When Stephanie Brookes moved her family to Loudoun County, Virginia, in 2021, they were excited about living in a peaceful, tranquil area where they purchased a wooded lot.
Early this year, she heard an eerie buzzing that got louder at night. Brookes thought it sounded like someone was constantly working on the lawn, but she had no idea what it was — until neighbors told her the noise was coming from the data centers that have earned the county the nickname Data Center Alley.
Virginia has seen explosive growth in data centers since the early 2000s, when Loudoun County began allowing data center construction. The province now has 175 data centers. The noise disturbing Brookes and her neighbors comes from a data center known as True North, made by Compass Datacenters, that finished construction early this year, according to residents BI spoke to and complaints obtained through public records. It’s in Leesburg, three miles from Brookes’ house.
Loudoun County residents say the noise started last winter and gets louder at night when it’s cooler. As temperatures rose in summer, the noise became quieter, but it returned when temperatures dropped in autumn.
In interviews and in more than 40 noise complaints to the county obtained through a public records request, residents described the noise as sounding like a propeller, a “loud drone hovering above the ground 24 hours a day,” a “large fan’, a construction site, a ‘low frequency sound’, an aircraft engine, a helicopter, a freight train, a leaf blower and a lawn mower.
“When you hear something like that, it feels like an invasion of your space,” Brookes said. “It’s an eerie kind of noise, and it makes me concerned about what other effects might be happening in the environment.”
As more data centers are built across the country, public health experts expect noise complaints from neighboring communities to increase. Les Blomberg, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, said he has heard several complaints similar to those in Loudoun County from residents of Virginia and New York, which have large data centers.
These communities must balance the quality of life of residents with the revenue these data centers generate. Mike Turner, district supervisor in Ashburn, which is part of the county, says data centers contributes $600 million of tax revenue for the Loudoun County budget each year.
In Loudoun County, residents said they could hear the data center even with windows closed. Some also said it led to anxiety and affected their sleep, mental health and productivity. Even residents several miles away from the facility complained about the noise.
“We’re getting disturbing industrial noise,” said Ted Lewis, who lives in the county. “It does not prevent us from continuing our daily lives, but it does have a significant impact on the quality of life at home and outside the home.”
How the data centers work
Turner said as data centers generate a large portion of the province’s tax revenue, the disadvantage is that the province is “overly dependent” on data center revenue.
“It puts pressure on management decisions, land use decisions, the budget and everything else,” Turner said. “It’s explosive growth.”
Compass’ first data center location in the province was narrowly approved by the province’s Board of Supervisors in 2018. They were controversial because of their location: they are among the more residential and rural areas of the county and adjacent to scenic Goose Creek.
unlike previous data centersthe new ones use so-called free air coolingdesigned to utilize lower temperatures to use less electricity than most data centers.
When the temperature is above 70 degrees, they don’t make much noise. As temperatures drop, data centers become louder as they run fans to blow in cooler air. The noise peaks around 50 degrees, residents report. Below 35 degrees it is not necessary to cool the data center coils.
Some residents, including Jeff Mach, began organizing and gathering feedback about the noise to present to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and some nonprofits. “It’s an artificial sound that just drove people crazy,” Mach said. ‘I am not exaggerating. It would go through walls. It would be far-reaching.”
Katy Hancock, Compass’ vice president of community relations, said that in the spring, after receiving several complaints from residents, the company measured their noise levels, which fell below the county’s noise standards. Threshold of 55 decibels for noise. The company ran some tests and found that the cooling needs of the data centers could be met with 20% less fan power, according to Hancock.
Compass spoke with local government officials and community members about noise reports and explored solutions to reduce noise, including reducing fan operation and working with cooling equipment manufacturers on new technology, Hancock said in a statement.
“We have tested noise levels in the community close to our campus and confirmed with the province that they are in compliance with permits issued by applicable government agencies,” Hancock said. “Regardless, as a company committed to continuous improvement of our operations, any notifications of this nature are important to us.”
The sound gets louder again
Mach said in the fall the noise isn’t that bothersome, although he can still hear it sometimes when he’s indoors. He added that residents have not received many details about how Compass has mitigated the problem. Even if the sound is not technically loud, residents have difficulty hearing it for long periods of time, especially at night.
“We’re getting used to neighbors mowing their lawns and us mowing our lawns,” says Blomberg of Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. “What’s different about data centers is that the flow of sound only goes one way and continues 24/7. It doesn’t stop. There’s no escaping it.”
Brookes said the noise makes her not want to stay outside for long periods of time. She also doesn’t want her children to be outside for long periods of time. She says it’s gotten to the point where she may not want to live in Loudoun County anymore.
“It affects the way we spend our time when the noise happens. When we want to sit outside. It’s quite unpleasant,” Brookes said. “We hear this buzzing. It’s not all the time, but when it does happen, it’s for extended periods of time. Sometimes a whole day at a time.”
Some residents are also skeptical that the noise issues have been resolved, as the company says. Lewis said there was less noise in the summer, but recently he heard the “constant noise of a fan” again at night.
“What we think will happen is that as temperatures drop, the noise problems will come back and become a bigger problem,” Lewis said.
Public health experts say exposure to persistent loud noises – typically over 70 decibels – is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and hearing loss. Although data center noise does not typically reach these levels, over time people may experience sleep interference and annoyance.
“Even though people may not have cardiovascular disease, all noise does is disrupt quality of life,” says Arline Bronzaft, a professor emerita at Lehman College who has long researched the impact of noise. on people. “Being alive is not enough. You have the right to a decent quality of life. These people are not yet physically ill, but they are miserable and unhappy.”
Plans for future data centers
The province wants to work on this from this winter changing zoning plans and implementing design standards for new data centers, including finding ways to reduce noise from the data centers. Turner expects it will take about 15 months to complete the planning. Any changes to zoning laws would only affect data centers built in the future.
Blomberg of Noise Pollution Clearinghouse said noise problems could be avoided with better planning, such as building data centers in locations further away from residential areas.
“The whole point of planning is to separate incompatible applications,” Blomberg said. “Just don’t place them near residential areas. Those that you place near residential areas should be given better acoustic treatment.”