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Top Noise Complaints Throwdown! Pt. 1

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Top Noise Cartoon 1

On average, Acentech gets 5-10 email requests per week for acoustics, noise, vibration and AV help from the outside world. We were talking about this in a meeting recently, and decided one way to potentially help the public would be to publish a blog post on our top noise complaints with advice from a few of our consultants. The following questions are based off of real questions and issues sent to our firm through our website. Let’s dive in and meet our experts!

Benjamin Davenny is a Principal Consultant for Acoustics, with 18 years of experience wrestling with acoustics, noise and vibration issues. In his spare time he plays bass and referees noisy conflicts between his kids.

Bob Connick, Acoustics Consultant, is a whiz at writing, playing board games, and figuring out creative ways to mitigate unwanted noise in many different scenarios.

Sandy: Welcome Ben and Bob, to our game show, Top Noise Complaints: Throwdown! Your goal is to answer the questions creatively, honestly, and with flair. OK, ready? Let’s begin.

Part A: Exterior noise invading your interior space. What is the best way to deal with persistent exterior noise? Let’s say you have an apartment on the harbor, and you are awakened every morning at 2:00 by the loud engines of fishing boats heading out to sea?

Ben: First, try a little masking sound to cover up the exterior noise that gets into your space. This might be a fan, some Quincy Jones, The Crown on Netflix, or perhaps some At the Gates, whatever your taste. Second, get better windows. The key here is to have at least 2 inches of space between the main insulating window and a third layer of glass in your window assembly.

Bob: I agree with what Ben says, although I would also add examples to the list of masking sources. In terms of window upgrades, you can replace the entire window, or (if you have the room) you could install an interior window insert many of which can be removed when you want to open your window again.
I also want to touch on a few things that seem like they would help, but probably won’t. This includes putting sound absorptive treatments on your walls to help absorb sound (this might make your room more comfortable, but won’t go a long way towards stopping noise coming through the windows). I also wouldn’t recommend going out on your porch or balcony to scream at the boats to be quiet as they go by. In my experience this doesn’t have very good results and just sets off the neighbor’s dog. I’d also advise against using flares to get the boat’s attention. If anything they might think you’re in trouble and try to rescue you, which will just make the noise louder.

Sandy: Ok great. Part B: exterior noise invading your exterior space. What about this – you live near a rail line and want to be able to have friends over for patio dinner parties in the summer, but are worried the loud train noise will ruin your fun. Thoughts?

Ben: This is a tough one, because, unless you are totally enclosing your exterior space in a glass box (weird, and no longer exterior), some exterior noise is going to bend over any barrier you put between your space and the noise source. You need a tall, heavy screen that blocks your view of the noise source. Trees, forsythia, vines, shrubs won’t cut it.

Bob: As Ben said, a barrier will be your best bet, but won’t work in all situations. If you don’t feel like turning your backyard into a greenhouse (though I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want that), you might also have some luck with masking noise as discussed above. Putting on some music (I hear Ben’s suggestion of At the Gates pairs well with most formal dinner parties) or having a source of some calming nature-esque sounds, like a bubbling fountain, or a calming seashore.
Again, what probably won’t work is trying to block the sound with more trees or hopping the fence to scream at the train as it goes by. Not only is this dangerous, but the engineer might mistake you for some scrappy kids and toot the horn for you, and trust me, if the train is already bothering you the horn will only be worse.

Part A: Noisy multi-unit residential / hotel buildings. Your nice neighbor appears to be going deaf, because he listens to CNN at full volume every night, and apparently can’t hear you when you pound on his door in an attempt to remind him to turn it down.

Ben: First, take a deep breath, calm down, and try to wait until daytime hours to approach your neighbor to explain the problem. If your neighbor really is hearing impaired and wears hearing aids, they could get better sound from the TV and lower the noise by using a hearing loop and switching their hearing aid to telecoil mode, thereby using the hearing aids in lieu of the TV speakers, and restoring your peace, serenity, and sanity! If diplomacy fails, then you’re in for expensive modifications to your wall and or floor-ceiling.

Bob: Going to the source is probably your best bet, but if your neighbor is being difficult, and you don’t have the time and money to put towards big renovations, a quick solution might be (you guessed it) masking noise. A lot of noise issues between adjacent residences are exacerbated by the fact that residences can often be very very quiet, often quieter than most libraries. Adding a bit of broadband noise from a fan or white noise generator can go a long way towards covering up all sorts of sounds that might be coming from your neighbors.
Again, a few things we don’t recommend:
1.) Absorptive finishes in your space (or theirs). These just don’t do much when it comes to noise transferring through walls.
2.) Also, cutting a hole in the wall and sticking your head through to get their attention. Not only is this a terrifying thing to do, but it will further compromise the effectiveness of your wall. Sound can travel pretty well through a head-sized hole in the wall.

Sandy: Fabulous! Part B: What about loud noises (like pipes, HVAC systems) coming from inside your space? Say I’m trying to fall asleep, but the HVAC fan noise is driving me nuts, and I can’t just put a pillow over it to drown it out. Help!

Ben: Have you tried the At the Gates suggestion to cover up the noise? If Swedish death metal is not to your liking, you’ll probably have to have the HVAC system modified. Try getting a bigger fan that can run slower. Bonus points if you can have the system run constantly rather than cycling on or off, which draws your attention to the noise.

Bob: Not much to add here, although depending on the nature of the pipe noise, it may be possible to enclose the pipes with soffits so you don’t hear that telltale rush of water every time your upstairs neighbor uses the bathroom. If it is noise from your own systems then, as Ben said, you’ll likely need to switch it for a quieter system or (if it’s a ducted system) some modifications to the ductwork might help reduce the noise in certain areas.
Some things I would not recommend:
1) Stuffing a hand, leg, umbrella, or other object into the fan to make it stop. There are easier and less permanent ways to turn it off.
2) Screaming at the fan to be quiet. It is a fan, it will not respond to this.
3) Hiding under the bed to escape the noise. The noise is tenacious. It will find you.

Thanks for checking out the first installment of Top Noise Complaints: Throwdown! Tune in next week to check out part 2!


Feature image artwork created by Sandy Kane.