Case Study

Sound of Slience: "Quiet Curtains" Combine Audio Privacy and Aesthetics for Nursing Homes, Hospitals, Hotels and Offices

Published: June 28, 1999

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It's curtains for noisemakers with new high tech drapes that block unwanted decibels.

Dr. Krishan Ahuja, Regents researcher and head of the acoustics and aerodynamics branch in the Georgia Tech Research Institute's (GTRI) Aerospace & Transportation Laboratory, has designed a unique modular system of curtains that blends aesthetics with audio privacy.

The invention, appropriately dubbed "Quiet Curtains," stems from an effort to battle nocturnal noise in nursing homes. Typically, two types of noise disrupt patients: (1) sound from inside their rooms, such as a roommate snoring or listening to a loud television program, and (2) sound generated from the outside, such as carts rolling down the hall.

Ahuja's idea: transform the curtains that hang around a patient's bed into a product that not only provides visual privacy, but also acts as an acoustical shield.

To accomplish that, sheets of noise shielding material were sandwiched between two pieces of fabric and supported by a unique pocket system. A variety of materials can be used for the noise shields -- ranging from cardboard to metal. "It depends on how much noise you want to reduce," explained Ahuja, who is also a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Aerospace Engineering.

Aided by two Georgia Tech undergraduate students, Jessica Shearer, a physics major, and Mary Lynn Rivamonte, an aerospace engineering major, Ahuja conducted extensive testing to determine the noise reduction capabilities of various insert materials and exterior fabric. Besides analyzing acoustical properties, the researchers looked for such qualities as durability, fire retention and strength. Finally, they selected a plastic material to use as noise shielding material for the Quiet Curtains nursing home prototype.

In benchmark studies, the prototype reduced noise by about 7 decibels (dB). What's more, by adding a floor extension and valance, noise dropped approximately 12 dB. This is a deceptively large number as decibels are logarithmic units of measurement rather than linear.

"A reduction of 12 dB implies a reduction of sound intensity by a factor of 16," explained Ahuja. "It's akin to saying that if 16 toddlers were screaming 'I want Mommy' all at the same time on one side of the curtain, with a 12dB reduction on the other side, it would appear as though only one toddler was screaming."

"This is an innovative step to helping nursing home patients," said Dr. Joseph Ouslander, director of the Atlanta VA Rehab R&D Center of Excellence on Geriatric Rehabilitation, which supported development and pilot work for Quiet Curtains. Last year while studying nighttime incontinence management, the Rehab R&D Center began to examine environmental factors affecting patients' rest -- namely noise -- which led to Ahuja's involvement and invention.

"Sleep for these people is very disrupted to begin with," explained Ouslander, who is also professor at Emory University's School of Medicine, director of its Division of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine and vice presdent of Emory's Wesley Woods Center. "If there is any environmental intervention we can do to improve their night rest, it would result in a better quality of life," added Ouslander.

"There really hasn't been much research work done that has looked at noise in nursing homes -- especially as it relates to sleep disturbance," said Dr. Bettye Rose Connell, a researcher in environment and behavior at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. "What impresses me is that Quiet Curtains are such a practical solution to a real problem. And they give us a real opportunity to do more research."

Plans are underway for further testing of the curtains in nursing home settings.

Due to the noise shielding inserts, Quiet Curtains are heavier than regular curtains. Yet they remain easy to transport by folding up accordion style. Maintenance is also hassle-free, said Ahuja: "Just remove the noise shielding panels and you can toss the curtains in the washing machine."

Quiet Curtains can also be equipped with a viewing window, allowing patients to watch television or have visual contact with nurses -- without letting noise in. This is done by adding a transparent noise shielding sheet, such as Plexiglas or glass, and cutting away a portion of the exterior fabric. A shade can then be added to this window and raised or lowered when desired.

Though initially designed with nursing homes in mind, Quiet Curtains have broad consumer applications, says Ahuja. He lists offices, hotels, libraries, schools, homes, factories--even motor vehicles as potential users of the high tech drapes.

"The beauty about this is its tremendous adaptability," said Ahuja, noting that virtually any fabric, color and pattern can be used for the exterior shell. Noise reduction capabilities can also be customized. "Noise shielding panel material can be changed depending upon one's desire or need to control low frequency or high frequency noise. This will be a great benefit to a potential manufacturer," added Ahuja.

Size is yet another aspect of the invention's flexibility. Quiet Curtains adapt to small spaces, controlling noise generated by computers and printers or providing just-in-time privacy for open-office environments. Or large-scale curtains can be constructed for the factory floor. "Because they're so easy to wash, Quiet Curtains are ideal for rugged industrial settings," said Ahuja.

Specific costs haven't been determined yet. "Obviously they are going to be more expensive than conventional curtains," said Ahuja, but he is confident Quiet Curtains can be cost-efficient for a broad range of users.

Currently, a provisional patent has been filed and commercialization efforts are underway, including a search for potential marketing and manufacturing licensees.