Billboard Mastery Podcast: Episode 17

Tips On Sign Construction Materials

Steel monopole, steel I-beam or wooden telephone pole – which is the best for your billboard deal? In this Billboard Mastery podcast we’re going to review some important tips on each of these materials and help you identify the correct construction materials based on your goals and budget. As you’ll learn, all billboard structures are not created equal – and that’s a good thing so that you can meet your goals.

Episode 17: Tips On Sign Construction Materials Transcript

Monopole, I-beam, wooden telephone pole, so many options, but only one is right for your sign. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. We're going to talk about the different sign construction materials, what they mean, which ones right, what the limitations are, what the benefits are to help you make a better decision in building that billboard of what to build it out of. Let's start off with the top of the line, the Cadillac of the industry, the steel monopole, that giant single metal pole that holds the sign up. Now, what do we know about the monopole? Well, let's see. The first thing we know is it has the biggest footprint of the various options as far as width or depth because the monopole is going to be about three feet in diameter, all the way up to five feet in diameter. So you've got to have the widest amount of ground space to put that monopole in.

Another thing we knew about them is they're extremely durable. Monopoles came from the Alaska pipeline back in about the 1970s and when we had the US energy crisis. They started building big pipelines to get oil faster from Canada. And when they would pressure test that pipeline, certain sections of the pipe were not good. They would leak oil. They knew this by injecting air into them and listening for a hissing noise. They didn't know what to do with the pipe and then someone had this idea that could be used for billboard structures, and that's where it all began. So this is very durable stuff. I had never heard of a monopole outside of a weather event ever failing. It's big, thick rolled steel, like a Sherman tank. So pretty much once you have those in the ground, they're not going anywhere.

They also have no height limit. A monopole can go to insane heights in the air. I don't think it's ever been tested to how high you could truly go before it would fail. I myself built, I want to say, a 120-foot tall monopole. No big deal at all. And they come even taller than that. I'm not really sure of the limit of the highest one in the US but I've seen them in cases, I think where they're nearing almost 200 feet in height. Another issue with them is that they are the easiest to disguise because a steel monopole sign when painted brown, it looks like a trunk from the ground. And then over the years, people have found other ways to disguise them. They can cover them with bricks, cover them with reflective Mylar, so you don't even fully see it.

But the big downside of the steel monopole, the real killer on them is the cost. They are by far the most expensive type of billboard structure. How much more expensive? Well, they're about at least double the cost of the next most expensive option, which is I-beam. So we call them the Cadillac of the industry, because not only are they the most attractive and longer-lasting, but like a Cadillac, they're also among the most expensive of the various car brands.

The next type is called the IB beam. Now, what is an I-beam? It doesn't look like an I unless you see it from above. If you look at a cross-section of the piece of steel, it looks like the letter I. That has been around for a long time. There are billboard I-beam structures dating easily back to the 1940s. But the '50s is when people really started using it in bulk. Prior to that, they were kind of building things one-off using angle iron, which is extremely labor-intensive and not even really that safe. So the I-beam has the skinniest footprint of the metal options because the I-beam is not really very thick. So typically in the same expansive of depth you put in that monopole, you could probably put in two to even three I-beam structures. So that's a strength. If you have not a lot of room between the property line and the side of a building, an I-beam may be the only way you can pull that off.

They're also very long-lasting. Just like the monopole, they're metal. If you bury them in the ground properly, they'll last forever, so they're extremely, extremely durable. Now, they can also go really high in the air, but they do have some limitations. The problem with I-beam is that I-beam is only strong in one direction. So the flat part of the I on either side, that is where the power is. But sideways, where they're not that thick, they don't have that much strength. They're not quite like a spaghetti noodle, but if the wind hits them just correctly and pushes on them sideways, they can fail. Now to keep them from failing, they weld cross-members based on the height to try and give the I-beams rigidity, but they can't go nearly as high as the monopole. At a certain height, it would be too dangerous because they did not have enough structural integrity to handle weather at super high heights, so that isn't going to work.

Now, they're also a whole lot uglier than a monopole. No one has ever thought of I-beam structures as being attractive. They're the ugly duckling of the steel options, so that's a real problem. And many property owners aren't going to let you build I-beam because they're going to say, "Ah, it's too ugly." But the main reason people use I-beams over everything we just discussed is it gives you that permanence of the monopole at a fraction of the cost. So it's going to deliver the benefits of steel, although not the visual benefits of the monopole, at a much-reduced price to the monopole. So if you're looking for a sign that'll be there forever, but you don't want to pay top dollar for it, then the I-beam is the next option.

But then there's another option, a good old-fashioned wooden telephone pole, the original. This is how they built billboards when they first brought them out back a hundred years ago because they were all made out of wooden telephone poles. Basically, wood cut into a pole, treated with creosote to keep insects out of it. So why would you build a sign out of a wooden telephone pole? Well, number one, it also, like the I-beam, does not have a very thick footprint, so that's a plus. So if you had a very narrow amount of land between the property line of the building, you can get a wooden telephone pole in there and they can go kind of high, but not super high. Wooden telephone pole signs typically top out about 60 feet in height for a couple of reasons, mainly the fact that they don't make telephone poles much higher than that. The other is, structurally, it's a telephone pole and it would snap. So you can't really go super high with them.

Another problem is they have a shorter life because unlike the steel monopole they rot. So when you bury them in the ground and you leave them for decade upon decade, they can rot. And when they rot, what happens ultimately is the poles can break. So you do not have that permanence feature of the metal sign. And then one really big problem with them is they're ugly. We all know they're ugly. That's one problem with all wooden telephone poles, they're not visually attractive. But why do people do them? They do them because they're by far the cheapest. You can build a wooden telephone pole billboard for a fraction of an I-beam, which is a fraction of a monopole. So if the whole point is to deliver a billboard at the lowest possible price, then wooden telephone pole is the winner.

Now, how do you pick between these, the appropriate one? Well, it goes back all to the pluses and minuses we just discussed. If you've got a very narrow strip between property line and building, and your budget will allow you to do it, you'll go I-beam. It may be the only thing that will fit there. If you've got a property where you're not that concerned about the aesthetics on the ground, and you want to do it permanently, once again, I-beam may be the right way to go. If you're trying to build a sign, though, on a budget, on a bargain-basement budget, then a wooden telephone pole is the only game in town. So, that would be the appropriate option there. But if you're trying to build a Cadillac sign, a permanent sign, a top of the line sign, a steel monopole is the only way to go. That's the accepted standard. So really a lot of it ties back simply to money.

Another aspect that allows you to pick between one and the other is what all the other signs look like. If you have a telephone pole sign in a market of all steel monopoles, you'll look kind of dumb. It'll be hard to get the same rents, even though the sign may have the same ad size as you get from the other varieties. So often, you're trying to match your sign to those surroundings so that you fit in with the Joneses. And then there's even safety implications. In some states, some areas, to put all the safety equipment required today by OSHA, the monopole is by far the easiest to adapt to meet all of OSHA's safety requirements. A telephone pole sign is much more difficult. So, there may be safety reasons you would do one over the other.

The bottom line is on every billboard you look at, you've got to come up with what your goals are. What's your budget for it? What can you do? What can't you do? What are you trying to accomplish? And then you work backwards to match that to these different types of structures. You don't start off saying every sign I'll ever be able to be monopole, because it won't. There'll be times when a monopole would be inappropriate, but there may also be times when the monopole is the most appropriate. The key to all of this is simply matching the product type to what the goals of the structure are. As long as you can accomplish that, then you've made the right choice. This is Frank Rolfe with the Billboard Mastery Podcast. I hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.