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Generators and noise in neighbourhoods: How to respect neighbours’ rights

Written by Prof. Reghard Brits, part-time lecturer in Business Law at Akademia.

Generators are becoming an everyday phenonemon in neighbourhoods. The reasons for this need barely be mentioned. Although generating power indepently is a useful way to restrict the consequences of loadshedding, this unfortunately goes hand in hand with a great deal of noise.

The inconvenience is possibly something one can live with, as it means that you can provide electricity to your business and/or household. The problem is, however, that the sound of a generator is not limited to the boundaries of your property. Your neighbours are also exposed to it and thus there may be a possibility of conflict.

So, what should you do in order to respcet neighbours’ rights if you want to use a generator at home?

Firstly, you must make sure that you meet the requirements as laid down in local and provincial legislation for the use of generators in your area, which would vary from municipality to municipality or even from province to province. There are also national regulations regarding noise, as promulgated in terms of the Environment Conservation Act of 1989, which applies only if your province does not have its own regulations. An expert should therefore be consulted regarding the technical requirements in respect of the type of generator that is permitted, noise levels, means of installation, et cetera. Please also note that in sectional title schemes and other types of estates, you should also adhere to the specific rules of the scheme and that you should also obtain advice from the body corporate or home owners’ association to gain a clear understanding of the rules.

Once the rules of authorities have been met and all is in place, the next step is to talk to your neighbours. You would not necessarily need their permission, but by informing them you could avoid future conflict. Most peopole would understand that you need a generator, but many would also appreciate being acknowledged in this regard. It is exactly at this point that neighbours’ rights regarding nuisance and reasonabiliby come into question. This is not so much about the requirements as laid down by the authorities, but about the legal relationship between neighbours – the rights and responsibilities they have towards each other because their properties are adjacent to one another.

The point of departure is that each person in principle has the right to use and enjoy their property as they like – within the limits of the law, of course. The way in which you use your property could, however, also have an impact on your neighbours and their rights. You may for instance use a generator on your property (that is if you adhere to the relevant legislation) and you may even make a noise. Such noise is, however, not restricted to the boundaries and the problem is exactly that you, by causing noise on your property, could infringe on your neighbours’ rights to enjoy their property in silence.

In order to avoid the probability of conflict or to resolve conflict, it is essential to be reasonable. People may use their properties reasonably, but they also have a duty to tolerate a reasonable extent of inconvenience. My neighbours for instance have the right to use a generator on their property, and as a neighbour I should accept a reasonable measure of noise. When it becomes unreasonable, however, my neighbours are causing a nuisance. It is not easy to draw the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable, as it depends on the circumstances of each case to see whether a situation is reasonable. The sound must of course fall within the limits as laid down by the relevant authorities, but technically adhering to legislation is not the end of the story. Even if such requirements are met, it could still have an unreasonable effect on your neighbours and it is therefore necessary to find a balance.

In this respect a few things can be done.

Do your best to limit the noise. You could for instance talk to your neighbours, as well as to a technical expert, about the best position to place the generator. Try and place it as far as possible from the neighbouring property, especially where their living areas or windows are close to the boundary. Consider installing soundproof screens or something similar. Nowadays there are even soundproof generators on the market.

These measures would of course not eliminate all of the sound, but under certain circumstances your sincere effort to restrict sound would indicate reasonableness. There are also other ways of meeting your neighbours’ expectations. Do not, for instance, use the  generator in the middle of the night, and use it only when really necessary. Do not purchase a bigger (more noisy) generator than required to meet your minimum needs. Be reasonable and place yourself in your neighbours’ shoes.

If you find yourself on the other end of the line and you find your neighbours’ generator disruptive, have a sensible conversation with them. Do not be defensive, but try to explain your situation in an amiable way. See if you can reach an agreement. Perhaps they would be prepared to move the generaqtor or to limit the noise by means of soundproofing. Reasonableness must come from both sides. It should be understood that you cannot insist on absolute quiet and should not be oversensitive – especially in the position South Africans at present find themselves. We are living in times where generators are unfortunately necessary and we must all work together to maintain a suitable balance in our neighbourhood. Live and let live!

Although you must therefore tolerate a reasonable measure of noise, it is actually possible  to take further steps if matters go too far. Depending on where you live, it is in the first place possible to report an infringement of the prescribed noise restrictions to the authorities. In cases where your neighbours refuse to understand reason and the noise is really excessive – and you are not just being oversensitive – you could also glean legal advice and apply to the courts for an interdict to force your neighbours to stop the nuisance. Litigation between neighbours must, however, be avoided at all costs, as it could result in longstanding unpleasantness.

Prof. Reghard Brits is of the opinion that adherance to rules of the authorities as well as respecting neighbours’ rights are required in order to avoid litigation between neighbours regarding the noise of generators.


Biography of the author:

Prof. Reghard Brits is a part-time lecturer in Law at Akademia and has BCom (Law), LLB  and LLD degrees from the University of Stellenbosch (US). Brits’s research focus is Real Security Rights as well as Business Law in general and aspects of Insolvency Law and Consumer Credit Law. He was recently admitted as an attorney and conveyancer and is employed at Brits Dreyer Incorporated in Bellville. In the past he was engaged as senior lecturer and associate professor at the University of Pretoria and at present is an extraordinary professor at the University of the Western Cape as well as a research partner at the US.