Inexplicable noise in old house
November 5, 2018 5:34 PM   Subscribe

A bizarre, intermittent clicking noise has haunted one spot on the floor of the master bedroom of our newly purchased, 100-year-old house. Pest control, electrician, HVAC installer, home inspector have all come up empty. Help! Details inside.

so the house is a 1925-built bungalow in Maryland. we got HVAC installed soon after purchasing; the house had been equipped only with radiators (which we removed, though we kept the boiler to avoid electric heat).

a recording of the sound -- not the clearest, but gets the idea across:

the sound might be happening at all times of day but we're hearing it at night because that's when we're in the bedroom.

the sound is not constant, but when it comes in it can keep up for hours at a time, pausing only a few seconds at a time. it tends to build very gradually in volume, then go away, then build up again.

I am fairly confident it is specifically coming from the floorboard and not the moulding or the wall, though I cannot be 100% certain. it only comes from one specific region at one edge of the room (adjacent to the exterior wall).

HVAC says there's no venting that should be causing noise in that area; electrician says there's no wiring in that area that would be problematic; pest control doesn't see any spots where the kinds of bugs that might theoretically make such a noise could live (and doesn't think it sounds like bugs anyway).

a few months ago in frustration I literally hit the floor with a hammer in a few spots. bizarrely, this actually seemed to work for about a (blessed, peaceful) month. not opposed to doing that again if there's any logical reason it could be helping

attempts to google the issue lead to a lot of stuff about creaking/snapping floorboards, which might be the issue? but it doesn't really sound like it to me. not that I know what that'd sound like anyway.

happy to provide any additional details that might be useful for diagnosis...
posted by Kybard to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Pretty hard to say for sure, but my first guess is that the wood is trying to move due to daily changes in humidity and temperature (mostly humidity) and that as it slips and binds, slips and binds, it makes those little clicking noises. If it was moving a little more freely, it might be a creak instead of a click. Beating on it with a hammer jarred it enough to unstick it and let it settle into a happier position, from which it took a while before it built up enough tension to start clicking again.

If you can identify the floorboard in question, the simplest thing to do would be to tack it down with some ringshank finish nails (use a nailset to set them below the surface of the wood without marring it, then fill and varnish) and see if that stops it from moving.

Just a guess, though.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:54 PM on November 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Sprinkle some talc powder over the area, wack with a soft mallet (not a hammer!), lightly over the whole area, with many strikes. Sweep excess powder into the cracks, then repeat.

Cover with a nice accent rug and I will buy you a coffee, beer or donut if this doesn’t solve the problem for at least the next year.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:00 PM on November 5, 2018 [11 favorites]

As to the plausible reason, this is essentially a relaxation oscillation, skip to the second paragraph for the general dynamical systems description. The powder changes what is analogous to the capacitance of the system, and that makes the swings shorter, and the sounds quieter, because less energy is released. It’s also possible letting your house run a good bit hotter or colder would help, but I’d still recommend my prior solution first.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:12 PM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

What happens if you turn off the main circuit breaker in the house?
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:38 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

What happens if you turn off the main circuit breaker in the house?

noise still happens. we've actually tried it a couple of times just to be sure.

SaltySalticid, I'm gonna try the talc powder + mallet solution tomorrow.
posted by Kybard at 6:58 PM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’m gonna go with wood expanding/contracting as well. And it was probably triggered by the new HVAC system. The location of hot/cold spots has changed as well as what time of day your system is on full heat/cooling. If it’s more at night and you let the space cool overnight, that may be it.
posted by amanda at 7:38 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Deathwatch beetle?
posted by ereshkigal45 at 11:16 PM on November 5, 2018

After our new HVAC was installed in our old house, our hardwood floors got a bit creakier because the new HVAC controlled the humidity SO MUCH better.
posted by LoveHam at 4:19 AM on November 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding the talc treatment. The lowered humidity from the HVAC, as mentioned by LoveHam, may also be exacerbating it.
posted by desuetude at 7:33 AM on November 7, 2018

This reeaaalllly doesn't sound like something generated by an HVAC setup or creaky floorboard. It's too high-pitched and rapid.

If I didn't know better, it sounds like some electronic device that has a nearly empty battery. Temperature fluctuations will sometimes get a little more juice out of the battery, which tries to power something up and then fails again after the surge. I would almost say it sounds like something with a motor, cone speaker, or piezoelectric buzzer, like a smoke detector, alarm clock, or personal vibration device?

Are you sure there's nothing hidden inside/under the bed? Or in a nightstand or dresser? Would you be willing to move all the furniture out of the bedroom and see if the problem disappears or moves along with the furniture?
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:17 AM on November 7, 2018

The spacing sounds like water. Is your hvac forced air or baseboard/ radiator? I'd be concerned there was water dripping down a pipe or duct somewhere or into an electiecal box as the ticking does sound like an electrical thing that is arcing. Maybe water is dripping irregularly into an electrical box. Is there a vent pipe that might be condensing or similar? Water running down the outside of a leaky pipe? Sound can travel a long way along pipes and ducts so it's not necessarily where you hear it.
posted by fshgrl at 10:51 AM on November 9, 2018

talc powder seems to have done the job so far! thanks everyone for the thoughts; if it recurs, I'll go to that option first. thanks all!
posted by Kybard at 6:23 PM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

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