Traditional school bus seats have proven costly for student transporters when replacing vinyl and even foam that is vandalized by student riders. New technology recently introduced aims to change all of that.
In October 2004, the Spring Independent School District in Texas bought 86 new 2005 school buses. The buses came with a standard two-year warranty, even though school buses in Texas are known to be kept in operation up to 18 years and beyond. As added protection, SISD Transportation Director Brian Weisinger bought the extended, five-year, bumper-to-bumper warranty, which covered everything on the bus — including the seats. Now, just more than five years later, Weisinger said every seat cover on every bus needs to be replaced, which could cost more than $100,000.
“That’s substantial money when we’re cutting services and staff,” Weisinger said. “The cushion covers and the back covers are all delaminating at the same time. They’re all failing at the same time because they were all made the same time by the same manufacturer. Having to replace all these covers this summer was an additional (financial) burden.”
Weisinger said the replacements are necessary because of normal wear and tear and that vandalism was not a major factor. He stopped short of saying the seat covers delaminating so close to the warranty’s expiration date is a case of planned obsolescence. “Some of these seats are not lasting much past the warranty,” Weisinger said. “That’s exactly what’s happening on these 86 buses.”
The vinyl on the standard vinyl-over-foam bus seat is backed with cloth, Weisinger explained, and delamination occurs when the vinyl begins cracking and breaking away to expose the cloth.
“The seams are all good, but the wear surfaces are self-destructing. Over time the vinyl product shrinks, cracks and flakes off of the cloth,” he added. “Then, the kids pick at it, and it continues to flake off. This has nothing to do with foam separation or anything like that, although sometimes the foam needs to be replaced also.”
All the buses in question have tinted windows and air conditioning, so heat and ultraviolet rays were not factors.
Student Behavior and Replacement Cycles
While seat belts have historically dominated the debate concerning school bus seats, many transportation directors and manufacturers see bus seats as more than places to rest children’s behinds. They are expensive pieces of technology that can save school districts money with their durability and keep children safe with their design. However, the dilemma of seats barely outlasting their warranties is not the only one facing school officials. Besides the normal wear and tear, some bus seats must bear the brunt of student misuse and intentional destruction with sharp objects.
Charlie Ott, transportation director in the Clovis Unified School District in Fresno, Calif., said both onboard cameras and a strong discipline policy discourage most overt acts of vandalism, but added that nothing lasts forever.
“I have buses that are 30 years old that have the same seat frame. Everything besides the metal is new maybe two times over,” Ott said. “Foam only lasts so long. It has a tendency to break down from climate and abuse from kids.” Ott agrees with many of his peers that even with the best treatment, seats need to be replaced about every 10 years or even sooner.
“Any time there is any damage we repair it right away,” Ott said. “We require our bus drivers to ‘post-trip’ their buses every day. If there is graffiti that they can remove, they do it. We have people who repair seats daily as needed. Kids who have been with us a while do not vandalize our seats. Our camera system records the ones that do and the parents are charged according to district policy.”
Ott said his district spends from $10,000 to $12,000 a year on repair material for his 139 buses, but adds that the real cost is in the labor.
“We spend about 250 to 300 man hours repairing seats, and that could add up to about $50,000 to $60,000 in labor. I worked in another district that had only 50 buses and we spent $15,000 on bus seat repair material,” he added. “The difference is the expectation of student discipline from the top down. In the other district, I had two full-time employees working repair.”
Weisinger said that last year’s repairs cost him $17,665 in parts and 678 man hours for a total of $26,989. The man hours equated to 85 days, or half the school year, that one employee had to spend repairing seats.
Gymnastics, Inspections and the ‘Charmin’ Test
Triad Fabco Industries produces the foam seat cushions and seatbacks. Product Manager David Murphy said seats are not built to last 20 years, but they should last up to 10 years with normal use. He said the back cushion takes the most punishment.
“The backing takes more abuse through normal wear,” he said. “The seats are close together in a school bus, so kids pull on the seat in front of them to pull themselves up. The foam is constantly stressed, and the more it is flexed and stressed, the more fatigued it becomes and it breaks down quicker. Now with the new regulations where backs are higher and straight up and down, the aisle is narrower and the kids swing themselves on the (aisle) seatbacks so their feet don’t touch the floor.” [Editor’s note — The regulations are tied to the NHTSA revised final rule on school bus occupant protection that go into effect next month. The seatback heights increased to 24 inches from the previous 20 inches.]
With that kind of treatment, Murphy said five years is a pretty good life span for a bus seatback.
“The more you use it, the quicker it wears out. It depends on discipline policies and the type of students you have.”
Roger Ashby, vice president of Foam Rubber LLC, said kids can be tougher on bus seats than 300-pound football players. “Kids will be kids, and they will do any number of things they should not be doing. I don’t know of any way you can stop them altogether,” he said.
Ashby also suggested that the inspection processes from state to state may also contribute to bus seat replacement costs.
“The inspection process usually is conducted by the state police, and they determine what needs to be replaced or repaired,” Ashby said. “The criteria they use to determine if a seat needs to be changed varies from state to state, and I would venture to say from inspector to inspector even in the same state. There are a variety of testing techniques and some are very unscientific. Many use what I call the ‘Charmin’ test. They squeeze the corner of the seat and, if they feel metal, they ask that the seat be replaced. They have the safety of children in mind and that’s good, but they are also requiring the school district to spend money when it may not have to. Even when school districts conduct a pre-inspection check, they look for what the state inspector looks for.”
Increased Fire Hazard
Cost isn’t the only reason to keep seats in good repair and to prevent vandalism. Seats must meet strict federal regulations for fire safety. The foam is encased in vinyl treated with a fire retardant that slows the spread of flames. While both the vinyl and the foam meet FMVSS 302 standards on nonflammability, experts said any punctures in the vinyl and foam create air pockets inside the vinyl that fuel flames coming in contact with the foam. Murphy noted that fire safety is one reason why delamination is a big issue.
“Any time you damage the integrity of the vinyl, or you have broken seams or the vinyl is cut, you have destroyed the fire block capability of that vinyl,” he said. “If flames get to the foam, it will get very hot and spread quickly,”
Ashby agreed, saying that almost anything will burn if it gets hot enough.
“Every piece of foam that goes into a school bus meets FMVSS 302. Everybody thinks that because the foam meets federal standards, it won’t burn. Steel will burn if it gets hot enough. The federal standards pertain to how quickly the material burns. Holes in the vinyl will allow fire to spread faster.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley recently signed a bill into law that requires an upgrade of materials used to make bus seats so they can pass the more stringent federal flammability test.
That law states: “A school bus shall be constructed with materials that enable it to meet the criteria of the school bus upholstery fire block test established by the National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures adopted at the most recent National Congress on School Transportation.”
Those standards were adopted amid much fanfare in May 2010.
Technology to the Rescue
Undaunted, researchers and manufacturers are determined to develop a seat that can not only survive the ravages of time, temperature and UV rays but also withstand the savagery of the most destructive third-grader. Brandon Billingsley, president of Heavy Duty Bus Parts, spent more than five years working on technology that could provide the “giant leap for mankind” evidently needed by transportation directors.
Billingsley developed an integrally bonded foam seat, or I-skin seat, that he said is a more economical, durable, safer and child-resistant alternative to its conventional vinyl-over-foam second cousin because the vinyl and foam have a closer relationship. The manufacturing process creates a vinyl skin that is bonded to the softer foam inner core. Delamination, Billingsley added, becomes a non-issue.
“We’re looking at a product that likely will not need to be replaced for the life of the school bus unless there is some special circumstance,” he said. “It can be damaged, but the student would really have to be dedicated and put some time into it.”
Billingsley worked with Las Vegas-based Universal Urethane to develop a process, whereby the vinyl is bonded to the foam to form a seat that is lightweight, more impact-resistant and more fire retardant and that takes up less space.
“We found it allows more knee space and we can add passengers,” Billingsley said. “We pick up about 9 percent more capacity.”
Billingsley said the I-skin is nonflammable by nature, because you can add flame-proof characteristics to the compound. “You can’t cut the I-skin. When it’s punctured, it seals back up, and for a redundancy, the foam is not flammable because it’s all bonded.”
The new seat was formally introduced July 27 at the 2011 STN EXPO Trade Show in Reno, Nev., where seating manufacturer C.E. White also announced that it would bring the new seat to market. Bob Knapp, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, said the I-skin’s strengths are extra spacing, flexibility of conversion and material durability.
“We believe this is going to be the next generation of school bus seats,” Knapp said. “It is very resistant to cuts. You can puncture it, but it’s self-sealing. It will have a much longer life span.”
Traditionally, a seat frame is covered by foam, which in turn is fronted by a vinyl seat cover. A challenge that has faced the industry for decades is that the seat is susceptible to vandalism and, if torn, exposed foam can cause a fire danger.
Billingsley further explained on the STN EXPO trade show floor in Reno, Nev., over the summer that the I-skin seat is created as one piece in an aluminum tool.
“Whenever two compounds, an A compound and a B compound, come together in the tool and react, they will expand,” he said. “When that reaction takes place and it expands throughout the aluminum tool, the skin that comes in surface with the aluminum cools faster and thereby denser. That creates the dense, vinyl-like substrate skin, giving a barrier to the foam. The foam inside is then much more soft as it cools more slowly.”
The value for districts, he added, is that the I-skin makes it much more difficult for students to vandalize the seat. This can save districts money they’re spending to replace traditional seat covers and to pay technicians or dealers to make the replacements.
“You don’t have the foam to break down inside that could expose a bar. It’s all bonded, all one piece. The bar can’t come through the foam,” Billingsley added.
And even if the I-skin can be torn, customers can easily fix it with a shot of bond to quickly fill the hole.
Beta testing was tentatively scheduled to begin this month in school districts in Texas, Kentucky and West Virginia.
“We will run the pilot projects for one year,” Billingsley added. “The Beta testing is essential to the product, because we want to see how it performs in the real world.”