Environmental noise: emitters and receivers
By John C. Dolehanty
When it comes to environmental noise it would seem you’re either on one side of the fence or the other: you’re either an emitter or a receiver. The purpose of this article is to inform the reader about “the other side”.
Firstly, it should be recognized that for a small portion of the population, the sound in our environment is highly annoying, regardless of how low the level. In addition, for another small portion of the population the sound is never considered highly annoying, regardless of how high the level. This article is written from the perspective of “a reasonable man”, as typically referenced in the judicial system.
Secondly, you may find it surprising that most communities (in the United States) do not have an effective/comprehensive noise ordinance. A large portion of the population is typically only covered by basic ordinances that specifically address barking dogs and loud car stereos. A comprehensive noise ordinance should detail:
- exactly what metrics are to be measured, the minimum measurement duration, and what the meter settings should be (e.g.: Leq, L10, dBA, limits by octave band, slow response, etc.);
- a minimum measurement duration (typically 10, 20 or 60 minutes – an instantaneous maximum level is not an effective measure);
- specific limits for industrial, commercial, and residential receivers;
- specific measurement location parameters;
- specific limits for daytime and a more restrictive limit for nighttime;
- allowances for removal of the background ambient sound, including a recognized procedure.
It is in the best interest of both the emitters and the receivers in your community to have an ordinance that incorporates the aforementioned items.
As a noise emitter, you have responsibilities to the community. Regardless of why the noise is being generated and for what purpose, the noise that is generated needs to be acceptable to the surrounding community. In the case of a business, you may also have added responsibilities outside your local community – your company shareholders.
Your primary goal is to be a good corporate citizen. Depending upon the philosophy of your corporate management, being a good corporate citizen corresponds to either ensuring that the local community is not complaining about your noise and/or that you ensure that you are meeting the appropriate standard. In addition, you may have additional ISO 14001 certification requirements.
As a good corporate citizen, a business should be conscience of all its noise emissions, even if the sounds meet all applicable noise level limits. As part of an ISO 14001 certification, businesses should be looking for ways to reduce their amount of noise emissions. Residential receiver complaints are most likely to occur due to:
- sounds that occur at night,
- sounds that occur with an irregular/variable pattern and for an varying durations,
- impact type sounds that startle,
- sounds with buzzing, beat frequencies or tones.
It is not uncommon for a residential receiver to complain about sounds that do not have the aforementioned characteristics, especially if the sound is associated with a process/company that they do not like or associated with a process they feel is not worthy of value. In addition, it is common for a complaint to be visually oriented, i.e. noise complaints targeted against a cooling tower because of all the “smoke” that it creates. Be aware that if there are other outstanding annoyance issues (e.g. odors, light, traffic, dust, etc.) often residents may use a noise issue and an additional tool to get a hearing. Consequently, it is always necessary to get to the root cause of all complaints.
What to do if you get a noise complaint. Take all complaints seriously! Never initially assume that a complainant is either irrational or unreasonable. A standard complaint assessment procedure is a highly effective tool. Typically this initially requires the use a standardized noise complaint documentation form. This ensures that the correct information is collected so that a thorough follow up can be performed. This form should minimally document the following:
- name/address/phone number of complainant,
- date/time and frequency/duration of sound occurrence;
- written description of noise complaint, as relayed by complainant;
- weather conditions during occurrence (if know) – including temperature, wind speed/direction, humidity, and cloud cover.
A complaint form should be known to and used by all personnel that may take the noise complaint – this may typically fall under the responsibility of the nighttime security personnel. It is important that the follow-up begin in a very timely manner. To ensure continuity, the responsibility of follow-up should be assigned to only one specific staff position. The most important aspect is to keep the lines of communication open. You will never gain much by ignoring a complainant. Even if your follow-up has determined that the complaint is unwarranted, keep the lines of communication open – it’s all part of being a good corporate citizen.
A residential emitter will typically only affect residential receivers. In most situations, these can be handled on a personal one-on-one basis – without involving the law. Find out what specifically is bothering your neighbor and see if you can mitigate the sound. Just as with industrial/commercial emitters, it is very important to keep the lines of communication open. However, if this is not practical, you should find out what you local laws dictate and then determine if your compliance status. If you feel you are compliant, ensure you keep detailed records of all your interactions with your neighbor, they may prove useful if you are taken to court.
As a noise receiver you have a right to expect an ambient sound level that is compatible with the intended use of your receiving land. This is true, regardless of whether the land is used for farming, manufacturing, recreation, or single family residential. Since there is a large variation in land uses, each with differing compatible sound levels, it places an important responsibility upon land use planners to ensure that adjacent lands with different zoning classifications will have compatible sound levels.
Industrial and commercial properties are not typically affected in any great measure by environmental sound levels. However, in the rare case where this is true it is important to take the following steps. If the offending noise source is present and currently emitting noise, take you concern directly to the emitter. Fully inform them of your position and see if the situation can be addresses in a forward and positive manner. If this proves to be an ineffective action, then you should turn to the governmental agency that is responsible for enforcing your local noise laws. If you do not have limit-specific noise ordinance you may need to press for one. Otherwise, you last option of redress is to take the matter to court.
If the offending noise source is not currently present, but being proposed, you will need to determine if the potential exists that this new noise source will adversely affect you land usage. (e.g., if a municipality proposes to install a utility station next to your recording studio or daycare business). Your source for compatibility information should not depend wholly upon the party that is responsible for installation. It is wise to get an independent assessment in order to make qualified decisions on your future course of action.
The typical residential receiver will complain about noise sources, whether they are residential or industrial in origin, if they have one or more of the following characteristics:
- sounds with distinctive buzzing, tones or beat frequencies;
- sounds the come and go, especially if they can occur at random intervals;
- sounds that vary in duration;
- sounds that occur during evening, nighttime and early morning hours;
In addition, it is not uncommon for residential receivers to be annoyed with sounds that do not have the aforementioned characteristics, if the sound is also associated with a business/person that the residential receiver does not care for. For example, a business that emits an odor, or a neighbor that does not maintain his/her property.
If you are a residential receiver that has a noise complaint, the first step is to make sure you know the exact origin/owner of the noise source. Once this is determined, you should make sure that the emitter is made aware of the presence of the source and the fact that you find it offensive. It addition, you may wish to determine if other nearby residential receivers are also offended by this specific noise source. If the emitter is cooperative, give them an opportunity to resolve the problem that is appropriate for the specific noise source. Often large corporations cannot take action as quickly as you or even they would like.
If the emitter is not cooperative and/or you feel your complaint is being ignored, your next step may be to contact the local governmental officials that are responsible for enforcing your local noise ordinance. If you do not have an ordinance, you have three further options: (1) work with the appropriate government agency toward enacting legislation, (2) contact the local news media to see if they can help get your complaint a better hearing, or (3) contact a lawyer and investigate legal action. You should be aware that these last three actions may all require you to expend a good deal of your time and money. These actions should be viewed as actions of ‘last resort’, when common sense and open communication have failed.
While Robert Frost may have said ‘Good fences make good neighbors’, it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re a good ‘acoustical neighbor’ – regardless of which side of the fence you’re on!