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Bump in the Night

Noise Complaints Should Be Taken Seriously

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media, July 2014

Being brought up on Stephen King novels and the familiar sight of spooky old buildings abandoned on our Maine coast should make us immune to bumps in the night, but it doesn't. So when a unit owner calls with a strange noise complaint, who you gonna call? Certainly not the Ghostbusters.
These types of complaints should be taken seriously, not only for good property management service, but noises can be indicative of future serious problems. In general, noise complaints can fall into two categories: actual and perceived. Actual noises have physical sources, such as heating equipment, plumbing, etc., and are transmitted through the air or building components. Technically, these noises are called impacted insulation class transmission. Most of the potential noise sources can be eliminated by building design, sound insulation, and noise barriers.

Detective Work

Learning to distinguish and locate the noise source can go a long way to not only solve problems before they happen but also have a more peaceful portfolio of properties. Moving air is always a likely candidate as a noise source. A breeze through the soffit vents can cause strange whistling sounds if the pull-down attic access ceiling hatches are misaligned. Similarly, chimneys without caps produce a similar sound.
Homes heated by forced air can have "hisses," "whistles," and even "roars" due to leaky duct connections, air leaks, and equipment vibration dampers malfunctioning. A sucking sound can be caused by air being pulled around heating unit filters needing changing. Homes with forced hot water hydronic systems can begin to make noise when circulation pumps have failing bearings or motors. Loose piping can cause banging and rattling due to water hammer effects. Plumbing in general can develop clogs or ejector pumps can begin to misbehave, all leading to odd sounds telegraphing themselves throughout the unit to provide misdirection in locating the source.
Air conditioning systems have their own potential symphony of annoying sounds. Squeaking noises are often associated with split-system air conditions/heat pumps systems from the temperature contraction of the plastic front cover of the inside wall-mounted units. Sizzling and humming sounds can come from these systems when the heat mode first initiates. Running water sounds can arise from the refrigerant and/or condensate moving through the pipes. This is often the sign of low refrigerant.
Water sounds can also develop from wall cavity leaks, irrigation system malfunctions, melting ice in attics from ice dams, and condensation leaking off uninsulated pipes and ducts. Periodic sounds can be made by well pumps turning on and off with demand instead of utilizing holding tanks. Unusual sounds can be transmitted through bathroom exhaust vents, wood floors and stairs, and metal roofs thermal expansion and fasteners popping. Popping and scraping sounds can even be heard from vinyl siding poorly fastened to the exterior sheathing due to restrained thermal movement. Hissing sounds accompanied with the smell of gas are the most serious, and the service company should immediately be called.
Hot water heaters can create popping or cracking sounds due to the sediment on the bottom of the gas-fired tank or electric element. Many are not aware these tanks should be drained several times a year to not only avoid these sounds but prolong the life of the water heater and improve efficiency.
To locate the source of the noise problem a logical forensic approach is needed. Keep a date and time log of all noise complaints. Record what equipment was running at the time, weather conditions, changes in new or removed equipment, and whether the sound is different from multiple locations.
And this brings us to the perceived noise complaint. With boomers occupying more condos, natural aging can affect hearing quality and noise complaints can arise due to heath-related issues. These complaints need to be handled with sensitivity while maintaining a logical approach. Record who heard the sound and was anyone else present at the time. Did any unit occupants not hear the sound?
Sometimes you might want to suggest fighting fire with fire. That is, noise with noise. The introduction of a noise generator in a unit can often make a difference for some. There are many such devices available producing white, pink, and brown noise having varying success in masking unit owner's tinnitus, aiding in sleep, or even soothing migraines. The message is like unwanted noises in a car, condo noises rarely go away on their own, and if left untreated, they will only become more of a nuisance.