Neighbors Mystified by Persistent Noise

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Alice Faintich of Old Trail has tracked a persistent humming noise to the south. Photo: Marshall Faintich.

A loud humming noise that lasts for hours with no distinguishable pattern has been disturbing the sleep of people in Crozet. It doesn’t happen only at night, but that’s when it’s most troublesome, residents report.

Alice Faintich first heard it in early September from her home at the southern end of Old Trail. “It sounded to me like an air conditioner that needed to be replaced,” she said. She and her husband, Marshall, pursued the sound and found the closer they got to Rte. 250, the louder it was. “So, we ruled out the air conditioner,” she said. She tried to distinguish a pattern, but there didn’t seem to be one. “We’re in and out a lot, so we probably missed it many times.” Kathy Riddle heard the noise from her home in Creekside and also thought it sounded like an air conditioner on the verge of giving out.

Chloe Watkins thought at first it was a running toilet in her bathroom. “It kept me up, but I thought it could be easily fixed,” she said. After ruling out the plumbing, she realized it was coming from outside, skipping some days and then reoccurring for hours over several consecutive days. “There was one time when I was up all night,” she said. “We moved to our guest bedroom on the other side of the house, and it seemed better there.” To her, the sound also seemed to come from the south, from Route 250. “We have a corner lot, so we’re not as insulated by other houses as our neighbors,” she said. She lives in the Lower Ballard section of Old Trail, northeast of Route 250.

Marti Cooke, also of Old Trail, heard it and said it was loud enough to keep her up at night. Like Watkins, she moved to a north-facing bedroom to get some sleep. But it wasn’t until Faintich posted her concern on Nextdoor, the online neighborhood bulletin board, that each realized that many others were hearing the same persistent noise, as far northwest as Grayrock Orchard; as far west as Yancey Mills and Burch’s Creek Road; as far south as Miller School Road; and as far East as Cory Farm, Westlake and The Highlands.

Lori Guidone of Yancey Mills told the Gazette that she’d heard the noise since shortly after she moved there from downtown Charlottesville, beginning in July. “It is quite disturbing,” she wrote in an email, “and wakes us up frequently in the early morning.” Rashmi Ghei of Westlake said the sound was so loud one night that it woke him up at 4 a.m.

Theories flew back and forth on Nextdoor. Some were humorous, like those that suggested Martians, Japanese microwaves, cicadas, errant hummingbirds or the Crozet Chorus were to blame. Others were more serious: electric lines, construction at Henley, sump pumps, road work on Interstate 64, drywall fans, the kilns at R.A. Yancey Lumber Corporation, the removal of large swaths of big trees that may have formerly served as a sound barrier from multiple development sites.

Chris Winn, vice president of development for Southern Development said he didn’t think construction in the area could be to blame: “A fan inside a building wouldn’t be heard outside,” he said. “And we’re not operating pumps.” He pointed out there are few basements in new Old Trail construction because of the underlying rock. 

Tod Allen said he’s heard it for three years, ever since he moved to Old Trail, “But it seems to have been more prevalent during the past six months,” he said, mostly on the south side of his house in the direction of Route 250 and Interstate 64. Allen said he thinks it’s there during the day, but masked by ambient noise. “I’ve always heard it,” said Allen Billyk, a property manager for Old Trail, “and I live over on Lanetown Road.”

Several people suggested that the hum is one of the unexplained worldwide noises, variously explained as the “earth breathing,” or the accumulation of many layers of electronic noise, or a frequency level that affects some people much more severely than others. Glen McPherson has devoted his life to a study of “the worldwide hum” and maintains a website called “The Hum” (thehum.info). From his home in British Columbia, McPherson explained that low-frequency noises that are likely to be labeled as “hums” are especially difficult to track down because they resemble each other in so many ways. “But if more than one or two people hear the sound simultaneously, it’s pretty sure to have a tangible, man-made source,” he said.

Most logical suggestions seemed to lead to dead ends:

“No roadwork right now is happening at night or during the day on Interstate 64,” said Lou Hatter, the media relations contact for the Charlottesville district of the Virginia Department of Transportation. 

Rob Richardson, a spokesman for Dominion Power, denied any change in high voltage lines in the area.

“I called the lumber mill (R.A. Yancey Lumber Corporation) and they responded they were not doing anything different from before,” Faintich said. The Gazette attempted to confirm this, but did not receive a call back by deadline. 

No one has called the Albemarle County Police to make a complaint, said Doug Henley, a dispatcher. He added that the police are charged with enforcing the county’s noise ordinance (usually barking dogs) but don’t have the equipment to track down a noise from an unspecified source. 

Emily Kilroy, the director of communications and community engagement for Albemarle County, confirmed there is no night work at Henley Middle School, and that the chillers are turned off at 5:30 unless there is a special event.

Kilroy did have a concrete suggestion and a step any citizen can take. She noted that the county’s zoning division could measure the decibels and possibly identify the source of a noise, but said shortly before the Gazette’s deadline that there were as yet no pending complaints about a hum in the Crozet area. Since then, several Crozet residents have said they’ve filed online complaints about the noise.

Kilroy said that noises potentially in violation of the code could be reported both online at the county’s website (www.albemarle.org/codeenforcementcomplaints/) or by calling 434-296-5834.

Relief can’t come too soon for Alice Faintich, the Old Trail resident who first posted her concern on Nextdoor. In an email sent September 28, she said the day had brought only intermittent short breaks from the sound that started at 4:30 a.m. and was still persisting that night at 10:34 p.m. 

UPDATE 10/9/18: 

On October 9, Ann Mallek, who represents the White Hall District—which includes the neighborhoods where the noise is being reported—confirmed that she was waiting for a response from Dominion Power on the possibility that the noise was related to a current Dominion project involving replacement wires for transmission lines.

Mallek also reported that Yancey Lumber Corporation had responded to concerns from the county, and confirmed previous reports that no new machinery has been added, and that the drying kilns running at night have been in place for decades and do not generate the level of noise described.

In response to citizen concerns, Mallek said, Yancey has hired an acoustics firm, Acentech, to help determine the source of the disturbance, and consultants will be interviewing people in various parts of the area who have reported persistent noise.

UPDATE 10/12/18:

Responses from Dominion Energy contradict one theory about the source of Crozet’s perplexing noise. Crews working on the Dooms-Cunningham project generate noise during the day, but work generally ends at 5 p.m., said Daisy Pridgen, senior communications specialist for Dominion Energy. Workers replacing the transmission lines, built in the 1960s, are currently digging foundations, constructing towers, removing old wires and adding the new wires for the project, which follows the same right-of-way as the older structures, Pridgen said. “It wouldn’t be safe for our crews to be doing any of this work in the dark.” She said occasionally work may continue an hour or so after 5, but does not continue into the night. Currently, the 500 kV lines along the route are not active as work is being done.

Residents describe the as-yet-unidentified noise as waking them up, or continuing all through the night. In response to their complaints, White Hall Supervisor Ann Mallek contacted Dominion Energy on Oct. 6, asking if one of the steps in wire replacement, called “wire pulling”, could be the source of the persistent noise. Part of this process involves a motorized buggy riding the wires.

In an October 9 email in response to Mallek’s inquiry, Felix Sarfo-Kantanka, Jr. described the current project and linked to a video of an Australian wire-pulling project for help in identifying the sound. Sarfo-Kantanka is Dominion’s external affairs manager for Central Virginia, and Mallek said his email was widely distributed to interested residents. Pridgen said the sound of the buggy’s engine would be similar to the sound of a small lawn mower, but reiterated that neither that operation, nor excavation for and construction of the new towers happens at night.

In the email, Sarfo-Kantanka also said the second phase of the project is nearly half complete, and that Dominion is in the process of removing old conductor wire and will soon be pulling new conductor wire.

He said Dominion’s goal is tocomplete construction(the third phase of the project) by April, 2019, although there may be some activity after the end date.

There’s a map, a description, and a timeline for the Dooms-Cunningham project on Dominion’s website, or go directly to https://www.dominionenergy.com/about-us/electric-projects/power-line-projects/cunningham-dooms-project.

To answer questions from Crozet residents about the Dooms-Cunningham project, Dominion Energy will hold a construction information meeting on Tuesday, October 30 from 5 to 7 p.m. at  Crozet Elementary School in the cafeteria. The meeting is open to all.

UPDATE 10/21/18:

Whitehall Supervisor Ann Mallek confirmed Friday, Oct. 19, that the noise plaguing residents for weeks has been tracked to Yancey Lumber Corporation. Alice Faintich of Old Trail, who had been one of the first to inquire about the noise, said on the night of October 17, Bill Yoder of Acentech––an acoustical consulting firm hired by Yancey Lumber––had measured the noise level near her home. She said he was working with someone inside Yancey Lumber. “The mill shut down one piece of equipment, but the noise persisted,” she said. “They then shut down a second piece of equipment and we could clearly hear the sound wind down and then disappear.”

According to Emily Kilroy, a spokesperson for the County, they recorded the hum at 64 dBA, a violation of the ordinance that limits noise to 55 dBA. In the county’s statement, Kilroy did not name the source.

Communicating through Nextdoor in the days following the investigation, county residents affected by the noise said they complained to Mallek, to the Albemarle County zoning office, and to the Albemarle County Police, that the noise was continuing as before, even after it was tracked to Yancey Lumber.

Mallek expressed concern about the noise continuing on Thursday night, after the source had clearly been identified. “I do not think the health of the nearby residents can take another month of this,” she wrote in an email to Long and Green. “Nerves are frayed now.”

Kilroy said zoning staff were working through the investigation and enforcement process.

Valerie Long, an attorney for Williams Mullen, the firm that represents Yancey Lumber, said her client was taking steps to remedy the noise, which came from a boiler that had been in long-term operation, removed several months ago, refurbished, and reinstalled in early August. The boiler is part of the kiln drying process. She said any number of factors, including weather conditions and changes to the terrain, could account for the increase in the noise from the boiler after its repair.

The diesel that had filled in for the boiler for five months while it was being repaired did not generate any noise complaints, Long wrote in a letter to Mallek, but environmental restrictions made it impossible as a permanent solution.

Long said the owners of Yancey Lumber were scrambling to fix the noise problem, including ordering a muffler for the exhaust stack that could be custom-made, expedited and delivered in as soon as a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, she said, “they’re trying all kinds of changes in their operation to see what might work to bring the noise level down.” Speaking for her clients, she said they were truly sorry for the disruption to the community and committed to fixing the problem as soon as possible.

Disruption of the drying process, which takes about 48 hours, results in warping and loss of the lumber, said David Dallas, also of Williams Mullen. Dallas said Yancey Lumber and Acentech would be monitoring the noise over the weekend and would issue another report Monday, Oct. 22.

The lumber company released this statement Sunday, October 21: Statement from R.A. Yancey Lumber Company

UPDATE 10/24/18:

Speaking through the Hive Creative Group, a Crozet public relations firm, R.A. Yancey Lumber Corporation announced Tuesday night that it will be halting all lumber-curing operations at night. In a news release, Yancey Lumber said they’d found a way to allow the boiler to maintain enough heat at night and still be able to power up and treat lumber during the day.

Yancey Lumber said they are awaiting the silencer for the boiler’s exhaust stack, an addition they believe will be a long-term solution. The silencer is being custom made and is expected to arrive in two weeks.

Yancey Lumber said once they were identified as the source, they attempted to reduce the sound by making adjustments to the speed of the boiler fan. “Based on reports of the past few days, the reduction did not have the intended effect,” the statement said.

Residents affected had reported via the online message board, Nextdoor, and in angry calls to the county and Yancey Lumber’s attorney, that the noise was persisting and, in some cases, even worse. Yancey Lumber’s acoustic consultant, Acentech, has set up monitoring equipment at some of the affected homes, but has not publicly reported recent sound measurement as yet.

Yancey has set up a website where people can find information and ask questions, at rayanceylumber.com.

Meanwhile, some of the residents affected by the noise contacted the Gazette to express relief for a peaceful Tuesday night.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for your recent article about the terrible humming noise being heard in Crozet. I live on Hillsboro Lane in Yancey Mills and have noted that the noise is louder at this location than observed when driving or running at Old Trail or other parts of Crozet. It certainly seems to be coming from the direction of Yancey Mills, or at least towards the 250 bypass. The noise ran most of last week and weekend, stopped on Monday morning, and started again yesterday. It is insanely loud and annoying and I have headaches and trouble sleeping from it, even within the west side of the house. I have filed a complaint with the police last week, and left a message with the noise complaint with the number you referred to in your article. Frankly, I am getting ready to move out of Crozet if the noise doesn’t stop permanently –it is that disturbing. I hope your investigative journalism can help figure this one out!

    Thank you,

    Sincerely,

    Karen Singh

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