CBC Radio’s Spark On Soundscapes: Cutting Through The Noise

I’ve recently discovered a CBC Radio program called Spark. The CBC is a bone fide national treasure, and Spark is their program on technology in society. They describe it as:

Spark is a weekly audio blog of smart and unexpected trendwatching. It’s not just technology for gearheads, it’s about the way technology affects our lives, and the world around us.

…sounds interesting, non?

I recently loaded my phone with some Spark podcasts in a effort to catch up on the program. I was especially taken by episode 128 from November 2010 which considers the impact of noise on people. From the calming influence of bird song to the stress induced by using a cell phone, it’s profoundly interesting stuff.

Our personal and collective productivity often hinges on the soundscape of the working environment. Your personal stress and anxiety level can also be impacted. To be blunt, noise matters…and yet it’s often completely overlooked.

Around my home office I like things to be relatively quiet. In fact, I make a lot of technology decisions with noise in mind.

For example, where once we once had a small tower PC that functioned as a file server we now have a LaCie NAS. It’s dead silent, draws very little power and “just works.”

Known as HAL for his curious resemblance to the computer terminals in 2001: A Space Odyssey, this 2.5 TB five drive NAS has been running 24/7 for over two years. It’s been very reliable, and seems like one of the better purchase decisions that I’ve ever made. I’m so happy with it that earlier this week I ordered a set of 2 TB disks to upgrade HAL to 10 TB raw, or 8 TB of RAID5 storage.

While HAL has a single internal cooling fan, he is essentially silent, unlike the traditional PC that he replaced.

Sometimes you find noise sources where you might not expect them. For example, I once upgraded the core of our home network by adding a Netgear GS524T 24-port Gigabit switch. It replaced an older 16-port 10/100MB switch.

I found the Netgear switch at Fry’s Electronics on an open-box special. It was offered at a really good price, but ultimately proved unacceptably loud. Yes, a network switch was just too loud.

Noise can be a problem with devices designed to fit into one standard rack unit (aka 1 RU.) Only 1.75″ in height, 1 RU is not a lot of space. If the internals consume a considerable amount of power then active cooling is required. “Active cooling” is a euphemism for fans.

In a larger case the manufacturer might have used large fans operating a low-ish speed and effect the required cooling without making much noise. In a 1 RU chassis they are pretty much doomed to use very small fans turning at very high RPMs. That’s simply a recipe for noise.

In the past my choices of small embedded systems for running Asterisk or serving up music were also based in part upon noise considerations. In all cases, maintaining the peace is just one of the benefits realized. The chosen devices usually consume less power and create less heat…which in turn reduces air conditioning requirements. So such choices are green as well as quiet.

By far the biggest improvement in the SOHO soundscape hereabouts was achieved three years ago when I replaced the office air conditioner. Prior to my arrival the space that is now my office was a one bedroom garage-apartment. The prior owners had equipped the space with a ghastly through-the-wall combination heater & air conditioner.

Rated for 18,000 BTU, my best guess is that the device was around 15 years old. When operating that machine produced about the same amount of noise as a freight train passing nearby. It was seriously annoying. What is the point of being cool if the rise in ambient noise makes you hot under the collar?

However, this is Texas. Air conditioning is a critical office system. For cost reasons I lived with the noisy old beast a few years before eventually replacing it with a quieter and more energy efficient split-ductless air conditioner.

Outside of North America this kind of air conditioner is the dominant type used in small offices, homes and even small businesses. They certainly aren’t cheap, but they are whisper-quiet, which is a thing of joy.

These are just a few of the things that I’ve done to tame the noise profile of my workspace. There’s more to be considered than simply noise sources. The acoustics of the space should be considered. It should be well adapted to your needs…but that will be a topic for another day.

Until then, enjoy the quiet where you find it around you. If you can, bring it home with you.