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Electronic Cigarettes – Continued. The Technology Behind The Technology.

Posted by on November 16, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Electronic Cigarettes, as I stated before, are starting to get big. Ego-T’s, Joye 510’s and many other brands and models are showing up all over the place, more and more frequently. My buddy Steve K from Steve K’s Vaping World read the article I posted a week or so ago and wanted to write a supplemental. Well, after all the traffic we got on the last article and all of the people that thanked me for the information, I jumped at the chance to have him do a guest spot.

Besides, I’ve known the guy since before either of us was able to legally buy cigarettes. How could I turn down my boy?!

Well, now I have the final product from Steve and I’m posting it here for all of you. I’ve also taken the liberty of adding some editorial comments in, which will appear in this kind of odd shade of reddish-orange.

Read on for more.

Electronic cigarettes have been around for a little under 10 years. The devices have become popular in the United States in the last few years and with increasing popularity seems to come increasing misunderstanding. There has been a lot of curiosity, and some degree of confusion about the devices and how they work.

Distilled to its most simple and basic principles, the technology surrounding e-cigarettes is pretty basic stuff. The devices are simply batteries with a small heating element and some method to hold liquid strapped onto it. The liquid, which usually contains some level of nicotine makes contact with the heating coil.

And, sometimes, your lips / tongue when you overfill :P

When the battery is activated, the liquid rapidly evaporates into a vapor. The vapor is then inhaled by the user. The user is no longer edgy and difficult to be around because he or she now has sweet, sweet nicotine coursing through the bloodstream.

Now that we understand what keeps Joe in accounting from breaking his foot off in some intern’s ass, let’s take a little closer look at each of the components, because, technology.

Interns are fun to scare. You’re like GET ME A COFFEE OR YOU’RE FIRED!! And they hop-to like their ass is on fire. It’s amazing.

Batteries

Starting from the end people used to light on fire with real cigarettes, we have the battery. The battery is the one part of the e-cigarette that sort of dictates what type of device the e-cigarette will be. In general, the battery on most e-cigarettes is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

Traditional e-cigarette batteries are roughly the size and shape of the tobacco containing part of a traditional cigarette. An LED light located on the tip of the battery lights up when the user (also known as a vaper) activates the e-cigarette. Many times this LED is red or orange in color to simulate a cigarette’s cherry.

This is totally a personal thing, but I dislike red LEDs on e-cigarettes for two reasons. First, this is 2011, we can talk to our phones and talk to someone in Timbuktu instantly, red LEDs are just so Coleco Football circa 1978. Second and most importantly, while I like the mannerisms of smoking I don’t want to look like I’m doing it in public. The last thing I want is some Barney Fife type to roll up on me on his Segway and tazer me for smoking in front of the Sbarro.

I dislike the red and orange LED’s because they’re made to imitate smoking, which makes people misunderstand the technology. Too many people think we’re firing up tobacco with a battery and still blowing second hand smoke. This just helps reinforce that myth.

When it comes to cigarette simulation, many of these types of batteries are what’s referred to as automatic batteries. Auto batteries are equipped with a switch that activates the battery when the user takes a puff, completing the overall ritual of smoking.

I used to think this was important, as did most of the “hardcores” that I know. We all realized pretty early on that the size / shape / glowy bits don’t matter as long as we’re getting that wonderful nicotine which is so vital to the lives, safety and well-being of those around us. Now, it’s all about the VFTH (vapor, flavor, throat hit, for the uninitiated).

Modern auto batteries use a vacuum switch that engages with the suction created by taking a drag. Older batteries used a sound activated switch, making it a bad idea to carry around a heating element in your pocket any place louder than a library.

The sound activated batteries are awesome because there’s no vacuum switch to clog or break but man do they suck when you have one in your pocket and walk into a club.

My preference is to use devices with manual switches. While it might seem like more effort to add button pushing in with the action of smoking, it only takes a minute to master. E-cigarettes that use push-button switches tend to perform better and last longer than their buttonless counterparts.

Very true. Any manual battery will outperform an auto battery any day of the week. The button becomes second nature after about 4 hours.

Of course, not all e-cigarette batteries are the exact same size as traditional cigarettes. There are extra long batteries that still have the same diameter as a regular cigarette. However, those models are considerable longer than even 100 style cigarettes, they’re more reminiscent of one of those cigarettes on a super long filter that were all the rage in the 50’s and 60’s.

There are also batteries that are much fatter than cigarettes and more closely resemble a cigar than anything else in size. The point of these unusual sizes is to fit more battery into the device. While battery technology has evolved in recent years, bigger is still better in terms of battery life. Many of the traditional e-cigarettes will last a couple hours between charges while some of the bigger batteries can double or triple that time.

Funny this. For most “mini” style e-cigs, this is totally true. The guys at Intellicig did something crazy, though, and manage to get 8 hours or so out of a teeny, tiny battery which, with the atomizer and cartridge attached, is about the size of a 100 length cigarette. 

Modified!

Going beyond the idea of making e-cigarette batteries larger is the concept of e-cigarette “mods”. Mods are generally devices that use external rechargeable batteries. These types of devices come in a dizzying array in form factors and features.

Tube style = win…just sayin’ 

Mods may be simple mechanical devices that are a simple tube that holds a battery and a mechanical switch and spring are pressed to complete the circuit providing power to the device’s heating coil. Other mods contain microprocessors to control the amount of voltage that is delivered and have a myriad of extra features like resistance meters (we’ll talk resistance later).

Some of these advanced models even contain a large reservoir bottle to hold the nicotine liquid which can be directly applied to the heating coils. Other mods are built from parts from an electronics with no features at all but perform well and cost next to nothing. About the only thing many mods have in common are they look nothing like a cigarette at all.

We have our Standards.

Speaking of a jumbled mess of things that don’t quite agree, now would be a good time to talk about standards. e-Cigarette batteries have to accept the heating element portion to work correctly. To do that, that portion of the device has to screw onto the battery. Naturally, during the early days of e-cigarette development, all the manufacturers in China got together and came up with a unified standard to ensure maximum compatibility.

Yeah, not so much.

While not quite as diverse an ecosystem as the mod universe, there are several competing standards when it comes to e-cigarettes. Specifically the standard refers to the “thread pattern” of the e-cigarette. This has to do with weather the battery end is male or female, how wide the thread is, and things like that. Standards have designations like 510, KR808D-1 and DSE 801.

Somebody, somewhere, knows what the hell that all means. Sometimes it has to do with the size of threads in millimeters or the phase of the moon or something, I guess. The key to remember is simply to match the numbers from part A, to those on part B. 510 is probably the most popular of the standards followed by the KR808D-1 which is fairly popular in the more mainstream style e-cigarettes.

Just to be argumentative, as is my nature, it seems that the 306 is supplanting pretty much everything at this point. It will fit a 510 thread but makes so much more vapor and, as we know…MOAR…BECAUSE, MOAR!!!

‘mizers

Now that we’ve covered the power portion of the e-cigarette equation, it’s time to take a look at the heat generation part of the e-cigarette. The original second half (actually third) of the electronic cigarette is the atomizer. Cartridges containing annoying bits of absorbent material were then shoved into the atomizer to complete the e-cigarette.

Noting that it was kind of a pain in the ass to deal with these little cartridges, some enterprising soul came up with something that combined both the heating element and the liquid infused filler material. Thus was born the cartomizer. The cartomizer also had the added bonus of being disposable so e-cigarette companies could make more money off of them since atomizers tended to last a lot longer.

Many companies refer to cartomizers simply as cartridges to make things as confusing as possible. Other wacky names I’ve heard include atomized cartridges and even filters. Generally, people who know things (or think they do) will use cartomizer, or the short hand, carto.

Before anyone gets me wrong and starts with the pro-atomizer hate comments, I’m not done with atomizers just yet. Atomizers are still very popular and have quite a few devoted fans. The trick is pretty much none of them use the cartridges that hold the liquid, those things really are terrible.

Rather, atomizer fans engage in a practice known as direct dripping. The process is pretty straight forward, take the cartridge out of the equation and put a couple of drops of liquid directly onto the atomizer. Many people swear by this move because it tends to provide better flavor and increased vapor output.

It’s funny how big of a rift there is in the consumer arena, here. Most carto users swear by them while most atomizer users swear by those and there’s very little in-between. I switch off, personally. Sometimes, ya just gotta drip!

Vapor output is kind of popular amongst some people (me). The harder it is to see the person’s face after they exhale a huge cloud of vapor, the happier they are. Think of it like penis envy, but with fog.

I’m all about the vapor. If the vapor isn’t good, the experience is just…meh.

Producing giant plumes of vapor is dependent on a number of factors, not just the use of an atomizer or cartomizer. The type of liquid used plays a significant role in vapor production, as does the amount of power that is applied to the liquid to create the vapor.

Resistance

This is the part where people start talking Ohm’s law and optimal wattage and things like that. When transitioning a liquid to a vapor, the amount of energy applied to the liquid in terms of wattage comes into play. I hate math, so suffice it to say a combination of voltage and resistance dictates the actual amount of power in watts the electronic cigarette puts out.

The easiest way to calculate this is : Volts divided by resistance = Amps. Volts times amps = watts. If you know any 2 of the 4 numbers, you can figure out the rest. Get an Ohm’s law calculator, man! I know you have a droid or an iphone or some sort of high-tech smart gizmo.

Unlike that guy you knew in high school with the car stereo that cost three times as much as his car, throwing more watts at the problem doesn’t work with e-cigarettes. Take the wattage too high, and the liquid will produce a gag-inducing harsh, burnt taste. Too low and you’ll get a cold, whispy and not at all satisfying amount of vapor.

Ahem…I WAS that idiot in high school, AS. YOU. WELL. KNOW. I take offense!

One way to find the sweet spot in terms of wattage is to use one of those high-tech devices I mentioned up in the mods section. Those tend to be expensive, so another route would be to match whatever you’re using with the right cartomizer. Cartomizers (and atomizers) come in a variety of resistances, if you have a relatively low power device, match it with a low-resistance cartomizer. Have something that uses two batteries, go with the higher resistance.

So, basically, you want to fiddle with the voltage / resistance (battery / atomizer) combo until you find a wattage output that agrees with you. My “sweet spot” seems to be around 12 watts (4.6 volts / 1.8 ohm atty or 4.2v / 1.5 ohm) 

It may take some trial and error, but matching hardware will provide a massive wall of vapor.

E-Liquid

So you have all the gear sorted out, but now it’s time to find something to do with it. The coolest e-cigarette gear in the world is pretty much useless without something to vaporize. The liquid component of e-cigarettes goes by a few names. I personally go with e-liquid but I’ve also heard e-juice, smoke juice, juice, niquid among other mostly stupid names.

Juice…just plain ole’ juice…

e-Liquid can be had in a few different forms and from several different sources. The variety most first timers are used to is whatever comes pre-loaded in the e-cigarette kit. While this can be convenient not having to deal with a separate bottle of liquid, going this route for very long can get expensive.

Depending on where you buy your stuff from, pre-filled cartomizers can run you anywhere from $8 – $25 per five pack. Many e-cigarette sellers claim that a cartomizer is about a pack’s worth of vaping. So 8 bucks for five packs of smokes seems like a deal.

The problem with that math is those companies are completely full of shit.

Realistically under normal conditions, your cartomizer is probably good for about half that many if you’re lucky and the vapor gods favor you. All of a sudden, it seems like carrying around a bottle of liquid to save some cash isn’t such a bad idea.

Depending on the source, a 10ml bottle (which should be about 10 cartridges worth of liquid) can set you back anywhere between 4 bucks up to 10 dollars. Most of the time you can save even more by buying larger bottles. One of the liquids I buy regularly is available dirt cheap in very large quantities.

Prices will vary wildly because there are many different sources of this stuff as well as vendors. The cheapest liquid tends to be made in factories in China. This is generally the stuff you find for under 5 bucks per bottle.

I get 5 packs of low resistance (1.8 ohm) cartos for $10. Each one lasts about a week. After that I go through about 3 ml of juice per day, give or take so a week of vaping costs me about $4.

The other option is stuff made domestically (there are makers in many countries catering to local markets). Being an American, the rest of the world pretty much doesn’t exist to me, so I’ll be speaking mostly about US companies. US liquid manufacturers range in operations from pretty large and high-volume factories all the way down to random dudes mixing the stuff up in their mom’s basement when you order.

Each manufacturer has their own set of fans and detractors, so to avoid inciting a war in the comments, just assume I’m talking about your favorite vendor and I said they were awesome.

Having so many vendors in the market means there’s a lot of choice consumers have. This is especially true of flavors. Many times you’re stuck with regular or menthol when you get your e-cigarette kit. Buying your liquid on its own opens up a world of flavors. There are according to my highly sciency estimates roughly elevinty zillion flavors available on the market.

I think it’s elevinty zillion, four hundred and sixteen.

Flavors range from traditional types that try to taste like cigarette smoke (few are successful) to other types of tobacco like pipes and cigars. However, many flavors go well beyond flavors you’d associate with smoke. You can find e-liquid in every flavor from grape, to whiskey, to bacon (I am not kidding on that one)

Even with the variety of flavor, e-Liquid is pretty simple stuff. Despite what some fear-mongering types might have to say, there’s only three real components to e-liquid: a base liquid, nicotine, and food-grade flavoring. There is, in fact, no antifreeze, rat poison or tears of lost children in e-liquid, unless someone seriously screwed something up, or is trying to murder you.

Why did they take out the tears of the lost children? That was the best part :(

Propylene glycol is a key ingredient in most e-liquid. While it sounds like something terrifying, PG as it’s often called is harmless. The stuff has been tested since the 1940’s and can be found in everything from food to asthma medication. It’s also the stuff used in fog machines because it readily transitions into a vapor.

PG is also a well known airborne anti-microbial and most of the people I know who vape RARELY get respiratory infections and, when they do, they don’t last long.

Some liquid also uses vegetable glycerine (VG) in combination of or instead of PG in its mixture. VG is commonly used in cosmetic and food applications and is also generally regarded as safe by the FDA.

There’s a couple reasons to use glycerine in e-liquid. First, some people are sensitive to PG and VG offers a good alternative. Primarily the reason is that VG while it doesn’t provide as much flavor or throat hit (that burning sensation you get in the throat and lungs when smoking), it produces much more vapor. Adding some glycerine in with the PG gives you an e-liquid that still has good flavor and sensation while producing more vapor.

Depending on the retailer, they will either have a blend they use by default. Others may let you choose a percentage of each type of liquid to use. Everyone seems to have different opinions of the perfect balance. The best thing to do is use trial and error until you find something you like. That may take forever, but some people are all about the journey.

Most online places I shop from allow you to select your blend. I go 70/30 (pg/vg). Again, my “sweet spot”.

Really e-cigarettes in general can be like that. There are people who never quite seem satisfied and are always looking for the next best thing. Some even get a little OCD about it and start writing about e-cigarettes on the internet.

What are you trying to say, Steve? Oh…wait…

If you are perfectly content with the basic starter kit you picked up at a truck stop, or you are planning your next trip to a regional vaper’s conference (yes, that’s a thing) the good news is you’re right. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you’re using. If you are able to stop smoking while not throwing things at the TV because the damned volume is so loud during commercials, you win.

Indeed, and…Thanks Steve!

Steve is Chief Vaper at Steve K’s Vaping World where he publishes in-depth and objective e-cigarette reviews and posts regular e-cigarette news updates. Steve hasn’t threatened a single intern, mostly because there are no interns. You can also follow Steve on Twitter and like Steve K’s Vaping World on Facebook.

Also, if you’re interested in getting more vaping information and becoming a part of a really cool community, check out vapetv.com. Also check out the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association.

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  • Great post as usual, Steve. Rob, personally I like the red LED. It’s also a big concern of people when they first switch to electronic cigarettes (I’ve talked to a lot of people in the process of switching for the first time), although the importance of the resemblance to smoking seems to decrease with time. Also, all the best e-juices still use the tears of lost children!

    • Thanks!  I know where you’re coming from on the LED front. When somebody is coming off of cigarettes, you really want to avoid messing with the routine as much as possible.  And yes the LED thing was personal for me.  My first kit was red, but I really wanted one that was blue or something cool.  Of course I am a little geeky.  I also fought quite awhile against stepping up to a manual battery, and again moving from a Joye eGo over to my first mod.  Clearly I’ve gotten over that :)

  • Berklain

    Great post. I’ve been contemplating electronic fags for a while now. My only concern is the electronic fag replacing the former and not helping with your crave for it. I’m trying to quit just so this makes sense. If I was to continue smoking without a care in the world, I’d definitely consider the alternative.

    • It’s a little hard to explain without using e-cigs.  You are right in a sense, I wanted to quit originally, but now, well I’m in a little too deep :)  I did however find, I have no desire whatsoever to have a regular cigarette again.

      Another thing many people do is try and regulate the nicotine to taper off.  So you start at a relatively high level to get you over the cravings.  As you get used to it, you start using liquid that has less and less nicotine until you are down to zero.  Some people do eventually quit this way, others just find a level they like and stick with it.  Some even keep chugging along at 0mg nicotine strangely enough

      • I think what anti-smokers can’t get over is that smoking is not just about nicotine. That’s why nicotine patches and the like are not very effective. Nicotine patches can’t replace smoking. E-cigarettes can. 

        • Berklain

          Yes, I think you’re on the ball there. It’s not just about the nicotine. If something were to replace the age old cigarette, it would sure as hell have to be very similar in shape and form. The sensation, that’s a whole different conversation in itself.

          • Rob

            You might be surprised by the sensation.  It is similar to smoking and with the visible vapor and hand-to-mouth action added in it was enough of facsimile that I was able to quit cigarettes on day 1…That was 3 years ago and I’m still going strong.

          • Berklain

            Yup, I’m taking the leap. Thank you for all the feedback. Well done Rob. I truly understand the gravity of giving up a parasitic habit, especially one of this calibre. Genuinely, well done. I’m taking my inspiration from you. Cheers Sir.

      • Berklain

        Yes, that sounds a very feasible solution whilst actually regulating the nicotine intake. Be as it is, I easily run through 20 cigarettes a day. Anything at this point would be of great help. I’m going to take your advice on this. Also, it means I can smoke indoors. Thank you so very much.

  • frankalicious

    Rob I can’t thank you enough for all your help when I first got started on Electronic ciggs. You took a lot of time to answer so many questions for me a person you didn’t know. Without seeming too mushy about it I’ll never forget what you did for me man. Thank you.