An overhead power line, also known as a "pylon" in some areas, is a structure used in electric power transmission and distribution to transmit electrical energy along large distances. It consists of one or more conductors (most often three or four) suspended by towers or utility poles. Since most of the insulation is provided by air, overhead power lines are generally the lowest-cost method of power transmission for large quantities of electric energy.
Towers for support of the lines are made of wood (as-grown or laminated), steel (either lattice structures or tubular poles), concrete, aluminum, and occasionally reinforced plastics. The bare wire conductors on the line are generally made of aluminum (either plain or reinforced with steel, or composite materials such as carbon and glass fiber), though some copper wires are used in medium-voltage distribution and low-voltage connections to customer premises. A major goal of overhead power line design is to maintain adequate clearance between energized conductors and the ground so as to prevent dangerous contact with the line, and to provide reliable support for the conductors, resilient to storms, ice load, earthquakes and other potential causes of damage. Today overhead lines are routinely operated at voltages exceeding 765,000 volts between conductors, with even higher voltages possible in some cases.
Structures for overhead lines take a variety of shapes depending on the type of line. Structures may be as simple as wood poles directly set in the earth, carrying one or more cross-arm beams to support conductors, or "armless" construction with conductors supported on insulators attached to the side of the pole. Tubular steel poles are typically used in urban areas. High-voltage lines are often carried on lattice-type steel towers or pylons. For remote areas, aluminum towers may be placed by helicopters. Concrete poles have also been used. Poles made of reinforced plastics are also available, but their high cost restricts application.
Each structure must be designed for the loads imposed on it by the conductors. The weight of the conductor must be supported, as well as dynamic loads due to wind and ice accumulation, and effects of vibration. Where conductors are in a straight line, towers need only resist the weight since the tension in the conductors approximately balances with no resultant force on the structure. Flexible conductors supported at their ends approximate the form of a catenary, and much of the analysis for construction of transmission lines relies on the properties of this form.
A large transmission line project may have several types of towers, with "tangent" ("suspension" or "line" towers, UK) towers intended for most positions and more heavily constructed towers used for turning the line through an angle, dead-ending (terminating) a line, or for important river or road crossings. Depending on the design criteria for a particular line, semi-flexible type structures may rely on the weight of the conductors to be balanced on both sides of each tower. More rigid structures may be intended to remain standing even if one or more conductors is broken. Such structures may be installed at intervals in power lines to limit the scale of cascading tower failures.
Foundations for tower structures may be large and costly, particularly if the ground conditions are poor, such as in wetlands. Each structure may be stabilized considerably by the use of guy wires to counteract some of the forces applied by the conductors.
Power lines and supporting structures can be a form of visual pollution. In some cases the lines are buried to avoid this, but this "undergrounding" is more expensive and therefore not common.
For a single wood utility pole structure, a pole is placed in the ground, then three crossarms extend from this, either staggered or all to one side. The insulators are attached to the crossarms. For an "H"-type wood pole structure, two poles are placed in the ground, then a crossbar is placed on top of these, extending to both sides. The
insulators are attached at the ends and in the middle. Lattice tower structures have two common forms. One has a pyramidal base, then a vertical section, where three crossarms extend out, typically staggered. The strain insulators are attached to the crossarms. Another has a pyramidal base, which extends to four support points. On top of this a horizontal truss-like structure is placed.