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This study investigates the validity of fundamental assumptions regarding the partitioning of energy that are implicit in the Penman–Monteith (PM) and Priestly–Taylor (PT) models of potential evapotranspiration (PET). Both these models require energy conservation, but differ in the partitioning of sensible and latent heat fluxes as measured by the Bowen ratio. Application of these models at four research sites in Florida collectively show that these models can be calibrated to provide adequate PET prediction at all sites. The prediction of Bowen ratios using the calibrated PET models showed that the PT model is preferable for lakes and is acceptable for marsh and forest; the crop-coefficient application of the PM model is preferable for grass and is acceptable for marsh; and the standard PM model is acceptable for marsh. For the marsh and forest covers, the margins of preference between the three models are not very strong. This investigation was limited to climatic conditions in Florida and caution should be exercised in extending these results to other sites and climates. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.