When people buy homes under the flight path to an airport, their complaints about the noise may fall on deaf ears. But some residents of Prince William County never bargained for the constant, annoying buzz from data centers near their neighborhood and others in Fauquier are concerned about a new data center slated for Warrenton.
Why can’t the data centers be made quieter?
The answer, experts on noise reduction say, is that they could be, but regulation by municipalities and counties is often lax and dampening the din is expensive.
“This is the 21st century; we do have the technology to significantly quiet them,” said Les Blomberg, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Noise Pollution Clearinghouse.
“The way to alleviate noise is there,” said Arline Bronzaft, professor emerita of psychology at the City University of New York and lifelong champion of noise reduction. “It isn’t rocket science. What is lacking is the will.” She said she believes people must band together to keep the pressure on local governments to tighten and enforce strict standards.
When companies store data “in the cloud,” that data is actually kept in machines somewhere. It takes these data centers, which are packed with racks of constantly running computer servers, to allow people to stream movies, play interactive games, deposit checks and download their family photos.
The big fans and water-thirsty air conditioners needed to keep the servers from overheating produce the whirring noise that puts outsiders on edge. The fans that blow the heat out can be wrapped with blankets or other materials to quiet them. But that remediation can cost millions, and unless regulators apply pressure, companies may be slow to do it. As the green light Prince William County just gave for converting part of the area known as the “rural crescent” to allow data centers attests, the prospect of lucrative tax revenues and jobs may hold more sway with supervisors than residents’ complaints about noise.
Data centers’ constant hum night and day may not seem as worrisome as fumes from a chemical plant or dust from an aluminum smelter, but neither is it free from health risks.
“It is a mental and physical health hazard,” said Bronzaft. Noise can not only disturb sleep, but cause stress, cardiovascular problems and blood disorders, she said.
The problem, said anthropologist Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral candidate who studies the ecological impact of data centers, is not just the decibels but the low frequency of the sound, a monotone similar to human speech, that is particularly disturbing.
Gonzalez has worked in data centers and visited a neighborhood in Chandler, Arizona, where residents for several years protested the loud drone from a CyrusOne cluster of data centers. The upset homeowners petitioned city leaders and met with company executives, who agreed in 2019 to spend $2 million to wrap its dozens of chillers in sound-dampening blankets.
The noise and the protests died down, though at least some residents are still unhappy. Cyrus One operates 50 data centers in the United States, Europe and South America, including several in Ashburn, Virginia.
Cyrus One did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesperson for the Data Center Coalition, which represents centers in Northern Virginia, declined to comment on the noise issue.
Noise is a principal concern of residents’ trying to stop the construction of an Amazon Web Services center on 42 acres in Warrenton. At its data centers in Prince William, Amazon is finding how difficult and expensive noise abatement can be. It has taken steps recently to reduce the noise from its data center complex near the Great Oak subdivision south of Manassas, but the complaints from neighbors haven’t stopped.
The buzzing noise annoying Great Oak residents is coming from the 424 air exhaust vents on the roofs of four Amazon data center buildings recently built next to the neighborhood. Amazon first tried wrapping the vents — which are basically four-foot diameter tubes with a fan inside — in sound-reducing acoustical shrouds. That had virtually no effect, the neighbors say, and the company is now doubling the thickness of the wraps.
But the shrouds are considered only a temporary fix, according to Dale Browne, president of the Great Oak homeowners association, “something to get us through the winter,” Browne said.
Amazon is also working on a longer-term solution: affixing what it calls wind bands – several-foot-long metal extensions to the vent tubes — to the HVAC units to drive the air up higher as it leaves the building so less sound reaches homes nearby.
In a statement, Amazon spokesman Duncan Neasham said the company is “committed to being a good member of the community” and that addressing the noise concern is a “priority.”
“We’ve acted fast to install acoustical shrouds around our cooling units as an initial step to lower sound levels, and we are now engineering and manufacturing custom wind bands that we believe will further reduce the sound,” Neasham said.
In the meantime, Browne is working with a contractor Prince William County hired to conduct a study of the data center noise reaching Great Oak. The supervisors agreed to spend $11,000 on such a study after an earlier Amazon study found the data centers were not violating the county’s noise ordinance.
Browne said the community pushed for an independent study because residents want a baseline assessment to evaluate whether Amazon’s efforts to reduce the noise are effective.
Prince William’s noise ordinance sets the maximum permissible sound levels in residential areas at 60 decibels in the daytime and 55 at night. Commercial zones are permitted to be as loud as 65 decibels during the daytime and 60 at night. Industrial zones can make noise up to 79 and 72 decibels.
But most noise ordinances weren’t written with 24-hour data center operations in mind. The limits businesses must abide by – typically 50 to 60 decibels near residential areas – are maximums a noisy bar might approach sporadically but not constantly the way data centers do. “They are going to be humming along at 49 to be legal all the time,” said Blomberg.
The decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear, which means 60 decibels is twice as loud as 50. In New York City, where police field hundreds of thousands of noise complaints annually, the city’s noise guide says a mere whisper may register 30 decibels while normal conversation can reach 50. A vacuum cleaner and midtown Manhattan traffic register 70 or higher, a lawn mower 85, a police siren 100, and a jackhammer or boom box 110.
Eric Zwerling, director of Rutgers University’s Noise Technical Assistance Center and president of The Noise Consultancy, a private business that works with municipalities on their ordinances, said it’s one thing to hear 60 decibels of background noise in the daytime but an entirely different matter in the dead of night.
“When you’re trying to sleep quietly in your bedroom, the sound levels should be close to silence, approximately 30 decibels,” he said. At 3 in the morning, 60 decibels are “the equivalent of two people sitting at the foot of your bed having a fairly animated conversation.”
In Chicago, condo owners living on what was once Printer’s Row howled when a digital company installed dozens of large fans atop a landmark building. The company spent $1 million to build a 15-foot-tall sound wall, and the complaints quieted down.
The town of Niagara Falls has a noise problem from two data centers that mine bitcoin. The city council recently lifted a nine-month moratorium on new mining activity after imposing stricter noise limits. Last month, the two centers were ordered to close until they conform. Blockfusion reduced the number of fans running, and US Bitcoin is drawing plans for a larger sound barrier.
The biggest concern for standalone data centers should be “about avoiding outdoor noise from equipment that may exceed local regulations or be bothersome to neighbors,” Acentech sound consultant Ethan Brush wrote in the journal of the International Facilities Managers Association in 2016.
But complaints about noise have only become louder in the intervening years.
Back in 2007, Computer World magazine ran an article headlined: “That sound you hear? The next data center problem.” But the concern then was about the noise inside data centers and its adverse impact on workers.
So why don’t we hear about that now? Better design and sound-proofing, as well as unmanned operations, have mitigated the problem. Homeowners are still waiting for their fix.