises its maintenance? Too many churches do not address this issue in advance, and you can tell this by the condition that their buses are in when they come if for service. Make this issue a priority early on so that your bus will remain in good working condition throughout its useful life.
This article was published in Religious Product News magazine in January 2008.