How To Reduce Ambient Noise at Home, Inside and Out

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It's quite amazing how much background noise our brains can manage to filter out without us ever even noticing. Taking a moment to concentrate on the audible, I suddenly become aware of the sound of the refrigerator whirring from the open kitchen, the air brakes of the city buses below, and the heavy steps of my neighbors above...

Most people understand exposure to very loud noises can be damaging to the fragile parts of your ear. But a recent New York Times article explains how chronic exposure to sounds not even particularly loud can also wreak havoc on your hearing.

In What Causes Hearing Loss on the Times' Well blog, Jane E. Brody explores how many of us are responsible for our own hearing loss thanks to the noise we blindly (deafly?) subject ourselves to every day.

Tens of millions of Americans, including 12 percent to 15 percent of school-age children, already have permanent hearing loss caused by the everyday noise that we take for granted as a fact of life.

Since a huge chuck of time is spent at home, the apartment is a good place to start looking for ways to reduce the background noise of daily life, and not simply camouflage it with white noise machines and the like.

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Reducing Their  Noise

Whether the offender in a noisy apartment is a loud neighbor, or the endless symphony of the bustling street below, the first step to reduce the decibels is to block the noise coming in from outside.

Cover Floors with Rugs
Our Tech Editor Gregory Han found the best way to reduce noise levels in his hardwood apartment was to cover the floor with carpet tiles. He was trying to keep his own noise from bothering adjacent renters, but a thick rug can also dampen noise coming in from downstairs neighbors.

Cover Thin Windows with Heavy Drapes
Good curtains work wonders against street noise coming through flimsy windows. Thicken the material between the room and the noise with lined curtains, window dressing made from bulky fabric like velvet, or specialty noise-absorbing drapes (which usually have a thick wool core stitched between the decoative fabric).

Line Shared or Outside Walls with Furniture
A wood bookcase against a wall shared with a noisy neighbor can help absorb some of the sound coming through the walls. That goes double if the bookshelf or cabinet is home to lots of books, clothes, towels or linens; each are natural insulators against sound.

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Reducing Your  Noise

Not all of the background noise running through an apartment is the result of things intruding from outside our homes. Loud appliances with tumbling drums or whirring fans are all adding to the ambient noise level bombarding our ears at home every day. And the louder these background appliances run, the louder you'll turn up the TV or speakers to drown them out. 

New home environment monitoring devices like the Netatmo (below) allow for daily and long term monitoring of these ambient sounds, giving a snapshot of the ebb and flow of noise pollution inside a home.

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Soundproof the Laundry Room
As contributor Jason Yang pointed out in a recent post, the two loudest appliances in a home are the laundry machine and clothes dryer. Those lucky to have a dedicated laundry room can take steps to soundproof the walls with foam insulation, like what's used in music studios.

Share "On" Time
In a small space, the home theater might also be the home office (and the bedroom, kitchen... you get the idea). Every appliance in each of those "shared" spaces adds to the overall noise just a little bit, so the more you keep your gear powered off, the better. For instance, before sitting down to watch a movie, turn off the computer, cable box or gaming console (with their noisy fans) so you can keep the volume down on the cinema soundbar.

Move Devices Away into a Soundproof Area
As for the other devices that whirr and buzz around the clock, see what can be moved out from common living areas to bring down the noise level. If a loud background device from the living room can be find a new home in a soundproof locker or another room (maybe the newly-soundproofed laundry room?), it will reduce the noise level in the whole apartment for good, saving your ears in the process.

(Images: Shutterstock [1,2], Gregory HanShutterstock)