The Basics of Vaping – What are E-Cigarettes and How Do They Work?
By Lindsay Fox Posted March 19, 2016
Compared to smoking, vaping is very complicated. With cigarettes, you just set fire to the tobacco end and inhale what comes out of the filter, but with e-cigs, you have to contend with different batteries, a multitude of different atomizers, a cornucopia of e-liquids and much more. There is a lot of information out there, but getting to the facts and understanding everything isn’t easy. That’s why we’re starting a series of posts on the basics of vaping: to give new vapers and smokers considering switching all of the information you need to make your decision and get started with vaping.
To start, we’re answering the simplest question you might have: what is an e-cigarette and how does it work?
As this series continues, we’ll move to other topics, including basic user guides, troubleshooting and some posts covering the core benefits of vaping in comparison to smoking.
What is an Electronic Cigarette?
The most common description of what an e-cigarette is runs something like this: a battery-powered device that vaporizes a liquid usually containing nicotine.
This is a little robotic and stinted, but the core elements are all there. An e-cigarette consists of a battery, which provides power to an “atomizer,” which in turn vaporizes “e-liquid.”
- Battery: Usually a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
- Atomizer: A coil of wire that gets hot when supplied with electricity from the battery. The coil is either wrapped in absorbent “wick” material or has some inserted through the center. Usually, atomizers are surrounded by a tank or other reservoir which contains e-liquid.
- E-Liquid (or “E-Juice”): A mixture of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin (also called “glycerol”), nicotine and food flavorings.
These key components are always there, regardless of the specific type of e-cigarette, and represent the core of what an e-cigarette is.
How E-Cigarettes Work
With knowledge of what an e-cigarette is, how they work is very easy to understand. The battery supplies electricity to the coil of wire, and due to its resistance to the flow of electric current, it gives off heat. If you have a coil without a wick inserted and completely free from e-liquid, it literally glows as a result of this heat.
When it’s in contact with a wick that’s soaked in e-liquid, the heat given off by the coil is transferred to the e-liquid. The liquid can only take so much energy before it’s vaporized, and this is what users inhale. This process can be understood by thinking of one individual droplet, amid the sea of droplets in the e-liquid. Like a water molecule in a boiling pan, it eventually gets enough energy to free itself from its weak bond to the others and rises up.
The “vapor” is actually a collection of tiny liquid droplets, so it should technically be called an “aerosol.” That hasn’t really caught on, though – “vaping” is a good word; “aerosol-izing” (or something) doesn’t have the same ring to it.
When liquid has been “vaporized” (you know, “aerosolized”), this dries out the wick a little. In many e-cigarettes, the wick is in constant contact with extra e-liquid, so any vaporized e-liquid is immediately replaced.
If it isn’t, or if the reservoir of extra liquid is empty, the wick will slowly dry out. If you continue to try and vape, the temperature will increase (because there is no liquid to absorb the energy given off by the coil) and you might burn the wick. If there’s a small amount of liquid left, this may lead to a “dry puff,” where the liquid is overheated and starts to taste really nasty. This is basically the e-cig's way of telling you to fill up your tank.
Types of Electronic Cigarette
The most basic type of e-cigarette is often referred to as a “cigalike.” These look like cigarettes, with the long section (which, in a traditional cigarette, would contain tobacco) actually being a battery and the shorter (“butt” or filter) section being a combined atomizer and e-liquid reservoir (called a “cartomizer”), with a small hole in the mouthpiece. The cartomizer includes the coil, and this is surrounded by wick material with e-liquid soaked into it. They generally hold around 1 ml of e-liquid.
These are operated much like a cigarette. Cigalikes often have “automatic” operation, which means the power is activated when you inhale from the tip (thanks to a sensor and microprocessor), thus producing vapor. Some have “manual” operation, which means you press a button to activate the battery and produce vapor. Usually, the cartridges aren’t made to refill, and are just disposed of when the liquid runs out.
These aren’t very common these days, because more efficient designs have been developed.
The “second generation” refillable style of e-cigarette is the most commonly used one today, especially among beginners. These use larger batteries than “cigalikes” so you can vape for longer between charges, and always have manual operation.
The main difference between these and cigalikes is the atomizer and tank section. In refillable devices, the wick and coil are contained within an atomizer head, which is at the center of a liquid-filled “clearomizer” or tank section.
The atomizer head connects to a central stem, which leads right up to a “drip tip” at the top of the clearomizer. When you vape, the vapor travels right up this stem and you inhale it through the drip tip. The atomizer head is enclosed, except for small openings so the wick can be in constant contact with the liquid, keeping a consistent supply of liquid to the coil.
As the name suggests, with refillable devices you can buy e-liquid separately and refill the clearomizers when they’re empty rather than having to throw the whole thing away. This means you can use a much wider range of e-juice than with cigalikes.
The coil will eventually run out, but you can just buy a new atomizer head and keep using the tank section.
“Third generation” mods are much like the refillable options, but with bigger batteries and a wider range of atomizers on offer. The batteries are generally much bigger, and usually give you the option of supplying a specific amount of power to the coil (called variable voltage/variable wattage e-cigarettes). Some even allow the user to set a maximum coil temperature to avoid those unpleasant “dry puffs.” To support these functions, mods usually have extra buttons and a display screen.
Mods may come with in-built batteries in the same way as cigalikes or refillable devices, but others have replaceable batteries, so you can have a spare battery to use while one is charging. On other types of device, you’d need a whole other e-cigarette to accomplish the same thing.
Mods also use a standard type of threading, called 510 threading, so a wide range of atomizers can be used. These range from tanks (which are like the ones used in refillable devices but bigger) to rebuildables (which give the user the option of making his or her own coils).
Vaping is More Complicated, But Not Too Complicated
So e-cigarettes are a lot more complicated than cigarettes, but hopefully this guide has convinced you that it really isn’t too bad. Once you’ve gotten a simple e-cig, you’ll be well-prepared to venture into more complicated options, because they all work in the same basic way.