Sound Advice on Air Conditioner Noise
Would you want these throbbing sideyard "twins" next to your bedroom window/wall, living areas or outside deck?
With the growing popularity of high-efficiency furnaces teamed up with central air conditioners (AC), many municipalities are being caught off-guard with inadequate zoning and noise bylaws to regulate the operation and placement of the noisy, outdoor AC units. Left to their own devices, most builders and installers automatically plonk the new air conditioner(s) in a location which best suits the owner, not the neighbours next door. This usually means the noisemakers are installed in the narrow sideyard between houses -- sometimes inches off the lot line -- in an effort to keep the noise out of the owner's backyard. That might be great for the owner/user but can turn the world of the neighbour upside down.
Those innocent next-door neighbours may have ground-floor bedrooms, a patio area, living room or home office only several feet from the throbbing air conditioner(s) transforming the once bucolic period from April to October into a living decibel hell. On top of the obvious reverberating fan noise at almost point-blank range powerful low frequency noise (LFN) from the pulsing compressor is a concern as it can hit the side of the house and cause forced vibration of the wall which then radiates into and throughout affected rooms as a health-destroying resonance. Inaudible infrasound may also be assaulting your body and brain. Air conditioner noise is not a mere nuisance but a serious health issue due to its constant, chronic nature: New York Times article on a European study that finds noise can kill.
Due to the obvious noise and nuisance impacts on adjacent neighbours, no authority in the world -- in government or industry -- recommends installing central air conditioners in narrow, sound-reflective sideyards between houses. Those same authorities also normally use the property line as the most appropriate site for AC noise measurements. For a detailed backgrounder on the subject, please read "Not Cool" linked under the Calgary section below.
Air conditioners CAN BE MOVED out of a reflective sideyard or sound sensitive area
Installers can move a unit up to 50 feet or 15 metres from the furnace connection, i.e. the unit can easily be moved into a backyard or more suitable location. This was a point of contention in the Suzuki vs Munroe decision in Coquitlam, B.C. (See link in articles list below: Air Conditioner Case Supreme Court of B.C.) Cost of moving a unit is approximately $1200 as quoted by Action Furnace in Calgary in Spring of 2010.
The burden of noise and nuisance should be kept on the property of the owner using the central air conditioner, not dumped next door or into the community.
The following is a stellar example from a Quebec municipality which controls AC placement, confining units to backyards with a minimum three-metre sideyard setback as well as a 50dBA daytime noise limit at the property line with the owner's house acting effectively as a sound barrier for the adjacent homes.
Zoning permits work in Denver
In 2007, Denver (Colorado) City Council considered a proposal from their Department of Community Planning & Development to allow AC units into narrow sideyards as a "use by right", thus skipping a review of any sort. Until then, the Mile High City had used a fair-minded zoning permit system which protected the rights of the surrounding neighbours and the community.
Before installation could proceed, the owner/installer had to circulate a plot plan that clearly showed the proposed location of the unit along with its height and rated noise output. Not only did the surrounding neighbours receive a copy but so did the community association or registered neighbourhood group. That way, an elderly, timid or gullible neighbour could not be sweet-talked into giving their approval without additional protective input from an overseeing community group. This zoning permit system is an ideal that should be followed in every municipality which seeks to protect the basic civil rights of its citizens.
View copy of Denver zoning permit
Some might argue that this is unnecessary red tape and should be eliminated. Denverites didn't agree: In November 2007, after much public consultation, input and debate, Denver City Council did the right thing and shot the proposal down in a unanimous 11-0 vote against the generous "use by right". Even the councilman who initially proposed the sideyard relaxation eventually came to his senses and voted against it. Denver uses a minimum 5-foot (1.5m) sideyard setback with a property line minimum noise cap of 50dBA.
Noise in British Columbia - Government initiatives?
The province of British Columbia may be a model for cutting red tape in government with its effective Straightforward BC initiative but it clearly upholds the need to "Protect public health, safety and the environment" while doing so. Chronic noise, especially that with wall-piercing low frequencies, is not a nuisance but a health-destroying threat that can potentially kill.
The Lower Mainland of B.C., Victoria and surrounding areas are leaders in noise control initiatives, spearheaded by Vancouver's Soundsmart program. Both the Soundsmart brochure and booklet caution AC owners not to locate the noisy units in sound-reflective sideyards. The Noise Control Manual, pages 17 and 18, illustrates the power of low frequency noise.
The established allowables for AC noise in the province which are based on a reasonable national standard set for all levels of government in Canada are 50dBA daytime and 45dBA nighttime as measured at the property line. While owners/users may consider those limits too restrictive, the AC industry in Australia which has far more experience with air conditioner noise than elsewhere recommends an even stricter guideline of 45dBA daytime and 35dBA nighttime as measured at the property boundary.
In Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, sizzling hot cities with maximum summer temperatures topping 45 degrees Celsius, the daytime AC allowables are 5dBA above ambient background noise as measured at the property boundary (to allow for more urban background noise) and are hit with additional dBA penalties if annoying sound qualities like tonality or intermittency are present. Nighttime use in those cities of 4 million-plus?
Domestic air conditioning is prohibited overnight if any of the surrounding neighbours can hear the unit(s) from inside their homes. People down under sleep peacefully without droning, wall-piercing low frequency mechanical noise destroying their health and that's fair dinkum. As a general guideline for normal noise, the World Health Organisation recommends a residential daytime limit outside an affected home of 50dBA and nighttime limit of 40dBA, with even stricter limits if low frequency noise is a concern.
Like it or not, central air conditioners need to be regulated and their noise controlled.
And then there's Calgary!
With inappropriate building designs for the climate creating or adding to the AC noise problem, absolutely no municipal regulations for central air conditioner placement and the worst noise bylaw in Canada -- a daytime industrial limit of 65dBA which isn't even enforced at the property line -- the situation in the cool Stampede City of Calgary, Alberta is best summed up in two words: "Yippeeee, yahoooo!"
Click here for the detailed backgrounder entitled "NOT COOL" - everything you ever wanted to know about AC noise-vibration-resonance and bungling bureaucrats. In Denver -- after much input from ALL citizens -- city council voted 11-0 against unregulated sideyard AC installation. Several months later in 2008 in Calgary, it was the exact opposite with "public input" coming only from two, self-serving special interest groups in the building industry that lobbied to have the unethical, health-destroying sideyard installations reinstated. It took them all of four months of behind-the-scenes lobbying to get their way.
Six years later, public input was still being blocked. (See "Intentional Exclusion" link below for details of how Calgary city council and/or city administration works.)
List of interesting article links:
Air Conditioning (see pages 27, 38 for Noise and 36 for Cooling Degree Days)
Environmental Noise Guidelines for Air Conditioners
- see page 28 for the three worst installation locations
Noise Guide (2010) Appendix 3, pages 5.10 to 5.13 for AC noise recommendations
Air Conditioner Case Supreme Court of B.C. 2009
Low Frequency Noise and inadequate standards
Community Noise Ordinances Worldwide Examples
(modern example from Australia)
Intentional Exclusion (which can be used as a form of bullying)
Bullying and Victimization (replace the word student with neighbour)
An example of an unethical sideyard AC installation. Classic Bullying!
The neighbours next door are the ones who have to deal with the problem. The unethical installer walks away scot-free to continue his dirty work on another unsuspecting next-door neighbour down the street or in another community. And the AC owner/user assumes the work was done professionally and ethically and thinks the neighbours are complaining about a trifling nothing when the noise erupts for hours on end for months. Screaming matches over this type of installation are the norm. Hence, the need for this installer's guide from Western Australia:
Install Properly or Face Hefty Fines.
For further online reading, check out AIRAH ( The Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and heating) and their inspiring Code of AC Ethics: World's Best Practice can be found HERE
In Australia, the air conditioning industry works hand-in-hand with the community and all levels of government to ensure environmental noise is reduced at source. In stark contrast, in Canada the industry and building trades lobby government to soften or abolish municipal/provincial laws which govern the placement and regulation of noisy central air conditioners. Which country would you choose as a model to follow?