Another noise reduction conundrum
August 1, 2021 5:48 PM   Subscribe

So as long term AskMeFi readers know, I have a curse wherein noise disrupts my sleep no matter where I move. Most recently, I moved to an apartment four months ago that I explicitly picked because it was quiet at night and the bedroom was at the side of the house instead of the front or back (no street/alley noise that way). For four months, I slept well. Then new neighbors moved in, and it went downhill.

Specifically, they bought a new AC system that has a loud "hum" to it that I can't sleep through. It's not as loud as the previous noise, but I can hear it through earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones, and the combination of the two. It's actually _more_ annoying with noise mitigation because the noise mitigation blocks the white noise elements that mask the "hum" normally. I hate it so much! I have had to sleep on the couch in the living room for the last week because I just cannot sleep in my bedroom. Turning the living room into a bedroom and making my bedroom a living room is not viable due to the layout of the space, unfortunately.

The neighbors have been communicative. I left a note on their door describing the situation, and we talked a bit and they gave me the details from above; the AC was found by a contractor to be functioning as normal. They are not sure what can be done on their end, which is fair.

I am not asking for help with noise mitigation strategies. Am this point, I very well versed in noise reduction techniques, and I know my only real option is to fully cover up my window or add an extra layer with an insert (which I've priced out, and which is overwhelmingly expensive relative to what I can afford, and I don't plan to stay in this apartment after the lease is up next year.)

What I continue to not understand is the social/living with neighbors element of this. I don't want my neighbors to live in discomfort! But I also CANNOT live under circumstances where I cannot sleep regularly in my own room in quiet. The last time I had a neighbor's device making a loud persistent noise I couldn't sleep through, I was able to address it by calling the city services number, but that was necessary because that neighbor was a condo building. I am very comfortable talking to neighbors, but I just can't figure out what a mutually acceptable solution could look like here other than asking them to pay me to install a window insert that would only really get two more months of use before temperatures drop.

Any help or creative solutions would be appreciated.
posted by LSK to Human Relations (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are there any bushes or trees that surround the ac unit (assuming it is central air)? Might some sort of planting mitigate the noise and coupled with the ear plugs and nc headphones, might silence the noise for you.

As for a mutually acceptable solution, you are correct in not really seeing one because, it is not your neighbors problem. It is yours. An AC unit making humming noises is a socially acceptable level of noise in a neighborhood. I am pretty sure that after your neighbors looked into whether the unit was functioning properly, they have not thought one iota about it. If you asked me, under similar circumstances to pay for any mitigation other than the above mentioned plantings which might enhance their property, I would say sorry, but that won't be possible.
posted by AugustWest at 5:58 PM on August 1, 2021 [20 favorites]

To be blunt, it's not your neighbor's responsibility to manage your unusual condition that makes you unable to handle routine, everyday noises like the hum of an air conditioning unit. A very kind neighbor with extra disposable income might agree to pay, but I personally would not ask; I would feel wrong doing it, and it could come across as entitled and sour a relationship that you probably don't want to sour.

Turning the living room into a bedroom and making my bedroom a living room is not viable due to the layout of the space, unfortunately.

This is the only solution I think you have, if you've ruled out paying for noise mitigation in your apartment. I would seriously consider whether it's truly not viable, or you are just ruling it out because it would make your living arrangements annoying or awkward until you move. That's less important than a good night's sleep, IMO.

Another option could be to invest in noise mitigation that can be moved with you. To be blunt again, living around people will always mean the risk of routine, everyday noises. You can choose an apartment because it's quiet when you're first renting it but there is no guarantee (or expectation) that it will be dead silent the entire time that you're living there. It might be worth investing in noise mitigation materials that could be installed and uninstalled (e.g. soundproofing panels).

Obvs, saying this does not make money appear but in your situation I would be saving toward it, probably. Or trying to drastically change my life so that I could work from home on a large, rural plot in the middle of of the isolated tundra. (I understand the torture of not being able to sleep!)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:07 PM on August 1, 2021 [14 favorites]

Best answer: If this is a constant in your life, the solution needs to come from you.

As someone with sensory processing difficulties, I have to make choices that sometimes seem a little funky to other people. Like, I don’t wear certain fabrics or cuts of clothes, and because I crave massive taste and texture variety something like repetitive meal planning is not possible for me, even if it’s logical.

Controlling my anxiety is key for my ability to live around and with other people, even if the other people are acting completely normally, because my sensory processing needs increase my stress levels so much. For example, I used to live with a dear friend, wonderful guy, super sweet, but he chewed a little noisily. Over a few months I went from noticing it sometimes to not being able to be in the same room as him chewing. Obviously this affected our friendship and when he moved out I was shockingly relieved. I miss him a lot! I wish I had understood what was happening at the time. It was me, and my anxiety from a lot of other things, coming out by skewing my perception of this unrelated thing.

These days I am on meds for anxiety and working on ongoing therapeutic relationships and much much more self aware about these things and how it affects how I interact with people and the world. The touches of OCD-like behaviors I exhibit, and my neurodiversity are all things I’m continuing to work on understanding and figuring out ways to live with happily.

All of this personal background is so I can very gently suggest that you might be bumping up against something similar. Difficulty sleeping is a hallmark of mental stress. It doesn’t always look like classic insomnia or the exhaustion of depression. Sometimes it’s an inability to filter out sounds or textures when trying to get to sleep, or a skewed sleep wake phase cycle, or an inclination to nap at odd hours. If melatonin is available to you OTC, give it a try. If there are aspects of your life that maybe you are avoiding, or dreading, getting the help you need for handling them, be it a psychiatrist or a tax accountant or an occupational therapist or a compassionate dentist, might let you sleep without entering a cone of silence.
posted by Mizu at 6:24 PM on August 1, 2021 [51 favorites]

As others have noted - this is a you problem, not a neighbour problem. Living and sleeping with reasonable levels of noise is a part of living in society with other people. The up side to this is that you are also in full control of solving the problem. I think you need to look deeper - what is it that is causing you to not be able to sleep? The not being able to sleep with any noise at all is a symptom of a problem - not the problem itself.

I also want to challenge the fact you claim swapping living and sleeping spaces isn't an option. Of course it is. You've been doing it for a week. People sleep on couches for weeks and months at a time. It might not be the most traditional of options, but there's nothing stopping you from even sleeping in the bathroom if it means getting better shut-eye. Throw an inflatable mattress on the living room floor and sleep on that if it helps, put it away in the morning if you dont like bedroom furnishings in the living area.
posted by cgg at 6:41 PM on August 1, 2021 [6 favorites]

Agreed with Mizu that the answer here has to come from you, and it's probably going to take something other than acoustic mitigation. I can also feel the anxiety coming out of your question, and you're probably well past the tipping point now where the anxiety produced by the noise or the possibility of the noise, more than the actual noise, is preventing you from sleeping.

But this is starting to seriously affect your life, and surely costing you quite a bit in moving costs. It may be worth starting with a consult with an occupational therapist, who may also send you to an audiologist, and probably also to get a physical with bloodwork, to rule out basic medical issues causing your sensitivity. There are a number of ways to tackle this and you will probably need a multi-pronged approach, but even that is better than just constantly moving or having to go live off-grid in a bunker.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:44 PM on August 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

I had a similar problem when we had a heat pump installed right outside my bedroom window, and it made a variety of hums, groans, whines and whooshes that made it hard to tune out. But I used MyNoise to mix up a similar, constant chorus of sounds, muted with some white noise, and that's worked really well; the constant sound means there's no sudden change from whoosh to groan, or from silence to whine, which was what was startling me awake.
posted by The otter lady at 7:00 PM on August 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

Sorry you're dealing with this. It's good that you can sleep in your living room, though-- in the worst case scenario, can you do that until the weather gets colder? I've also recommended petsitting on here a few times as a temporary solution (not sure where you are, but if you happen to be working remotely because of COVID, maybe you could housesit somewhere more suburban temporarily, so you don't have shared walls). I don't think your neighbors have any responsibility to pay for anything, since it's a reasonable noise to expect.
posted by pinochiette at 7:01 PM on August 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

which I've priced out, and which is overwhelmingly expensive

DIY is cheap.

I suggest playing something in your noise-cancelling headphones. There's a variety of "10 hours ..." On YouTube.
posted by flimflam at 7:33 PM on August 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

At this point I think you may need to accept that you are unusually sensitive to noise and work from there. Your neighbors aren’t doing anything unusual, so it’s not reasonable to expect them to spend any more time or money on resolving this.

I don’t say “unusual” as a judgment—I experience similar as a function of anxiety and sensory processing issues. Working on addressing those is hugely beneficial because I’m never going to live in a world where people chew silently or neighbors don’t watch television.
posted by kapers at 7:57 PM on August 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am noise sensitive and trying to completely reduce all noise never worked for me. The solution was to create my own noise that was tolerable and familiar enough that my brain tuned it out. I run my air conditioner and a fan every night (the AC gets set to the fan setting in the winter) and now I can’t sleep without them on because every little other noise will keep me up. I turn the fan away from me when I get too cold, rather than turn it off. Fans work a lot better than white noise apps or machines in my experience. It helps to have them on during the day when first getting used to it. I would really suggest getting multiple fans with a hum that’s pleasant to you and using them to drown out the other noise. That plus wax earplugs are the only thing that’s ever worked for me.
posted by brook horse at 8:28 PM on August 1, 2021 [6 favorites]

H ave you tried trying to find some kind of ambient noise which isn’t just white noise?

For example, I usually put on a little white noise at home, but at my in laws house they have a ticking clock in the bedroom. White noise does nothing to block that. So what I tried was that this app allows you to mix sounds. I made one that was a mix of Airplane, Cars, City, Crowd, and Train. It’s not perfect, if you focus on it you can hear where the sounds loop. But it absolutely blocks the sound of a ticking clock.

I don’t have the same kind of issue you have and I don’t want to minimize them, but I would really try having as dedicated a bedtime routine as you can and really trying to buy into it fully. Not just having this kind of white noise but saying that this particular noise means it’s time for sleep. This hand lotion is the lotion I use for bed. Etc. Maybe it’s possible to train yourself to be able to fall asleep even if it’s not as silent as you’re used to or have needed before. Good luck.
posted by cali59 at 8:56 PM on August 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I know this has been an ongoing problem for you: you have my deepest sympathy. I have a kind of off the wall suggestion: Have you gotten your hearing checked in the last couple of years? Unusual sensitive to certain noises can indicate hearing loss.
posted by emilynoa at 9:09 PM on August 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

Do you mindful stuff to set up sleep like body scan meditations? Or visualising how, at the end of the day, you will wind down your activities and preparation for bed will help your body be ready for sleep?

Then in bed, practising the mental game of acknowledging but not responding to this stimulus?

I saw a graphic for something extra on top of "things I can change and must bravely face" and "things I can't change and must patiently bear": "gravity that drags everything down." Living around people will always be gravity.
posted by k3ninho at 11:36 PM on August 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is not a solution to your immediate problem, but perhaps a longer term solution.

As you think about where you wish to live next, consider how long you would like to be there and check if the landlord would be open to splitting the cost of soundproofing the bedroom for you. It is not as expensive as you might think and a professional soundproofing job does wonders.

I've done it in the past and went from hearing every phone conversation that my neighbor had to no appreciable noise. It was worth every penny.
posted by brookeb at 11:39 PM on August 1, 2021

The idea of planting trees or shrubs in the ground might not work in an apartment building, and you probably don't want to spend that kind of money on a solution that is only needed until the end of summer. But depending on how things are laid out, if the bedroom windows are in an accesible first floor area, you might be able to put some trees or shrubs in pots around your own apartment. A store like Lowes or Home Depot, or a local garden store will usually have a selection of these already in pots. After the summer season has passed, you can sell the potted plants.
posted by yohko at 1:14 AM on August 2, 2021

I have a white noise tinnitus, which I can mostly ignore, but sometimes can't. Since the noise is somewhere inside my head, it is not possible to switch it off. On nights when I can't sleep, listening to a comedy podcast is helpful because I don't need to concentrate on it, it's relaxing without trying too hard, and it distracts my brain from the sound of the tinnitus. I offer that as a suggestion, but honestly if you can actually get a good night's sleep in the living room then sleep in there. Particularly as you think this is only going to be for the next couple of months. Unless the air conditioning unit is objectively very noisy (like as noisy as a plane) then there is no reasonable way of approaching your neighbours to do anything, because they have not done anything unneighbourly.
posted by plonkee at 7:02 AM on August 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

You say you're not looking for noise mitigation, and others covered that you really can't ask your neighbors to change much more. So maybe I'm not clear on what you're asking.

I am a very very light sleeper, easily awakened, and hard to get to sleep if there's any sort of noise or change in noise.

A few years ago I was at a party on a farm where I was trying to sleep in a tent while dozens of very very drunk and loud friends were trying to set up tents near me for HOURS. After trying earplugs plus wrapping my head in every piece of clothing I had, which didn't help at all, I remembered Coffitivity. With the LunchTime Lounge loop playing through earphones I was easily able to get to sleep and stay asleep, as the indistinct chatter and clatter was louder than the people just feet from my head.

Good luck.
posted by MonsieurBon at 7:27 AM on August 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

This seems like some flavor of misophonia. There are some treatments that help some people reduce their sensitivity. I've seen some really good work done via hypnosis (from an experienced practitioner with a proven track record), but much depends on the individual experiencing this issue as well as the treatment provider. Good luck; it can be a bit of a quest to find relief.
posted by dancing leaves at 9:09 AM on August 2, 2021

Is the AC a window unit or a floor-standing unit? If floor-standing, it's possible that standing it on a book or a couple layers of rubber mats or some similar sound-dampening thing might help stop the floor from acting as a resonator.
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:08 PM on August 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Yeah, if it's a floor one, they make specific things that you put under the wheels/the unit that will damp it. It would work for a subwoofer as well. What you're hearing is the vibrations, I have a lot of sensory stuff that's probably similar and am familiar with the paradox of when the earplugs block all but the noise (making it easier to hear).

You can also get custom made earplugs that may work better.

Anyway, the sound dampening pads are super cheap. These are what I bought 'cause my unit in our attic has 4 wheels.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 5:01 PM on August 2, 2021

Our neighbours' AC unit was super loud and we mostly solved it in two ways: one, there are AC compressor blankets that can be installed on old loud AC units (which our neighbours' was) and this will lower the noise by like 10 decibels. We bought one for our neighbour and it cost $190 CAD including installation and was totally worth it. The other was that our attic insulation was old and crappy, which meant that the sound was entering through our attic and bouncing down into the house so we could hear it almost everywhere, so we had it replaced. Good luck. It sucks to have your space invaded by a sound you can't control, especially when it messes with your sleep. My sympathies.
posted by urbanlenny at 5:03 PM on August 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Yeah, it sounds like you need professional help managing the noise sensitivity. That's ok! We all need a little help sometimes. I would start with your primary care doc if you have one and go from there. He may send you to a psychiatrist. If you can get occupational therapy it may help.

Some other suggestions--if you are sensory avoidant, which it sounds like you may be, I would wonder if a nice weighted blanket would help regulate your sensory system at night. It's not going to get rid of the noise obviously but it may calm you down to a level where you can manage it better. I would also consider ways you can make your overall environment more soothing in general--do softer lights help? Gentle background music? If you have a sensory system that's prone to feeling assaulted and overwhelmed, anything you can do to reduce noxious sensory input throughout the day is going to make these challenging moments easier. Are you getting enough exercise? This doesn't mean heavy cardio if that's not your thing. Find an exercise you enjoy and do it. I love to go for leisurely walks. I am still getting good exercise when I take them. It is impossible to ignore the link between exercise and improved mental health, anxiety in particular.

I would also strongly suggest counseling if you're not already doing that, and if the coping strategies simply cannot work because your anxiety is so errant, I would really consider medication. This isn't something you can control and it's okay to recognize that and get outside help.

What you do need to remember is that trying to address this by quieting the noise in some capacity isn't addressing the underlying issue and is only going to lead to more problems down the line for you (clearly, since you say this is an ongoing issue). It's like placing a bandaid on a wound that will never heal--it may help some, but if you want a real solution you need to dig deeper and find strategies you can use long-term.

Good luck!
posted by Amy93 at 8:57 AM on August 3, 2021

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