Breaking point

A utility pole project helps engineering students test their tensile strength.

Breaking point

Engineering students measure the amount of stress on a telephone pole.

Breaking point

A utility pole project helps engineering students test their tensile strength.

The nation’s 120 million utility poles are such a common feature in our modern landscape that it’s easy to look past them.

But for those who have to monitor and replace them, utility poles can require a lot of manpower. While the typical wooden pole lasts 25 to 30 years, a variety of factors can shorten that life — including excessive moisture, vibration and insects. Utility companies can have little or no warning that a pole is about to fail, so they have workers periodically perform stress tests in the field.

This year the utility companies got some help from a group of TCU engineering students that spent their senior year devising an automated system to monitor the poles, as well as a separate system that monitors the operations of circuit breakers.

In May the students gave a final presentation to some of the executives of Oncor Corp., who expressed significant interest in further pursuing both projects. Oncor operates the largest distribution and transmission system in Texas, delivering power to approximately 3 million homes and businesses and operating approximately 117,000 miles of distribution and transmission lines across the Lone Star State.

“The utility pole project will take many more years and a large investment of money to complete,” said Joel Hron ’09, one of the student leaders of the project. “Once funds become available, they expressed interest in pursuing this project as we suggested in the documentation we provided.”

Oncor also has an interest in the circuit breaker monitor the students have devised, noting that the two prototype monitors the students fabricated worked very well in a field test but needed some more work.

Hron, who is now a mechanical engineering graduate student at the University of Texas, said the project was invaluable to him because it allowed him to grow not only as an engineer but also as a person.

“One of my professors once told me (and now I see the truth in the statement) that engineering is always the easiest part of any project,” he said.

Dealing with people is the hard part,” Hron added. “Solving the problems at hand is always a challenge and my education has provided me with a great foundation to do just that.

“But being the leader of this project has given me the ability to experience and learn for myself how to respectfully and effectively lead a team of people to accomplish a goal. I have no doubt that the specifics of what I have learned from this experience will become more evident as I proceed with my career; I will draw on this experience for years to come,” he said.