What would you think if you saw a red school bus rolling down the street? The idea is almost too ridiculous to imagine. National School Bus Yellow has graced the rides of students and set them apart from all other vehicles on the road for more than 60 years. The color is a symbol of safety and dedication to pupil transportation.

Of course, choosing what color to paint your school bus isn’t the problem. It’s keeping the paint looking good through all the wear and tear the bus is subjected to throughout its life.

There are plenty of factors that serve as enemies to a paint job, and the area of service determines many of them. Buses that frequently tread along icy roads, for instance, will be attacked by road salt and cinders. And buses that toil under a scorching sun don’t get a tan; their paint fades.

One or more of these conditions can result in a bus that looks old, dirty and unsafe. And in addition to the aesthetic concerns, rust can cause major damage and eventually put an untreated bus out of commission.

"The appearance says an awful lot, especially to the parents who are out there when you’re picking up kids," says Tony Autorino, president of Double A Transportation in Rocky Hill, Conn. "People judge a bus right away. It’s like going by a house with the lawn not cut — you’ll think the house is a mess and the people inside are a mess."

Paint maintenance for school buses may not be as simple as cutting grass, but there are effective ways to protect paint and keep it looking good. Keys to success in this topic are using the right tools and techniques while remaining consistent.

At some point, a bus may need to be repainted. In the meantime, a little TLC will go a long way.

Foes in the sun and snow
Since many of the elements that damage paint depend upon geographical location, there are some things that can’t be avoided. But it’s good to know what’s doing the damage and that there are other buses out there that share the same pain.

In many areas, salt is the most powerful and obvious force working against bus paint. Obviously, the more snow you get, the more road salt is going to be a problem.

"We're probably in the lower end of where all the road salt is, but up in Buffalo they would tell me the buses have to be repainted every two years, because the rust just pops right through everywhere," says Autorino. “The buses are three years old with holes in the floor."

Look out for salt in the air as well. In coastal areas, sea salt can ravage paint. Rust can quickly appear on vulnerable spots such as chips and scratches.

Intense sunlight is another enemy of paint. Ultraviolet rays that buses are exposed to daily will fade the paint. Call it premature aging for school buses.

"It's funny when you go to one county that has no problem with the exterior of the buses, then you go right next door to a different county and they do have a problem — whether it’s paint fade or clear coat peeling off the hood," says Frank Wicks, owner and applicator of Crystal Shield System, a paint restoring operation in Gainesville, Fla. “A lot of it’s due not only to environment, but also to the techniques they’re using in washing them."

Wash with care
Washing regularly and properly can add years to the life of the paint. However, doing it the wrong way can have the opposite effect.

There is an abundance of choices in cleaning products. Many will do the trick, but it’s important to know what to steer clear of. Some cleaners that are often used on school buses actually end up damaging the paint.

Jeff Flatt, a driver for Rutherford (Tenn.) County Schools who also owns a bus detail business, recommends avoiding products such as degreasers and harsh soaps. He says that doing so will help maintain the paint’s durability.

"Most people I know that keep their buses up use liquid detergent," he says. "To me, that is a big no-no. Most dishwashing liquids have a chemical that can strip the shine right off the bus." Flatt says he uses a product called Blue Coral to clean his buses.

Autorino has found Skywrite Aircraft Cleaner, which is designed for what the name suggests, to do wonders on his bus fleet. "It's expensive, but it’s made to remove the dirt and not hurt the paint," he says.

Brad Barker, shop supervisor and lead mechanic for Park City (Utah) School District, stresses the importance of using the right techniques and equipment to wash buses.

"Brush-type wash systems will eventually wear the paint out," says Barker. "If you are looking for an automated wash, get a touchless system."

Barker also suggests staying away from products that use hydrofluoric acid or similarly harsh agents, because they will damage not only the paint, but the metal as well.

And if all that technology gets to be too complicated, consider doing it the old-fashioned way. “A good, old hand-washing is the best if you have the time and are detail oriented to do a good job," says Barker.

Occasionally, using a wax on the buses can also help maintain their gloss and protect the paint from salt and other debris. Barker and Flatt wax their buses once a year.

Out with the old
When paint is damaged, it should be taken care of as soon as possible. The approach, of course, will depend upon the specific problem. A scratch on the hood won’t warrant an entire repainting, but it still needs to be fixed. There are products and services available that can make older buses look new, especially those that have been faded over time.

Frank Wicks' Crystal Shield System uses a product called Nyalic that targets restoring the color of paint. The process begins with washing and removing oxidation with specially formulated soaps. Then Nyalic, which protects from cracking and peeling while revitalizing the color, is applied by hand or paint sprayer. This technique can also protect the paint from rust.

"Oxidized or chalky surfaces need to be removed and paint needs to be resealed," says Wicks. "Unfortunately, some people have been using soap degreasers to wash and remove oxidation. According to bus manufacturers, degreasers should never be used to wash buses. Not only do they leave a film behind, they also streak paint and glass and cause premature paint failure."

Vivilon Coatings & Chemicals in Miami uses a similar approach to renew faded paint on buses.

"Paint looks very dull when it doesn’t have any moisture to it," says Bill Rice, president of Vivilon. “The pigment is like a dry creek bed. It looks ugly, light and dirty. But when the water hits it, it looks very dark."

Vivilon uses this idea to bring back and maintain the shine on buses. The process involves scrubbing off dead paint on the surface and re-wetting the pigment when it becomes open and porous. A protective coating is then applied to prevent the paint from being damaged again.

Besides extending the life cycle of the paint, Rice stresses the importance of appearance for school buses. “It’s an almost psychological effect," he says. "Someone who’s driving a vehicle that looks brand new is going to be a little more careful in the way he or she drives it."

In with the new
When or how often buses need to be repainted will depend largely on the location and what is done to maintain the paint over time. The appearance of rust spots is a fair warning to take action as soon as possible. Given the amount of time required for major paint work, though, the summer is usually the ideal time to do it.

Bruce Cram, a bus owner and driver in Martin, Ga., bought his bus two years ago and is already preparing to repaint it. “I intend to have it stripped down to the bare metal, have the rust spots fixed and then have it re-primered and painted," he says. Cram estimates the entire cost of the operation to be about $350.

Autorino runs his buses through the paint booth when they reach five years of age, a procedure which he says is well worth the time and money invested.

“The reward is if you’re running buses with a variation of ages, someone can’t say, 'Oh, that’s a 1980 — it looks like garbage.'" The oldest bus still in service in the Double A fleet is from 1973.

Barker conducts paint refurbishing on Park City school buses each summer. Any rust spots are repaired and prepped with rust conversion coating. Bare metal is treated with metal prep prior to priming with a rust-inhibitive primer.

Last summer, Barker hired a local paint shop for the refurbishing. “I asked for a warranty on the color and finish against any defects in workmanship or products for a three-year period," says Barker. "Some shops will give you a guarantee of up to seven years using premium paint, but it is costly. I figure the longest I will keep these last buses is four more years, so a three-year warranty is sufficient."

Barker advises anyone looking to repaint school buses to carefully consider the options. “If you do not have your own paint booth and are not qualified to paint, send out bids to vendors in your area who are set up to do so," he says. "Specify exactly what you want done, including how you want the surface prepped and how long you want the paint to last. Don’t accept anything that isn’t up to your specifications."

However you choose to maintain and/or renew the paint on your buses, keep in mind the significance of National School Bus Yellow.

“It’s like fighting a battle to keep the exteriors looking good," says Wicks. "But it’s very important, because that’s what the public sees. When a bus is badly faded, people judge it right away — 'that doesn’t look safe.' But as we know, school buses are a very safe mode of transportation."

Magnet Paints offers the following do’s and don’ts of paint safety. For more information, go to www.magnetpaints.com.

-Read all container labels, including warnings.
-Refer to Material Safety Data Sheets for complete product safety precautions.
-Use protective skin cream when appropriate.
-Wear a properly fitted respirator while painting with hazardous substances.
-Ventilate the paint area.
-Keep paint away from ignition sources.
-Keep containers closed and tightly sealed when not in use.
-Store paint away from incompatible materials.

-Smoke or eat in paint areas.
-Use paint from an unlabeled container.
-Mix paints with other substances without approval or full knowledge of what you are doing.
-Use solvents or reducers to remove paint from skin.
-Keep painting if you can smell paint fumes while wearing your respirator.