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UNIT CONVERSION

(c) Dept. of Physics, University of Guelph

The conversion of numbers from one system of units to another often puzzles
students, but if it is treated as just another problem in arithmetic using arithmetic's
rules the problems disappear.

For example: Knowing that there are 2.54 cm in 1.0 inch, how many cm are there in
15 inches?

Of course the answer is simple

15 in = 15.0 X 2.54 = 38.1 cm

But what actually was being done here? The complete solution is as follows:

Notice that the units were treated just like arithmetic quantities and the "in" were
canceled.

Let's do one that is not quite as obvious! How many (mm)2 are there in 4.0 (in)2? The
solution is:
Notice that the quantities 2.54 cm/in and 10 mm/cm were used but, because the units
had to be squared, then the numbers that accompanied them had also to be squared.

Another example: Convert 30 mi/hr into m/s. This is a common conversion. It is


necessary to know that there are 1.6 km in 1 mile and 3600 s in 1 hr (60 X 60).

Notice that the only tricky part here is the time conversion 3600 s/hr which is the
wrong way up for our conversion but of course it is equally true that there are
(1/3600) hr/s.

So long as the relevant relations between the quantities are assembled in advance,
then any conversion can be performed using these strict arithmetic rules.

Try this more complicated conversion:

An old (and ridiculous) unit of thermal conductivity sometimes still encountered in


building materials is

Btu.hr-1.in.F-1.ft-2

where 1 Btu = 1054.8 J

1 in = 2.54 cm

1 ft2 = 0.0929 m2

9F=5C

What is 1 (Btu.hr-1.in.F-1.ft-2) in proper units (W.m-1.C-1)?


Go to answer:

The solution is:

Just take the quantities one at a time:

1. Convert Btu to J and cancel Btu

2. Convert in to cm and then m canceling in

3. Convert ft2 to m2 and cancel ft2

4. Convert F to C and cancel F

5. Convert hr to s and cancel hr

If you’re in a car moving at 60 miles an hour, is that faster or slower than 60 feet per
second? If you want to convert 60 miles to kilometers, the conversion factor is 1.61,
but do you multiply or divide?
Everybody finds these questions confusing, not just students. Yet if you use a
little algebra, they are easy to answer. You can do any conversion, quickly and
reliably. This article shows you how.

This page is about converting units yourself. If you’ve just come here to do a
particular conversion and you don’t care about the method, I recommend Google
Calculator, which lets you type an expression using the “in” operator and get the
conversion. Here’s a simple form:

The Big Secret


The method for converting units comes right from one simple principle:

Numbers with units, like 16.2 meters or 32 ft/sec²,


are treated exactly the same as coefficients with
variables, like 16.2x or 32y/z².

Once you grasp this, you see at once why the laws of units work as they do. You can’t
add 32 ft to 32 ft/sec, any more than you can add 32x to 32x/y. And when you divide
32 miles by 4 hours to get 8 miles/hour, that’s exactly the same as dividing 32x by 4y
to get 8x/y.
Multiply by 1
To convert units, there’s only one other thing you need to bear in mind:

You can multiply anything by 1 and not change its


value.

Obvious, right? “So why mention it?” I hear you ask. Because multiplying by 1 — a
carefully chosen form of 1 — is the key to converting units.

Let me illustrate with an example. I’ll deliberately pick an easy one, one you could
probably do in your head, so that I can show the steps excruciatingly clearly.

Suppose you want to convert four and a half hours to minutes. Of course
you know that 60 minutes
= 1 hour
Now divide both sides by 1 hour. (Remember you can do this because
you treat the unit “hour” just like a variable. If you had 60x = 1y, you 60 minutes
could certainly divide both sides by 1y.) After dividing, you have
----------
= 1

1 hour
Why did I do that? Because if (60 min)/(1 hr) = 1, then I can multiply
any measurement by that fraction and not change its value. (I’ll explain a
little later why I divided through by 1 hr and not 60 min.) So go back to
the 4½ hours that we wanted to convert to minutes. To do the conversion,
simply multiply by that well-chosen form of 1:
4.5 hr × 1
which is the same as
6
0 min

4.5 hr ×
------

1 hr
Now, x times y/z is the same as xy/z, so our units expression is the same
as 4.5 hr ×
60 min

----------
-----

1 hr
Notice that you have hours (hr) in both top and bottom. Just as you
would divide through by x when x was in both top and bottom, so you 4.5 × 60 ×
can divide through by the “variable” hr: min
----------
----

1
which multiplies out to
270 min

Summary: to convert units, construct a fraction that is equal to 1, multiply the original
measurement by that fraction, and simplify.

Is This Really Multiplying by 1?

“But wait a minute!” I hear you say. “You started with 4.5 and ended up with 270.
How is that multiplying by 1?” The answer is that we didn’t start with a
“dimensionless” pure number 4.5, but with 4.5 hours; and we didn’t end up with a
pure number 270 but with 270 minutes. You should be able to convince yourself that
if you bake a turkey for 270 minutes or 4½ hours, either way you wait the same length
of time for dinner.
A number with units is different from a number without units or with different
units, just as 8x is different from both 8 and 8y. Think of it this way: 3.27 dollars or
euros is the same as 327 cents, when you multiply by the “carefully chosen form of
1”, 100 cents/dollar or 100 cents/euro. If the top and bottom of the fraction are equal,
the fraction equals 1 and the value after multiplying is the same as the value before
multiplying — but expressed in different units, which of course is the whole point.

You might be asking yourself, “Why all the fuss? Anybody knows that to convert
hours to minutes you have to multiply by 60.” Well, yes, that’s true. But I deliberately
chose a simple example to show the method. I’ll try to use more realistic (i.e., harder)
examples from here on.

Be Reasonable!

If you follow the procedures on this page, it will be impossible for you to multiply by
a conversion factor where you should divide, or vice versa.
But we all make careless mistakes, so it’s good to have a rough and ready check
on your work. You can always apply this rule: “if the containers are small, you need
more of them to hold the same total.” For example, an hour is longer than a minute,
so you expect 4.5 hours to convert to some larger number of minutes. If you ended up
with 0.075 minutes, you would know you had made a mistake.
In any math work, it’s always best to work a problem two different ways, to
guard against careless errors. But second best is to work the problem carefully and
apply some test for reasonableness, like this one.

How to Pick a “1”


You might be wondering how I knew to pick that particular fraction that was equal to
1. There are just two simple steps:

1. Find a conversion factor between the given units and the desired units,
and write it as an equation.
Example: whether you have miles and need kilometers, or you have
kilometers and need miles, you can use either conversion factor between
miles and kilometers, namely 1 mi = 1.61 km or 1 km = 0.621 mi. Either
equation will work equally well.

2. Convert that equation to a fraction with the desired units on top and
the given units on the bottom. More formally, divide both sides by the
value of the side that contains the given units. (Actually, this rule is
oversimplified, as we’ll see below.)
Example: To convert from miles to kilometers, you need a fraction
with the desired units (kilometers) on top and the given units (miles) on the
bottom. Based on the above conversion factors, that fraction must be either

1.61 km 1 km

------- or --------

1 mi 0.621 mi

Those fractions look different, but remember that they’re both equal to 1
and therefore they are just different forms of the same fraction. Either one
will work just fine for the conversion.

Once you’ve selected a useful fractional form of 1, multiply the original measurement
by the fraction, and simplify.
Example: If the original measure was 15.7 miles, you would multiply by either
of the above fractions and obtain 25.3 km.

Where to Find Conversion Factors


I don’t just pull the conversion factors out of my hat. Many books have tables of
conversions, including the venerable Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.
There are also several good sources on line. My favorite is at the US National
Institute of Standards and Technology,
<http://ts.nist.gov/WeightsAndMeasures/Publications/appxc.cfm>, though the sheer mass of
information can be overwhelming.
Looking at such references, you may note that this article uses common
abbreviations like sec (seconds) and hr (hours), rather than the official abbreviations
(s and h, respectively). That is deliberate, since most students are more familiar with
the longer forms. In scientific work, you’d be expected to use the official forms.

Chaining Conversions

If you can remember some conversions, you may be able to combine them to avoid
looking up a specific conversion. If you have a calculator handy, it can be faster to
do extra arithmetic than to go to a reference and look up a single conversion factor.

For example, how many meters are in the 440-yard dash? To convert 440 yards to
meters, you could look up the conversion factor between yards and meters. But if you
happen to remember that 1 in = 2.54 cm and 36 in = 1 yd, it’s probably faster just to
use those (plus 100 cm = 1 m) than to look up the single conversion factor. This
means you multiply by three different forms of 1:

36 in 2.54 cm 1 m

440 yd × ----- × ------- × ------

1 yd 1 in 100 cm

and collect terms to

440 × 36 × 2.54 yd in cm m

--------------------------

100 yd in cm

Doing the arithmetic, and dividing top and bottom by yd, in, and cm, you have the
answer, 402 m. Having started with 440 yd and multiplied by 1×1×1, you know that
the initial value equals the final value:

440 yd = 402 m

Your own example might be different: you may happen to remember different
conversions than I do. But if you commit a few factors to memory, you will find that
by combining them you can avoid looking up a whole lot of conversions.

Compound Units
What about more complex units, like converting miles per hour to kilometers per
hour, or even miles per hour to feet (or meters) per second?
You use the same technique and multiply by a well-chosen fraction that equals
1, only you need to do it for each unit to be converted. It’s just a more general form
of chaining, which you already know how to do.

The following examples take you through progressively more complicated situations:
1. mi/hr ==> km/hr illustrates a straight conversion with the “per hour” units
unchanged.
2. mi/sec ==> mi/hr is another single conversion, but this time the units to be
converted are in the denominator so step 2 in picking a fraction is a little
different.
3. km/hr ==> m/sec shows how to do two conversions on the same quantity.
4. sq ft ==> sq m shows what to do when units are raised to a power.

Example 1: miles per hour to kilometers per hour

This problem can be solved using either 1 mi = 1.61 km or 1 km = 0.621 mi. I’ll work
it both ways, in parallel.

To start, write the original measurement as a fraction:


11.6 mi

-------

hr

Going from mi/hr to km/hr, you see that you end up with the same denominator you
started with, so only the numerator has to change units. In other words, this is just our
old friend miles ==> kilometers, with the “per hour” tagging along unchanged. So the
conversion is the same one you’ve done before. Simply pick a fraction with the
desired units (km) on top and the given units (mi) on the bottom:

11.6 mi 1.61 km 11.6 mi 1 km

------- × ------- or ------- × --------

hr 1 mi hr 0.621 mi

As you see, you can use either conversion factor, miles to kilometers or kilometers to
miles. It doesn’t matter because, by forming a fraction equal to 1, you automatically
make the right choice between dividing and multiplying.

Going on to simplify the fractions, you have

11.6 × 1.61 mi km 11.6 mi km

----------------- or -----------

hr mi 0.621 hr mi

Either way, divide top and bottom by mi and you have

11.6 × 1.61 km 11.6 km

-------------- or --------

hr 0.621 hr

Do the arithmetic to get 18.7 km/hr either way.

Example 2: miles per second to miles per hour

Escape velocity from the earth’s surface is about 7.0 mi/sec. What is that in mi/hr?

Here again, you’re converting only one unit, seconds to hours (1 hr = 7.0 mi
3600 sec), and the “miles per” is just along for the ride. But what’s different 1 hr
here is that the units you’re converting are in the denominator of the
fraction, not in the numerator. Look what happens if you apply the old rule ------
of desired units on the top: ×
-------
-

sec
3600
sec
and you end up with
7.0
mi hr

-------
-----

3600
sec sec

This is no good: you can’t simplify this fraction to remove the seconds (sec). Rule 2
in picking a fraction, as originally stated, only applied when the units to be converted
were in the top of the fraction (or not in a fraction at all).

Here’s the more general form of Rule 2, the form that will always work: when
picking your fraction that equals 1, put the given units in the opposite position
from where they are in the original measurement. If the original measurement had
the given units on the top, your 1-fraction will have them on the bottom; but if the
given units are on the bottom of the original measurement then your 1-fraction must
have them in the top. Do this so that you can divide top and bottom by the given units
when simplifying.
Let’s come back to the example, 7.0 mi/sec converted to mi/hr, and do it the right
way:

Write the conversion equation: 1 hr = 3600


sec
The given units (sec) are in the denominator (bottom) of the original
measurement, so sec must be in the numerator (top) of the conversion 3600
fraction: sec

1 =
--------

1
Multiply the original measurement by 1:
7.0 mi
3600 sec

------ ×
--------

sec
hr
Ah, that’s much better! Now you can divide top and bottom by sec:
7.0 × 3600
mi
------------
-

hr
Multiply 7 by 3600 to get your final answer, to two significant figures:
about 25,000
mi/hr

Example 3: kilometers/hour to meters per second

A race car has a top speed of 310 km/hr. What is that in m/sec? For this example
you’ll combine chaining multiple conversions with the new and more general form of
Rule 2 for picking the fraction.

You have two conversions to do, kilometers to meters and hours to 1 hr =


seconds. You know the conversion factors: 3600 sec

1 km =
1000 m
In converting km to m, the given units (km) are on top, so in the
conversion fraction km will be on the bottom. By contrast, in converting 310 km
hr to sec, the given units (hr) are on the bottom so the conversion 1000 m
fraction will have hr on the top. To do two conversions, you multiply by 1 hr
two fractions (1 × 1):
------ ×
------ ×
--------

hr
1 km
3600 sec
Now divide top and bottom by hours (hr) and by kilometers (km):
310 × 1000
m

----------
--

3600 sec
and do the arithmetic to obtain the answer:
310 km/hr
= 86 m/sec

Example 4: square feet to square meters

Sometimes you have to deal with squared units. In the US, you often see them with a
“sq” prefix. But they are actually easier to manipulate if you treat them just like
variables (again!) and use the ² sign.
I correspond with a friend outside the US, and we are describing our homes to each
other. If my apartment measures 850 square feet, what is that in square meters? In
other words, convert 850 ft² to m².

Solution: I need a fraction equal to 1, with m² on the top and ft² on the bottom. The
way to obtain that is to form a fraction equal to 1 with plain m on the top and plain ft
on the bottom, and then square it (since 1² = 1).

As it happens, I don’t remember the conversion from feet to meters, 1 ft = 12.00


but I do remember the conversions between both of them and inches: in

1 m = 39.37
in
So I construct my fraction in two steps:
1 = 1
× 1

1 m
12.00 in

1 = --------
× --------

39.37 in
1 ft

12.00 m

1 = --------

39.37 ft

0.3048 m

1 = --------

ft
Now remember that the original measurement is in ft². Therefore I
must multiply the original measurement, 850 ft², by the square of the (
above fraction, to get ft² in the denominator and match the ft² in the 0.3048 m )²
original measurement:
850 ft² ×
( -------- )

(
ft )
When a fraction is squared, that’s the same as squaring the top and
squaring the bottom, including units: 850 ×
0.3048² ft²

------------
--------

ft²
Divide through by ft² top and bottom, and do the arithmetic to get the
answer: 850 ft² = 79

What about cubic measure? How many cubic feet is 12 cubic yards? It’s exactly the
same deal, except that you’ll need to cube your well-chosen form of 1 to do the
conversion.

Start with 1 yard = 3 feet, so your fraction is (3 ft)/(1 yd): 3 ft

12 yd³ × ( ---- )³

1 yd
This simplifies to
12 × 3³ yd³ ft³

---------------

1 yd³

12 × 27 ft³

12 yd³ = 324 ft³

Recap of the Procedure


In a nutshell, do all conversions of units by multiplying the original measurement by a
well-chosen form of the number 1. A bit less briefly:

1. Find the conversion factor for the given and desired units, and write it as
a fraction with the given units in the opposite position from the
original measurement. (If the original measurement has the given units
in the numerator, the conversion fraction needs them in the denominator,
and vice versa.) The value of that fraction is 1, since the top and bottom
are equal.

2. If the given units are raised to a power, raise the conversion fraction to
that same power.
3. Multiply the original measurement by the conversion fraction, and
simplify.

But My Calculator Has a “Convert” Key!


So? sooner or later you’ll have to convert a measurement with units that aren’t in
your calculator. At that point a lot of students start to guess, and the more complex
the units the more likely they’ll guess wrong. If you understand what you’re doing,
using the techniques on this page, you’ll have smooth sailing.

You can also use these same techniques to do currency conversions, which are
probably not on your calculator because the rates fluctuate. See the practice problems.
(The currency convertor at xe.com is a great tool for when you’re on line.)

Some Troubles

Not every conversion can be done using the techniques on this page.

Temperatures

Converting between temperatures in Fahrenheit and Celsius (sometimes called


“Centigrade”), you cannot just multiply by a carefully selected form of 1. The reason
is that the two measures have different zero points.
What do I mean by that? Well, with pretty much every other measurement you’re
likely to meet, you’re converting between two sets of units where the zero point is the
same. 0 pounds equals 0 kilograms, 0 liters equals 0 cubic centimeters, and so on. But
with temperature this is not true: 0 degrees C is a different temperature from 0 degrees
F.
You could apply the techniques on this page to convert temperatures after
relating them to a common zero point, but it’s probably a lot easier just to remember
the standard formula as a special case: F = 1.8C + 32. You may recognize this as the
slope-intercept form of the equation of a straight line. With other conversions, the
intercept is 0 because the conversion line passes through (0,0); but with temperature
there’s a nonzero intercept because 0 degrees in one measure is not equivalent to 0
degrees in another.

Impossible Conversions

Temperatures take special caution because of differing zero points, but at least
temperatures can be converted. However, some conversions are completely
impossible, not just impossible using the techniques on this page but impossible by
any means at all.
For instance, you can’t convert gallons to square feet (or liters to square
centimeters) using any techniques. Why is that? Because gallons and liters measure
volume, and square feet or square centimeters measure area. It’s like converting x³ to
x²: it’s just not meaningful.
You can use dimensional analysis to show this in a formal way, but informally
just remember that area is two dimensions of length and volume is three dimensions
of length, and measurements you convert must always have the same number of
dimensions. One day I may write a page on dimensional analysis, but for now you can
look at Dimensional Analysis from the University of Guelph Department of Physics if
you’re interested in this topic.

Practice Problems
Here are some problems to practice on, with the conversion factors you need and my
answers. You should be able to do all of them easily by using the techniques on this
page. Remember not to make your answers more precise than the original
measurements!
If you run into trouble, or if you get a different answer and after careful checking
it still looks right to you, you might post a note to the newsgroup alt.algebra.help.
Don’t just post the problem, but show how you tried to solve it. That way you’ll get
the most specific, focused help.

1. The Introduction asks which is faster, 60 miles an hour or 60 feet a


second. Well?
(1 mi = 5280 ft; 1 hr = 3600 sec.)
Answer. 60 mi/hr = 88 ft/sec, which is faster than 60 ft/sec.

2. How much does a 2-liter bottle of soda pop weigh in pounds? (Assume
that the pop has the density of water, namely 1 kg/liter, and that the
weight of the bottle itself is negligible.)
(1 kg = 2.2 lb.)
Answer. 4.4 pounds.

3. An Englishman returning home from Norway has 860 kroner of pocket


money that he never spent. How much is that in pounds?
(Assume an exchange of NOK 12.32 = £ 1.00.)
Answer. £ 69.81.

4. In book IV of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam rappel down a cliff,
using a rope 30 ells long. How high was the cliff, if the rope nearly
reached the bottom?
(1 ell = 45 in; 12 in = 1 ft; 1 m = 39.37 cm.)
Answers. About 110 feet or 35 meters. (Since we know only that the
rope “nearly” reached the bottom, and don’t know exactly how much was
tied to an anchor at the top, the second figure in each of those answers is a
bit mushy. We might say 100-110 feet or 30-35 meters.)

5. A Canadian vacationing in the States pays $1.689 a gallon for gasoline.


What would be the equivalent price at home? (Gasoline is sold by the
liter in Canada, as in most countries.)
(1 US gal = 3.785 liter; assume a conversion rate of C$ 1.60 to the US
dollar.)
Answer. The price is equivalent to 71 Canadian cents a liter.

6. You buy a 750 ml bottle of rum. How many rum-and-Cokes can you
make, using an ounce and a half of rum in each drink?
(1 US fluid ounce = 29.57 ml.)
Answer. About seventeen drinks.
7. What is 65 degrees in radian measure?
(pi radians = 180°.)
Answer. About 0.361×pi, or 1.134 radians.
Comment: Technically an angle in radians is simply a pure number, and
radians are not units. When you say “2 radians”, that is identical to the
unitless number 2. And though degrees are units, they are dimensionless,
like percentages. However, the technique presented on this page works just
fine for converting between degrees and radian measure.

8. How many cubic meters are there in a cubic mile?


(1 mi = 1609.344 m.)
Answer. 1 mi³ = 4.168182×10^9 (about 4168 million) m³.

9. My 1967 Encyclopædia Britannica says that Lake Erie has a surface


area of 9930 square miles and an average depth of 58 feet. How much
water does it hold, in cubic miles? in liters?
(1 mi = 5280 ft; 1 liter = 0.001 m³, and use the answer to the previous
problem.)
Answers. 109 mi³, 4.55×10^14 (455 million million) liters.

10. Lake Erie has a surface area of 9930 square miles. If an inch of rain falls
on the lake one day, how many gallons have been added to its volume?
How many liters?
(1 mi = 5280 ft; 1 ft = 12 in; 1 US gal = 231 in³; 1 US gal =
3.785 liters.)
Answers. About 1.73×10^11 (173,000 million) gallons, 6.53×10^11
(653,000 million) liters.