British thermal unit

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The British thermal unit (BTU or Btu) is a unit of heat; it is defined as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. It is also part of the United States customary units. [1] Heat is now known to be equivalent to energy. The modern SI unit for heat and energy is the joule (J); one BTU equals about 1,055  J (varying within the range 1,054–1,060 J depending on the specific definition; see below).


Another legacy unit for energy in the metric system is the calorie, which is defined as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. [2] While units of heat are often supplanted by energy units in scientific work, they are still used in some fields. For example, in the United States the price of natural gas is quoted in dollars per million BTUs. [3] [4]


A BTU was originally defined as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 avoirdupois pound of liquid water by 1 degree Fahrenheit at a constant pressure of one atmospheric unit. [5] There are several different definitions of the BTU that are now known to differ slightly. This reflects the fact that the temperature change of a mass of water due to the addition of a specific amount of heat (calculated in energy units, usually joules) depends slightly upon the water's initial temperature. As seen in the table below, definitions of the BTU based on different water temperatures vary by up to 0.5%.

VariantEnergy (J)Notes
Thermochemical≈1,054.3503Originally, the thermochemical BTU was defined as the heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water from its freezing point to its boiling point, divided by the temperature difference (180°F). The similar, thermochemical calorie was defined as the heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of water from freezing to boiling divided by the temperature difference in Celsius (100°C). The International Standards Organization now redefines the thermochemical calorie as exactly 4.184 J. [5] The thermochemical BTU is then defined using the conversions from grams to pounds and from Celsius to Fahrenheit. [6]
59 °F (15.0 °C)≈1,054.80 [7] Used for American natural gas pricing. [4]
60 °F (15.6 °C)≈1,054.68 [8] Mainly Canadian.[ citation needed ]
39 °F (3.9 °C)≈1,059.67 [8] Uses the calorie value of water at its maximum density (4 °C, 39.2 °F).[ citation needed ]
IT≈1,055.05585An early effort to define heat units directly in terms of energy units, and hence to remove the direct association with the properties of water, was taken by the International Steam Table Conferences. These conferences originally adopted the simplified definition that 860 "IT" calories corresponded to exactly 1 international watt-hour (not the same as a modern watt-hour). This definition ultimately became the statement that 1 IT calorie is exactly 4.1868 J. [5] [9] The BTU is then calculated from the calorie as is done for the thermochemical definitions of the BTU and the calorie. [6]
ISO ≡1,055.06 International standard ISO 31-4 on Quantities and units—Part 4: Heat. [10] This value uses the IT calorie and is rounded to a realistic precision.


Units kBtu are used in building energy use tracking and heating system sizing. Energy Use Index (EUI) represents kBtu per square foot of conditioned floor area. "k" stands for 1,000.

The unit MBTU is used in natural gas and other industries to indicate 1,000 BTUs. [11] [12] However, there is an ambiguity in that the metric system (SI) uses the prefix "M" to indicate one million (1,000,000), and consequently "MMBtu" is often used to indicate one million BTUs. [13]

Energy analysts accustomed to the metric "k" for 1,000 are more likely to use MBtu to represent one million, especially in documents where M represents one million in other energy or cost units, such as MW, MWh and $.

The unit therm is used to represent 100,000 BTUs. [11] A decatherm is 10 therms or one MMBtu (million Btu). The unit quad is commonly used to represent one quadrillion (1015) BTUs. [13]


One Btu is approximately:

A Btu can be approximated as the heat produced by burning a single wooden kitchen match or as the amount of energy it takes to lift a one-pound (0.45 kg) weight 778 feet (237 m). [14]

For natural gas


The SI unit of power for heating and cooling systems is the watt. Btu per hour (Btu/h) is sometimes used in North America, though "Btu/h" is sometimes abbreviated to just "Btu". [16] MBH—thousands of Btus per hour—is also common. [17]

Associated units

The Btu should not be confused with the Board of Trade Unit (B.O.T.U.), an obsolete UK synonym for kilowatt hour (1 kW⋅h or 3,412 Btu).

The Btu is often used to express the conversion-efficiency of heat into electrical energy in power plants. Figures are quoted in terms of the quantity of heat in Btu required to generate 1 kW⋅h of electrical energy. A typical coal-fired power plant works at 10,500 Btu/kWh (3.1 kWh/kWh), an efficiency of 32–33%. [22]

The centigrade heat unit (CHU) is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one Celsius degree. It is equal to 1.8 BTU or 1,899 joules. [23] In 1974, this unit was "still sometimes used" in the United Kingdom as an alternative to BTU. [24]

See also

Related Research Articles

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  1. In a short note, Woledge notes that the actual technical term "British thermal unit" apparently originated in the United States, and was subsequently adopted in Great Britain. See Woledge, G. (30 May 1942). "History of the British Thermal Unit". Nature. 149 (149): 613. Bibcode:1942Natur.149..613W. doi:10.1038/149613c0.
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  3. "Henry Hub Natural Gas Spot Price". U.S. Energy Information Administration. Archived from the original on 1 August 2017.
  4. 1 2 The BTU used in American natural gas pricing is "the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 avoirdupois pound of pure water from 58.5 degrees Fahrenheit to 59.5 degrees Fahrenheit at a constant pressure of 14.73 pounds per square inch." See "Chapter 220: Henry Hub Natural Gas Futures" (PDF). NYMex Rulebook. New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMex). Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 November 2016. Retrieved 6 January 2017.
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  6. 1 2 The pound is now defined as 453.59237 grams; see "Appendix C of NIST Handbook 44, Specifications, Tolerances, and Other Technical Requirements for Weighing and Measuring Devices, General Tables of Units of Measurement" (PDF). United States National Bureau of Standards. p. C-12. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 November 2006. One degree Fahrenheit is now defined as exactly 5/9 of a degree Celsius.
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  8. 1 2 Sørensen, Bent (2008). Renewable Energy Focus e-Mega Handbook. Academic Press. p. 5. ISBN   9780123747068.
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  11. 1 2 "What are Mcf, Btu, and therms? How do I convert prices in Mcf to Btus and therms?". U.S. Energy Information Administration. 6 April 2016. Archived from the original on 25 December 2016. Retrieved 30 December 2016.
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  20. "The GB gas wholesale market". Office of Gas and Electricity Markets. Archived from the original on 30 September 2013. Retrieved 13 January 2013. The wholesale gas market in Britain has one price for gas irrespective of where the gas comes from. This is called the National Balancing Point (NBP) price of gas and is usually quoted in price per therm of gas.
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