Swimming-pool Filter-motor Noise Pollution

Domestic Noise Pollution--An Australian Experience

Paper prepared in May of 1999 by Athol Brown, Queensland, Australia, for Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, Vermont, U.S.A.

Brief History
The 1988 Legislation to Control SFNP
Following the 1988 Legislation
The Noise Policy
Our Personal Situation Today
Some CAUSE Publications
Addendum (December 2000)


Although my experiences with noise pollution have encompassed numerous aspects, the one that caused my wife and I the most trouble and stress was extremely difficult to articulate, and even more difficult to achieve a legislative solution. This particular noise pollutant was with respect to the long-running, daily, low-level (in terms of noise output) noise from swimming-pool filter-motors, a widespread problem in tropical, sub-tropical and warmer temperate climates.

Because noise pollution is a very wide subject, I will contain this paper to swimming pool filter motor noise pollution (SFNP). Many of the concepts contained in this paper will, of course, apply to other forms of noise nuisance which includes, to name but a few, people-noise in swimming pools, mulchers, leaf blowers, power tools, barking dogs, caged birds. All of my experiences relate to domestically-sourced problems pollution such as in the foregoing: i.e. I have little experience with publicly-sourced noise such as road traffic, aircraft or industrial noise pollution.

There is a big difference between the effects of these two types of noise. For example, if a new road is to be constructed near where people live and which is perceived by the residents to be intrusive, the effects are likely to unite people. However, if your neighbor acquires a dog which barks frequently or indiscriminately and which, because of topography, structures, placement (and a variety of other factors), primarily causes annoyance only to yourself, then the effects of this situation - if it cannot be easily resolved - are likely to divide people.

Brief History

My wife and I built our house in the suburb of The Gap, (Brisbane, Queensland, Australia) in 1967. It is in an area of low background noise due to lack of any main-road-traffic or industrial noise. We lived in relative peace until 1974 when two of four swimming-pools were constructed (two contiguous and two adjacent). The third and fourth were constructed in 1978 and 1980. In those early years (of the proliferation of domestic swimming-pools), the noise from pool filter motors was very loud (probably in the vicinity of 10 to 30 dB(A) above background depending on the installation, the level of background, time of day or evening that the motor was used etc.). Motors have since been manufactured with lesser noise output. The length of time the motor is run per day was, and is, a major factor as well as the fact that the motors would frequently be run concurrently resulting in the impossibility of escaping the influence anywhere inside or outside your home. I coined the phrase for this phenomenon: "the prisoner-in-your-own-home" syndrome. Of course, if the motors were running at different times through the day and night, then one had always this prolonged intrusiveness somewhere in the house or on the property.

The reader may legitimately ask why we did not sell out and move somewhere else. I cannot adequately answer that question other than to say that, in hindsight, it was the worst decision of our lives to stay and try to fight this monster: i.e. the fight to achieve legislation, the fight to educate people that their actions were unreasonable and unjust. I suppose as each year went by we thought that the solutions were so easy, so obvious, that the problems were becoming so widespread, that governments would soon act and act decisively. I was particularly certain that this would soon happen after the start of the campaign for reform in 1985. I was, of course, naive.

One early morning in January 1985 (about 6am), unable to cope with the noise from one of the motors any longer, I knocked on the door of the owner: he did not come out so I went home only to find that later in the day the police came to arrest me for trespassing on his property. To cut a long story short on this aspect, the police said that I ‘should shift to acreage’ as though this was some easy solution. No suggestion, you will note, of the polluter being requested to contain his noise at the source. No suggestion that the polluter should be responsible for his pollution.

As a result of this incident, in March 1985, I decided that it was time to do something: I started an organization with somebody who understood the problem because he lived with it for some years (Peter McMahon, also of The Gap in Brisbane) called Campaign Against Unnecessary Swimming-pool-Electric-noises (the acronym being CAUSE), later broadened slightly to Campaign Against Unnecessary Suburban Electric-noises to encompass some other long-running swimming-pool noise sources (such as automatic pool cleaning equipment, a well-known brand name in Australia being Kreepy Krauly). In the first few months I gained considerable radio, TV and newspaper coverage of the problem. People came forward telling me by phone and letter of their experiences with pool pump motors. Often the stories were tragic, pathetic. Stories from people who were powerless to do anything about their situation: there were no council ordinances, there were no laws: people had nowhere to turn for help. I even had a woman write to me to say that she had written to the Prime Minister of Australia (noise is a state matter, not a federal matter in Australia) and to the Pope! This is just one example of the desperation that existed. A small sample of anecdotal evidence is included in Case Histories (Appendix ‘A’).

During 1985 and the first half of 1986, meetings were held with Brisbane City Council (BCC) and its staff. Because of ignorance about the subject within the Council, many months passed before CAUSE discovered that we were wasting our time trying to achieve reform through local government, that it was the responsibility of the (Queensland) State Government. Many meetings were then held with the relevant State Government Ministers and Departmental staff through 1986, 1987 and through 1988. It is hard to believe that it took this long to achieve legislation on a matter so simple and so obvious. But as I am sure readers all over the developed world will have discovered, the road to effective noise control regulations for domestic noise sources is extraordinarily difficult and paved with a multitude of obstacles. One of those obstacles is the apathy of people.

The 1988 Legislation to Control SFNP

But how effective was this first attempt at legislation? The reality was that it was an improvement over what went before (because nothing existed before!) and many thousands of sufferers were helped as a result. Indeed, many thousands who came after this legislation would never have known the difficulties experienced by those who went before them.

Briefly, this (1988) legislation stated:

The noise from a swimming-pool filter motor between the hours of
10 PM and 8 AM: inaudibility required in any habitable room of complainant’s residence;
8 AM and 10 PM: a +5 dB(A) above background limit applies (if a complaint is received).

(The noise had to be measured - with expensive noise measuring equipment - at the boundary of the complainant’s property).

This legislation worked reasonably well for many people. For example, for those who suffered problems only at night (10 PM-8 AM), and their neighbor would not cooperate, the inaudibility requirement meant that these people could, for the first time, achieve justice between these hours. Problems became more complex in the 8 AM to 10 PM period because it is extremely difficult to achieve a measurement of 5 dB(A) above background a) where the motor is not placed close to the complainant’s property boundary and b) because of all the extraneous noises that can occur when the Environmental Health Officer arrives to investigate and measure: i.e. a wind may arise or a mower motor can start up in the next street - the list of variables is endless. In these cases resolution for the sufferer is fraught with great difficulties, great stress, great angst. The legislation was beneficial to sufferers a) had neighbors who, once the legislation was enacted, then felt that they were obliged "do something" which meant covering the offending motor with a solid enclosure - brick or timber usually - and b) for sufferers whose next-door-pump was adjacent to their property boundary, facilitating the achievement of the necessary 5 dB(A) above background reading. Sufferers whose neighbors covered the motors as in (a) often found that the problem was reduced but not eliminated to their satisfaction. Pool pump pollution is an insidious thing: once you have been affected (or infected) by it, hearing it at all is a stressor. It is not quite as simple as the send-up slogan: stop noise pollution: don’t listen!

Following the 1988 Legislation

Because of the problems in the 1988 legislation - with the daytime +5 dB(A) approach-, CAUSE continued the battle for reform through the late eighties and into the nineties. Governments came and went, BCC Administrations came and went. Ministers and Mayors of local governments (local governments are the administering authorities) came and went, bureaucrats came and went. The effect of this was that CAUSE was forever having to go over and over explaining the problem. It was very frustrating, very stressful, very time-consuming. A long campaign such as the CAUSE campaign takes a lot out of one’s life.

With the failure of the 1988 legislation to achieve the desired outcomes, CAUSE pushed for further reform. This time, however, Queensland had a new (Labor) Government - elected in late 1989 - the previous government (National) had been in power for 32 years. Due to the lethargy of the previous (National) government in its latter years, reforms were required across the spectrum and SFNP was not seen as a priority but the then new (Labor) government introduced a wide-ranging Noise Policy reform - covering a multitude of noise problems - reform under a new Environmental Protection Act which would include air, water and noise. Air and water were achieved first: noise, being much more difficult, came last in 1997.

In the years prior to its introduction, the new Noise Policy (which came under the aforementioned Environmental Protection Act), was the subject of much scrutiny and consideration with community consultations across Queensland. CAUSE, because of its many years of dealing with the bureaucracy on the subject of SFNP, believed it was in a good position to bring about, at long last, an effective policy for this particular pollutant - a policy that was fair and reasonable to all and which could be cheaply and easily administered by local government. The deliberations and consultations took years. In the meantime another change of government occurred (in 1996, back to the Nationals) and the proposed Noise Policy was shoved onto the back-burner because the new government contained a much greater rural bias and understood the problem even less than the previous (Labor) Government.

For at least a year or more prior to its introduction in 1997 the new Noise Policy had agreement between the bureaucracy and CAUSE that reform of the problem required the following:

The noise from a swimming pool filter motor is reasonable -

if it cannot be heard within a habitable room in any neighboring dwelling between the hours of 10 PM and 8 AM; or

if it cannot be heard anywhere upon the property of an affected dwelling between the hours of 8 AM and 10 PM.

That is, the proposed SFNP component of the Noise Policy would eliminate the above-background measurement (i.e. +5 dB(A) or whatever) concept which resulted in great difficulties in some situations in the achievement of just outcomes. Under this proposal, if the owner of the offending swimming pool filter motor could not render the motor satisfactorily inaudible between 8 AM and 10 PM anywhere on the complainant’s property, then an acoustic cover would be necessary. What could be more obvious? What could be more simple? What could be more reasonable for a situation that might have been causing an individual prolonged loss of quality of life for many years, not just from one motor but often from two or three and sometimes more.

However, when the draft Noise Policy was finally released, the long-agreed-to position detailed immediately above, had been watered down. Watered down without any consultation with those who had done all of the work over all of the previous years since 1985 to bring about a quality and effective reform.

The Noise Policy, when it finally appeared in print appeared to be workable but it is difficult to know the degree to which the Department and local governments (which have to administer the regulations), would enforce its stated aims.

The Noise Policy

The Noise Policy with respect to SFNP states:

There are three grounds from which noise from a domestic pool pump can give rise to a nuisance complaint:

On the first ground, the Policy has a simple criteria - the noise is unreasonable if it can be heard at night in a habitable room. During the day it is unreasonable if it is clearly audible and annoying. The administering authority is not required to carry out noise monitoring and can accept the complainant’s evidence as to the nature of the noise. A ‘show cause’ notice can then be issued to the person with the offending equipment requesting abatement of the noise.

In the second and third cases, the assessment of unreasonable noise is based on the character and intrusiveness of the noise. The administering authority is not required to carry out noise monitoring and can accept the complainant’s evidence as to the nature of the noise. As a general guide, noise from a pool pump will be intrusive if the background level (taken when the equipment is not operating) is increased by more than 3 dB(A) when the equipment is operating. If the noise is unreasonable (after considering the other factors), a ‘show cause’ notice could then be issued requesting abatement of the noise.

Whilst I have not yet (fortunately!) been in a position, because of an intrusive offending pump motor, to have to seek some redress action under the new Noise Policy, I therefore am unable to comment, at this stage, on its effectiveness. Unfortunately, the long and very poor history of Queensland Environment Departments (with respect to noise, under a government of any color in Queensland), is not one which would give one confidence.

Our Personal Situation Today

Currently our situation is lying dormant, but it is always tenuous. Deterioration can occur with change of ownership, change of tenancy, progressive deterioration of a motor (i.e. bearings become worn and more tonal). Of the four motors which caused us problems and which were the catalyst for the state-wide campaign for reform, only one motor - which lacks an acoustic cover because of the ignorance and the unfortunate personality of the owner) remains a threat for reasons cited in the previous sentence.

Ironically one of the changes which has occurred over the past few years has been the deterioration in the level of background - i.e. a rise in the level of background due to new housing estates across the valley from us which generate a higher level of background noise - such as motor vehicle movements (but not highway noise), motor mowers etc. Higher levels of background help mask a long-running, daytime, low level of noise intrusiveness from a filter motor. It is one of the great ironies for sufferers of long-running, daily, low levels of noise intrusiveness - such as in swimming-pool filter-motor noise pollution - that, higher levels of background can improve health, well-being and quality of life.

Some CAUSE Publications

During the course of the Campaign from 1985 to 1997, CAUSE produced 28 issues of the Pool Pump Pollution Periodical. The periodicals were usually a two or four page paper giving sufferers and politicians and bureaucrats progress information on the Campaign. The first was produced in 1985 and the last in 1997. These periodicals are an excellent history of a small unfunded group trying to achieve reform in the Queensland.

Other significant papers include:

Appendix A: Case Histories

Appendix B: Memorandum of Advice Michael R. Bland, Barrister-at-Law - Ref: Ian Hillhouse, 1990
This paper was commissioned by CAUSE, as part of the campaign, to try and push the issue along - that is, if a barrister-at-law thought that noise intrusiveness could be assessed as unreasonable, and therefore actionable.

Appendix C: Human Reactions to Low Levels of Intruding Noise, 1990, Dr. Lex Brown, Associate Professor, School of Australian Environmental Studies, Griffith University, Queensland. Study commissioned by CAUSE. This Paper was commissioned as a result of the Barrister’s conclusions.

Appendix D: The “Solutions” Approach Versus the “Standards” Approach, 1990, Peter McMahon and Athol Brown

Addendum (December 2000)

The above paper summarises the situation between the mid-eighties and the end of the twentieth century. It was written prior to the latest attempt by a Queensland Government (in this case the Beattie Labor Government) to introduce effective legislation to control the noise intrusiveness emanating from swimming pool filter motors (legislation came into effect 1 December 1999). Unfortunately, and as CAUSE expected, the Beattie Government's effort has been found to be hopelessly wanting and inadequate. I think it is true to say that most people have low expectations of government performance on this type of issue. But few, if any, would have expected this appalling and regressive backward step.

Very briefly the new legislation provides for:

10pm – 7am: no noise permitted (note the 1988 legislation required no noise until 8am);

7am to 7pm: a noise level up to 50dB(A) is permitted but is measured in or near the house! (the 1988 legislation allowed a +5dB(A) above background measured at the closest point on the complainant's boundary, between 8am and 10pm);

7pm to 10pm: +5dB(A) above background is allowable but measured in or near the house!

For the daytime (7am – 7pm), the allowance of a continuous noise up to 50dB(A) is, of course, ludicrous. And for 7pm-10pm, how they came to single out this three hour period with this inconsistency remains one of the great bureaucratic mysteries which only Sir Humphrey could explain (for American readers, this refers to the British television comedy series Yes Minister).

A suburban area that is largely free of heavy traffic noise and other macro noise influences, quite commonly may have a background noise level as low as 30-40dB(A). In my case, for example, numerous background readings over a period of a decade taken by State Government and Brisbane City Council technical staff revealed background of between 28dB(A) and 34 dB(A) even in the middle of the day. So if you have 50dB(A) pumping into your house, your garden or your outside living area from say 7am to 7pm, and your background is say 35dB(A), then you are living in a Queensland Government approved legalised continuous noise slum. In this situation you become a prisoner in your own home in a multitude of ways. This is the Beattie Government's contribution to environmental quality!!! And it is, of course, an absolute joke.

Not only is the whole thing a dreadful mess, the bureaucrats in state government and local government are sending out confusing signals to people. For example, people are being told that for the daytime the only parameter the Brisbane City Council has to work with is the 50dB(A) limit. But a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on ABC radio in October 2000 said that an aspect of the legislation called a Nuisance Abatement Notice can be used where the 50dB(A) approach is ineffective in achieving justice. But what he didn't highlight was that this approach would require the offender of the nuisance to be taken to court if (the offender) failed to remedy the situation. Now, anyone who knows anything at all about how the bureaucracy operates, knows that it will do everything it can to avoid going to court. The bureaucrats are, as usual, being quite disingenuous.

In the decade or so following the 1988 legislation, noise measurements were taken at the nearest point on the complainant's boundary, Nobody, however, now seems to know whether the measurement is taken inside the house or just outside the house. You can forget all about the enjoyment of your garden – the politicians and bureaucrats have decreed that your garden is of no consequence in your life!!!!

The whole thing is ridiculous and unnecessarily complex. The EPA spokesman on ABC radio (referred to above) tried to justify his actions by saying that they had the difficult task of trying to achieve the best for all of Queensland and that at one extreme some people wanted the 'noise from children playing to be banned' while at the other extreme others wanted virtually no restrictions on anything. This is a nonsense argument because pool filter motor noise problems problems are easily contained at the source. CAUSE has been trying to educate the politicians and bureaucrats for nearly two decades on this issue but it has to be said that the forces of darkness in the EPA are just too great for a small non-funded organisation. The bureaucrats are incapable, as indeed are the politicians, of grasping the difference between a) an unnecessary, avoidable long-running daily intrusion into the consciousness from a small motor, about half the size of a loaf of bread, that sits on the ground, does not move, emits only low levels of noise output but for long periods, is easily acoustically covered and b) other residentially-sourced noise pollutants that are either difficult or impossible to contain.

Swimming pool filter motor noise pollution is the easiest noise pollutant in all of the suburban condition to effectively silence. The failure of the Beattie Labor Government to deal with this in a professional manner, particularly when it had the advantage of all of the debate over the past couple of decades, is an indictment of the quality of government in Queensland. It makes no difference which political party is in government: both are utterly incompetent; both sides just take the line of least resistance and accept whatever the bureaucrats dish up to them. The truth is that if the people had any idea of the money that has been wasted over the past 15 years in government and local government on this issue there would be a public outcry that would overwhelm most of the other scandals that have come, and continue to come, to public attention. Apart from public monies wasted, pool pump sufferers can result in a massive loss of productivity (often spread over many years) in the workplace. And, apart from economic aspects, there are huge environmental and social costs.

For those reading this and who need help (and whose pool owning neighbour is uncooperative), there is no alternative to going to your local government and registering a complaint. The aggrieved party can also talk to the EPA but it would be necessary to determine if both EPA and local government are both talking the same language. If you get nowhere with (both of) them, you then have to be prepared to make an absolute nuisance of yourself, day after day, week after week in the hope that they will do something even if it is for no other reason than to get rid of you.

A simple problem requires a simple solution. Anybody with half a brain can solve a pool pump problem. But it has been proven over the years that it is beyond the capacity of the Queensland Government. This is a tragedy for the concept of responsible government and for citizens' respect for governance in Queensland.

Athol Brown for the Campaign Against Unnecessary Suburban Electric-noises (CAUSE)

For further information on this subject, contact:
Athol Brown, 9 Jirrima Street, The Gap, 4061, Queensland, Australia
Telephone: 07 3300 2662; when calling from overseas: dial International Access Code + 61 + 7 3300 2662
e-mail: brown_athol@powerup.com.au

NPC Menu Bar NPC Home Page Support NPC Ask NPC Search the NPC Home Page NPC QuietNet NPC Resources NPC Hearing Loss and Occupational Noise Library NPC Noise News NPC Law Library NPC Library