Hearing Unusual Noises in Your Home? Learn How to Interpret Them

Most household systems and appliances will alert household occupants that something’s wrong by making unusual or bothersome noises. You’ll have a lot easier time diagnosing the actual problem if you know what specific sounds mean.

Following are some of the more common household noises that signal trouble (if you seldom hear these sounds, consider yourself lucky). Don’t assume that because you know what the sound means that you can fix the problem yourself. A lot of the time, you’ll be better off calling in a trained professional than trying to do the repair yourself.

Household Noises That Are Red Flags

• The sound of water running in the background. If someone is running a faucet or showerhead or flushing a toilet, of course you can disregard this noise. Otherwise, if you hear running water, it’s probably a problem, such as a defective toilet or water leak. A toilet that runs constantly will waste a huge amount of water, and usually the fix is relatively simple. You may be able to repair it yourself, by adjusting a chain, flapper valve or other hardware in the toilet tank. However, you (or your plumber) will need to replace specific parts or the whole flushing mechanism if for instance mineral deposits are preventing a tight seal or parts are worn out. For situations where you hear water running but can’t determine where it’s happening, call in a professional. While you’re waiting for them to show up, turn off the central water supply.

• The central AC is banging or screeching. It’s not unusual for parts to loosen in the air conditioner or heat pump’s air handler or outside compressor. The result may be loud banging. This can damage the equipment even further, if left untended. You should call in a trusted professional HVAC contractor. If a fan belt is loose, you might hear a loud squealing noise, though this could signify other serious issues. You can avoid this happening by scheduling annual professional maintenance on your cooling and heating systems. A yearly look at your HVAC systems will catch small problems before they become big, serious ones.

• Scary noises are coming from the furnace. Some of these may be serious; some may not, though any unusual noises emitted by the furnace should be looked at by a professional. It’s not unusual for a furnace to make low booming or popping sounds as the heat is starting up. It likely means the furnace burner(s) are partially blocked by ash or other residue of the burning process. The blockage delays combustion until enough fuel has accumulated to ignite. This sort of issue tends to worsen with time, so don’t delay calling in a professional.

• There’s visual or aural evidence of rodents or insects in the attic or crawlspace, or even in the ductwork. Are you hearing the pitter-patter of tiny feet, or (ugh) rustling or slithering noises that signify a snake or lizard? Are insects – ants, millipedes, stink bugs, etc. – starting to show up in your home’s living areas? No one in their right mind wants mice and other critters in their attic or basement; they’re disgusting just on general principle, but they also can cause serious damage by ruining insulation or chewing through electrical wiring. These pests can even infiltrate ductwork, which can contaminate household air. Call in a trusted exterminator to rid your house of these tiny, pesky invaders.

• Lights that are buzzing. This may mean a loose connection, which can result in sparking along with the threat of a housefire. If you have old fluorescent bulbs (the long ones), they often “buzz” even when operating as intended. Consider having an electrician retrofit the lighting fixture so it can work with energy-efficient (and quieter) LED bulbs.

• The fridge is running constantly and/or making rattling sounds. This could signal a malfunctioning compressor or perhaps a problem with temperature control in the appliance. Try cleaning the coils under and/or behind the fridge, and if that doesn’t work, call in a trusted appliance repair person. If you have an old fridge, you may be looking at replacement.

• A hard-to-locate general hissing noise. Please take this one very seriously, since it could be a life-or-death situation, a gas leak. If it is a gas leak, you’ll probably also smell the chemical additive that’s mixed with odorless natural gas for just this reason. Exit the house ASAP, leaving the doors and windows wide open, and call 911. Don’t turn on any electrical devices or lights on your way out.