Living With Mechanical Noise In A Condo

Mechanical noise and noise complaints

Mechanical noise is frequently a problem for condo owners and source of noise complaints. Recently I have received several requests from clients living in hi-rise condominium buildings complaining about “hum” or “vibration” mechanical noise in their apartments.  The clients contacted me, after first dealing with the building management. They asked me to do a noise test.  The management told them that the noise is not audible to them, or that the noise is “normal”. The clients ask me what level of mechanical noise is “normal”.

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Toronto Noise Bylaw

I believe that the only regulation that has a binding effect and specifies maximum noise levels is the Toronto Noise Bylaw, recently updated and relaxed in favor of noise producers.  This bylaw is used to resolve noise complaints, but it is quite confusing, and several sections contradict each other. 

For example, I quote from the bylaw:

 § 591-2.8. Stationary sources and residential air conditioners.

  • No person shall cause or permit the emission of sound from a stationary source or residential air conditioner that, when measured with a sound level meter at point of reception, has a sound level (expressed in terms of Leq for a one-hour period) exceeding 50 dB(A) or the applicable sound level limit prescribed in provincial noise pollution control guidelines.

“Point of reception” is defined in § 591-1.1. as:

POINT OF RECEPTION - Any location on the premises of a person where sound originating from other than those premises is received. The following locations are points of reception:

(1) An outdoor area that is:
      (a) near the façade of a building, at a height of 1.5 meters above ground, typically in backyards, front yards, terraces or patios; or 

      (b) on a balcony or elevated terrace (for example, a rooftop) provided it is not enclosed; or

(2) An indoor area that is inside a building with windows and doors closed.

By strict interpretation of this, 50 dBA noise level is permitted in the client’s apartment. This is quite loud and not acceptable to most people and leads to noise complaints. To me, it does not make sense to have the same permitted noise level indoor and outdoor.  This must be an error in the bylaw. I believe that the intention of this bylaw paragraph is to regulate exterior noise sources such as air conditioners and backup power generators.

The bylaw seems to omit, or inadequately address, the issues of stationary equipment inside buildings, such as a lift or an elevator equipment or other sources of mechanical noise. Roof top equipment is also not clearly mentioned, it is outside, but sometimes on top of an apartment.

"Unreasonable noise" and noise complaints

There is a section in the bylaw about “unreasonable noise”, without defining any specific noise level for it.  I quote:

§ 591-2.9. Unreasonable and persistent noise.

A. No person shall make, cause or permit noise, at any time, that is unreasonable noise and persistent noise.

B. Subsection A only applies to sound or noise that is NOT described in § 591-2.1 through § 591-2.8;

These paragraphs are:

§ 591-2.1. Amplified sound

§ 591-2.2. Animals (not permitted)

§ 591-2.3. Construction

§ 591-2.4. Loading and unloading

§ 591-2.5. Motor vehicles

§ 591-2.6. Power devices (lawn equipment)

§ 591-2.7. Religious ceremony in a place of worship

§ 591-2.8. Stationary sources and residential air conditioners

In other words, any noise sources listed in the above paragraphs are “reasonable”, within limits described in the individual paragraphs.

However, in many cases it is confusing and unclear if the text under § 591-2.9.  B. exempt’s a client’s mechanical noise situation from the restriction of “unreasonable noise”. 

Amplified sound in the Toronto Noise Bylaw

In another bylaw paragraph: § 591-2.1. Amplified sound, section B (1) states, I quote:

……. then no person shall emit or cause or permit the emission of continuous amplified sound, measured with a sound level meter at a point of reception in an indoor living area:

That has a sound level (expressed in terms of Leq for a ten-minute period), exceeding 45 dB(A) or 60 dB(C) from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. or 50 dB(A) or 65 dB(C) from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.;

By this rule “amplified sound” can have a maximin 45 dBA level at nighttime, at “point of reception”. Is the noise of some mechanical equipment an “amplified sound”? It is a matter of interpretation.  By strict meaning, amplified sound comes from sound reinforcing equipment, such as a speaker. In any case, noise at 45 dBA is very audible and will interfere with sleep of most people.

Another point of interpretation and potential dispute is the noise test duration.  The bylaw defines the noise level test for stationary sources as Leq over 1 hour.  In one of my client’s situation, the noise test level was about 49 dBA over the duration of the noise instance, about 1 minute.  If tested over 1 hour, the reading would be much lower. However, “amplified sound” is tested in terms of Leq for a 10-minute period. The bylaw does not address noise test for short duration sounds, however loud.

Industry recommendations about mechanical noise

An industry organization, ASHRAE provides recommendations for maximum noise levels 
created by mechanical equipment in residential areas.  These recommendations have no force in law, but acoustical consultants often use it in their assessments and recommendations about mechanical noise.

Another problem with this ASHRAE recommendation is that the noise test procedure is not clearly defined.

The organization ASHRAE is usually considered by acoustical consultants the most authoritative. The ASHRAE recommended HVAC maximum noise level for condominium living areas is 35 dBA. Acoustical consultants sometimes extend the applicability of this guideline to other types of noises, such as mechanical noise or elevator noise intruding into an apartment. However, some people consider even this relatively low level of noise annoying. 

How much mechanical noise is acceptable?

So, what level of mechanical noise is “acceptable” in a condominium?   

Toronto Noise Bylaw appears to consider noise acceptable up to the limit of 50 dBA.  This is significantly above the ASHRAE recommendations.  In my experience, almost no one will be satisfied with the maximum mechanical noise levels permitted under the new Toronto Noise Bylaw. For complete understanding of all provisions of this bylaw, please read the full text of the bylaw.

There is also the “recommended” maximum by ASHRAE, 35 dBA, for apartment living areas. This limit is unenforceable under the Toronto noise bylaw. To determine if a noise a person can hear is reasonable, he needs to retain an acoustical engineer to quantify and describe the noise.  With this information he then can hire a lawyer to enforce his legal rights to have the problem resolved.

The condominium corporation is legally required to take noise complaints seriously and make all reasonable effort to have the complaints addressed in a timely manner. An acoustical expert's advice is an important part of this effort.

In another article, I describe a noise problem addressed under the old, more restrictive noise bylaw.  The noise described in the article would be acceptable under the new Toronto Noise Bylaw.

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About the Author Ivan Koval

The author is the publisher of the Soundproofing.Expert website. He is a soundproofing and building acoustics consultant working in Toronto and GTA, Ontario, Canada. Telephone (416) 471-2130

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