Metric System – Time for US to Change?

Ramani Sundaram
The metric system is followed all over the world but is not yet enforced officially in the U.S.

When I moved to the United States, besides American English and culture, I found many things different, - driving on the right side, using mm/dd/yy date format, turning lights on by pushing the switch up and not down, and so forth. Having grown up outside of the U.S., it took some time to get used to the differences.

One variation in particular that took me more time to adapt was the change from metric to imperial system. I had been accustomed to the metric system for many years since my schooling in India and later in my work outside of the U.S. In fact, it was a surprise for me to find that the U.S. still continued to use the imperial units. Reading construction drawings in feet and inches and understanding specifications was a new experience and it took me time to conceptualize the size, weight or volume during quantity take-offs and pricing for construction cost estimates.

Though there have been efforts to implement the metric system in the U.S., it is not yet enforced officially. While there is reluctance and opposition, the cost and time involved in the conversion also may be holding up the implementation. Just imagine the cost of changing the road signs, rewriting building codes, recreating as-built drawings, producing measuring devices, etc. However, the long term benefits are said to be more than the one-time costs.

Metric System is Easier to Use

In the imperial system, you need to remember many conversion factors – some examples are given below.

  • Inches to feet (divide by 12)
  • Square feet to square yards (divide by 9)
  • Cubic feet to cubic yards (Divide by 27)
  • Pounds to tons (Divide by 2000)

In the metric system, conversion is simplified as you have to use only the power of 10. You can convert millimeters to meters dividing by 1000 (10 power 3) and after calculating the square meters or cubic meters, you do not require further conversions. Similarly, kilograms can be converted to metric ton simply dividing by 1000 (10 power 3).

The intermediate and final conversions required for the imperial units involve extra steps for arriving at the quantities of different items. Of course it is easy to build formulas in Excel sheets but after using both systems for a long time, I find the metric system is much easier to use. It is also odd to see the same unit of measure being used for unrelated items. For example, weight is expressed in ‘tons’ and the same ‘tons’ is used to denote air conditioning capacity! Asphalt paving quantity is calculated in square foot, square yards and also in tons! Similarly, carpet area is calculated in square foot but priced per square yard! In the metric system ‘tons’ refer only to weight, carpet area is quantified only in square meters and liquid volumes measured only in liters. The metric system does not have the same unit of measure for different items or vice versa. Instead of imagining the quarters, halves or the one eighths, visualizing their metric equivalents - 6 mm, 12mm, or 3mm, etc., is much easier.

Metric system is followed all over the World

Most of the countries in the world follow the metric system with the exception of few countries including the US. Being employed with Faithful+Gould occasionally I get a chance to work on some overseas projects located in the Middle East, India, Korea and China. The architects for these projects are located in New York but they follow the metric system for projects outside the U.S. This shows how essential the metric system is on global projects. Engineering, business and trade also require the metric system in the global market.

Standardization is Advantageous

It is needless to say how standardization of measurements will help the U.S. and other countries. If the same metric system is used everywhere, dual system will be eliminated and it will benefit science, engineering, education, all services, imports, exports, trade and commerce.

Conversion Efforts in the U.S.

Efforts for the conversion in the U.S. have been in progress since 1790. This was followed by the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 with later amendments. In the late 90s and early 2000s, I worked on a few public projects during which, one of the public agencies was trying to implement the metric system. It was given up later as some contractors found it confusing and made errors in their bids. Such initial problems can be overcome easily and shouldn’t deter the change from happening. The best method to start the change is to begin with the public organizations and then it can spread to the private industry. Though some agencies like NASA have started using the metric system at least partially, effective implementation is long awaited.

Just for the sake of learning, schools teach the metric system but it is not encouraged or followed in the industry. As it will be beneficial in the long term, it may be time for the U.S. to come out with a better plan to introduce the metric system in a phased manner over a couple of years, following dual units initially. Perhaps we can take some tips from our neighbor, Canada! Just as we have become familiar with a two liter coke bottle, it is easy for us to become conversant with meters, kilograms and kilometers and other metric units everywhere – science, engineering, medicine and the common market.