Metric-Based Prefixes Used for Electrical Calculations

In any system of measurements, a single set of units is usually not sufficient for all the computations involved in electrical repair and maintenance. Small distances, for example, can usually be measured in inches, but larger distances are more meaningfully expressed in feet, yards, or miles. Since electrical values often vary from numbers that are a millionth part of a basic unit of measurement to very large values, it is often necessary to use a wide range of numbers to represent the values of such units as volts, amperes, or ohms. A series of prefixes which appear with the name of the unit have been devised for the various multiples or submultiples of the basic units. There are 12 of these prefixes, which are also known as conversion factors. Four of the most commonly used prefixes used in electrical work with a short definition of each are as follows:

Mega (M) means one million (1,000,000).
Kilo (k) means one thousand (1,000).
Milli (m) means one-thousandth (1⁄1,000).
Micro (μ) means one-millionth (1⁄1,000,000).

One of the most extensively used conversion factors, kilo, can be used to explain the use of prefixes with basic units of measurement. Kilo means 1,000, and when used with volts, is expressed as kilovolt, meaning 1,000 volts. The symbol for kilo is the letter “k”. Thus, 1,000 volts is one kilovolt or 1kV. Conversely, one volt would equal one-thousandth of a kV, or 1⁄1,000 kV. This could also be written 0.001 kV.

Similarly, the word “milli” means one-thousandth, and thus, 1 millivolt equals one-thousandth (1⁄1000) of a volt.

Figure 4 contains a complete list of the multiples used to express electrical quantities, together with the prefixes and symbols used to represent each number.

Figure 4. Prefixes and symbols for multiples of basic quantities.