Metric system use on the rise in the U.S.

International manufacturing is pushing use

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Betty English pulls out handfuls of small plastic cubes when she teaches nutrition classes at the Richmond County Extension Office.

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Christopher W. Spencer, the vice president of engineering at E-Z-Go, talks about the company's new vehicles and how they were made using the metric system at the facility in Augusta. Metrics have become common in U.S. manufacturing in recent years.  MICHAEL HOLAHAN/STAFF
Christopher W. Spencer, the vice president of engineering at E-Z-Go, talks about the company's new vehicles and how they were made using the metric system at the facility in Augusta. Metrics have become common in U.S. manufacturing in recent years.

“It’s not bigger than your little fingernail,” said English, a family and consumer sciences county extension agent. “We use it because nobody knows what a gram looks like.”

Each yellow cube is the size of a gram of fat. The visual aid helps break down daily value on the nutrition facts labels, often given in metric weights and measures.

“It causes confusion. Packages have both ounces and grams,” English said.

April 7 is sometimes celebrated as Metric System Day, even in the U.S., where U.S. Customary Units reign.

The metric system, developed in France during the French Revolution, was officially adopted by the French government on April 7, 1795.

Use in the United States is more widespread than some would think.

Consumer products from shampoo to ice cream bear metric units. Consumers buy soda in 2-liter bottles without a second thought. Metric speed limit signs can be spotted in a handful of municipalities across the U.S. And it’s often the industry standard in science, engineering, manufacturing and medical fields, according to the U.S. Metric Association, founded in 1916 to promote the metric system in U.S. commerce and education.

Today, the nonprofit tracks metric system usage in the United States and publishes how-to guides for using the metric system correctly.

“People are using the metric system whether they know it or not,” said Christopher Spencer, the vice president of engineering at E-Z-Go in Augusta. “There are accepted standards so people can communicate.”

Since December, a petition asking the Obama administration to make the metric system the standard in the United States has attracted nearly 50,000 signatures.

“The United States is one of the few countries left in the world who still have not converted to using the Metric System as a standardized system of measurement. Instead of going along with what the rest of the world uses, we stubbornly still adhere to using the imprecise Imperial Unit – despite the fact that practically every other country that we interact with uses Metric,” says the petition on

In business, “metrication” is a natural consequence of the international nature of manufacturing and sales.

At both E-Z-Go and Club Car in Augusta, new vehicles are built to metric specifications.

“By the 1990s, all American cars were metric,” Spencer said. Because the industry shares suppliers with the auto industry, E-Z-Go now is, too. Only updates to older-generation vehicles are still done in inches.

“Both systems are taught in engineering schools and around the world,” Spencer said. As engineers, “these are the two systems. You better know both.”

It’s common to switch back and forth in some lines of work.

“A quarter-inch is not a good measure of a diamond,” said Steven Cranford, the owner of The Jeweler’s Bench in Martinez.

Jewelers learn to weigh diamonds by metric carat, and measure their size in millimeters.

“It’s a more accurate measure,” he said. “It needs to be right-on.”

The same holds true in baking, said Karie Collins of An Eventful Year Bakery in Aiken.

“You’re idea of a cup varies from someone else’s idea of a cup,” she said. “You need to stay consistent.”

Measuring ingredients by weight instead of volume solves that. Doing so with a kitchen scale that reads in both grams and ounces opens a cook up to recipes from around the world.

“A kitchen scale is the one thing I can’t live without,” Collins said. “Without it, you could have a completely different product when you go to bring someone your cake.”

Unless you’re an engineer or you grew up with the metric system, “a lot of people have to go through the conversions in their mind,” said Ben Cunningham, the manager of mechanical engineering at Club Car.

That might not always be the case, Cunningham said. His 12-year-old son is learning the metric system in school now.

“He’ll tell me measurements in centimeters,” he said. “His generation is metric-driven. They’ll all be using it before we know it.”

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GoMetricAmerica 04/04/13 - 02:16 pm
metric use

While we still continue to wait for a white house response regarding the metric petition, its important to continue to educate people on metric units, regardless of age. As more consumers become more familiar with SI units, there will be a shift in product marketing, and dual labeling will become even more of a costly burden then it already is. Great article by the way. We are still moving forward, but we do need to pick up the pace.

trusten 04/04/13 - 05:15 pm
completing U.S. metrication

Ms. Jasper,

Thank you for your superb article and for the mention of our association. Your findings show what we already know to be true: that the U.S. has long since gone metric. It's just that we haven't finished the job.

President Obama should heed the online White House petition supporting U.S. changeover to the metric measurement standard. Now is surely the time for him, and for the Congress, to provide long-overdue leadership on this national goal. America must either lead, follow, or get out of the way of the global marketplace.


Paul Trusten
Registered Pharmacist
Vice President and Public Relations Director
U.S. Metric Association, Inc.

BeholdersEye 04/05/13 - 10:37 am
See mL Not gram

Dear Kelly, you can not see a gram unless you know the density, mass, and volume of a given material/element. The small cubes in your article is a volume of one cubic centimetre = 1 cm³ = 1 mL and if that was water would also be one gram. And I do believe fat is less dense than water, thus one gram of fat would take up more space than 1 cm³.

Also we should only be using one system - SI Metric, Americans are wasting money buying and using two incompatible tool sets and hardware. Why? The rest of the World only uses and buys one set of tools.

Using two different system is very confusing, causes problems, loss of money and is not working and wasting our time learning them both. Only teach SI Metric in schools, if American employers need workers to know American Imperial system, let the employer teach their own workers.

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