BONNER — Even the loudest detractors of the cryptocurrency data center alongside Highway 200 agree that life is better here these days.
After much research and even more listening to an increasing volume of complaints, the company formerly known as Project Spokane changed out the blades in all 144 exhaust fans on the roof of the old planer building in mid-July.
Five weeks later, a vestige of peace if not quiet has returned to this busy industrial town.
Noise level measurements by Big Sky Acoustics of Helena on Aug. 1 indicated a reduction of sound by 50 to 75 percent from the rooftop fans, which the report said would “typically be perceived as being between a clearly noticeable reduction and one-half as loud as the original conditions.”
“It’s a huge improvement,” said Nate Lengacher, who lives across the Blackfoot River in West Riverside. “In the quietest of times it just sounds like a box fan running in your neighbor’s window.”
“It sounds to me like it’s louder now but it doesn’t bother you like it did before. It’s a different frequency,” Joanne Weimer said in her yard around the first turn of Highway 200 north of Bonner.
Project Spokane, which was bought out by Hyperblock in early July, arrived in town unannounced in April 2017 with 12,000 high-powered computers. Their job is to validate cryptocurrency transactions, and like similar operations dating back to the Silicon Valley boom, they need lots of fans to keep them from overheating.
Lengacher likened the high-pitched, never-changing drone from the fans three-quarters of a mile away to “a brain-drilling jet engine coming through the roof.”
Denise Heikkila lives with her dogs directly across the highway from the giant former planer building, and she still gets a nonstop earful.
Used to be, “if I turned my TV off and tried to relax or sit on the porch, it was horrible,” she said. “Now it’s maybe not horrible, but it’s annoying.”
Retired, Heikkila said she lives with chronic pain.
“It reminds me, this is what chronic pain sounds like,” she said. “It’s almost like a water torture thing because it’s so continuous.''
The rooftop fan changeout took a week and was completed on July 20. Jason Vaughan, site manager for Hyperblock, said he noticed the difference immediately. The less agitating hum was like music to his ears — “or lack thereof,” he joked.
“We’re all happy, but the big thing is to make sure the community is happy,” Vaughan said. “Blockchain technology is going to be around for a long time, the next big thing after the invention of the internet, in my opinion. Data centers like ours are necessary for that network to work properly.”
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“We’re very excited and optimistic,” said Steve Nelson of Bonner Property Development LLC, which owns the mill site. Nelson has been one of the data center’s biggest supporters.
“The good thing is we’re still going to do some more work inside,” he said. “We’ve got some fan blades to change inside that we just couldn’t get to with so many other things going on. But the big deal is the problem may be solved. I hope that’s true. I think that’s true.”
In May, a request by Nelson and Project Spokane for more than $135,000 in county tax increment financing to change out the fan blades was turned down by the Missoula Development Authority Board.
Vaughan declined to say how much the change-out cost, but agreed that “some of that information is out there in the public.”
He was also vague about Hyperblock’s expansion plans, other than to confirm the company still has them. Sean Walsh, the founder of Project Spokane, has said the data center will eventually have 55,000 servers.
“For any business to succeed it needs to be able to expand and grow,” Vaughan said Wednesday, adding that “basically any expansion we’re looking at doing we are being proactive about the sound issues.”
Sean Connolly, the sound expert from Big Sky Acoustics, is enlisted to help with design work of the expansion, “just to make sure we’re not increasing the sound,” Vaughan assured. “That’s one of the key things that we’re looking at in advance.”
Lengacher said he gives Hyperblock and the mill site owners credit for reducing the bitcoin noise.
“But we don’t get back the year of our lives not being able to open our windows,” he said.
Weimer remains skeptical that issues surrounding one of the nation’s largest blockchain data servers in her hometown are over.
She showed up at a Missoula County commissioner meeting on Aug. 9 that was intended to consider a one-year ban on new or expanded cryptocurrency activity in the county, only to find it had been postponed indefinitely. More than 70 people showed up for a similar hearing in June.
It’s also hard to understand how a more than four-fold expansion of servers in Bonner won’t amp up the noise level again.
“For what it is now, it’s livable,” Weimer said. “But if they’re talking about putting in more ... It’s going to be louder, whatever they do.”