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Demystifying Kilowatts vs Horsepower: A Complete Guide on When and How to Use These Power Units

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between kilowatts and horsepower and when to use each? Both units are used to measure power but in different contexts. This comprehensive guide will explain all you need to know about applying kilowatts and horsepower correctly.

Introduction: The Crux of Kilowatts vs Horsepower

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty details, let‘s quickly summarize the key difference between these two important power units:

  • Kilowatts are used to measure the power consumption and output of electrical devices and systems. For example, the wattage power draw of home appliances, electric vehicles, power generators etc. is measured in kilowatts.
  • Horsepower is used to measure the mechanical power and output of engines, motors, pumps and other machines that generate rotary motion and torque. The engine power of cars, trucks, aircraft etc. is denoted in horsepower.

So in a nutshell, use kilowatts for electrical, use horsepower for mechanical. Understanding the right usage context is crucial! Now let‘s explore the history and physics behind these units.

A Historical Perspective

To properly understand kilowatts and horsepower, we must go back in time to the late 18th century. It was then that Scottish inventor James Watt devised these units to standardize power measurement.

Watt is most famous for his pioneering work on the steam engine which was key to the Industrial Revolution. The need arose to quantify the power output of these new engines as compared to the manual labor of horses which powered many older machines.

Thus the horsepower unit was born. Watt defined it as the power needed to lift a total of 33,000 pounds one foot in the air in one minute.

Fun fact: Contrary to the name, horsepower does not actually equal the power of one horse which is closer to 15 hp! The name was coined just as a marketing tactic.

Later, as electrical generation and distribution systems became more prominent in the 1880s, Watt standardized power measurement under the metric system which gave rise to the watt and kilowatt units.

One kilowatt would equal 1000 watts, representing the instantaneous power draw in electrical devices under operation. The kilowatt hour (kWh) emerged as the usage to calculate electrical energy consumed over time.

Now that we know some history, let‘s move on to the physics behind power and how kilowatts and horsepower are calculated.

Understanding Power: The Physics Behind Kilowatts and Horsepower

Power is defined in physics as the rate of doing work or the rate of energy transfer. It represents the amount of work done per unit of time.

The standard equation for power (P) in watts is:

Power (P) = Work (W) / Time (t)

Work is measured in joules (J)

So power is the rate of conversion of energy from one form to another expressed in joules per second or watts (W).

One watt is defined as power conversion at a rate of 1 joule per second.

To measure larger amounts of power, we use:

  • Kilowatt (kW) – 1000 watts
  • Horsepower (hp) – 550 foot-pounds per second (745.7 watts)

Now let‘s see how we calculate power in these units.

Kilowatt Calculation

Kilowatts represent the power or wattage draw of electrical devices. Here‘s how to calculate kilowatts from watts:

Power (kW) = Power (Watts) / 1000

For example, if a microwave oven draws 1200 watts of power when operated on full power. Its power draw in kilowatts is:

1200W / 1000 = 1.2 kW

The kilowatt-hour (kWh) is used to measure electrical energy consumed over time. It is calculated as:

Energy (kWh) = Power (kW) x Time (hours)

So if the 1200W microwave is used for 0.2 hours (12 minutes), the energy used is:

1.2 kW x 0.2 hours = 0.24 kWh

Horsepower Calculation

One horsepower was defined by James Watt as 550 foot-pounds of work per second. This is equivalent to 745.7 watts.

The most common application of horsepower is to measure the delivered power output of vehicle engines. This is called brake horsepower (bhp).

The formula for brake horsepower is:

bhp = (Torque x RPM) / 5252

Where torque is measured in lb-ft

RPM is engine speed in revolutions per minute

Let‘s say a car engine produces 250 lb-ft of torque at 4500 RPM. Its horsepower is:

(250 x 4500) / 5252 = 172 bhp

So in summary, use the above formulas to convert between horsepower, kilowatts and watts as needed.

Real-World Uses and Applications

Now that we have seen how to calculate power in kilowatts and horsepower, let‘s look at some practical examples of where these units are applied.

Kilowatt Usage

Kilowatts are the standard unit for measuring electrical power. Some common applications are:

  • Home and office appliances – The wattage or power draw of lights, fans, AC units, refrigerators, computers etc. is measured in kW. See the table below for typical values:
Device Power (kW)
Incandescent light bulb 0.06 kW
LED light bulb 0.005 kW
Desktop computer 0.3 kW
Window air conditioner 1 kW
Electric stove 1.5 kW
Electric oven 2.2 kW
  • Electric vehicles – The power of electric motors in EVs and hybrids is expressed in kW. Electricity usage is calculated in kWh.
  • Power generation – The output capacity of generators at power plants is expressed in megawatts (MW) or gigawatts (GW). 1 MW = 1000 kW.
  • Electricity usage – Your monthly electricity consumption at home or work is calculated in kWh based on the kW rating and hours of operation of appliances.
  • Industrial equipment – Motors, conveyors, assembly line systems, welding equipment etc. often have a kW power rating.

Horsepower Usage

Horsepower is the standard for measuring mechanical power outputs. Some examples are:

  • Automobiles – The power of car, truck and motorcycle engines is rated in horsepower. More the hp, faster the vehicle can accelerate. Small cars may have 100 bhp while trucks can have 300+ bhp engines.
  • Aircraft – The turbine engines in jet planes, helicopters etc. produce thousands of horsepower. The GE90 jet engine on the Boeing 777 generates 127,900 hp!
  • Construction equipment – Excavators, backhoes, bulldozers are all rated by horsepower. More hp allows heavier loads to be lifted and moved.
  • Diesel generators – Standby and prime power diesel gensets used on worksites and for emergency power backup have hp ratings in the thousands.
  • Outboard motors – The propulsion engines on boats, yachts and other watercraft are measured in hp. More hp provides higher speeds.
  • Pumps – Large industrial pumps that move fluids and slurries are often rated in terms of input hp requirements.

So in summary, use horsepower for mechanical power applications where torque generation and rotary power are key metrics.

Kilowatts vs. Horsepower: A Side-by-Side Comparison

Now that you understand the usage contexts for kilowatts and horsepower, let‘s compare them side-by-side:

Parameter Kilowatt Horsepower
Definition 1000 watts 550 foot-lbs/second
Invented by James Watt James Watt
Year invented 1882 Late 1700s
Measures Electrical power Mechanical power
Unit type Standard SI unit Non-standard unit
Applications Electrical devices and systems Engines, motors, pumps, turbines
Usage examples Home appliances, motors, EVs, power plants Car engines, aircraft engines, diesel generators
Conversion to watts 1 kW = 1000 W 1 hp = 745.7 W

In summary:

  • Kilowatts are part of the international SI system whereas horsepower varies in definition.
  • Kilowatts measure electrical input or consumption. Horsepower measures mechanical output.
  • Use kilowatts for electrical power and horsepower for mechanical power applications.

Converting Between Kilowatts and Horsepower

Since kilowatts and horsepower both quantify power, you can convert between them using simple ratios:

  • 1 kW = 1.34 horsepower
  • 1 horsepower = 0.7457 kW

So if an electric motor is rated at 5 kW, its equivalent horsepower is:

5 kW x 1.34 = 6.7 hp

And if a generator has a 3000 hp engine, its kilowatt rating is:

3000 hp x 0.7457 = 2237 kW

Use these conversion factors as needed when working with equipment specifications.

When to Use Kilowatts vs Horsepower: A Quick Guide

When should you use kilowatts and when horsepower? Here is a quick guide to remember:


  • For electrical devices, appliances, equipment
  • Electricity generation and consumption
  • Electric vehicle power and range
  • Electromechanical devices like motors, generators, transformers
  • Any application involving flow of electrons


  • For mechanical power outputs
  • Engines in vehicles, aircraft, ships
  • Powering pumps, compressors, construction equipment
  • Turbines used in power generation
  • Conveying engine torque and RPM
  • Measuring capability to do physical work

So in summary, use the unit that matches the context – kilowatts for electrical, horsepower for mechanical.


We have covered a lot of ground explaining the history, physics, calculations, real-world applications and appropriate usage contexts for kilowatts and horsepower.

The key takeaways are:

  • Kilowatts measure electrical power while horsepower measures mechanical power.
  • Use kilowatts for electrical devices and horsepower for mechanical systems. Don‘t mix them up!
  • Kilowatts are part of the international SI system. Horsepower varies in definition.
  • You can convert between kilowatts and horsepower using simple ratios.
  • Know when to use each unit – kilowatts for electronics, horsepower for engines.

I hope this guide has provided you a comprehensive understanding of these important power units. The knowledge can help prevent errors and confusion when working with specifications across electrical and mechanical domains.

Let me know if you have any other questions!