What Is a Point Load?

Michael Bates/CC-BY-SA 2.0

In the field of engineering, a point load is a load applied to a single, specific point on a structural member. It is also known as a concentrated load, and an example of it would be a hammer hitting a single nail into a beam.

The alternative to a point load is a distributed load. As the term implies, the force in a distributed load is applied across a given area rather than at a single point. An example would be water in a river that comes up against a dam; the pressure or force of the water is distributed fairly evenly over the entire width of the dam.

The differences between point loads and distributed loads become important in the analysis of a structure. In simple construction, the joist is a beam that distributes weight across the length of the beam. An unsupported beam-to-beam connection is a point load and a potential weakness in the structure. If too much weight or force is concentrated on a specific point, it can cause a beam to snap, and there can be other catastrophic damage to the overall structure.

In construction, a point load is reserved only for lighter structures or other cases in which the load or force is relatively light and not subject to undue stresses. To maintain structural integrity, designs and blueprints are engineered to avoid the use of point loads in other situations.