News Story

Oughta Be A Law? Neighbors’ Dispute Leads To Air Conditioner Noise Rule

Ear plugs weren’t enough for one woman

The city of East Lansing enacted an ordinance earlier this year making it illegal to operate an air conditioning unit louder than 55 decibels at night and 60 decibels during the day as measured from the property line.

The ordinance’s caps could effectively ban a number of air conditioning units. Carrier, a leading manufacturer of air conditioners, lists 17 units on its website for residential use. Only one of those could operate at fewer than 60 decibels. Ten can only operate above 70 decibels.

As sound moves out from its source, it dissipates, so an air conditioner producing 64 decibels may not sound that loud at the property line. Also, decibel sound measurements are logarithmic, meaning 70 decibels is perceived by the human ear as being 10 times louder than 60 decibels.

East Lansing isn’t the only municipality in the state restricting the noise-level of air conditioners. At least 10 others, including Ann Arbor, Farmington Hills and Grand Rapids, have similar ordinances according to an East Lansing city report.

Two next-door neighbors in the city had a disagreement about how loud an air conditioning unit was. After months of dispute and threats of a restraining order, one neighbor asked a member of the city council to pursue an ordinance that would effectively ban the use of the other’s air conditioner.

The homes of residents Marilyn McEwen and Karen Twyman are 10 feet apart and McEwen’s air conditioner, which runs at above 60 decibels, is located between the two houses. According to city emails obtained by Michigan Capitol Confidential, McEwen is elderly and needs the air conditioner to sleep. Twyman claims the noise created by the air conditioner keeps her from being able to sleep.

Twyman contacted Mayor Mark Meadows and City Council member Erik Altmann in July 2016 after unsuccessfully working out the issue with her neighbor. Twyman suggested the city add restrictions on air conditioners to its noise ordinance. This came, she claimed, after she contacted the police with a noise complaint, and they did not ticket McEwen for not turning off her air conditioner.

Twyman also claimed ear plugs didn’t block out the air conditioner’s noise enough for her to sleep.

“Please let me know what you think,” Twyman said in an email to Altmann. “Is this an issue that might gain some traction here in East Lansing? If it might, I would like to pursue it.”

Meadows suggested discussing air conditioners and the noise ordinance to the Sept. 20 city council meeting and Altmann pushed for the change in the council. In March 2017, the council revised the city’s noise ordinance to include restrictions on air conditioners.

Altmann described his support for the ordinance in a July 28 email to a city resident.

“In my mind, the ordinance serves a public interest if it guides decisions about locating new units, and if it gives someone who’s feeling besieged by unwelcome noise some institutional backing,” Altmann said. “I have been in this situation, and that does inform my thinking.”

Altmann didn’t see the restricted noise levels as an issue, and suggested placing louder air conditioning units behind privacy fences so they would be in compliance with the new ordinance.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.