A novel noise problem
January 28, 2021 12:50 AM   Subscribe

I know I've posted a lot about noises and sleep here... but bear with me, this is a new situation. I recently moved into a new place, a studio apartment, on a sublease. I saw this place via photos and video and asked lots of questions before deciding this was the place I wanted to move to. But once I moved in I noticed - there's a constant electrical noise coming from a box on the side of the adjacent building. I have been here almost a full week and it has not stopped for a second.

I covered the window with cardboard and I still hear it. I'm only subletting this place for two months, so I'm hesitant to make any permanent changes. This noise is so constant and penetrating that even with that, sitting in the closet, with the closet doors closed, with earplugs and headphones, hasn't been enough to totally deaden it. It's quieter, but I still hear it at a low level.

Point is, it's at the level where interventions on my end are insufficient.

I'm not sure who to contact about this. The opposite building is a condo, so there isn't a single building owner to talk to, and I haven't been able to find the condo association's information online. I've looked at my city's housing site, but they don't really have anything that seems close to this situation. I sent off an e-mail anyways, but it's the middle of the night and anyways I don't have high hopes for that being answered in an expeditious manner.

My questions:

Who do I talk to about this? If this noise can't be stopped (e.g. because it's that building's power supply), what are my options as a tenant? In particular, because I'm a subletter, I don't want to disrupt the person I'm subletting from, and I don't quite have the money to justify absorbing a month or two of rent and moving out right after moving in.
posted by LSK to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of noise? Hum, buzz, hiss? Arc noise?

Photo of the box?
posted by flabdablet at 2:40 AM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Wow, you just have the darnedest luck, don't you?

I don't actually have any advice regarding the noise itself, but I know I myself tend to be occasionally bothered by noises that few other people seem to hear/feel. Has it occurred to you to check into whether or not you might be super-sensitive to particular frequencies, or something like that? A quick google search tells me that it is possible for things like that to happen...

I'm not trying to hijack from the immediate issue, but it seems like, barring a move to the boondocks, you might just continue to run into this sort of trouble, so it could be worth finding out if there are additional tools to combat it.
posted by stormyteal at 3:55 AM on January 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

I too wonder if you should consult with an ENT or audiologist. Not to take away from the issue at hand - but rather that they may have experience to help! (And I get it, I get tinnitus and other hyper sensitivity so I can hear buzzing that others can't or sometimes I hear things that aren't there or the things that are there are amplified. I sleep with earbuds playing podcasts, a fan, and my spouse finally got a cpap.)

Otherwise, cheap sound reduction can be done by hanging some decorative quilts or bedding on the walls. Do other sounds like music help drown it out? Depending on what the box IS, you could possibly consult someone about noise - like the city or a property manager.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:37 AM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Have you looked at your local noise ordinance? Where I am, there's a section that talks about the allowed noise level for this kind of stationary equipment. Maybe you can get a rough sense of the decibels with an app on your phone, and then call the police to come out and measure it if you think it's in violation. But it seems like potentially it might not be loud enough to be in violation, and even if it is, it also seems like it might not be possible to remedy (unless there's something actually wrong with the equipment). Since you're subletting, did you talk to the original tenant about this? Perhaps there's something in your lease that talks about noise, but if this is the sort of generic city noise that most people can tune out, you might not have any legal options for breaking the lease. The tenant might be willing to let you find a new subletter if you're completely miserable, though, just out of compassion.

Seconding the idea of trying a fan to add white noise. Also, try whatever you can to refocus your thoughts from the sound whenever you start to think about it.
posted by pinochiette at 4:42 AM on January 28, 2021

Please disregard if you don't find this helpful but...

I have tinnitus. There will never, ever be silence for me. Ever. Behind everything, there's a constant high-pitched hiss or whine.

There are essentially two remedies: first, make some noise that I _want_ to hear, and focus on that instead. Second, accept it as part of my world & live with it.

Both of them work, to some degree. Occasionally when I've been doing the second for a while, the noise comes to my attention anyway - and I can be like: oh, there's that noise again. And then I start thinking about (or listening to) something else. If I focused on it, I could drive myself wild. So I don't.
posted by rd45 at 5:54 AM on January 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

I once moved into an apartment where a loud, 24/7 humming noise started immediately after I moved in. Friends would come over, hear it for an hour or two and tell me it wasn’t that bad, but it seriously degraded my quality of life. I couldn’t sleep, spent inordinate amounts of time trying to hide in the bathroom to deaden the sound, and had a bunch of weird medical issues that cleared up a week or two after moving out. If it’s a big issue for you, trust yourself that it’s a big issue.

The only thing that worked for me (besides moving out and specifically looking for a quiet apartment, which I highly recommend) was noise canceling headphones. If the sound is constant and in the right frequency range, they can be super effective. MeMail me if you’re in the US and want a pair; I picked up some newer ones because of pandemic work video conferencing and can send you my old ones.
posted by A Blue Moon at 6:17 AM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A video of the object/sound

I may have some heightened sensitivity but that is not the main factor here - this is very loud and persistent and, by my judgment, would keep a lot of people up. Before this I lived for 4 months in a place where I had some of the best sleep of my life, so I know I'm not perpetually cursed, just unlucky.

I actually own a high-end pair of noise-cancelling headphones already, but my experience has been that the volume of sound needed for noise-cancelling hurts my ears if I sleep a full night with them in.

Calling the local nonemergency number today to see if there's something they can do...
posted by LSK at 6:25 AM on January 28, 2021

Best answer: Is the box an electrical panel? If so, it would be worth calling the electric company. Call first thing in the morning when the customer service people on the phone are most likely to be helpful and in a good mood. If you luck out and get someone helpful on the phone, they might be able to help you figure out what’s going on and who to contact, or even send someone out to take a look. This could be an issue with their equipment, so they might even be grateful to hear from you.
posted by mekily at 6:37 AM on January 28, 2021

Could you post another video with a reference sound (e.g. your normal speaking voice)? Because when I watch the video you posted, I barely hear anything even at full volume. I don't want to dismiss your concerns out of hand, because maybe it was recorded really low and everything would be hard to hear. But just from that video, this sounds less like a noise nuisance and more like a subjective sensitivity.

I realize that's not particularly helpful advice, though. Diagnosing and treating a sensitivity with an audiologist is something that takes time, and you've only got two months. Even if you do go that route, it won't solve your immediate problem, so...

Attack it from both ends. What others have suggested about calling the electric company is helpful. I'd also suggest that you keep looking for the HOA or condo board for the building. There may not be a single owner, but there is someone somewhere responsible for things like this. You might be able to get more information from other calls you make.

Then in your place, work on soundproofing. Do you have a rug you could hang over the window? Freight blankets? Hang the heaviest soft things you have over the window, multiple if needed.

Finally, I don't know if this will help, but it's worth trying: meditation.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:52 AM on January 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Are you looking at the beige boxes? That looks like it's part of the Cable TV amplification/distribution system for that building. There's probably a transformer in there that's powering the thing and if it's humming, it just might be old (the iron core inside eventually loosens up and vibrates). If the electric company can't help, I'd try the cable provider next.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:55 AM on January 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is exactly the type of sound noise-cancelling headphones handle best (unless you're close enough that you can feel the sonic vibration with your body).
posted by Rash at 8:06 AM on January 28, 2021

I also cannot detect the sound you're describing in your video, even with the volume all the way up. (And I am the kind of person who is constantly aware of the hum of major household appliances and bothered by sounds that other people can tune out.)

I'm not at all disbelieving how loud the sound is. I'm saying that you might want to try to get a better video/recording of the sound so that you don't get a puzzled look if you present this as evidence of the problem.
posted by desuetude at 8:53 AM on January 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

I wonder if your phone has helpfully filtered out the background noise for you. I just tried taking a video of the box for my burglar alarm, which makes a very noticeable hum, and even with the volume turned all the way up, I have to hold the phone right to my ear to hear anything.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 9:02 AM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

One could download one of those free spectrum analyzer apps for your smartphone and see if there's a peak at 60Hz.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:07 AM on January 28, 2021

I had a hard time hearing the video without putting my ear right up to my laptop's speaker, but is it the sort of sound you can cover up with white or pink noise? Because even if you do manage to find someone who can fix it, it seems unlikely that it would happen in less than two months.
I'm just speaking to the nature of repair people and landlords and parts suppliers and pandemic times.
I'm sorry you're dealing with this. I am a person who is very sensitive to sounds I have no control over and being kept up the entire night by those sounds. It's infuriating. I hope someone can help because it truly does not sound like a noise that box should be making in the first place.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:17 PM on January 28, 2021

Do you have a rug you could hang over the window?

If the sound is a bass hum that's too low-pitched for a phone microphone to respond to, hanging rugs are unlikely to do much. Bass is the hardest kind of sound to keep out because really all it cares about is the sheer amount of uncoupled mass between source and listener. On the upside, it isn't as good at sneaking through small gaps as roars and hisses and crackles are.

I'm pretty convinced that your best course here will be to track down the owner of the beige box in question and/or the wall it's mounted on, and do your best to convince them that any such box making enough noise to be audible from next door is plausibly enough of a potential fire risk to make their insurer anxious. There's every chance you'll strike somebody whose level of technical ignorance is enough to make this work.
posted by flabdablet at 12:37 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As an update for future reference:

I ended up calling my alderman's office. It turns out I am not the only person who has expressed this exact issue, and while they didn't specify what steps they were taking, it seemed likely that they were going to try and solve the problem.

I also e-mailed my landlord, who hasn't gotten back to me yet.
posted by LSK at 1:15 PM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As a final update for people with this problem in the future:

I called the local nonemergency number. They took a few days, but they came out and recorded the sound, found it was above the local noise ordinance limits, and talked to staff at the building, and now the sound has stopped!
posted by LSK at 7:40 AM on February 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Well done you! Glad you got a result.
posted by flabdablet at 8:04 AM on February 3, 2021

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