We’ve heard many times in the last few years that pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., with figures showing that nearly 9 million Americans are regular participants.
What we might not have heard is that it is a noisy sport, and when it’s played in urban areas, the sound of the solid paddle hitting the hard plastic ball – what some people call a “pwock” – is really getting on people’s nerves.
In North Berkeley, California, apartment dwellers have moved out over the game’s unrelenting noise. A Kansas City couple filed a lawsuit against an adjacent country club, alleging that the “repetitive nuisance” of pickleball was waking them up at 6am.
Pickleball players themselves don’t see the problem, and In New Jersey, a blogger described a community’s decision to close noisy pickleball courts as a declaration of war.
We’ve also reported on the subject in these articles over the last few months.
Pickleball is the hottest, fastest growing sport in the US. But it comes with some quality-of-life challenges for neighbors as it relates to noise. Not unlike tennis balls, pickleballs make a sound.— Alexa Grant (@AlexaGrantttt) June 5, 2023
New Hampshire attorney Robert Ducharme commented: “It’s touched a nerve, literally, around America. It’s becoming more of an issue.”
However, retired engineer, former professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Pickleball Sound Mitigation LLC founder Bob Unetich may just have found a solution that will satisfy both parties. He has turned into something of a pickleball scientist, investigating such factors as court placements and paddles.
Pickleball Is Loud!
Unetich, now in his 70s, became a fan of pickleball after retiring to Bonita Bay, FL. He had intended to spend most of his time on the water but found all his neighbors wanted to talk about and play was pickleball!
He was soon converted and took his participation to a new level, not only playing but becoming a referee and looking into the more technical aspects of the game. One of the things he discovered was that pickleball is loud, really loud.
The Science Bit
Unetich co-authored a research paper that found as the two hard surfaces of the paddle and the ball collide, it generates rapid vibrations of sound waves, resulting in an average decibel level of approximately 59 dBA when measured at a distance of 100 feet from the court. More powerful shots can reach up to 70 dBA. In comparison, tennis produces a lower decibel level of around 40 dBA.
This noise level tends to increase when multiple courts are situated close to each other, which is often the case.
Furthermore, the paddle and ball impact exhibits a high pitch, with a frequency of approximately 1.2k Hz. Some reports have noted this frequency is roughly equivalent to the beeping sound produced by a garbage truck backing up.
“This is the most annoying of all frequencies,” Unetich says. “It catches your attention.”
Unelich To The Resuce!
As the number of players at Bonita Bay increased to over 300, an attempt at addressing the noise problem was made when heavy vinyl sheeting was placed over the metal fence around the courts. However, that only acted as a sound reflector, not a dampener, and noise levels remained the same.
Cue Unetich to the rescue! He pioneered the addition of an absorbent fiberglass layer. It was so effective his idea was soon in demand from other pickleballing communities.
Realizing the gap in the market, he promptly founded Pickleball Sound Mitigation LLC in 2021, recruiting retired acoustical engineers Dale Van Scoyk and Barry Wyerman.
Since its establishment, the company has helped over 100 clients, predominantly local municipalities, homeowner associations, and neighborhood groups, who have expressed concerns about pickleball-related noise. They charge fees ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 for conducting sound reports on existing or proposed pickleball courts.
“Making Our Lives Hell”
Within Unetich’s Facebook group, which boasts more than 1,000 members, a diverse range of individuals participate in discussions. These members include pickleball equipment manufacturers and frustrated residents who describe the sport as “making our lives hell.” Topics of debate within the group include noise issues, pickleball-related lawsuits, and potential solutions.
Recently, Unetich and Wyerman presented three papers at a conference organized by the Institute of Noise Control Engineering. These papers introduced prospective noise standards specifically tailored for pickleball.
While several acoustic firms in the United States prepare sound reports for pickleball courts, Lance Willis, who operates Spendiarian & Willis, a consultancy specializing in pickleball since 2010, stated that Unetich’s company is the sole firm he knows of that focuses exclusively on pickleball noise matters.
Addressing The Ambassadors
With regards to raising awareness about noise concerns in pickleball, Van Scoyk highlights that Unetich possesses a distinct advantage due to his ongoing research endeavors and his affiliations with the sport’s governing body, USA Pickleball.
During pickleball’s rapid expansion, USA Pickleball had yet to make much effort to tackle the noise issue. However, the organization has recently actively involved Unetich, recognizing his expertise. They have sought his guidance and requested him to address the sport’s official “ambassadors” regarding recommended noise limits and strategies for ensuring adherence to them on pickleball courts.
During discussions with USA Pickleball and clients, Unetich emphasized a crucial piece of advice: Take all necessary measures to ensure that the average sound reaching the nearest residential areas from the court remains at or below 50 dBA.
Extensive Studies And Experience
Based on his extensive studies and experience, Unetich has observed that residents in suburban areas generally do not complain about noise levels within a few decibels above the typical suburban background noise. In more urban environments with higher ambient noise, Unetich proposes a maximum noise limit of 3 dBA above the background sound.
Achieving a noise level of 50 dBA can be relatively straightforward with proper planning. Data presented in one of Unetich’s papers suggests that even in open spaces, the sound produced by pickleball is typically tolerable for individuals residing 977 feet or more from the court. Anecdotally, Unetich has rarely received complaints from people living beyond approximately 500 feet.
Out of the approximately 10,000 courts in the US, Unetich estimates that several hundred are situated close enough to residential areas to create noise-related issues. This problem may escalate if cities and communities, seeking cost and space efficiency, continue converting old tennis courts located near homes without considering sound implications.
“Towns are often doing this without any regard to sound because they haven’t thought about it,” explains Unetich.
Constructing Pickleball Courts From Scratch
While sound barriers like the one in Bonita Bay can reduce noise levels by around 10-15 dBA, they can cost approximately $50,000 or more. Consequently, constructing a pickleball court from scratch is often more cost-effective in the long run than repurposing an old tennis court located near residential areas.
Unetich has researched the noise levels of various paddles and balls. He discovered that using softer plastic balls can reduce the average sound of a pickleball match by 1-3 dBA, and he envisions the possibility of someone inventing a quieter ball that maintains a similar bounce to plastic balls (as foam balls significantly alter the game’s dynamics).
Additionally, Unetich found thicker, softer-faced paddles could be up to 7 dBA quieter than typical models. He compiled a list recommending over a dozen paddles with frequencies lower than 1 kHz.
The Production Of Quieter Equipment
While high-level players tend to prefer the softer-faced, thicker paddles due to their spin-enhancing qualities, average pickleball players often opt for cheaper models that generate more noise. Furthermore, paddle manufacturers primarily focus on power and control aspects without considering the reduction of sound levels.
Unetich has engaged in discussions with USA Pickleball regarding paddles to incentivize the production of quieter equipment. He remains hopeful that the organization will endorse a range of paddles designed for recreational players, featuring noise level and pitch standards.
Unetich concludes with a statement concerning the increasing prevalence of pickleball in densely populated regions such as Europe and Asia: “If you introduce pickleball there, it will inevitably become a problem.”
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