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Real Estate Surveys: The US is Ditching the Official Foot Measurement

real estate surveys: the us is ditching the official foot measurement

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Published date:

January 02, 2020

Last updated date:

November 03, 2023

By Caroline Kirby

For the last 60 years, a seemingly small difference in measurement systems has been causing complete chaos for those in various fields, like surveying. During these decades, there have been two different definitions of the 12-inch measurement known as a foot - the international foot and the U.S. survey foot. After years of complications and confusion, collaborative action is being taken by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Geodetic Survey (NGS), National Ocean Service (NOS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create uniformity. Since 1959 the U.S. has been using the international foot, which is slightly smaller than the U.S. survey foot. The issue? Surveyors were not mandated to make the change, and a majority continued using the U.S. survey foot. On a small scale, this may not seem like a problem, but there's a real difference. When looking at a 12-inch ruler, you wouldn't be able to see the difference, but on a large scale, the difference is glaring. The international foot is smaller, and when measuring a mile, it can add close to an eighth of an inch difference, making the United States 28.3 feet wider when measuring with the international foot. Presently, surveyors in 40 U.S. states and territories still use the larger U.S. foot while the rest use the smaller international one. However, this will officially come to an end in 2022. In October, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology announced that they would phase out the U.S. survey foot with the "goal of providing national uniformity in the measurement of length" as they work to modernize the National Spatial Reference System (NSRS). Starting in 2022, the international foot will just be called the foot. Some may be wondering why the change is necessary if we've been working with it for so many years and the truth is that many professionals have continuously run into issues with this system, or lack thereof. Most recently, major issues arose while planning high-speed rail in California. Another complication often seen is when two states that are collaborating in surveying land and use different systems, like a bridge project between Oregon, which uses the international foot, and Washington, which uses the U.S. survey foot. These problems can spiral into much bigger issues like:

  • Time delays on projects
  • Extra costs
  • Potential safety hazards

Some experts have acknowledged that the change could spark some annoyance, but reiterate that this necessary change will save professionals time and erase the chance of embarrassing errors. This change will help maintain uniformity and save on time and money on major projects.

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