If you’ve ever looked at a spec sheet for a portable air conditioner or a space heater, you’ve definitely noticed three distinct small letters nestled within a long list of numbers and abbreviations: BTU. Because the ordinary person doesn’t use this acronym very often in their daily lives, seeing it pop up everywhere when it comes to heating and cooling your home can be perplexing.
So, what are BTUs and why are they important? We’ve got all the answers, given in plain English so you don’t have to be a scientist or an engineer to figure it out!
Definition of BTUs
So, what exactly does BTU stand for? The acronym BTU stands for British Thermal Unit, but it isn’t limited to the United Kingdom. It’s a unit of measurement that, like pounds, inches, and degrees Fahrenheit, is part of the standard system. BTUs are used everywhere these types of measurements are utilized, but mostly in the United States. (This differs from Europe, where the metric system is the standard.)
The British Thermal Unit is a unit of energy measurement. At sea level, one BTU is equal to the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. This measurement corresponds to the amount of energy required for this process when water is at its densest point, which is around 39 degrees Fahrenheit.
A calorie is equivalent to a BTU in the common system. Calories are a metric unit of measurement for the amount of energy necessary to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. You keep track of how much energy you put into your body when you count calories (and need to burn off to maintain your current weight). You’re keeping track of how much energy your appliance can process to heat or cool your room when you calculate BTUs.
Your HVAC System and BTUs
BTUs are units of measurement for the amount of energy required to produce a specific amount of heat. The BTU rating of an air conditioner or heating system indicates how powerful the unit is. A heater labeled as a 5,000 BTU heater, for example, can produce 5,000 BTUs of energy over the course of an hour. The BTU/hr rating is technically correct, although many items just refer to this as BTU.
A heater with a greater BTU rating is more powerful than one with a lower BTU rating in terms of heat output. It can do more each hour to boost the temperature in your room, allowing you to either heat a room faster or heat a wider area.
It makes logical to label heaters this way because BTUs are used to quantify energy in relation to heat (remember, it all started with talking about heating a pound of water up). What about air conditioning, though? BTUs come into play here because you’re trying to cool a room.
Instead of supplying cool air, air conditioners remove heat from a room. This is made possible by the compressor system, which absorbs heat and transports it away from your room, where it is discharged into the atmosphere. In this example, BTUs are a measurement of how much energy it takes to remove the heat using the compressor system, not how much heat is added. Because this still requires energy, the BTU is a measure of this energy rather than direct heating.
High BTUs on your air conditioner, like a heater, indicate that it has more capacity to do its function. When comparing cooling performance between similar-priced air conditioners, the BTU rating can help you figure out which one is the most powerful and will give you the most bang for your buck.
Do You Really Need That Many BTUs?
When it comes to selecting the correct size heat pump, space heater, or cooling system for your home, BTUs are critical. If you buy an air conditioner with insufficient cooling power, for example, it will run constantly, driving up your electricity expenses and leaving you uncomfortable hot and sticky.
When air conditioning professionals talk about “sizing” a cooling unit, they don’t mean measuring it to see if it will fit in your window. Instead, they’re referring to the cooling capability of a certain unit, which is measured in BTUs. Higher BTU ratings indicate a more powerful air conditioner, but you don’t want to spend more than you need to.
The number of BTUs required to cool a room is mostly determined by the size of the space, or the amount of air to be cooled. You may calculate this by measuring the length and width of your room, then multiplying the two values to get the square footage. Once you know how big your room is in square feet, you may use a BTU chart to figure out how much cooling power you’ll need to keep it cool. When it comes to cooling, there is a BTU “start-up cost,” so a small space of 150 square feet will require 5,000 BTUs, but a room three times as large will not require three times as many BTUs to keep cool.
However, sizing an air conditioner involves more than just square footage. Before you go shopping for an air conditioner, consider these other parameters to change your BTU total:
When sizing your unit, you should consider the whole volume of air to cool, not simply the floor surface of the room. When BTU recommendations are made based on square footage, typical 8-foot ceilings are assumed. However, if you have high ceilings, your air volume will be substantially enhanced, necessitating a higher BTU rating. This can be avoided by utilizing a BTU calculator that takes ceiling height into account.
If you live in a warmer climate, the difference in the ambient air and your desired temperature will be greater, which means you’ll need your air conditioner to work harder. When it comes to air conditioner size, your region matters.
Direct sunshine, as well as being on a hotter second or third level of your home, will make your unit work harder. For units in these areas, increase your BTU total by 10%. Similarly, an air conditioner in a kitchen with a lot of equipment will have to deal with a lot more heat and will need to be bigger — usually by 4,000 BTUs.
Insulation is essential for the cooling process to work. You might be able to get away with using less BTUs if you reside in a well-insulated house, which is usually a newer property. In contrast, an uninsulated home will require a more powerful air conditioner to compensate for the loss of cool air through the walls. Otherwise, the air conditioner will have to run constantly to keep up with demand, resulting in exorbitant energy expenditures.
Because windows don’t have the same insulating ability as insulated walls, they lower your home’s overall insulation rating. If your room has a lot of huge windows, increase the BTU range by 10% to ensure that it has enough cooling capacity to keep up. To help improve the insulation of your windows, consider adding light-blocking shades or insulating curtains.
The more compact the layout of your home, the less energy is required to cool it. A ranch house with multiple wings has a lot of wall space, which means your cool air has more opportunities to escape. A residence with the same square footage but arranged in a multi-story floor plan will have a smaller footprint and lose less cool air. The larger the house, the more BTUs it will require to keep it cool. Open floor plans also use more BTUs than enclosed rooms since they cool down faster.
A solid rule of thumb for choosing the correct room air conditioner for your space is to take its square footage and consult a BTU table or look at the packaging for recommendations. Choose an air conditioner at the top of the BTU range advised for your room size, or go up a size to be safe, if you have high ceilings, lots of windows, or poor insulation. These guidelines will work for portable air conditioners, window units, and space heaters, but when it comes to the complexity of sizing a whole-house HVAC system for heating and cooling, you should always consult an expert.