What is this buzzing/vibration in my house?
June 24, 2010 4:44 AM   Subscribe

What is this recurring deep, loud buzzing sound (and vibrations) in my house? It only happens in one spot, and many members of the family have heard/felt it. (No, getting it checked out is not an option currently on the table, I'll explain below).

Every once and a while--no identifiable pattern, except I'm beginning to feel it may have someone to do with big trucks being down the street--the ceiling in my family's living room, which faces the street, emits a very, very deep buzzing that lasts for about two seconds. It generally starts and stops very suddenly. It's very loud and usually makes people stop and look at its source. It's only happened recently, and the buzzing sounds like something is vibrating that really shouldn't be vibrating. It is not the same as the house's background noises... I've lived here 14 years, I know my creaks and whispers, and this is absolutely 100% different than anything I've heard before. And much, much louder.

My entire family is wondering what it is... except my dad, who is quite literally half-deaf, has never heard it, and who is in control about whether someone gets to come into the house to check it. He either doesn't believe us, or doesn't believe it's a problem, because hey, if it was that loud, he'd've heard it, right? Wrong.

It happens a few times a week, generally during the day, when my father is away.

Could anyone shed some insight as to what is going on? I'm hoping some of your suggestions will either be reassuring, or give me enough ammunition to get it checked out.
posted by flibbertigibbet to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It could be airlocks in your pipes, with the vibration being a pump (perhaps in your boiler?) transmitting the sound along the pipe.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:53 AM on June 24, 2010

Is there a ceiling light fixture in that area? Is it an "electrical" sound? Very curious
posted by JayRwv at 4:54 AM on June 24, 2010

Is this a house-house or an apartment? If it's an apartment, it would be my guess that that's where your upstairs neighbor keeps his phone plugged in.

If you live in a house-house...probably a poltergeist. Or a woodpecker that lives in your chimney.
posted by phunniemee at 4:57 AM on June 24, 2010

Our house makes that noise when someone flushes the loo. You could check out the plumbing perhaps?
posted by teraspawn at 5:02 AM on June 24, 2010

It's not one of these situations right?
posted by pyro979 at 5:07 AM on June 24, 2010

I'm going for something living - squirrel gnawing, maybe a woodpecker (I lived in a wooden cabin for a couple of years and they used to go for the eaves until the landlord put up zinc facings - that was a funny couple of days).

They don't sound like you think they should when you're inside the thing that's being drilled...
posted by cromagnon at 5:17 AM on June 24, 2010

No light-fixture.

It's a house-house, no one lives above us and the sound is unrelated to activity in my sister's room (which is directly above it). No chimney, no poltergeist. :P

So far I'm liking Happy Dave's and teraspawn's answers, although I can hear when someone flushes (the pipes go right by my desk), so I don't think it's a toilet thing.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 5:18 AM on June 24, 2010

A couple of ideas:
1. Make a record of the exact time for a few days to see if the pattern tells you anything. If it is going off at exactly the same time(s) from one day to the next, then you can try to triangulate location by positioning yourself just before the "time"; e.g. go up to the attic or down to the basement.

2. Turn off all the electricity at the circuit breaker box. If that kills the sound then you know it has a powered source. Now turn off individual rooms/zones to isolate location.
posted by Kevin S at 5:20 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Cromagnon: but would a squirrel or woodpecker make a buzzing sound, few a few seconds at a time, and only a few times a week? There's no other unusual sound, and it isn't a tapping--it's a sustained, inhumanly loud buzz, which ends suddenly, but not before the room vibrates along with the sound... I just find it very, very unlikely. Especially as we had a bird problem recently, and it sounded nothing like this.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 5:20 AM on June 24, 2010

By any chance is there a ventilation fan in the attic; typically they automatically cycle on/off depending on temperature and humidity. The one I'm familiar with creates a constant vibration when turned on, but perhaps yours just at start up.

Sometimes central a/c systems buzz briefly when cycling on/off.
posted by Kevin S at 5:26 AM on June 24, 2010

Helicopter, some distance away, my house shakes and rattles when one is nearby, especially a military type, even if I don't hear it.
posted by jara1953 at 5:31 AM on June 24, 2010

We do have an attic, but it's a full floor away from the buzzing. It's never been accessed, though, so who knows?

AC and ventilation fan is controlled by my desk, so I know exactly when it turns on/of, plus seeing when my dog sits on which ventilation grates to get cool. No connection that I can see to the AC, or to the ventilation fan, because neither was on in the winter when this started.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 5:32 AM on June 24, 2010

Absolutely a woodpecker would make that noise. I realize I said it in kind of a jokey way, but we really did have a woodpecker visit our chimney for several days to find food, and it made a crazy noise that rattled the whole house. A woodpecker on anything metal is going to sound like an assault rifle. Not saying it definitely is a woodpecker, just saying it definitely could be a woodpecker.
posted by phunniemee at 5:39 AM on June 24, 2010

Our house makes an awful noise whenever the hot water in the kitchen is turned on. Also, could it be an old doorbell shorting out?
posted by tamitang at 5:45 AM on June 24, 2010

Have you notices any cracks in the plaster walls or any changes to the exterior of the house in that location? What about windows - are they locked and sealed tight? There are some types of spring loaded windows that can have a funny "buzzing" sound.
posted by JJ86 at 5:55 AM on June 24, 2010

Could it be the telephone transformer? I've seen these do exactly what you're describing.
posted by torquemaniac at 5:55 AM on June 24, 2010

We had a crazy intermittent buzzing sound that turned out to be two pipes vibrating when electricity was arcing between them. It was the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life. (Okay, the scariest house-related thing.) We have an older house and the electrical is grounded to the pipes, and when someone installed the water softener (before we bought the house) they interrupted all that nice metal with PVC and for some reason it all went along just fine until suddenly it didn't and the electrical was arcing between the pipes to get to ground. Easy fix: apparently this isn't uncommon in older houses, and the plumber had a bit of metal specifically intended to connect the two pipes so they could ground normally. But it took quite a while to locate the buzzing and I would never have expected it would be THAT!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:04 AM on June 24, 2010

Since you've got big trucks down the street, does it sound anything like this engine brake?

I moved in near a highway once and was shocked by how this sound would rattle windows. It didn't help that I had no idea what the sound was at first.
posted by orme at 6:11 AM on June 24, 2010

I'd guess that some external sound/vibration is hitting the structure's resonant frequency and getting seriously amplified. This would allow it to be intermittent, have no internal power source, and have no identifiable origin point in the house.

As for fixing it, maybe opening or closing internal doors to change the dimensions of the resonant chamber, or maybe (just maybe) re-anchoring ceiling or wall panels to prevent them from rattling along with the vibrations of the air in the resonant chamber.
posted by NortonDC at 6:29 AM on June 24, 2010

No cracks in the plaster or anything.

The Demon Spot (for lack of a better term) is a good 10-15 feet from the nearest windows, but close to the exterior wall. Our house is open concept, so the sound can travel a bit. I was by the windows at least one time, and the windows were fine but the Demon Spot was going off. I don't even know why I mentioned trucks, it was just the first family theory...

Doesn't sound like an assault rifle, but like a deep vibratory buzz. Does sound like a jackbrake, but only if jack-brakes were being engaged for very abrupt 2-second intervals, directly above the coffee/dining room table.

While it could be all the things mentioned--trucks by my family, helicopters (which fly by plenty for me to know the feeling), etc.--it doesn't explain why something in my ceiling has presumably fucked itself so badly that the Demon Spot was born sometime in the past 5 months, nor how I am supposed to exorcise the Demon Spot from my home...

Torquemaniac: does it change anything if our telephone transformers are underground but the Demon Spot is above our heads?

Happy Dave, Eyebrows McGee: I know that the ungrounded electricity is baaad mojo, but in terms of the pipe airlock suddenly having gone faulty, could that lead to any future repairs down the road? These two answers sound the most likely out of anything, and my dad would gladly investigate ungrounded electricity--especially as he recently did some electrical work, which could have started it!!--or anything with the potential for long-term damage.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 6:38 AM on June 24, 2010

I would go in the attic and see if there is any machinery up there.

Failing that, I'm betting you are experiencing what NortonDC says- something far away is just accidentally hitting the natural frequency of that part of your house and making it resonate.
posted by gjc at 6:57 AM on June 24, 2010

Oh, one other thing that made my house vibrate that took me a while to figure out was some sewer work about a block away, which vibrated up my sewer pipe and made the house shake, with some shaking areas noisier than others. (In fact, I didn't figure it out until I had my own sewer pipe roto-rooted and the same shaking occurred and I put 2 and 2 together and figured out all that sewer work was what was shaking the pipe to shake my house!)

They've been drilling 300+ wells for geothermal on a nearby property these past two months and that has periodically shook my windows, or a door, or something, when the drilling just happened to hit the right frequency.

(But yeah, I'd still check out the electricity thing because that shit was scary.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:03 AM on June 24, 2010

I'm not a plumber by any means, but airlocks in your pipes can lead to all sorts of complications down the line, including sputtering taps and boilers overheating. You can attempt to remove airlocks yourself, but if I were you, I'd call a plumber and describe the noise over the phone to them, mentioning that you think it might be an airlocked pipe or arcing electricity. The plumber can then recommend a diagnostic visit and/or get on the phone and convince your dad that it should really be checked out.

Cos, yeah, seriously, you don't want sparks in dry roofspaces.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:06 AM on June 24, 2010

I have two sets of speakers that create a deep buzz when a cell phone is too close to them or if a person or cat touches the speaker jack. Even when the power is off. Any speakers nearby? Try unplugging them.
posted by madred at 7:29 AM on June 24, 2010

I'm with NortonDC. Resonance is weird, and buildings (being big) will resonate at frequencies lower than you can hear. Effectively, we live inside enormous bass drums.

If there's a source of infrasound outside that's 0.5Hz off one of your building's resonant frequencies, the centre of whichever panel (wall, floor, ceiling) is resonating will cycle between extreme vibration and none every two seconds (this is a beat tone). Presumably, it's only during the peaks of this beat tone that whatever is vibrating is moving far enough to bump into whatever it's buzzing against.

So if the buzzing started at about the same time the trucks turned up, there's a plausible mechanism to account for it.
posted by flabdablet at 7:49 AM on June 24, 2010

I vote for the attic. We accused our downstairs neighbors of having their subwoofer turned up too high, but it was really wind rushing through the attic and making things vibrate.

It's bizarre that your dad can't FEEL it. I'm "quite literally half-deaf" too and I can definitely feel it if not hear it.
posted by desjardins at 10:24 AM on June 24, 2010

Does it sound like 60 Hz? You might know this sound from 'buzz me in' type doors as they use AC solenoids. If it is in fact 60 Hz (or perhaps overtones of 60 Hz) then that's a dead giveaway that it's electrical and not some kind of structural resonance.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:07 PM on June 24, 2010

desjardins: the second problem is that it's mainly a daytime thing, in a room he never really uses... so he might've been there when it's happened one or twice, but it doesn't mean he necessarily has acknowledged it.

Rhomboid: That does sound like the sound... Eek.

No speakers nearby. The closest things are two floor lamps in the corners; a couch; a dining room table (the house is open-concept, so the resonant frequency thing would be essentially unsolvable by shutting the door), and a printer (connected to the network, of course, by cables).

Thanks everyone, this really helped!
posted by flibbertigibbet at 4:46 AM on June 25, 2010

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