It's not especially quiet in Herbert T. Wood's office, a dab of desk, clutter and files in a dark stone building near the corner of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Telephones ring and city sounds drift up three stories to tap at his closed window.
But it doesn't matter. Wood, 43, understands that fine edge that separates noise from sound; he walks it every day he reports to his office as deputy chief of the city's Bureau of Consumer Health Services. And because he's largely responsible for enforcing Washington's 4-year-old noise-control act, Herbert T. Wood is indisputably Washington's top noise man.
"There's a difference between noise and sound," Wood says, sounding a little like Mr. Wizard. His balding brown hair, wrinkled shirt with loosely knotted tie and baggy pants complete the effect. "A noise is a sound that annoys you."
He should know. Wood, who holds an undergraduate degree in engineering and a doctorate in physical chemistry, says his office and its two-man staff are besieged with complaints from people who claim that something or other is just too dad blamed noisy.
And with the advent of stuffy weather, complaints are bound to increase, as they have in the past, say Wood and police. An open window not only beckons fresh air, but also summer sounds--loud music, the din of construction.
In April, Wood's office received 20 complaints. Last year, the number of complaints rose from 15 in March to 55 in August. "It's definitely a seasonal thing," Wood explains.
As part of the Bureau of Consumer Health Services, Wood's office is part of the D.C. Department of Environmental Services. In addition to helping police identify dangerous substances, the office helps investigate noise complaints. Wood says the police are responsible for running down barking dogs and loud parties. His office takes on just about everything else.
For example, Wood has heard complaints about a hot-tub pump in Georgetown whose hum irritated a writer living next door, the University of the District of Columbia marching band disturbing the peace of its Van Ness campus neighbors and numerous complaints about chit-chattery air conditioners and stereophonic mayhem in condominiums and apartment buildings.
The noise law establishes a graduated scale of loudness, measured in decibels, for most sounds. However, some sounds--sirens on emergency vehicles and the sound of aircraft, for instance--are either exempt or covered by other regulations.
At night, any sound in a residential area that registers louder than 55 decibels at the line of the property on which it originates is illegal. How loud is that? Wood measured the sound of his telephone ringing two feet away: 70 decibels.
By contrast, he said, the sound of a bus pulling away from its stop is about 90 decibels to the person left behind in the exhaust fumes.
Wood's principal weapon in the war against noise is a sound-level meter, a twin-dialed contraption that electronically duplicates the workings of a human ear, hearing sound in much the way people do and measuring its loudness.
In instances were Wood determines that the sound exceeds the legal maximum, compliance is sometimes easy to obtain. For example, a hash mark on a stereo receiver showing how high the volume can be turned is often enough, Wood says.
If the noise continues, Wood urges police to issue a citation for a $50 fine. If the offender is a licensed business, Wood says, the license could be revoked, but that has never happened.
Wood says his most difficult case was the Ontario Theater on Columbia Road NW. He said the movie theater occasionally held rock concerts whose music was well above the legal sound ceilings. Over several seasons of fines, which totaled $500, the theater management decided to turn the musicians' amplifers down.
He says one of the biggest problems facing his office is that people don't seem to know that there is a noise-control act in Washington.
Hotel manager Willie Armstrong didn't know. Late last month the Shoreham Hotel, on Calvert Street NW, held several evening cabarets under a tent in its back yard. Neighbors complained that the music was too loud.
Wood's meter agreed with them. The Flaming Mamies' brassy sound was too much; it exceeded the limit for musical instruments measured from about a meter away.
"I was not aware of the law," Armstrong said. His hotel was fined $50, and he began to work with Wood to find ways to tone down some of the band's instruments. But the show soon closed for lack of an audience.
"I guess the problem worked itself out," Wood said with a chuckle from behind his desk.
Wood says half of his cases involve people complaining about their neighbors and half are people complaining about a business. Noisy air conditioners are the most common complaint. Loud recorded music is second.
Wood said the law requires that all air conditioners be inspected by his office before they can be installed. So, eventually, he believes the air conditioning problem will disappear. As far as blaring stereos are concerned, they will have to be turned down.
But Wood says there are household ways a person can better soundproof his home, such as hanging rugs on the wall or gluing pasteboard egg cartons to them.
However, Wood says the potentially noisy can best avoid problems by cooperating with their neighbors. Sound advice.