LOS ANGELES, CA — Living near one of the world’s busiest airports certainly has its drawbacks, but for thousands of homeowners in the vicinity of the Los Angeles airport, LAX, there’s now one big advantage: free air conditioning.

As a component of noise-abatement programs in Los Angeles and the neighboring city of Inglewood, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) picks up 80% of the bill, with the airport’s passenger departure fees (“ticket taxes”) contributing the remaining 20%. LAX is required by state and federal noise standards to offer free home improvements to homeowners subjected to decibels that surpass the legal limit.

Community outreach officer Nancy Niles, of Los Angeles’ Residential Soundproofing Bureau, says central air is the latest effort to help dampen the noise from LAX. “The bulk of the money in the residential program goes for double-paned windows, extra insulation, and solid-core doors,” she says. “It’s hard to say how much exactly is spent on air conditioning, since it doesn’t apply to all properties, but it’s approximately one-third of the project money.”

After improvements, Niles says, “Most homeowners have the perception that the noise level has been cut by half. Our guidelines are to reduce the actual decibels to 45, as measured in the home’s interior. That’s a very quiet environment.”

Sealing In Moisture

Although a climate study serves to separate the haves from the have-nots (see sidebar article), the reason given for installing air conditioning (and ventilation, for that matter) is the interior climate of super-insulated homes.

“Thick-paned glass, heavy doors, and lots of insulation have made residences weather-tight,” says Niles. “Basically, they’re so tight they can’t breathe. The moisture that builds up inside a home can’t be released.”

However, “The recently approved air conditioning systems, as well as the fresh-air return systems we’ve used in the past and that we continue to use in areas that don’t qualify for air conditioning, take care of the moisture build-up.”

Because it is located west of the I-405 freeway and therefore in the ocean-cooled area not eligible for air conditioning, the City of El Segundo has used FAA money to install ventilation systems in affected homes.

A special projects administrator for the city’s noise-abatement program says that El Segundo, unlike Los Angeles and Inglewood, refused to sign an easement with LAX and, consequently, the airport’s ticket taxes are not available for its use. Individual homeowners, then, must contribute an average of $7,000 (the 20% of the bill the FAA doesn’t fund) in order to have a ventilation system installed.

“This way homeowners retain the right to sue the airport in the future over noise disturbance,” the administrator adds.

Five Inglewood homeowners have decided to do the same, says Deanna Unternahrer, airport programs manager with the city’s Airport Noise Mitigation Division. They are the exception, since most homeowners sign a release if they can get home improvements, including a/c, for free. “There are 8,000 eligible units in the city,” says Unternahrer. “Over the course of the next 10 years, our goal is to retrofit 800 residences a year with air conditioning. The 110 units we’ve already completed, we now plan to retrofit with air conditioning, and we’ve got another 150 in the works.”

Contractor’s POV

“It’s good work if you can get it,” says Mike Abghari, vice president of Allied Engineering and Construction, which has a contract with the City of Los Angeles to install 50 fresh-air return and 50 air conditioning systems at an average cost of $25,000 per residence for all improvements.

The noise abatement program, started in 1997, is anticipated to run seven years, and is essentially on target to end in 2004.

And with Inglewood’s recent FAA award of $29 million and another $8 million from LAX, perhaps hvac contractors who aren’t already in Southern California might think of opening a branch in LA, or at least eyeing their local airports as a potential source of revenue.

Sidebar: Who Gets A/C, and Why

A climate study commissioned by the FAA determined that buildings west of the San Diego (CA) Freeway, I-405, are adequately cooled by ocean breezes, so they don’t warrant air conditioning.

One could argue, as officials in noise-beset El Segundo do, that homeowners can only take advantage of ocean breezes if they open their windows, which, of course, also lets in plenty of jet noise.

This doesn’t seem to faze the FAA and LAX, which hold fast to the climate study in determining which houses will receive air conditioning funds and which will not. In total, approximately 9,000 apartments and houses in Los Angeles and another 9,000 or so in the cities of Inglewood and El Segundo are subject to the noise.

— Heidi Nye