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Audible substation noise

Audible substation noise, particularly continuously radiated discrete tones (e.g., from power transformers), is the type of noise that the community may find unacceptable. Community guidelines to ensure that acceptable substation noise levels are maintained can take the form of governmental regulations or individual/community reaction (permit denial, threat of complaint to utility regulators, etc.).

Problems with audible substation noise
Problems with audible substation noise (photo credit:

Where noise is a potential concern, field measurements of the area background noise levels and computer simulations predicting the impact of the substation may be required.

The cost of implementing noise reduction solutions (low-noise equipment, barriers or walls, noise cancellation techniques, etc.) may become a significant factor when a site is selected.

As you already know, noise can be transmitted as a pressure wave either through the air or through solids. The majority of cases involving the observation and measurement of noise have dealt with noise being propagated through the air.

However, there are reported, rare cases of audible transformer noise appearing at distant observation points by propagating through the transformer foundation and underground solid rock formations.

It is best to avoid the situation by isolating the foundation from bedrock where the conditions are thought to favor transmission of vibrations.

Let’s analyse the following topics in order to fully understand the problems that create audible substation noise:

  1. Substation Noise Sources
  2. Typical Substation Noise Levels
  3. Governmental Regulations
  4. Noise Abatement Methods

1. Substation Noise Sources

Continuous audible sources

The most noticeable audible noise generated by normal substation operation consists of continuously radiated audible discrete tones. Noise of this type is primarily generated by power transformers. Regulating transformers, reactors, and emergency generators, however, could also be sources.

This type of noise is most likely to be subject to government regulations. Another source of audible noise in substations, particularly in extra high voltage (EHV) substations, is corona from the bus and conductors.

Continuous radio frequency (RF) sources

Another type of continuously radiated noise that can be generated during normal operation is RF noise. These emissions can be broadband and can cause interference to radio and television signal reception on properties adjacent to the substation site.

Objectionable RF noise is generally a product of unintended sparking, but can also be produced by corona.

Impulse sources

While continuously radiated noise is generally the most noticeable to substation neighbors, significant values of impulse noise can also accompany normal operation. Switching operations will cause both impulse audible and RF noise with the magnitude varying with voltage, load, and operation speed.

Circuit breaker operations will cause audible noise, particularly operation of air-blast breakers.

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2. Typical Substation Noise Levels

Equipment noise levels

Equipment noise levels may be obtained from manufacturers, equipment tendering documents, or test results. The noise level of a substation power transformer is a function of the MVA and BIL rating of the high voltage winding. These transformers typically generate a noise level ranging from 60 to 80 dBA.

Transformer noise will “transmit” and attenuate at different rates depending on the transformer size, voltage rating, and design.

Few complaints from nearby residents are typically received concerning substations with transformers of less than 10 MVA capacity, except in urban areas with little or no buffers. Complaints are more common at substations with transformer sizes of 20-150 MVA, especially within the first 170-200 m (500-600 ft).

However, in very quiet rural areas where the nighttime ambient can reach 20–25 dBA, the noise from the transformers of this size can be audible at distances of 305 m (1000 ft) or more.

In urban areas, substations at 345 kV and above rarely have many complaints because of the large parcels of land on which they are usually constructed.

Attenuation of noise with distance

The rate of attenuation of noise varies with distance for different types of sound sources depending on their characteristics. Point sound sources that radiate equally in all directions will decrease at a rate of 6 dB for each doubling of distance.

Cylindrical sources vibrating uniformly in a radial direction will act like long source lines and the sound pressure will drop 3 dB for each doubling of distance. Flat planar surfaces will produce a sound wave with all parts of the wave tracking in the same direction (zero divergence).

Hence, there will be no decay of the pressure level due to distance only. The designer must first identify the characteristics of the source before proceeding with a design that will take into account the effect of distance.

A transformer will exhibit combinations of all of the above sound sources, depending on the distance and location of the observation point. Because of its height and width, which can be one or more wavelengths, and its nonuniform configuration, the sound pressure waves will have directional characteristics with very complex patterns. Close to the transformer (near field), these vibrations will result in lobes with variable pressure levels.

Hence, the attenuation of the noise level will be very small. If the width (W) and height (H) of the transformer are known, then the near field is defined, from observation, as any distance less than 2√WH from the transformer.

Further from the transformer (far field), the noise will attenuate in a manner similar to the noise emitted from a point source. The attenuation is approximately equal to 6 dB for every doubling of the distance.

In addition, if a second adjacent transformer produces an identical noise level to the existing transformer (e.g., 75 dBA), the total sound will be 78 dBA for a net increase of only 3 dB. This is due to the logarithmic effect associated with a combination of noise sources.

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3. Governmental Regulations

Governmental regulations may impose absolute limits on emissions, usually varying the limits with the zoning of the adjacent properties. Such limits are often enacted by cities, villages, and other incorporated urban areas where limited buffer zones exist between property owners.

Typical noise limits at the substation property line used within the industry are as follows:

  • Industrial zone
  • Commercial zone
Additional governmental noise regulations address noise levels by limiting the increase above the existing ambient to less than 10 dB. Other regulations could limit prominent discrete tones, or set specific limits by octave bands.

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4. Noise Abatement Methods

The likelihood of a noise complaint is dependent on several factors, mostly related to human perceptions. As a result, the preferred noise abatement method is time-dependent as well as site specific.

Reduced transformer sound levels

Since power transformers, voltage regulators, and reactors are the primary sources of continuously radiated discrete tones in a substation, careful attention to equipment design can have a significant effect on controlling noise emissions at the substation property line.

This equipment can be specified with noise emissions below manufacturers’ standard levels, with values as much as 10 dB below those levels being typical.

In severely restrictive cases, transformers can be specified with noise emissions 20 dB less than the manufacturers’ standard levels, but usually at a significant increase in cost. Also, inclusion of bid evaluation factor(s) for reduced losses in the specification can impact the noise level of the transformer. Low-loss transformers are generally quieter than standard designs.

Low-impulse noise equipment

Outdoor type switching equipment is the cause of most impulse noise. Switchgear construction and the use of vacuum or puffer circuit breakers, where possible, are the most effective means of controlling impulse emissions.

The use of circuit switchers or air-break switches with whips and/or vacuum bottles for transformer and line switching, may also provide impulse-emission reductions over standard air-break switches.

Switch Interrupter with single bottle vacuum
Switch Interrupter with single bottle vacuum (photo credit:

RF noise and corona induced audible noise control

Continuously radiated RF noise and corona induced audible noise can be controlled through the use of corona free hardware and shielding for high voltage conductors and equipment connections, and through attention to conductor shapes to avoid sharp corners.

Angle and bar conductors have been used successfully up to 138 kV without objectionable corona if corners are rounded at the ends of the conductors and bolts are kept as short as possible.

Tubular shapes are typically required above this voltage. Pronounced edges, extended bolts, and abrupt ends on the conductors can cause significant RF noise to be radiated. The diameter of the conductor also has an effect on the generation of corona, particularly in wet weather.

Increasing the size of single grading rings or conductor diameter may not necessarily solve the problem. In some cases it may be better to use multiple, smaller diameter grading rings.

Site location

For new substations to be placed in an area known to be sensitive to noise levels, proper choice of the site location can be effective as a noise abatement strategy. Also, locations in industrial parks or near airports, expressways, or commercial zones that can provide almost continuous background noise levels of 50 dB or higher will minimize the likelihood of a complaint.

Larger yard area

Substation noise intensity varies inversely with distance. An effective strategy for controlling noise of all types involves increasing the size of the parcel of real estate on which the substation is located.

Equipment placement

Within a given yard size, the effect of noise sources on the surroundings can be mitigated by careful siting of the noise sources within the confines of the substation property.

In addition, making provisions for the installation of mobile transformers, emergency generators, etc. near the center of the property, rather than at the edges, will lessen the effect on the neighbors.

Barriers or walls

If adequate space is not available to dissipate the noise energy before it reaches the property line, structural elements might be required. These can consist of walls, sound-absorbing panels, or deflectors. In addition, earth berms or below-grade installation may be effective. It may be possible to deflect audible noises, especially the continuously radiated tones most noticeable to the public, to areas not expected to be troublesome.

Foliage, despite the potential aesthetic benefit and psychological effect, is not particularly effective for substation noise reduction purposes.

Properly constructed sound barriers can provide several decibels of reduction in the noise level. An effective barrier involves a proper application of the basic physics of:

  1. Transmission loss through masses
  2. Sound diffraction around obstacles
  3. Standing waves behind reflectors
  4. Absorption at surfaces

For a detailed analysis of wall sound barriers, refer to IEEE Std. 1127-2013.

Active noise cancellation techniques

Another solution to the problem of transformer noise involves use of active noise control technology to cancel unwanted noise at the source, and is based on advances in digital controller computer technology. Active noise cancellation systems can be tuned to specific problem frequencies or bands of frequencies achieving noise reduction of up to 20 dB.

Go back to Substation Noise Topics ↑

Reference // Electric Power Substations Engineering by James H. Sosinski / Consumers Energy

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About Author


Edvard Csanyi

Electrical engineer, programmer and founder of EEP. Highly specialized for design of LV/MV switchgears and LV high power busbar trunking (<6300A) in power substations, commercial buildings and industry fascilities. Professional in AutoCAD programming. Present on

One Comment

  1. Hiro Shiozawa
    Feb 07, 2018

    Dear Mr. Csanyi

    My name is Hiro and just happened to reach to your website when I was looking for the cause of humming noise in my house.

    I reside in urban area of Orange County, Southern California. Recently So Cal Edison upgraded and installed new transformer in my neighborhood and at around the same time I started hearing low humming noise 24/7 in my house. Sometime it is audible very slightly outside as well. It is very annoying and disturb my sleep.

    I cannot provide data such as frequency of the noise since I don’t have any equipment, however the noise I hear when I stand close to new transformer is very similar to the one I hear in my house. Funny thing is I can hear but my wife cannot. I learned from some website that some can and some cannot hear this sort of noise.

    I don’t know if this fact has something to do with but my house is located on the exact straight line from transformer when you draw that line along the house on the map. My house is about 370ft (110m) away from the transformer and most of (70%) the distance is through open space park.

    You may not expect this sort of comment, however I am desperate to have opinion from expert like you since So Cal Edison is no help. Thank you for your help in advance.


    Hiro Shiozawa

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