The noise beneath the planes

A quieter home is quite the deal for residents living under flight paths

John Farrell’s home near Diamond Lake
Cargo planes frequently fly over John Farrell’s home near Diamond Lake. Farrell and his wife are currently upgrading the noise-dampening, efficiency enhancing improvements for their home that were paid for by the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Photos by Isaiah Rustad

Earlier this year, Tangletown homeowner Greg Brucker installed 33 new windows and a number of exterior doors in his 80-year-old home near 50th & Lyndale, under the approach to one of the MSP Airport’s main runways.

He has no idea how much they cost. He never even saw the bill.

That’s not because Brucker is the sort of homeowner who’d finance a major home improvement project without double-checking the contractor’s math. Quite the contrary — he’s an avid DIYer with a fine grasp of practical detail.

In truth, Brucker didn’t need to know what his home’s new windows and doors cost because he didn’t pay for them. The Metropolitan Airports Commission did, courtesy of a longstanding court order that requires the entity to cover costs for qualifying noise mitigation work in tens of thousands of residential units across a wide swath of South Minneapolis and parts of neighboring cities.

Homeowners like Brucker living in the loudest “noise contours” qualify for the MAC’s full mitigation package, essentially a blank check for modifications to reduce average interior noise by five decibels. Though most homes in high-noise areas of south Minneapolis have central air conditioning at this point, full mitigation includes whole-house A/C installation at cost — easily $30,000 to $40,000 in older homes requiring electrical upgrades, said Pat Mosites, residential noise mitigation program manager for the MAC. If that sounds overly generous of the MAC, consider that homeowners without air conditioning must accept the din of the runway approach as the price of fresh air. Homes in quieter-but-still-loud zones qualify for partial mitigation, a more limited but still generous package subsidizing insulation, new windows and other sound-dampening improvements to the tune of about $20,000, Mosites said. All program participants are financially responsible for any prerequisite remediations needed before mitigation work begins, such as repairs to rotted window frames.

The vast majority of the South Minneapolis residential buildings eligible for the MAC’s noise mitigation program have already participated — at least 15,000 single and multifamily homes, according to Loren Olson, government relations representative for the city of Minneapolis. But participation is voluntary, and homeowners leery of disruptive renovation projects, unable to afford costly prerequisite fixes or in preparations to sell are more likely to put off improvements, Mosites said. About 20 homes eligible from past years came back into the program in 2020, out of roughly 270 total homes served, he says.

Time is running out for eligible homeowners to take advantage. The current MAC noise mitigation program officially winds down in 2024, but Mosites advises homeowners to contact the MAC by 2023 if they wish to participate.

Homeowners not eligible for MAC-subsidized work can use MAC’s approved product list to plan DIY noise mitigation projects. Because noise mitigation improvements like new windows and insulation tend to improve energy efficiency, DIYers may qualify for utility rebates or tax credits that reduce their net project costs.

air conditioner
This window air conditioner was a major source of noise infiltration in John Farrell’s home. Submitted photo

‘Much quieter’

This past winter’s project was actually Brucker’s second “full mitigation” package. In 2009, Brucker was among the program participants who qualified for free air conditioning and attendant electrical upgrades, plus about $15,000 toward other improvements. The other option was a larger “pile of money” for approved, non-A/C improvements.

“We didn’t have air conditioning, so it was an easy call to make,” Brucker said. He used the discretionary funds to install modern storm windows over the home’s vintage single-pane windows. In combination, the whole-house A/C and double windows resulted in “some reduction” to interior noise in the warmer months, he said.

Temporarily, at least. By 2018, airplane noise had increased signifi cantly in Brucker’s neighborhood due to shifting flight patterns and more frequent operations, and his home qualified for full mitigation once more. With air conditioning already in place, Brucker opted to replace his interior and storm windows with ultra-efficient double-paned Pella interior windows and heavier storm windows. He also swapped his drafty exterior doors for tighter, heavier ones.

The results were more dramatic this time. “The sound reduction on the second project was much better than I thought it would be,” says Brucker. His son, who lives in the area and visits frequently, “tells me it’s much quieter with the windows closed now.”

And the work went surprisingly smoothly. Last year, Brucker met with a representative from the Center for Energy and Environment to design the project. The representative “had a good feel for what MAC would approve,” Brucker said, and after a “bit of pushing,” that’s what happened.

The installation itself, completed over four days in January, was a whirlwind. Brucker’s apprehension at leaving his home exposed to the midwinter chill proved unfounded; the Crossroads Construction installation team’s finely tuned system minimized discomfort.

“These guys were phenomenally good and so respectful of the space,” Brucker said. The more disruptive interior window phase lasted just two days: ground floor one day, top floor the next. A neighbor’s 40-window job also took just two days. “For the amount of work we got done, two days of disruption was well worth it,” Brucker said.

New HVAC ductwork
New HVAC ductwork has eliminated the need for the window A/C. Submitted photo

Partial package

Full mitigation is clearly a sweet deal for those who qualify. The partial package isn’t half bad, either; thousands of dollars in free energy-efficient improvements is nothing to sneeze at. But the results aren’t as dramatic without replacement windows.

At least, that’s the verdict from John Farrell, who grew up in an unmitigated home at 47th & Pleasant and lived for years in a Lake Nokomis-area home that had extensive noise mitigation work done in the 1990s. Now, Farrell and his wife are wrapping up noise-dampening, efficiency-enhancing improvements to their new home near Diamond Lake, directly under a runway approach.

The improvements are confi ned to the upper half-story: improved insulation in the attic crawlspace and new HVAC ductwork to eliminate the need for a window air conditioner (which allowed airplane and street noise into the house) on hot days. Installing new windows “was more than we wanted to take on,” Farrell said.

With multiple new cool-air ducts and two inches of spray insulation behind the ceiling, Farrell’s upstairs is much more comfortable these days, if not much quieter. “It’s a little quieter, not dramatically different,” he said. Street and airplane noise still filter in through the older windows.

prior insulation and wall holes for blowing in prior insulation copy
Multiple new cool-air ducts and two inches of spray insulation have been added behind Farrell’s ceiling. “It’s a little quieter, not dramatically different,” he says.

Dense insulation

Installing top-of-the-line windows in an entire floor or home is prohibitively expensive for many homeowners not covered by the MAC noise mitigation program. To prospective DIYers just outside the 60-decibel noise contour — the eligibility threshold for partial mitigation — insulation off ers the “best bang for your buck,” said Jennifer Windsor, who owned a company that insulated attics and sidewalls for MAC program participants in the late 2000s.

For noise mitigation, Windsor prefers fire-retardant cellulose to fiberglass because the former is denser. Two inches of insulation provides adequate thermal protection in homes with standard 2-by-4 attic framing, Farrell said, notwithstanding the U.S. Department of Energy’s official recommendation of three inches. The additional inch improves energy efficiency by just 5%, results in substantial material waste, and significantly adds to project costs — around $2,000 for a project like Farrell’s.

Regardless of the type or extent of work, Windsor recommends checking with local utilities — CenterPoint and Xcel Energy — to determine if any rebates are available. Rebate-eligible work must be completed by utility-approved contractors.

Future of the program

Given the low likelihood that any South Minneapolis homes will become newly eligible for MAC-subsidized noise mitigation before the current program winds up, DIY work might be the only near-term option for homeowners not currently eligible. But that could change in the future.

“We would like to have a conversation with [the MAC] about the program’s future and what would be prudent to have in place in case of shifts that increase noise levels,” Olson said. In the long term, the still-theoretical addition of next-generation supersonic airplanes to MSP’s operational mix could spur such a shift. The technology won’t be commercially viable for many years, if ever, but the FAA’s proposed relaxation of a longstanding rule governing supersonic civilian aircraft operations show that air travel regulators take the possibility seriously.

Southwest Minneapolis residents should, too.


MAC NOISE MITIGATION

MAC maintains a list of all homes eligible for noise mitigation stretching back to 2017 and an interactive map showing all-time eligibility.