That low rumble from equipment manufacturers on the far side of the Atlantic signals a storm brewing over tighter noise regulations for construction equipment. The European standards, first passed in 2002, are scheduled to drop the permissible limits by 3 dB on Jan. 1, 2006. It remains to be seen if the distant thunder foreshadows a brief but harmless squall or a full-blown tempest that will eventually reach North American shores.

The Europeans point out that they’ve cut equipment noise in half over the past decade. But the technology may be reaching its limits. "Ninety-seven percent of our members’ machines will be in compliance," says Ralf Wezel, secretary general of the Committee for European Construction Equipment (CECE). While there is "no doubt that the new noise standards will improve the quality of life" in densely populated European urban centers, they will pose problems for several types of equipment, Wezel says.

Roadbuilders will find themselves in the legislative crosswalk when the light changes. Steel track dozers and graders will not comply, nor will many scrapers and paver-finishers, Wezel says. Other problematic noisemakers include hand-held compaction devices.

CECE is looking for a little wiggle room for the remaining 3% that will not measure up to the new restrictions. Wezel told reporters gathered in Verona, Italy, for a preview of May’s SAMOTER earth-moving and building machinery exhibition, that he’s looking for a phased approach, similar to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for diesel emissions (ENR 5/24/04 p. 10). He also asks for some understanding from the citizenry on inconvenience that he characterizes as relatively minor. It makes little economic sense to spend millions of euros to make a machine marginally quieter when it will only disturb a neighborhood once every decade or so for road construction or repairs, he says.

It is difficult to imagine that NIMBY issues would be any less volatile in Europe than in the U.S., but Wezel "put his finger exactly on the point," says Darrin Drollinger, vice president of technical and safety services for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. It makes sense to fund research and development to quiet a finishing machine that works on the outside wall of an occupied building for several months, he says. But Drollinger also questions the cost-benefit analysis of big spending to dampen noise on a road machine that may be present for only a few days once in 10 years.

"There is no regulatory pressure right now" in the U.S. about noise, Drollinger says. EU rules as now written will, however, "cause huge problems for companies that do even a nominal bit of business" in Europe, he says. "It’s hard to imagine that as of next Jan. 1, companies will not be selling bulldozers in Europe, but that day will soon be at hand unless something happens."

Other trends may prove more nettlesome than noise rules to CECE in the long run. The European Union’s Brussels-based equipment directorate keeps tabs on output from 1,200 companies in 11 EU countries. CECE’s member companies provided for 140,000 jobs and a turnover of $19.5 billion in 2004, Wezel says. Major markets in Europe developed much better than expected in 2004, he notes (see chart). Sales of earthmoving equipment and tower cranes were robust, but road equipment and crushing and screening gear were somewhat softer.

CECE’s forecast for construction activity in 2005 shows slippage in the expansion rate to 1.7%, from 5 to 7% for 2004. Italy, which claims a 20% share of the European earthmoving market, expects growth to slow, thanks in part to a 2% growth cap on public works spending.

European members’ U.S. sales have been stronger than expected. Despite recent adjustments, the dollar’s weakness against the euro continues to pose problems. China’s continuing growth in steel consumption and development of its own equipment manufacturing capacity could cut more deeply into CECE’s 30% share of the world equipment market.

The absence of regulatory structure or enforcement in China and India will also pose problems for both European and U.S. manufacturers, said one vendor at the SAMOTER preview. "We’re building machines based on compliance in the U.S. and Europe, and the Chinese and Indians are rushing in to fill the gap in their own country and other markets like Africa where there are no environmental standards," he says.