Pulsing noise in the walls
December 23, 2020 7:05 AM   Subscribe

A few weeks ago, a new noise started pulsing in the walls of my high-rise apartment. Maintenance says "it's always been like that" (it hasn't, I've lived here 8 years and can pinpoint the day it started) and "that's the sound of water" (it isn't, I know what the systems normally sound like). I'm getting so stressed out, and wonder if you have any suggestions.

I live in a 60s-era high-rise apartment building in Washington DC, in the same apartment for about 8 years. I don't know the name of the heating/cooling system we have, but it's the thing where they have to turn the whole 'campus' of high-rises and townhouses to either heating or cooling all at once. Water is always rushing in the walls due to this circulating 'loop', I guess, which I am well used to.

Anyway, on Dec. 7, a new noise started in my apartment. It's a medium-low hum like something electric, but it pulses, so instead of a steady mmmmm it's mm mm mm mm mm. Eventually, out of a lack of other things to do about it, I measured it by listening while tapping an online tempo counter, and it's 130 beats per minute.

The problem is that while it sometimes gets very quiet, raising my hopes, it always comes back. It's never loud enough to record. Sometimes the doorjambs in my inner walls (hollow, as opposed to the load-bearing outer walls which are concrete) are thrumming with it. More often it's just...everywhere.

The assistant head of maintenance, and then the head of maintenance, kindly but briefly came in, but didn't hear anything (they also, however, didn't actually put their ears to the wall...maybe that seems crazy to them). They don't believe it exists. So now I feel stressed out and hopeless--I own the apartment, so can't just move out. But I don't 'own' the wiring or whatever internal structure is doing this, and I can't get them to believe me. So now I feel like I'm being tortured with low-level ambient buzzing alllll the tiiiiiime.

Question: any thoughts for how I could proceed? Any ideas either for 1) how to get proof of this sound? (I know, tall order.) Or, 2) how to mitigate it? My noise-cancelling headphones don't entirely cancel it. White noise or videos of rushing water don't quite do it--maybe they're too high pitched. I've tried layers of sound, with music on top, which sometimes helps but is so tiring to be figuring out and tinkering with all the time (plus I find it hard to have to live in so much noise).

It's exhausting, never just to be able to sit in quiet. I mean, quiet with the normal building-sounds and the birdsong outside, which is how it used to be. I keep hoping I'll get used to it, like I got used to the other noises, but for some reason 3 weeks hasn't done it yet...maybe because it pulses?

Anyway, I'm feeling so sad and hopeless trapped here inside my buzzbox, and any thoughts or tips you have would be gratefully received.
posted by theatro to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Could it be a fridge or something else in a neighbor's apartment, rather than something inside the walls?
posted by pinochiette at 7:12 AM on December 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I had the exact same thing, also with a landlord who magically couldn't hear a thing, and in the end it was an air exchange motor that was dying. The problem went away when it finally died and had to be replaced. It was MUCH louder in the furnace room, is it possible to visit the room where all the pumps and machines are in your building?

I feel your pain, I hated that weird subtle noise!
posted by Dynex at 7:25 AM on December 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My house is thrumming right now in a similar manner. It's due to some sort of sewer work being done a few blocks away. Sounds a bit like a Hoover going back and forth, getting louder and quieter rhythmically. Sound travels very well down pipes, so one possibility is that it is something temporary and new like that, but far away and off the radar of your building people.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:25 AM on December 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm thinking neighbor's apartment, too, maybe something seasonal like a space heater or humidifier?

It's not going to win you any friends, but for a week or so can you play bass-heavy music and your speakers/subwoofer if you have one directly down on the floor? It might get you used to a pulsey vibratory sound enough that you don't notice the other one so much.
posted by phunniemee at 7:26 AM on December 23, 2020

Response by poster: I definitely think it could be a unit upstairs--one of the new things happening at the exact time the noise started, was renovation directly upstairs from me (including something plumbing related that required my whole tier's water to be shut off for a day). I mentioned the possibility in my email to maintenance, but they didn't address it.

The other new thing happening at the exact time it started, was actual big-budget repair/replacement of the whole building's boilers. But because maintenance don't acknowledge the sound exists, they don't seem to find this important.

I'm definitely hoping it's temporary/seasonal...if I can manage to calm down and play the long game, maybe when they switch everything over to AC (when apparently they bleed air out of the system?) it will stop.

I hadn't thought about fighting vibration with vibration! It's true that I feel less distressed about the noise when something vibrationy of my own is running, even subtly--my fridge, or when my heating kicks on. (Like, if I could have my heating on all the time without boiling to death, I would, because of how it helps smooth the pulsing out.) I'll look into that.
posted by theatro at 7:33 AM on December 23, 2020

Best answer: You didn't mention any neighbors specifically, but I know in a lot of those high rises in DC the neighbors know one another. Have you been able to communicate with your neighbors at all about this? Even with Covid, you could slip notes under doors with "Hey, it's theatro in Unit 16C. In early December I noticed a new pulsing hum sound in my unit and was wondering if anyone else can hear/feel it too. I'm trying to pin down whether it's something in the pipes, possibly related to the air exchange, etc. and hoping you can add information to help solve the mystery. If you hear it too, please call or email me at..."
posted by juniperesque at 7:37 AM on December 23, 2020 [10 favorites]

Best answer: that sounds maddening.

In terms of covering up the noise, fans are a good option in the summer. And in the winter, consider steam humidifiers. I find the steam ones hiss a bit, and are wonderful to have going in the winter when the air is dry. Your skin and nose will thank you. Just make sure it doesn't get so humid you get mold on the window sills.

The little space heaters that blow hot air also make a steady hum that might drown out the wall buzz, if you don't mind running the electricity.

There are also white noise machines, and you can run free white noise apps on any mobile device.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:40 AM on December 23, 2020

Best answer: One of your neighbors may have a fish tank with a water pump.
posted by edbles at 8:25 AM on December 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Can you access where your heater is for your apartment? See if it's louder in there. Your heater probably has two pipes going to/from it with insulation covering them up, but probably a little gap in the insulation where they connect to your heater. I'd try to get a sense of whether the vibration is being conducted along the pipes or if it's being transferred through the building structure (most likely) or just radiated through the air; like if you hold something against the pipes do you feel it vibrating more strongly? The circulation pumps that go with the building's boilers were probably replaced at the same time as the boilers, and they could cause this sort of thing if they're out of balance or not properly isolated.

Seconding the suggestions to talk to your neighbors and try running a fan to help drown it out in the meantime.

I feel for you. This kind of vibration can be so maddening.
posted by beandip at 8:57 AM on December 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't have much to add to the good practical advice already given, but one thing that occurred to me in terms of your temporary strategies is that you may need something louder that has a different rhythm to cancel it for your hearing. White noise or water doesn't, and so the humming rhythm would still be detectable by your ears/brain and come to the forefront. What you choose would be up to you, but I find those "lo-fi beats to study to" youtubes and Spotify playlists rather good for background filler.

Might not be the answer/solution, but thought I'd put it forward.
posted by metabaroque at 9:14 AM on December 23, 2020

Best answer: It is probably EITHER the plumbing, the HVAC, or a neighbors thing.

If it's a neighbors thing, knock on some doors and talk to some people - hopefully you can find the direction and say "I have the weirdest humming noise, I was wondering if I could put my ear to your wall toward my apartment and listen for it" to try to narrow it down a bit.

I'd also do what others say, and listen at the door to the boiler room, to your own local furnace, etc.

If it's definitely in the wall, it's definitely possible it's just an old pipe vibrating with the contents hitting resonance, or against another pipe. Those things definitely happen.

So, I'm pretty handy, and so if it were me, and I exhausted the neighbor option, I would narrow down the spot to a 2' by 2' area. I'd cut into the drywall with a keyhole drywall saw ($8). Be sure not to cut anything behind the drywall. I would then lift off the drywall and look for any pipes. If I found the pipes, I would touch a pipe and hold it tight - does that stop the noise? Keep touching things and holding them to see if you can effect the noise.

If the pipe is right there in the wall, I'd test a few things. Would adding a clamp to the wall stud help? ($1) Can you add a piece of pipe foam insulation, or even just some packing foam to it help?

Then, I'd patch up the drywall hole with some drywall mud, with a small drywall knife, some screws, and a small can of matched paint (all under $20).

Now, in a completely normal situation, yes, the apartment would do this for you. But, in your case, The whole repair is under $30, and it's not something as important as heat, so if they won't do it, I would do it myself.
posted by bbqturtle at 9:50 AM on December 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: At one point, I experienced repeated water damage in my co-op apartment. It wasn't a radiator leak and there wasn't any other plumbing in the area that could be causing it. I had to go repeatedly to the property manager and was getting frustrated with the lack of response. They were paying for the repairs, but I wanted to stop having to repair my sheetrock annually. I finally hired a building inspector, who looked at the issue and found that there was issues with the gutter and roof and was causing water to leak down to my apartment when it rained/snowed.

All this is to say, that maybe you can find a building inspector who can determine what the issue is and validate your concerns to building management so they actually fix the problem.
posted by brookeb at 11:45 AM on December 23, 2020

Best answer: The other new thing happening at the exact time it started, was actual big-budget repair/replacement of the whole building's boilers. But because maintenance don't acknowledge the sound exists, they don't seem to find this important.

I think the prime suspect is a pump associated with the new boiler.

If the sound lasts long enough at a time or repeats often enough, get as near to the boiler as you can and feel the walls there. If that's what it turns out to be, you'll probably have to get other residents involved to have enough leverage to move building management / the co-op board.
posted by jamjam at 2:09 PM on December 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, I really dislike these type of rock-and-hard place situations. All the options have different drawbacks and comparing apples to oranges is never fun; comparing bad apples to bad oranges is less so.

Mitigating the noise is probably going to be tough, especially in the short-term. Masking it might work (fingers crossed) and might be your best bet overall.

Another option is approach it from a different direction. Find a professional trained to treat misphonia, and check into their credentials but even more importantly, their track record of successful treatment (that means also asking about their unsuccessfully treated cases). This would be someone such as a therapist or hypnotist.
posted by dancing leaves at 6:37 AM on December 24, 2020

Response by poster: Thank you so much to everyone--this has been very helpful, giving me lots of things to try and options to look at in both the short term and the long term. And not just that--it really helped me feel less hopeless and trapped (and literally, it helped me stop crying. I wrote the question in basically a flood of tears right after the head of maintenance left my apartment). I appreciate your sympathy and kindness and ideas very much!

I've currently adapted my use of my heater so it runs louder (turned up the fan switch) and kicks on more often, which helps. Also I'm exploring more layered/vibratey styles of videos to run in my headphones, and at the moment have a starship-ambient-sounds one going, which seems promising. They both help with adding lots of different frequency layers, but also in general being smoother and ongoing and/or having their own assortment of different rhythms.

In the longer term, I have some ideas for exploring likely areas that are at least closer to some of the actual machinery, and also when it's safe for people to come over again, to get some second and third opinions.

Neighborwise, I didn't have any luck with my initial post on the building website, a couple of days after the noise started, but that was a single general post that could easily have been missed. I'll start thinking in terms of approaching people more specifically and in greater numbers.

Thank you again!
posted by theatro at 9:52 AM on December 24, 2020

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