For anyone who has ever battled a noise issue at home - a relentless heat pump for instance, or unfortunate proximity to the airport or high speed rail tracks, or even noisy neighbors - finding an affordable and efficient sound deadening solution can be a challenge.
Whether you live in a single-family home, high-rise building or anything in between, you may be bothered by distracting noises from outside, from upstairs neighbors, or even from noisy family members.
There are different options available to deal with distracting noise in the home; some work better than others.
Window treatments can provide varying levels of noise reduction. Some manufacturers market so-called "soundproofing" drapes, which can be effective in buffering or dulling outdoor noise. The level of noise you are trying to buffer, and the acoustics of the room in which you place the window treatments will determine the level of sound abatement you will get from "soundproofing" drapes.
Another choice for windows is noise reducing window shutters that block up to 10-times more outside noise than traditional shutters or curtains. Acousticalshutters.com, an Orlando, Florida-based company makes Shut-Eye™ custom acoustical shutters in a variety of sizes and styles to fit virtually any window or sliding glass door. Comparing Shut-Eye acoustical shutters to other products shows the Shut-Eye brand provide 25-50 decibels noise reduction, where as other window noise reduction treatments only provide 5-25 decibel reduction.
The best way to reduce sound is to fit (during the construction phase) or retrofit a room with a high quality sound-dampening material installed under the drywall. As noise and privacy increase the value of real estate, more and more architects and building contractors are working noise abatement material into housing and other building designs.
If noise from the floor above is the problem, there are noise reduction materials specifically designed for these trouble areas.
Wood floors and carpet may be laid on top of noise barrier material
, which will greatly reduce sound transmission between floors. However,
the less sound infiltrating the floors or ceiling joists in the first place, the less noise will be mechanically carried into the dwelling below. Architects and builders are catching on to new ways of addressing the mechanics of noise penetrating ceilings and floors; installing appropriate sound abatement
material to the joists during construction or retrofit is going to produce the best results.
Almost everyone is assaulted by sound, if not continuously, for a good portion of their waking and sleeping hours. Traffic, light rail trains
, machinery, construction, loud music have turned the home into a retreat. That helps explain why noise is an especially sensitive issue within apartments and condominiums, and why noise complaints can create bitter disputes among residents. Unfortunately, noise is a highly subjective issue, and conflicts can take some savvy to resolve.
When a homeowner's association member or law enforcement official is sent to mediate an issue involving noise, many times a judgment call is required to determine if an apartment is truly noisy, or if the complainant is overly sensitive to the normal sounds of apartment life. One starting point is to ask yourself if the person raising the issue is prone to complaining; if not, something may well be disturbing a resident's normal living habits, causing lack of sleep or otherwise disrupting the quality of life. If a landlord or condo board ignores a legitimate complaint, residents can turn to the legal system.
Such is the case, for example, with a retired couple living in a Manhattan prewar co-op, who filed a lawsuit against the board because it failed to take action on an air conditioner that a neighbor had installed through an outside wall. The a/c's sound and vibrations had created a serious noise condition that negatively affected the quality of life complaining couple had previously enjoyed in the building. A protective sheath put around the air conditioner was not enough to solve the problem, although the board by then had unwisely washed its hands of the unresolved issue, and got itself sued for its lack of responsibility. Noise issues can be even more troublesome when they involve businesses in the building.
Condos, co-ops and apartment boards have been required to respond to noise complaints ever since the 1995 case Nostrand Gardens Co-op vs. Howard, in which the co-op was found at fault for not having taken "effective steps" to abate the nuisance after a shareholder repeatedly reported "excessive noise emanating from an apartment … throughout the late night and early morning hours."
In the case where a co-op or condo houses a business, such as a club or bar, the law makes the business-owner, not the co-op or condo, responsible for keeping noise below a threshold of being "plainly audible" from 15 feet away. The ordinance also addresses construction noise. If you hire a contractor in some areas of the U.S. to, say, put in a new sidewalk, that contractor, like business-owners in the example above, is the one responsible for keeping down noise. In fact, the law now even states that they have to create "a noise mitigation plan for each construction site," with a copy of the plan kept available at the site.
Boards themselves are responsible for their staff and for such building-wide equipment as central air-conditioning. For example, if your super uses an air compressor, it needs to be equipped "with an appropriate muffler." You also can't have lawn work done on weekdays before 8 a.m. or after 7 p.m. or sunset, whichever comes later, nor on weekends and state/federal holidays except between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
"Circulation devices" such as central a/c units on a building's roof cannot create sound above a certain level as measured from three feet inside an apartment with a window or terrace door open. (If you want the precise figure, it's a weighted spec of "42 dB[A]," which you can have someone measure with a decibel meter if someone complains about the noise.
When it comes to co-op/condo/apartment residents themselves, however, prevention first, then mediation rather than litigation is the preferred method of resolving a noise dispute. Most of the time, the people involved are neighbors who will continue to live in the building and interact with each other. Turning to litigation as a method of resolving a noise problem can cause friends or acquaintances to turn against each other.
Everyone involved, from the neighbors and the managing agent to the board, should appreciate the seriousness of the issue and try to resolve the problem without forcing one party to resort to litigation. Prevention is best, but if it comes down to it, mediation is almost always a better solution to noise disputes.
When it comes to combating noise pollution, how do U.S. communities take measure of a problem that often does not affect every listener the same way? Samantha Johnson wakes every night at 2 a.m., thanks to the train that barrels behind the house she has lived in for three years.
Her neighbor three houses up says she is never bothered by the train, and has never been woken at night.
“It’s hard for me to believe that any of my neighbors aren’t bothered by the train noise,” Johnson says. “My neighbor says she never hears the trains, and we have never adjusted to them.”
There are two railroad crossings in the downtown area of Johnson’s community, a bustling area with a mix of homes and shops, increasing auto traffic and both commuter and freight trains. After some local residents complained about noise from the train and the train whistle, town officials budgeted a study to determine whether a quiet zone should be created downtown.
To Johnson’s dismay, most of her town’s residents haven’t exactly rallied to the “quiet zone” cause.
“We have received a few complaints from three or four individuals," said Town Manager Ray Smithson.
“Our residents aren’t gathering en masse to demand we do something about noise, but we try to take the concerns of all our residents seriously, and creating a quiet zone may be a solution.”
Traffic, trains, construction crews hammering first thing in the morning, neighbors with power lawn mowers and noisy heat pumps have all created their fair share of noise.
But what constitutes noise to some people may barely register in the background to others.
John Hammond, an acoustical consultant, has found that noise tolerance is largely subjective. Some people live comfortably in city apartments surrounded by trains, traffic and people, while others living in an isolated country home are kept awake at night by crickets.
Noise is measured in decibels, which Hammond compared to air temperature. Generally, a level of 70 decibels is comfortable, just as 70 degrees is a pleasant temperature. When noise reaches 100 decibels, it hurts.
A soft whisper reaches about 30 decibels, according to the League for the Hard of Hearing. A normal conversation hits 60 decibels, a ringing telephone 80 decibels, a leaf blower 110 decibels and a balloon pop 157 decibels.
"It's a tolerance level," Hammond says. "Some people have zero noise tolerance, but for most people noise doesn’t become a problem until it interferes with what they're doing.”
For the most part, background noise such as traffic or even, for some people, airplanes soaring overhead are not what bug us.
A pure tone, a sound that stays in a narrow frequency range, is the most irritating - like the hum from a fluorescent light fixture. Noise that covers a range of frequencies, such as ocean waves or wind blowing through dried leaves, is not usually annoying.
"If you went out to an expressway and you listened to that sound, even though it's loud and you can't carry on a conversation, it's not particularly aggravating to you," Hammond said. "People will not tolerate a pure tone; for instance, if you had a flute and you played a constant, steady C; hat's like a pure tone, a very narrow frequency, and it can drive many people to distraction."
Studies are showing that excessive noise can damage hearing, disrupt sleep, induce stress and generally lower our quality of life. Noise tops the list of complaints people raise about the neighborhoods in which they live, and the hotels in which they spend vacation or business time.
Still, there are no blanket policies on noise at the national level. There was an Office of Noise Abatement and Control within the Environmental Protection Agency, but it was phased out in the early 1980s when federal officials decided noise was best regulated on a local level.
The states regulate traffic noise, conducting studies on new highways and building sound barriers where necessary. Some communities have come up with their own regulations, often after residents lodge noise complaints.
Noise laws vary from town to town. Some set decibel levels in its noise ordinances, while others rely on law and code enforcement officials to respond when noise levels become unreasonable. The problem is, when officials use a noise meter to measure the decibel level, more often than not the noise meter will show that the noisemaker is within the ordinance limits.
“Rarely is the complaint justified,” Hammond said.
While the decibel limits help lawmakers create ordinances, considering the subjective nature of noise complaints, one person can be unable to function due to noise that does not bother others around him.