Serious Soundproofing: “I Can Hear Your…”

You bought the condo of your dreams. You moved in all your favorite furniture. It’s your first night in your new bedroom and you think you must be too excited to sleep. But what really woke you up was the “clip, clop, clack” as your upstairs neighbor arrived home and navigated across the wood floors above you, and then you hear…

…the distinct tinkling of their toilet.

That’s the point when you realize you might need to start looking into earplugs and sound machines. Or, it may warrant a more serious soundproofing approach because sometimes you don’t have an obnoxiously noisy neighbor but your building does transmit noise between floors (even *gasp* in a new construction, concrete building).

One Urbnlivn reader took the time to explain a few noise culprits:

As you can see in this demolition photo of the McGuire, new concrete buildings generally have only 5″ thick concrete slabs – which you think would result in a quiet building because it is concrete.

IMG 0764 Serious Soundproofing: I Can Hear Your...

However, drainage for toilets and bathtubs extends through the concrete and into the lower height ceiling of the bathroom below. The developer might put in 4″ of insulation above that lower ceiling, but that’s not enough if nothing is done to dampen noise at the source — on the pipe.

In addition, it’s far too common that a contractor short-circuits a sound isolation technique like a double stud wall by attaching a pipe to both sets of studs.

In other rooms of the condo, the problem between units is often a lack of acoustical sealant around the perimeter of a wood floor and around electrical boxes. A friend recently told me that the floor above her doesn’t have any caulking around the electrical boxes so she can see light from the above unit at night. In this case, the least invasive approach would be to take off the electrical plates and apply a seal between the drywall and the electrical box.

Unfortunately, our reader’s current situation is the unenviable one:

At the new downtown condo (where thankfully I’m just renting), I can hear my neighbor use the toilet and empty the bath because the dropped ceiling above my bathroom adjoins the bedroom.

However, he’s solved the upstairs noise issue before:

The soundproofing I’ve done in the past has been pretty basic (just offset ceiling joists with an IsoMax ceiling clip). The image below shows a metal ceiling joist added parallel to the existing wood frame ceiling joists. It supports an IsoMax clip that holds 25 gauge hat channel. The drywall gets screwed into the hat channel and the 1″ separation between the hat channel and the original ceiling joists ensures that a screw doesn’t accidentally screw into the original ceiling joists (ensuring noise can’t be transmitted directly).

NE corner with isomax clip Serious Soundproofing: I Can Hear Your...

My original inspiration was Frederick Anhalt who wrote about using independent ceiling joists (offset from the floor joists of the unit above) in 1005 East Roy.

And he would again if he could:

If I owned the unit, I would cut a 15″x24″ hole in the drywall along the lower ceiling joists in the bathroom above my toilet.  That would provide the best access to the drainpipe above, where I could reduce the noise at the source by painting QuietCoat on the toilet drainpipe, surrounding it with molded fiberglass insulation, and then wrapping that with mass-loaded-vinyl. Then I would stuff as much Thermafiber mineral wool into the dropped ceiling as possible.

How does this guy know so much? Well, he once went to great lengths to build a veritable panic room by installing a secondary ceiling and two sidewalls inside an existing bedroom. To that, we said “Wow” but he quickly pointed out that building a room within a room should not be anyone’s first choice (or their second or third…).

Even though it was quiet when I finished, it took all my vacation for the year and most nights and weekends for 6 months. If I hired out the work, it would have easily cost $20k just for a 15×10 room. Sometimes it is better to just sell, then go buy a condo with no upstairs neighbors — which is what I would have done if I didn’t have such a killer view.

So if you are looking for simple: earplugs and sound machines. And if you need more: ceiling clips, mass-loaded vinyl, and mineral wool (but not before checking in with your HOA, of course – some projects can require HOA approval).

About katrina
  • http://www.bestbuyseattlehomes.com/ Judi

    I wasn’t aware of all the methods to create a more soundproof environment! I love the first paragraph where you describe being filled with excitement to be in your new home and the horror of finding out things you didn’t know!

    I think we’ve all been there!…

  • Kevin

     This has always bothered me about real estate.  For the amount of money people are plunking down you think it’d be common to do a “test drive” and spend the night, nay–a week! in the place you’re about to drop so much money on.  You wouldn’t buy a car without at least turning on the engine would you?

    Who knows if a train is going to roll by, you’ll hear bottles clanging in the alley all night, your above neighbors host wild weekend drum & bass parties, etc.

  • http://twitter.com/mattgoyer mattgoyer

    I have heard of smaller projects in Seattle offering to let people spend the night. There’s probably all kinds of silly liability issues though.  

  • Patrick

    Does anyone know where to buy small quantities of Thermafiber mineral wool in the Seattle area? As I understand, Home Depot does not sell it and it’s kind of a specialty item. Thermafiber’s website doesn’t have any retail locator either. 

  • lulo

    In my building with mixed residential/commercial, we’ve seen a remarkable transference of sound. Seemingly a result of vibration sound waves rippling through the concrete pillars and floors.  For example, if  a commercial tenant is doing serious construction work 3 floors below us (residential), we can hear the hammering, drilling, etc as if it were two doors away.  Fortunately, this is a rare occurance (and should growth more rare) now that all of our commercial space is leased.

  • http://erickennedy.org Eric Kennedy

    Specialty Products & Insulation at 18270 Segale Park Drive B, Tukwila should have what you need.  Their phone number is  (253) 872-0800

  • http://erickennedy.org Eric Kennedy

    Specialty Products & Insulation at 18270 Segale Park Drive B, Tukwila should have what you need.  Their phone number is  (253) 872-0800

  • http://www.imaginepropertiesnw.com JosephRHill

    I remember when Benaroya Hall was on the drawing board, it sits on top of 100 plus year old freight train tunnels that are still in use, and the Seattle Times ran this huge spread showing how the developer was going to go to extreme lengths to build the entire auditorium like a floating “box in a box” to completely isolate any outside acoustics from the trains. It worked – at great expense. Buyers like to pay for things they can see feel and touch, builders get burned when they spend money on things that buyers can’t really see feel or touch. Getting that first 80% or so of noise mitigation is relatively easy, and as this post shows, the devil is in the details, that last 20% can be a rabbit hole…

  • http://www.imaginepropertiesnw.com JosephRHill

    I remember when Benaroya Hall was on the drawing board, it sits on top of 100 plus year old freight train tunnels that are still in use, and the Seattle Times ran this huge spread showing how the developer was going to go to extreme lengths to build the entire auditorium like a floating “box in a box” to completely isolate any outside acoustics from the trains. It worked – at great expense. Buyers like to pay for things they can see feel and touch, builders get burned when they spend money on things that buyers can’t really see feel or touch. Getting that first 80% or so of noise mitigation is relatively easy, and as this post shows, the devil is in the details, that last 20% can be a rabbit hole…

  • http://www.imaginepropertiesnw.com JosephRHill

    I remember when Benaroya Hall was on the drawing board, it sits on top of 100 plus year old freight train tunnels that are still in use, and the Seattle Times ran this huge spread showing how the developer was going to go to extreme lengths to build the entire auditorium like a floating “box in a box” to completely isolate any outside acoustics from the trains. It worked – at great expense. Buyers like to pay for things they can see feel and touch, builders get burned when they spend money on things that buyers can’t really see feel or touch. Getting that first 80% or so of noise mitigation is relatively easy, and as this post shows, the devil is in the details, that last 20% can be a rabbit hole…

  • Tony

    I certainly know what you mean about extra sound proofing not being valued. We bought a top floor apt in a new steel and concrete downtown builing and as it was being built we got an accoustical engineer in to design and build exceptionally thick party walls over two levels at a cost of tens of thousands. They stop everything but a rock concert and the silence is golden. But we recently got the place appraised for a refi and pointed this out. The appraiser’s verdict – not worth a cent compared with comps! Didn’t add to square footage. I guess it’s like meticulously restoring your car…. Great to drive  while you have it but doesn’t do much to the resale value.

  • http://erickennedy.org Eric Kennedy

    It’s always cheaper to do it right the first time, which is why it is so frustrating when hyped-up new buildings have big sound issues.  The developer who built Bellora hired an acoustical consultant because it was during a time of frequent condo lawsuits.  (While they may have fixed sound transmission in the walls, my friend who lived there complained about the 5am garbage trucks and wished for triple-pane windows. Go figure.) 

    I’m surprised at how much noise goes through the party-walls in new construction condos because that’s a relatively easy problem to avoid.  Developers don’t use Thermafiber as it is a pain to install — I recommend using a painter’s suit and a face mask because it gets into skin and doesn’t wash off.  High ceilings and non-load bearing light weight steel studs make the walls feel cheap if you plug something into a wall (like a vacuum).  Drywall is also the code minimum 5/8″ — I saw the pallets going into the building — and probably only one layer. 

    Selling or remodeling because of sound issues is very expensive, so having the unit well-insulated during construction is like an insurance policy.  It’s not intended to have an ROI, but rather prevent a loss.

  • http://bidboomerang.com/flooring-mesa-az/ Clint Rowley

    You have a point. I personally think wood floors can be really beautiful (depending on the color), but they can also be really noisy and they also require a decent amount of maintenance. If that’s the look you want though, I suppose none of that matters at the end of the day.

  • Kevin

    Uhmm, that photo is of the parking garage at the McGuire, not the actual apartment building.

  • http://www.tmsoundproofing.com/ Yanky

    As someone who deals with soundproofing all day I can tell you that the thermafiber will be a big disappointment, it is as good as any fiberglass insulation which just adds 3-4 STC  points. The resilient sound clips like the isomax in the article is a great product (there are cheaper clips out there) as is a simple damping compound like Green Glue with a 2nd layer of drywall.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tony.kellam.52 Tony Kellam

    Dear Yanky, any ideas on how I can soundproof my apartment from the party girl above me? I rent my unit. Girl above stomps, plays stereo, runs a large fan–which is the worst as it send a vibratory hum thru everything. Any simple ideas? would foam sheets do anything? Thx for any idea.