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Vaping 101: Atomizers

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When you first open your starter kit or bundle of vaping hardware, all the different parts and components can seem overwhelming at first. Where does this go? What does this do? What is this even called, anyway? Don't worry, EVC is here to help! We've taken a look at two parts of your vaping setup Mods so far, so now it's time to open the books and take a quick look at the hottest (and coolest) part of your setup: the Atomizer! 

Components

The term “atomizer” can have many definitions depending on who you ask, but in the most basic terms, it’s best defined as the wick & coil component of an e-cigarette. This definition has expanded to where it can refer to the coil-containing cartomizer, the replacement atomizer head holding the wick/coil of a clearomizer, or even refer simply to the entire cartomizer/clearomizer/RBA itself. It’s a broad term that has undergone a definition evolution over the years in order to accommodate the rapid advancement of e-cigarette technology.


The wicking of an atomizer is the component that absorbs the e-juice, whether that’s from dripping it directly in, as in the case of cartomizers and RDAs, or via a separate tank such as in RTAs and sub-ohm tanks. In the early days of vaping, back when atomizers were a simple component of cigalikes, wicks were originally made of cheap polyfill stuffing—little better than the stuff in teddy bears. Then, silica wicking quickly took over as atomizer heads became the norm—with its very high flash point and resistance to heat, it was a good choice for then-inexperienced vapers still perfecting efficient vaping techniques. It was when organic cotton became popular, however, that vaping took a serious turn for the better. Despite its propensity to irreparably burn if heated for too long, the incredibly pure taste and excellent wicking properties has made it the top choice for vapers and manufacturers everywhere. Rayon is also an excellent choice, though oft overshadowed by its close relative, cotton. Rayon is made of cellulose that has been dissolved, regenerated into long single strands, then carefully cleaned, condensed into a long rope, and bagged in 40ft, 100ft, or even 500ft lengths.

The coils we use when we vape—whether it’s in an atomizer head or in an RBA—have to be made from something, right? While you could theoretically find many different types of wires made from many different materials and alloys, there’s only a select few that will work best in the e-cigarette applications for which we need them:

– Kanthal –

By far the most common type of heating element found in e-cigarettes; this material has a relatively high resistance and is very reliable in terms of vaping. It heats evenly and is very easy to work with in order to wrap neat coils (neat!).

– Nichrome (NiCr) –

Nichrome is a relatively common material used in both RBAs and sub-ohm tank atomizer heads, not to mention the earliest versions of cigalikes. It heats up quickly and has a lower resistance than kanthal, so bigger coils with more surface area will match the resistance of a smaller kanthal coil, creating more vapor.

– Nickel (Ni200) & Titanium (Ti) –

Nickel and titanium are relatively common materials for heating elements, although they’re only compatible with temperature control. Using them in power mode is a generally bad idea— nickel and titanium have a very, very low resistance (which is why Ni200 was first used as non-resistance wire), so even low voltages can cause them to heat up too fast and release toxic gases.

– Stainless Steel (SS) –

Stainless steel is an incredibly versatile material for heating elements because it can be used in both power and temperature control modes. It heats up a little faster than kanthal, so it’s a great material for bulky coils, and vapers claim it tastes a little cleaner than other materials.

– Platinum / Tungsten –

There are some rare materials such as platinum and tungsten that can be used as for your heating element, but due to their rarity/price point, they’re more of a collector’s item or trial run than a reliable material.

– Ceramic –

While not an actual heating material, wire is often embedded inside a ceramic structure in order to make it heat up. Because it’s very heat-, chemical-, and corrosion-resistant, ceramic is held as a top contender in atomizers. However, there is some debate about the safety of ceramic as a heating element, as microscopic nanoparticulate can flake off of the ceramic and get inhaled by users—because ceramic is so resistant to just about everything, it’s super, super difficult for the body to break down and absorb.

– Custom Alloys –

There are some manufacturers who formulate custom alloys for e-cigarette heating elements and give them branding such as Atomic Wire or Mad Rabbit. These can be excellent choices for trying out different coil styles, resistances, and ramp-up times, but can also be disadvantageous, as some less-than-reputable manufacturers will simply rename an existing alloy and charge far more just because it now has a cool name like “HFlat”.

Juice

The process of creating vapor from e-liquid is really little more than simple evaporation: no burning, no smoke, just steam and deliciousness. But how does that work, exactly? Well, when juice is released to the wick, it’s slowly absorbed and sent towards the coil. There, it’s kept until the coil begins heating up, at which point the e-liquid is vaporized relatively quickly and easily. The coil is more than capable of simply burning through the cotton wick, but thanks to the cooling process that is evaporation, all the energy that would go into burning the wick goes towards boiling away the e-juice—kind of like how you can boil water in a plastic bag by using an open flame. This is also why dry hits are a sporadic event and not a constant one.

Resistance

Resistance is the measurement of, in layman’s terms, how difficult it is for electricity to pass through the material—this value is given in terms of “ohms” (Ω). Us humans (and most mammals, really) are very lucky in that we have resistances in the tens of thousands of ohms, so we’re relatively resistant to electrical shocks, which is why holding a battery in your mouth is only mildly ticklish and not excruciatingly painful. Metal, however, is quite conductive, but not perfectly so, which is good news for us vapers! Extremely conductive metals such as copper don’t make for great heating elements; because it conducts electricity so efficiently, it heats up very, very little as it does so, making it a great choice for power lines and appliance cables, but not e-cigarettes.

Thankfully, we have plenty of other choices. The resistances of these materials is most often given according to a specific length and gauge of wire (0.05Ω/inch of 24awg); this isn’t terribly useful to know if you’re a lover of replacement atomizer heads, as wire gauges can vary wildly in heads, but once you start building your own coils, it’s good to have some idea of the resulting resistance of your build before you start building it at all.

The resistance of a coil decides how many watts will be produced when a certain voltage is run through it—when given the same voltage, high resistances means low wattages, and vice versa. Higher wattages mean more amps are being pulled from your battery—while not so important to consider when using a regulated mod that will refuse any amperages outside a normal range, if you’re using an unregulated or mechanical mod, it’s incredibly important to ensure that your resistance is within a safe range for your battery and won’t pull more amps than it’s rated for.

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Types of Atomizers

Atomizer/Cartridge

These dual components of early cigalikes utilized a cartridge filled with e-liquid alongside, but kept separate from, the atomizer, which held a long, thin, high-ohm coil wrapped in cheap polyfill. Juice was slowly drawn into the atomizer from the cartridge and vaporized slowly. These came with many different types of threading, ranging from the classic 510, other similar threading such as 306 or L88D, or very dissimilar recessed types of threading such as 901 or 801. Only a few types were cross-compatible—other than those, however, each atomizer required its own compatible cigalike or pen-style mod.

Cartomizer

Cartomizers were the first consumer-conceived and convenience-driven adaptation to hit the e-cigarette market. Essentially the fusion of a cartridge and atomizer, cartomizers were just an atomizer pre-filled with e-liquid, which may not sound that impressive nowadays, but back then, it was a huge deal—both taste and vapor production skyrocketed. Then, when vapers became sick of either refilling cartridges or buying a new cartomizer when they ran out of juice, someone with a fair amount of imagination had the idea to take off the tight-bored tip on a cartomizer and replace it with something that allowed users to drip liquid down onto the now-dry coil/wick—this crazy contraption is now best known as a “drip tip”.

Just then, when vapers were still reeling from such impressive innovation, someone had the bright idea to punch holes in the sides of a cartomizer, exposing the wicking, then place a tank of juice around the cartomizer, allowing the wick to absorb the excess juice in the tank as needed, creating the first carto-tank. The tanks of these types of atomizer were most commonly acrylic, but as vapers discovered that certain types of e-liquid—such as cinnamon or citrus—could degrade the plastic, causing it to crack and leak, manufacturers quickly switched to Pyrex glass, especially when clearomizers became popular. While carto-tanks fell out of favor years ago, some sub-ohm tanks such as the Cleito are resuscitating the design for their atomizer heads.

Clearomizer

Early clearomizers, aptly named because of the translucent plastic tank surrounding the atomizer, were the first to utilize replacement atomizer heads. These small components held one or two tiny coils wrapped around a silica wick. Early clearomizers kept this piece near the top of the chimney—long wicks hung down to the bottom of the tank and drew juice upwards—but inefficiencies in wicking led to plenty of dry hits and spitback. The answer to this conundrum was to place the atomizer head at the bottom of the chimney—this solved most of the problems, but created more, as the flavor from these tanks was now a little muted, but not so much that it warranted any significant changes.

Clearomizers used this basic form for many years—each model had its own features and benefits, some replaced the acrylic tank with glass to create “glassomizers”—but at its core, it stayed (and stays) true to the original design.

At the height of their popularity, the replacement atomizer heads of these tanks were almost always above 1.0 ohm—many regulated mods at the time couldn’t even fire below that. However, as mech mods and sub-ohming rose in popularity, the lowest resistance available in an atomizer head began dropping and the design of the clearomizer, while remaining relatively unchanged, underwent a slight evolution to adapt to the increased demands of sub-ohm vaping.

Sub-Ohm Tank

Thus, the sub-ohm tank was born! Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the sub-ohm tank came about in order to accommodate the additional airflow as well as increased juice capacity necessary to support the sub-ohm coils vapers were demanding in their tanks. These types of atomizer quickly took off in popularity due to their incredible ease of initiation and use, making usually knowledge-intensive vape activities such as cloudchasing or flavor-fiending easier than ever to try out. But that’s not to say that RBAs, the primary platform for advanced vaping, fell in popularity—quite the opposite, in fact.

RBA

Rebuildable Atomizers (RBAs) are a special type of atomizer that doesn’t take replacement atomizer heads—instead, users wrap custom coils by hand, carefully install them into the terminals of the RBA, fill them with wick, then vape away! It may sound overly complex and fraught with needless upkeep, but from personal experience, the improvements in flavor and vapor production make it extremely worthwhile.

All RBAs will have some sort of positive (+) and negative (-) terminals: these may come in the form of holes in the raised posts of an RBA’s main chamber (referred to as the “deck”) with screws that secure installed coils by clamping down on the leads. Other times, there may be no holes at all, only posts with screws that the leads of the coil are wrapped around, then secured to when the screw is tightened down. And other times still, there’s no posts at all, only holes to secure your leads.

There are a few different types of RBAs—each with their own benefits, features, and drawbacks: 

RDA

Rebuildable Dripping Atomizers, also known as “drippers” are unique from all other types of atomizers in that juice is (typically) not automatically distributed to the wicks of your coils—instead, the user manually and periodically drips juice into the chamber of the coils in order to saturate the wicking supplying juice to your coils. This can be a good thing, as changing flavors is as simple as running your wick dry rather than dumping a tank, but also a bad thing, as no spare juice will mean pesky dry hits if you aren’t paying attention to the taste.

There’s typically two parts that compose an RDA: the top cap and the deck. The deck is simply the part that has the posts and coils on top and the 510 threading on the bottom. The top cap is essentially just the cover for the deck and because it’s typically only secured to the deck with two or three o-rings, it’s easily removable whenever you want to drip. The top cap usually has slots cut out in the sides or top in order to allow air to hit your coils, though sometimes, these slots are in the deck itself, directing air to hit your coils from the bottom, which is great for extra flavor. These open slots in the RDA are their own drawback as well, as any excess juice in the deck can easily escape through these air slots if the RDA is tipped or simply overfilled, making its nickname doubly accurate. Some RDAs, however, are designed to be as leak-free as possible and will have some sort of top-feed airflow that hits your coils with air from slots in the top of the top cap, making it much more difficult for juice to find its way to the outside of the RDA.

These types of RBAs are definitely the most open in terms of airflow, producing plenty of vapor as all that air passes through the chamber. It’s becoming increasingly normal for RDAs to have an ultra wide bore drip tip that can match the rate of airflow set by the top cap, but because the seating for such a drip tip is so large, it won’t support any 510 drip tips—some RDAs come with a 510 drip tip adapter that allows users to use any 510 tips they own, but these are becoming increasingly rare.

RTA

Rebuildable Tank Atomizers are essentially an RDA with a negatively pressurized storage space regularly supplying juice to your coils, so there’s no need for periodic dripping. The decks on some RTAs are extremely similar to RDAs and require no unique building techniques in order to get a great vape—others, however, have a very small chamber in order to accommodate the space needed to store juice, and as such, the decks of these atomizers can be difficult to adapt to at first. Because RTAs typically use wicking channels that seat your wicks and keep them in place, some wicks will need to be cut carefully before being seated in order to ensure that juice flow is promoted and not blocked off by overly tight wicking. So if you’re having a little trouble escaping the dry hits/leaking of your RTA, try looking up reviews of that tank: more likely than not, someone else had the same problem and wants to inform people of an easy fix.

RDTA

While there’s much heated debate as to what exactly constitutes an RDTA, I’ll be giving my best and most logical interpretation. Sorry.

As you can probably guess, an Rebuildable Dripping Tank Atomizer is more or less a fusion between an RDA and an RTA, which is more or less true. An RDTA will have a deck very similar to an RDA’s (full-sized posts, large chamber, freely hanging wicks, etc.), but will also have some sort of completely separate tank to hold juice. In true RDTAs, this juice is manually released to the deck by pressing a button or pushing a pump, such as in the Big Dripper, but because of the very complicated mechanics and many tiny parts needed for such a feat, these have fallen out of favor. In semi-RDTAs, the most popular kind nowadays, juice is automatically fed to the deck and absorbed by the wicking. The important factor that I personally use to distinguish RDTAs from RTAs is the ability to drip juice into the chamber from a bottle while still holding juice in the tank, which works for true RDTAs, but not so much semi-RDTAs, and definitely not the next type of atomizer.


GTA

Genesis Tank Atomizers are nowadays most often referred to as RDTAs, although I personally disagree with this categorization, as there’s hardly anything “dripper” about them—thus, I’ve placed them in their own category.

Genesis tanks (named as such from the abbreviated German phrase “Genial Simpler Siebdampfer”, which means “Simple Mesh Steamer”) were popular many years ago and used many of the facets present in modern Gennies, but not nearly enough—the wicking was a vertical roll of stainless steel mesh that hung downwards into the juice tank and had a coil wrapped around the top; this coil was secured using only the most awkward of posts available and was a general pain to use. Thankfully, these fell out of style as quickly as they arose until only recently, when a new type of Genny was created.

This improved style of Genny used a deck very similar to an RDA, making installing coils incredibly easy, but has holes drilled into the bottom of the deck that led downwards to a tank right underneath. The wicks of coils are intentionally left long enough to pass through these holes and reach the tank below, drawing juice upwards to the coils. As such, GTAs are good for flavor, as the coils are right underneath the drip tip, ready to shoot pure flavor right to you, but aren’t fantastic for clouds, as the wicking can be inefficient at times.

The term GTA was first coined by Digiflavor (and subsequently adopted by yours truly) when they named the Fuji GTA, an RTA with a Genesis-like raised deck, but a tank that kept juice surrounding the entire deck structure—the closest Genesis/RTA fusion I’ve seen since.

From cartridges to clearomizers to RBAs and everything in between, vaping has undergone such a remarkable evolution in such a short time, it could be said that this is the fastest growing marketplace on the planet, and now you know a lot more about the popping parts of this intriguing field! And with any luck, you now feel that much more prepared to handle any vaping platform you come across!

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