Regulatory ordinances for exterior noise emissions are generally established separately at the Federal, State, County, and Municipal levels. All of which can vary regarding permissible levels, measurement standards, and source application. Though it can be challenging to establish a noise ordinance that can act as a “catch-all” for every possible circumstance, the objective is a guideline that protects peace within residential neighborhoods and the work of industry and institutions.
Recently, there has been increasing conflict between communities and various industries around noise and noise regulation. Sectors such as Data Centers and Crypto Mining have been subject to increased community blowback as the demand for these facilities is met with hyper-development in concentrated regional areas. Though a lack of regulation often contributes to the issue, the lack of clarity around how each guideline should be applied leads to the misalignment of expectations between industry and communities.
Now, if you are a facility owner/operator or developer, it’s understandable why the concept of more stringent regulation may seem off-putting. More red tape, increased design complexity, and higher potential cost are the immediate thoughts that come to mind when discussing regulatory noise guidelines.
Well, the term “stringent” may be a little misleading. Combining it with the phrase “clearly defined” is likely more appropriate.
The Problem with ‘No Rules’
A quick analogy may help to explain why facility owners and developers should be interested in ‘more stringent’ and ‘clearly defined’ noise ordinances:
Imagine you are driving down a highway that has no speed limit. You have cruise control set at a comfortable 60mph. Suddenly, you get pulled over and receive a $500 speeding ticket. You’re baffled, as you have no idea how fast you were supposed to be going and no idea why you got the ticket.
Now picture yourself as an owner who recently built a state-of-the-art facility to run a critical segment of your business. You went through all the appropriate permit approvals, ensured the building was constructed according to best practices, installed top-of-the-line equipment, and hired the best operations team to ensure everything runs in top form.
Shortly after you get things up and running, you are inundated with complaints from residents in a nearby community who are distraught over sound levels emanating from the facility. They suggest that the sound levels are unacceptable and demand corrective action. Local authorities are promptly informed and are forced to step in to ensure the interests and well-being of their communities are protected. You are forced into taking corrective action.
Without clear noise regulation, you are essentially “speeding” on a highway with no speed limit.
The absence of a precise noise ordinance results in facility owners feeling wrongfully accused of intentionally disrupting community well-being, government authorities trying to force corrective action against no clear guideline, and people in residential communities becoming over-sensitized to elevated sound levels they aren’t used to experiencing.
Simply put, there needs to be a clearly defined guideline for noise. Specifically, how sound level limits are quantitively defined, how and when sound needs to be measured, and what noise sources it applies to. These guidelines also must be structured such that sound levels measured in communities (relative to general ambient conditions) will be acceptable to the average person.
Striving For Undefined Success
What typically happens when facility owners are forced into taking corrective action for their noise emissions without a clearly defined regulation is best described through another analogy:
Imagine you are a baker and a customer has asked to create the best cake possible without clear instructions on how it should look or taste.
Trying to please your customer, you invest all your time and focus into creating what you believe to be the best cake recipe possible. You execute it flawlessly and feel you’ve done everything you can to make them happy.
They hate it. However, the only feedback you receive is that they want it made better next time.
So, back to the drawing board. You go to the store and buy every cake ingredient on the shelf. You spend countless hours making several cake variations you hope will make the customer happy. You keep trying different combinations and techniques but are never sure if you are getting closer to the “right” cake. At the end of it all, none of them are successful.
Now you have just spent an incredible amount of time and money trying to appease a customer when the customer lacks a proper understanding of what the outcome should be.
You have been trying to fix a problem without a clear definition of success.
The same happens when industry, government, and communities clash over noise emissions without a well-defined regulatory guideline. Without clear targets, facility owners can be left overcorrecting and still failing to meet the community’s needs.
What’s Noise Got to Do With It?
An important concept to understand about noise is that, for the person experiencing it, sound is as psychological as it is sensory. Once a person is sensitized by noise and can see where they believe it is coming from, it can be challenging to desensitize that person without removing the source or completely breaking the line-of-sight (a response referred to as “audio-visual congruency”).
In this scenario, the problem for facility owners and developers begins to compound. Once the facility is perceived as “noisy,” overcoming that developed sensitivity becomes very difficult. This perception often creates cascading problems, such as spreading sensitivity within communities and resistance against future developments.
Attempting to design noise mitigation to alleviate or prevent complaints is, therefore, a losing proposition. It would be equivalent to developing a cooling system “to make a building cool” or selecting a generator “to supply power to a building.” Well, how cool does the building need to be? And how much power does the space require?
The same type of clarifying questions must be asked when addressing noise issues.
What sound levels are appropriate for the community setting, and at what time of the day? Where should they be measured? Which sources need to be addressed? Where on those sources is the sound problem stemming from that requires targeted attenuation?
Answers to these clarifying questions will ensure sound attenuation efforts are optimized for each circumstance and are designed to meet appropriate community sound levels.
The Standards of Silence
So, if you are a facility owner embarking on a new facility design, or are faced with community noise complaints, here are a couple of key takeaways:
1. Understand Current Local Noise Codes
Review applicable noise codes with an acoustic consultant to understand how they apply to all aspects of your facility. Through a detailed acoustic assessment, determine which sources fall outside of compliance with these guidelines and by how much.
2. Understand the Relevance of Noise Codes
Being simply ‘compliant’ with ordinances is not always enough, especially when the community around your facility may already have become sensitized and have set their opinions of the problem. Open the discussion to government regulators and acoustic consulting professionals to determine if the ordinances are appropriate for your facility. If exemptions or ambiguities in the code will likely create or continue hypersensitivity within the community, consider aligning your facility design standards to a more stringent guideline. Acoustic Consultants are trained to look at noise issues holistically. They also have the broadest understanding of the applicability of noise guidelines. Their advice should be drawn on as early as possible to assess existing regulations or propose more realistic and functional regulations where none exist. Initiating this conversation is the most effective way to protect your business.
3. Understand Trends in Noise Codes
If you are designing or operating a facility adjacent to other counties that have recently adjusted their noise guidelines to a more stringent standard, understand what those standards are and why they may have been altered in the first place. Regulators often hope to avoid reinventing the wheel, so in the event of community-influenced reform to noise ordinances, Counties will tend to align with guidelines from other nearby jurisdictions. If change is coming, you would be best suited to try to get ahead of it to avoid the need for future retrofit.
4. It Is Not A One-Size-Fits-All Solution
Resist the urge to apply a quick fix. Once you have established an appropriate noise standard for your facility, ensure all noise sources for all phases of your project have been assessed to the details of that standard. If there are exceedances, work closely with a specialized sound attenuation partner who understands how noise control design and noise ordinances coalesce. High levels of design collaboration with the right sound attenuation partner will ensure noise control designs are optimized and regulatory compliance can be guaranteed.
Precise and appropriately quantified noise regulation is in the best interest of any facility developer. It provides a framework to work within, reduces conflicts with the surrounding community, and sets the minimum standard for operations. Well-defined, collaborative, and considered noise ordinances allow developers to design and operate their facilities effectively and efficiently. The final guidelines are up to the regulators. Still, facility owners who initiate conversations and draw on the expertise of the acoustic industry are better positioned to find a solution that works for their business.