Victoria band Carmanah is driving out the pandemic lull with an innovative project

Converting a 1972 bus to a veggie oil and solar powered touring machine has kept two members busy during a slow time for most musicians

By Omar Washington
January 5, 2021

Victoria band Carmanah is driving out the pandemic lull with an innovative project

Converting a 1972 bus to a veggie oil and solar powered touring machine has kept two members busy during a slow time for most musicians

Source: Carmanah
Source: Carmanah

Victoria band Carmanah is driving out the pandemic lull with an innovative project

Converting a 1972 bus to a veggie oil and solar powered touring machine has kept two members busy during a slow time for most musicians

By Omar Washington
January 5, 2021
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Victoria band Carmanah is driving out the pandemic lull with an innovative project

This story is the first in our series profiling how Victoria artists of all mediums have handled the pandemic. Stay tuned for more.

The pandemic hit Laura Mitic and Pat Ferguson hard, like it did most performers. The two form the core of Victoria-based “West Coast soul” band Carmanah, and last summer was meant to be a celebration: their new album was ready for release, and tour dates were lined up across the continent. 

The record was released this fall and the tour was put on hold, but by turning their attention to finishing their custom-built, veggie-oil-powered tour bus, they have refused to let the pandemic slow them down.

Carmanah had already made a striking effort to reduce the carbon footprint of their cross-Canada tours, by travelling in a pickup truck powered with reused vegetable oil. However, the camper they were pulling behind the truck, for their sleeping quarters, was getting cramped, and was too cold for Canada’s harsh winters. 

So in September, 2017, Ferguson purchased a 1972 GMC 40-foot motor coach with the dream of restoring it and converting the diesel engine to run on vegetable oil. It’s a labour of love that could have taken another two years but this winter, because the pandemic has afforded Ferguson oodles of time to put the finishing touches on the bus, the dream has already become a reality. 

Running on plenty

By December, Mitic and Ferguson were in the midst of their inaugural stay on the bus, parked behind the band’s house in Fairfield. The project isn’t finished but it's “finished enough to live on,” according to Ferguson. “It’s kind of like living in a little bit of a renovation.” 

Mitic says she doesn’t mind the state of things. “We’ve got warm showers, a fully operational kitchen and a new bed and everything. So, we are also super fortunate and comfortable.” All of the amenities, including the lighting, water and veggie oil pumps, are powered by eight solar panels mounted on the roof, which generate 2000 watts of clean energy.

Ferguson explains that the 170,000 km they put on the pickup truck “was a good learning curve to do the bus up properly and prepare it for Canadian winters.” It also helped them get their fuel sources dialed in: the preferred source of veggie oil is used and straight out of deep fryers, which they filter before filling the tank. The used oil is usually free, and Ferguson and Mitic have built a network of suppliers which includes local restaurants in Victoria and extends across the country for refilling on tour. Built from scouring old veggie oil conversion blogs and through word-of-mouth, their network provides free sources of oil across Canada. 

They won’t need to refuel the bus very frequently, however, as it can carry over 1,000 litres of veggie oil, enough for over 4,000 km and a cross-Canada tour. 

The full band. Laura Mitic (centre) and Pat Ferguson (centre right) are behind the bus conversion. Photo: Carmanah

Carmanah’s bus, like the band, has Vancouver Island roots. When it was in service it ran between Victoria and Port Hardy. The 1972 model was the first with a 1.5-foot higher roof line, with all the extra space put into the luggage compartments. “We bought this bus for that reason,” Ferguson explains, “It’s a longer one for its vintage and it’s got the bigger storage underneath for anything from water tanks, to veggie tanks, to sound equipment. We’ve got three big luggage bays underneath, each one bigger than a canopy on a pickup truck.”

All that room for free veggie oil will not only save them money, they hope it will help save the planet. When the bus starts, it's running on diesel or biodiesel, and when the engine is warm enough, they flip a switch and vegetable oil starts pumping into the motor. “It’s the same carbon emitted from the vehicle,” Ferguson concedes. “But it's far, far less in getting the veggie oil into the fuel tank. So, you're not extracting fossil fuels ... releasing methane on the spot, and then pumping all that energy into refinement of diesel or gasoline.” Citing some recent research he’d read, Ferguson’s understanding is that one unit of diesel takes 1.2 units of energy to produce, while one unit of veggie oil needs only 0.16 units of energy.

Ferguson, who is a self-taught mechanic and master electrician, has been the main visionary and worker on the project. He has done all the mechanical work on the engine of both the bus and pickup truck, to convert them to run on vegetable oil. Prior to the pandemic, over the course of two years, he also pulled in friends with expertise such as guitar luthier Steve Biggs to do custom cedar inlays on the floor and help with building cabinets in the interior. The band has also hosted work parties to tackle major jobs like sanding the floor, removing rust and building interior walls.

Learning environment

Now, without the ability to tour and with less need to rehearse, Ferguson has been putting in 10 to 14-hour days to push the project over the finish line. “I’m proud to be bringing this nearly 50-year-old bus back to life and giving it a whole other life, with a new paint job and new window seals and the whole nine.”

The interior has a lot of salvaged local materials like cedar boards from discarded BC Parks picnic tables and Douglas Fir studs and a pantry door (for their bathroom) from an old house torn down near their Fairfield home. The careful craftsmanship and recycled materials speak to a bigger picture for Ferguson and Mitic as artists. Their art is more than just music, it now includes the infrastructure they’ve created around it. 

Ferguson works on a cabinet inside the tour bus. Photo: Carmanah

Ferguson and Mitic have dreams of living on the bus to save up money to buy a piece of land outside of the city. In a way the bus is as much a vehicle for their life aspirations as it is one for their upcoming tours. And given that they don’t know when touring will be possible, there is a lot of positive energy and hope tied up in the project. 

There is also a lot of energy around the eponymous Carmanah Valley rainforest. Mitic speaks fondly about that forest and conversations she's had with people on tour and through her work as a presenter and board member for The Jellyfish Project, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness in young people around ocean health and the climate crisis. “A lot of people tell us they were part of the resistance there in the late eighties, to protect that old-growth forest from being logged. A lot of environmentalists and Indigenous people really put their lives on the line to protect that piece of land. There is really huge importance to it, not only environmentally but socially too.”

Carmanah wasn’t always so focused on protecting the environment. When they were starting out, like most bands, they chose their name because it “sounded cool” and “spoke true to the area that we're from,” Mitic said.  

“Our environmentalism kind of blossomed with our band name being a bit of a catalyst for it.” Ferguson added. “And it put an onus on us to learn more about it.’ 

Having chosen the name, the band has been led to put their money where their mouth is; and now, their bus too.

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