The electronic cigarette is a futuristic advance in science that looks, feels, and tastes like a tobacco cigarette and requires the same mechanical motions. They expel an almost odorless water vapor that looks like smoke, but isn’t. The secret to what makes the e-cigarettes better than traditional smoking is what’s inside this revolutionary product.
An electronic cigarette is not really a “cigarette” at all. It’s actually a vaporizer, which is why it’s sometimes called a “personal vaporizer”. Unlike a traditional tobacco cigarette (an ‘analog’), an electronic cigarette contains no tobacco and no combustion takes place… there is no flame, no burning, no smoke, no ash… the electronic cigarette heats up a liquid solution, vaporizing it into… well, vapor!
The electronic cigarette consists of either 2 or 3 parts: a battery, a cartridge or cartomizer, and sometimes a separate atomizer. With the 2-part system, the atomizer (generally a reusable piece of hardware when using the 3-piece system) and the cartridge are combined into one disposable ‘cartomizer’.
So this is the basic layout of a 3-piece electronic cigarette:
The battery is the longest part of the e-cig, and is found in the same location you would find the long, rolled tobacco portion of an analog cigarette. The cartridge/mouthpiece is obviously located where the filter of an analog cigarette would be. In between, and sometimes actually connecting the two, is the atomizer. Just like drawing from a traditional cigarette, you inhale from the mouthpiece of an electronic cigarette… drawing on the mouthpiece triggers the battery… the battery powers the atomizer… the atomizer heats up the solution in the cartridge… and the solution turns into a vapor that closely gives the user the physical sensation and nicotine hit that smokers crave.
The LED at the end of the battery not only lights up when you inhale, simulating the “cherry” of an analog, but functions as an indicator, as well. On most e-cigs, the LED will flash to let you know if you have hit a “cut-off” (the maximum amount of time allowed per inhale to keep the battery from overheating). The LED will also flash to indicate when your battery needs to be recharged.
What is the solution in the cartridge, you ask? What is in this mysterious vapor? The solution contains purified water, propylene (or sometimes vegetable or a mixture) glycol, flavoring, and nicotine (optional). The least known ingredient to you is undoubtedly propylene glycol, which is an organic compound typically used as an additive in food and cosmetics, and is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is basically the inert suspension fluid used to hold the nicotine and flavoring.
A Bit More Lingo before we carry on!
liquid; e-liquid; juice; e-juice – the liquid solution in the cartridge goes by all of these names (as you will even see from the suppliers here). You can buy bottles of liquid individually and either refill your own cartridges, or use the following alternative methods…
drip; dripping – the cartridge is just something to hold the liquid and wick it to the atomizer, so some vapers choose to bypass that whole system and just get the liquid directly on the atomizer! Dripping is exactly how it sounds… you drip a few drops of juice directly on to the atomizer, put on an empty mouthpiece (a cartridge without the polyfill and liquid), and inhale.
dip; dipping – depending on the type of atomizer you have, dipping it may be the preferred method. If your atomizer is “exposed” (see: “More about Atomizers…” below), it is easier to dip the atomizer into a small dish of liquid (a contact lens case is commonly used for this… it’s not only the perfect size, but you can carry two flavors with you in a sealed container!).
And Now More about E-Liquid…
Country of Origin
Electronic cigarettes were invented in China (great article about inventor Hon Lik here!). Thus, when they first appeared in Europe and the United States, all electronic cigarettes, accessories, cartridges, and e-liquid were imported from China. Today, just about all of the equipment you will find is still manufactured in China. What you have now is American companies designing their own brands and having them built in China to their specifications.
More and more e-liquid, however, is being made right here in the USA. A sizable proportion of the pre-filled cartridges and cartomizers you will find here are filled with liquid made in China, but many companies have switched over to the USA-based liquids. Most people seem to feel that the USA-made liquid is made to a much higher standard.
PG vs. VG
PG is the abbreviation for propylene glycol. As described above, it is a perfectly safe chemical compound. However, there is a small segment of the population that is allergic to PG. For those people, there is an alternative in VG, which is vegetable glycerin (yes, the same vegetable glycerin you can find at your local market or pharmacy). And some people simply prefer to vape VG because it is an organic -based substance, too. Here are some of the differences between the two…
VG is thicker and vaporizes at a lower temperature. It tastes somewhat sweeter and produces more vapor than PG. However, because VG is more viscous, it doesn’t wick quite as well and tends to gunk up your atomizer a lot quicker (meaning you’ll have to clean it more often, and you’ll probably have to replace your atomizers sooner). Since the vapor is a bit cooler, VG also tends to provide less of a throat hit.
More about Batteries…
Size vs. Performance
Batteries come in different sizes. The bigger the battery, the longer it will last on a single charge. This may sound like common sense, but keep this in mind. Most people want an e-cig the size of a cigarette, but batteries that size (the smallest available) usually only last no more than a couple of hours. You will want to consider your priorities when choosing your electronic cigarette.
Automatic vs. Manual
Most of the models here come with an automatic battery, which works as described above… the battery is activated when you inhale on the mouthpiece. But some models (the 510, for example) usually offer a manual battery as an option. A manual battery has a button on the battery… and you press the button to activate the battery and, in turn, the atomizer. Pictured below is a manual battery (left) and automatic battery (right):
At this point you may be wondering, “So why would anyone choose a manual battery?”. There are several reasons, actually. The foremost reason is that it gives you more control… specifically, control over the atomizer. Now you are probably wondering how much more control you need when all you do is inhale, right? Well, the first thing to understand is that when you inhale on an automatic, you are sucking on the mouthpiece to activate the battery, and in turn, heat up the atomizer, and in turn, vaporize the liquid… meaning all of this – the heating and vaporizing – occurs while you are sucking on the mouthpiece. This means you often have to get the atomizer going with some “primer” puffs (much like getting a pipe or cigar started), especially when starting it cold.
With a manual battery, however, pressing the button activates the battery, which heats up the atomizer, and vaporizes the liquid… for as long as you hold the button down… and then you inhale… so that you are getting only vapor, and as much vapor as you want. Thus, a manual battery tends to provide more vapor and better vapor. So don’t assume that an automatic battery most replicates the smoking experience simply because you don’t have to push a button… fans of the manual battery will tell you that the vapor production more closely replicates the smoking experience, and that pressing the button quickly becomes second nature.
Additionally, all automatic batteries have a “cut-off”… a time limit as to how long the battery will continue to operate on one continuous pull… which is usually in the 6-8 second range. This means you may not get as much vapor as you’d like from one drag of an automatic. On the other hand, most manual batteries do not have a cut-off… and those that do usually last 10-12 seconds. Once again, this means more vapor. The vast majority of people do not hit it for that long of a time, though, so this usually isn’t an issue very often.
Another control issue involves a bit further explanation as to how automatic batteries work. The automatic battery is not always activated by air flow… in fact, most automatic batteries are activated by sound. And this can be an issue for some people, as external sound can at least theoretically activate – and thus drain – your battery while it’s sitting in your pocket, for instance. This is probably a non-issue for most of you, but if you play in a rock band, or work in a loud night club, or ride a motorcycle every day, a manual battery might be the best choice for you. On the other side of the coin, I have heard stories of the button on a manual battery being accidentally pressed while in people’s pockets, too, which has actually resulted in burns in a few cases!
One final appeal of manual batteries is that most of them are sealed. As you can see in the picture above, the automatic battery has a pin hole in the center of it… this is needed for either the air or sound to activate it. (I’m not sure if that’s an indent or a hole in the manual that’s pictured, but let’s assume it’s just an indent.) Since a manual battery is activated by the button, it is usually sealed. This is an attractive feature for those people who like to “drip” liquid directly on their atomizers, since there is no risk of liquid leaking into the battery and ruining it. This provides the same security for those who like to “dip” their atomizer in liquid, as well as those who fill their own cartridges and may accidentally overfill.
As with any option, there are proponents of both. Some vapers prefer the hands free convenience of an automatic, while others prefer the control of the manual. Generally speaking, heavy vapers (formerly heavy smokers) prefer the manual. So if you choose an e-cigarette that has a choice, and you’re not sure which one is right for you, I’d suggest getting one of each!
More about Atomizers…
There are many different types of atomizers out there, but 99% of the time, you will be locked into whatever type of atomizer a manufacturer uses with their particular model. In other words, you won’t be faced with a choice of atomizers when you purchase your e-cigarette… your model will come with one type of atomizer. So simply consider this section further education on atomizers and their design differences. (And then, not to totally disappoint, I will provide exceptions to what I’ve just told you.)
The most important thing to know is that the atomizer is the key to vapor production. The power of the battery is certainly a factor, but the atomizer is by far the most crucial piece of equipment. So when a vaper tells you that they prefer one model over another, it is generally the performance of the atomizer that they like. So, when it comes time for me to help you choose an e-cigarette, and I tell you that “this particular model burns hot”, it is really the atomizer that burns hot.
Atomizers have many different designs. Some have a high bridge, some have a low bridge… some are “exposed” and some are “recessed”. Blu, for example, utilizes a high bridge atomizer that is also exposed:
The design of this high, pointed atomizer complements the design of the cartridge, since the inner cartridge which holds the juice is set deep within the outer cartridge and the atomizer needs it to reach to the wick properly. On another note, an exposed atomizer such as this is perfectly suited for dipping.
Meanwhile, 510 models such as the Vapor King from Electronic Cigarettes Inc. starter kit, employ a low bridge, recessed atomizer, like this:
More about Cartridges…
All cartridges have the same basic structure, but it should come as no surprise at this point that, once again, there are many different types of designs.
Every cartridge will employ some kind of “inner cartridge” stuffed with “filler” to hold the liquid.
The filler, usually some kind of polyfill, is saturated with the liquid… and it is this filler that both holds the liquid and wicks it to the atomizer.
The “inner cartridge” is housed inside the “outer cartridge”, which also serves as the mouthpiece.
Note that when dipping or dripping directly on the atomizer as discussed previously, the inner cartridge (with filler) is discarded. You drip on the atomizer and then simply attach an outer cartridge as a mouthpiece.
The design differences among cartridges will mostly matter to you if you plan on refilling them. With some cartridges, the inner cartridge is set deep inside the outer cartridge, and if you want to refill it, you will need to remove it by poking it out with a paper clip, etc… and then reinserting it with a tweezers, etc. So the cartridge in the graphic above, when fully assembled would look like this:
With other cartridges, the inner cartridge sits high so that the rim of the inner cartridge is aligned with the rim of the outer cartridge. In this case, the filler is completely accessible, with no removal of the inner cartridge required for refilling or simply “topping off”. As you can see here:
Finally, there is the mouthpiece itself, of which there are two designs. Most mouthpieces are of the round variety, just like your regular cigarette:
But with some models, you can go with a flat tip – or “whistle tip” – mouthpiece:
As mentioned in my introduction to the anatomy of the e-cigarette, the 3-piece design incorporates the (1) battery, (2) atomizer, and (3) cartridge. With a 3-piece design, the atomizer is a piece of hardware that is re-used over and over before being replaced… while the cartridges are disposable and discarded (if not refilled) once depleted.
A 2-piece design, however, utilizes a (1) battery and a (2) cartomizer. The cartomizer is a disposable cartridge with a built-in atomizer.
Cartomizer technology is the most hassle-free system available for electronic cigarettes. With the 3-piece system, the atomizers do require some minimal maintenance… they naturally suffer normal wear and tear and should be cleaned semi-regularly for optimum performance. With a disposable cartomizer, there’s no maintenance required and you start with a brand new atomizer every time you pop on a new cartridge.
If you enjoy switching among various flavors (one of the wonderful benefits of vaping), you simply unscrew one cartomizer and screw on a different one. With a 3-piece system – assuming you’d rather not get tobacco in your watermelon – you will either want to rinse off your atomizer every time you change flavors, or have multiple atomizers available for your favorite flavors so you can switch with ease.
Above all, cartomizers perform far better than the 3-piece systems, due to the way the atomizer is integrated directly within the filler (batting material which I also find to be superior to the standard polyfill found in cartridges).
Of course, with all of these positives, it should come as no surprise that they are also a bit more expensive. But they also last longer, so you get your money’s worth… and while it is a disposable unit, cartomizers are often refillable, for those who like to save money that way, too.
And there you have it…
That’s our basic primer on the electronic cigarette. With this knowledge, you will be able to make an informed decision regardless of which style or vendor you choose. Good luck and happy vaping.