NYC Code Provides the Sound of Things to Come

May 1, 2008
New York City's noise ordinance may become the model for new city and state codes across the country.

Noise complaints are the number one quality of life issue for New York City residents. On July 1, 2007, major revisions to the city’s 30-year-old noise code took effect and the results are worth shouting about.

According to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the new regulations “try to balance the important reputation of New York as a vibrant, world-class ‘city that never sleeps’ with the needs of those who live in, work in or visit the city.” The code (Local Law 113 0f 2005), enacted in December 2005, took effect in July 2007 and is the first comprehensive overhaul to the city’s noise code.

According to Bloomberg, in fiscal year 2005, the city’s 3-1-1 hotline logged over 335,000 noise complaints. The city’s previous code was outdated and did not reflect the changing city landscape or advances in acoustic technology that have contributed to the rising noise levels. What’s more, Bloomberg, who was the driving force behind the upgraded code, has been extremely vocal about the growing noise dilemma, citing it as a significant factor in the increased stress level of everyday existence.

What’s in the New Law?

The new law states that “the making, creation or maintenance of excessive and unreasonable and prohibited noises within the city affects and is a menace to public health, comfort, convenience, safety, welfare and the prosperity of the people of the city.” Accordingly, it establishes important rules, guidelines and standards for governing noise in the city. What’s more, the new law addresses noise creation from a variety of sources: airports (with three airports in the metropolitan New York area, the noise from aircraft flying overhead is substantial), construction sites, restaurants, cars, motorcycles, garbage trucks and even animals.

The rules for construction activities particularly are stringent. Like most major American cities, New York rarely finds itself without some form of repair work, renovation or new building projects. This is exceptionally troublesome in the downtown area, where traffic and everyday life already are generating significant clatter.
For all construction activities, specific decibel levels have been established. When strict compliance with the noise mitigation rules is not possible, an alternative noise mitigation plan (ANMP) must be filed. The code even provides guidance to construction contractors with respect to findings and selecting suitable noise-control products.

Why Every Noise Counts

Noise is not just a physical problem. Research has found that high noise levels lead to anxiety and stress for those experiencing them. What’s more, the noise itself is not the only culprit: vibration, which can exert a negative impact on various structures, also plays a significant role.

It should be noted that not just the general public is being protected by the new code. Employees, too, will benefit from the tighter regulations. We’ve all walked into companies – particularly manufacturing companies – where the sound of machinery was, literally, deafening. Imagine working in that environment 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Most employees in such situations are required to use hearing protection, but it’s fair to say that sometimes this important measure is overlooked. And the people responsible for safety compliance at these businesses may make the prevention of falls and other work-related injuries a higher priority. But with the new code, noise, and its prevention, will move much higher up the priority list, while the consequences for violating these rules will be far greater.

Taking Measurements

The new code obviously creates a major market opportunity manufacturers of sound level meters. It’s one thing for a resident or business owner to point out a potential noise-code violator; it’s another thing to compile concrete evidence that noise-control rules are being violated.

For example, a homeowner lives next to a nightclub that is exceedingly loud. The homeowner calls the police, who show up at the club’s doorstep. In order to prosecute the perpetrator of these violations, the police will need to have precise noise measurements that are admissible in court.

Ideally, one of the police officers on the scene will set up a sound level meter and take an immediate reading. Depending on the result of that reading or other factors, the officer may take a number of readings on multiple occasions to determine the noise exposure over a period of time and gain a long-term view of the situation.

Ultimately, scenarios like this raise the question: Exactly who will have, or should have, sound level meters at their disposal? Certainly, any police officers who might be called to investigate a scene would make frequent use of these devices. Gas station operators where cars come in for inspections would be prime candidates.

OSHA inspectors and safety compliance officers at construction sites would be on the list. Even the floor supervisor at a manufacturing company would be included. The list might include the manager at the Port Authority and the general ports where the ships are arriving. In the final analysis, the list of people should have access to these tools almost is endless.

Where will such devices come from?

A number of companies provide sound meters for a wide variety of applications. Many offer meters for the commercial sector that are more sensitive and offer more functionality, along with less-expensive devices for residential applications. The need for Type 1 meters versus Type 2 meters will be determined by the specific application, as well as the environment in which the meter will be used (i.e., a harsh industrial environment would require a more rugged device).

Will Other Cities Follow?

The New York City code is a high-profile example of the how noise control, particularly in highly populated urban areas, is becoming a front-burner issue. Many other American cities are about to enact, or are considering, noise abatement legislation. While the legislation might not be as rigorous as the New York version, it still is aimed at putting a serious dent in the intrusive clatter that disrupts our daily existence.

Lee Gary Shapiro, who owns Greater Metro Sales in northern New Jersey, knows this firsthand. Shapiro, whose 20-year-old business represents a wide variety of handheld test equipment – including a number of devices for noise measurement in both the commercial and residential settings – has had his ear close the ground on this topic, especially in his own backyard.

“The people whom I’ve been talking to locally who follow this subject closely are saying that [the New York code] could end up being the grassroots operation for the entire country,” said Shapiro, whose firm has represented Extech devices for about 5 years. Extech Instruments is a major supplier of test and measurement equipment for the industrial and consumer marketplace. “This could be just the beginning.

“Certainly, I’ve seen other city codes that have been enacted, but New York’s is far more stringent and detailed than anything I’ve seen before,” he added. “It makes sense that this would originate in a place like New York, which has such a large population in such a small footprint.”

Shapiro’s exposure to this topic, particularly as it might eventually affect New Jersey, primarily has been through the Department of Motor Vehicles of New Jersey.

Shapiro said the New Jersey DMV called one of his distributors, who then called him, saying that New Jersey is trying to implement legislation that sound level meters will be in every police cruiser, in every inspection station and any number of locations throughout the state. The plan is to monitor cars, trucks, motorcycles and all other vehicles. Shapiro speculated the meters will be in tollbooths and other crossings to monitor the sound levels in these vehicles and flag them if they’re above the allowable decibel level. By equipping police cruisers with these sound level meters, law enforcement officials “will have an appropriate tool to determine noise levels in a wide spectrum of scenarios besides traffic,” Shapiro said.

“My understanding is that the proper authorities in New Jersey will review New York’s updated code to provide some guidelines for their own legislation,” he added. “We have actually submitted products to them for evaluation for use in their inspection stations and plan to follow the entire issue closely, just like every other state in this country. And the sound level manufacturers – and their representatives – that are ready for this new trend will be staring a huge market opportunity right in the face.”

John O’Brien is an applications engineer at Extech Instruments, which manufactures an array of digital and analog sound level meters for various applications. For more information on Extech Instruments, call 781-890-7440 or visit

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