Attracting Attention

A closer look at boat noise laws

Published in the February 2011 Issue Published online: Feb 28, 2011 Ask The Expert Joan Wenner, J.D.
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Most boaters don't want every large lake and inland waterway turned into one giant No-Wake zone because a small minority of operators ignore boat noise laws. With fines for violations no longer inexpensive, it's time for an update.

Engine noise statutes have been around a long time and initially were pretty much geared to nudge ahead engine technology back in the day to more quiet operation. Many still provide for somewhat higher decibel limits (dBA) for engines manufactured before 1993. Those states without specific levels cautioned boaters, and continue to do so, that engine noise had to be `adequately muffled' with no removing or tampering of factory muffler systems.

Noise Suppression

Engine noise suppression technology evolved with engine makers quite effectively meeting the challenge for quieter as well as for more efficient products. For example, personal watercraft makers, according to the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, have reduced engine sound pressure levels up to 70 percent since 1998. These reductions have been achieved in part by lowering the sound made as well as the pitch of the engine. Without getting technical, methods employed by manufacturers of these popular crafts (and carried aboard many houseboats plus often owned by pontoon owners and others), absorb or block the wavelengths of sound, which greatly lessens both the loudness and the pitch attributed to PWCs.

For instance, Polaris has had for a decade its Low Acoustic Noise Exhaust engine noise suppression system. More modernly, its four-passenger Genesis claims noise reduced by 60 percent. Yamaha's Super Jet includes its well-received Sound Suppression system, and Kawasaki, Sea-Doo and Yamaha WaveRunner each have their innovative models with the latest generation technology.

Read about advances in marine engines from manufacturers like Yamaha Marine, Mercury, American Honda, Yanmar Diesel, Volvo Penta, John Deere, and the well-known Crusader Engines in future issues of Houseboat.

Engine Noise Levels

The Coast Guard has long recommended a level of 86 decibels (dBA) for powerboats, though the limit varies somewhat by state. Commonly boats must not produce noise levels in excess of 86 dBA to 90 dBA when subjected to a stationary-mode standard. Some states say no boat shall be operated if it exceeds 75 dBA measured from the shoreline with the vessel in any level of operation, not less than 200 meters away. For those who may question the 75 dBA shoreline limit, extensive research showed noise-induced speech interference is a key annoyance factor and the highest acceptable outdoor background noise is a constant sound level of 72 dBA. Any higher requires people to raise their voices to communicate.

Mufflers must be installed to reduce noise, and existing mufflers or muffling systems must not be removed or be altered with a cutout or bypass that reduces or eliminates their effectiveness. Note most regulations require system compliance in all operational modes. Under Louisiana's Uniform Pleasure Boating Act, muffler regulations (similar to Oklahoma, Arkansas and Georgia) make it unlawful to operate without an "efficient muffler, underwater exhaust or other device capable of adequately muffling the sound of the exhaust of the engine." Alterations and modifications to a device or system meant to reduce noise can easily get you in some pretty hot water.

In addition to California setting noise levels, for the past five years it has utilized "a more efficient method to measure and enforce" the existing limits. Its noise laws apply to 1) inland waterways and coastal waters out to one mile from shore, 2) state registered recreational boats and those federally documented, and 3) the boat's owner responsible for the vessel's noise level, not the operator who borrowed or rented it. Penalties for violation can have a fine assessed of up to $250.

It is important to remember that the noise laws in many states that had fairly languished on the statute books have now been dusted off for renewed enforcement. Ohio has always enforced its "noise" laws normally on a "complaint-driven" basis and according to Officer Todd Doncyson of the Ohio Department of Natural Resource's Division of Watercraft Law Enforcement, while not many noise citations are written, they do try to educate boaters to promote voluntary compliance as to the mechanical aspects which he says has worked well for most operators. A decade ago courtesy testing of engines was provided as part of the state's boating safety legislation with time given for corrective measures to the system if needed, and continues to be in effect.

User Conflict

What the Ohio Division of Watercraft labels as the "user conflict" noise-related problem is equally important to address. This somewhat recent development relates to individual boater perception as to particular boating activities enjoyed, which has a decidedly unenjoyable effect on other boaters engaging in dissimilar activities. Do you think those snappy sport boats pulling skiers and tube toy riders for hours on end are in too close a proximity to a lazily motoring houseboat or cruiser? Or too close to the marinas and shore-side dwellers?

"This kind of arrest usually starts with a `normal' violation stop that leads to much more during the safety inspection process," says Officer Doncyson, who believes operating impaired is always a concern and major attention is given to it. His advice to `noise' violators: "Don't draw attention to yourself." A probable cause stop casts a wide net in checking for additional possible violations including speeding, reckless operation, lack of required onboard safety equipment, overloading, etc.

The immense and very popular Fox Lake Chain O' Lakes known as the "Key West of the Midwest" in northeastern Illinois has seen a disturbing increase in `noise' incidents the last couple of seasons and they, along with local officials, are determined to do something about it, said Fox Lake Agency Executive Director Phil Bartmann. It oversees and is the proud caretaker of the "busiest inland recreation waterway per acre in the United States." The Agency expects to have an ordinance affecting its over 7,100 acres of water, 15 lakes and 45 miles of river, included into the state statutes for enforcement purposes along with the strict speed limits already in place. Several alternatives had been attempted to no avail.

It should also be remembered, and Indiana with other states' legislation reminds us, that excessive boat noise can prevent an operator from hearing other boats' sound signals and warnings, and/or from hearing approaching marine patrol and emergency rescue vessels.

One more point for those who may trailer their crafts to U.S. national parks. A noise abatement regulation prohibits operation exceeding a level of 82dBA measured at a distance of 82 feet from the vessel.

Readers wanting to check the `noise' laws can check with their state boating department or can go to the National Boating Law Administrators website at www.nasbla.org/refguide and click on the appropriate jurisdiction.

A little consideration will go a long way on the water and may also save some a few citations along the way too.

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