E-Cig 101: Atomizers and Cartomizers

As Steve K’s Vaping World progresses and the article count steadily marches upward, I wanted to start expanding my articles designed for readers new to electronic cigarettes.  I dedicate a great deal of electrons to writing reviews on cartomizers and atomizers.  So, for my first article in this series I’d like to take the time to explain the technology behind the workings of each.

Electronic Cigarette Technology
Image: ecig wiki

Electronic cigarettes in general work on a simple premise.  Liquid, generally consisting of propylene glycol (or vegetable glycerine or a combination of the two) usually mixed with nicotine and flavorings are rapidly heated into a vapor which is inhaled by the user.  This liquid solution is generally referred to as e-liquid, e-juice or some other variation. The heating is accomplished using a battery connected a coil of nichrome wire which is contained in the atomizer or cartomizer, which are also commonly referred to online as atties and cartos respectively.

Atomizers are at their most basic, a two piece design.  The first part of the design is the atomizer itself which usually consists of a length of nichrome wire wrapped around a silicone wick and connected to the threaded battery connector.  A small U shaped piece of metal covered in steel mesh called a bridge is attached to the wick.  The bridge is designed to transfer the nicotine liquid from the attached cartridge or tank to the wick and coil.  The whole assembly is housed in a metal tube.  Depending on the specific model of e cigarette, this bridge may be exposed above the end of the tube, or recessed inside the tube.
Two speciality atomizers

The second piece of an atomizer based system as mentioned is a cartridge, tank, or drip tip.  The cartridges and tanks hold the e-liquid, suspended in some type of batting in the case of cartridges. Many users opt for dripping e-liquid directly onto the atomizer, which is referred to as direct dripping (more on this later).

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Cartomizers work on the same principle as atomizers, only they are a single unit rather than two pieces. The single piece cartomizers come in two basic varieties (with a whole lot of variations).  Fillered cartomizers use some sort of heat proof filler material similar to that found in atomizer cartridges.  The filler filled variety of cartomizers are sometimes refered to by manufacturers as atomized cartridges.

Dual Coil Cartomizers

The other variety of cartomizers carry liquid similar to tank atomizers with liquid filling the cartomizer and some sort of barrier keeping the heating element from being submerged in liquid.  An extended silicone wick is used to transfer liquid from the chamber to the heating coil for vaporization.

Pros and Cons
Both cartomizers and atomizers have their set of fans and detractors.  Each offers a somewhat different vaping experience, and it’s a good idea to try and sample a few of each variety to decide what will be your go-to hardware selection.  The good news is there’s no wrong answer here.  Electronic cigarettes are nothing if not subjective.  What matters most is you find a solution that fits your needs.

There are some basic generalizations associated with each that I’ll briefly outline without trying suggesting one is superior to another.  Atomizers are for the most part regarded as lasting longer than cartomizers (and being more expensive as a result).  Many people swear by the direct dripping method for cartomizers citing improved flavor production.  Dripping also makes it much easier to change flavors as compared to a cartomizer.  Changing flavors in a tank or cartridge setup is also very simple, just swap out the cartridge with a different flavor and you’re good to go.

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Tanks and cartridges could also be pointed out by some as drawbacks to atomizer solutions as well.  Cartridges can be messy, hold a fairly tiny amount of juice and generally may not perform well without a lot of modifications (“modding” in vaper parlance).  Tanks while requiring less fiddling may be prone to leakage and in general are regarded as having a more muted flavor.  The improved flavor with dripping also has its drawbacks as it can be messy, and it’s pretty hard to drip while driving for example.

Cartomizers provide an excellent solution for those times when you may need your hands and attention for something else.  Some hold enough eliquid for hours’ or even a full day’s worth of vaping!  There is simply a huge variety of different sizes and technology in cartomizers meaning there’s likely something for every style of electronic cigarette user.  Some fans also point out that certain varieties of cartomizer produce outstanding amounts of vapor while improvements in the technology also allows for excellent flavor production.

Leakage, lots of leakage

Unfortunately, with that much variety and new technology out in the field, there’s going to be a number of duds.  This is certainly true with cartomizers.  The fillered variety of cartomizers are also prone to burning if not kept properly wet, which makes some of the drawbacks similar to dripping atomizers.  Other cartomizers may leak or break if not cared for properly.  Finally, cartomizers are generally considered by the manufacturers as disposable, so while they’re less expensive than most atomizers, many have a much shorter lifespan.

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Enough, Already! Which One Should I Get?
There are a huge number of variations of both atomizers and cartomizers with new varieties being added on a seemingly weekly basis.  I sometimes run myself ragged trying to get my hands on different examples of each for testing on this site.  It’s OK to feel overwhelmed, I do! Throughout this series I will be further delving into the many varieties and technologies used in fuller detail.  For now I just wanted to establish the superficial differences and similarities between the two technologies.

Remember, there are no wrong answers.  Read some reviews here and elsewhere (check the blogroll on the left for other good  sites) and get your hands on a few different models you think you’ll like.  It may seem like vaping is more expensive than smoking at first as you try and get hit your stride, but once you find something you like, everything will equalize and you’ll be on the road to blissful vaping heaven!

In future articles in this series I’ll dive deeper into both atomizers and cartomizers as well as some of the other concepts behind each like resistance and connector styles.  Once those posts are up they’ll automagically show up below (welcome, time travelers!)  While you wait, I’ve also posted a couple of links to resources to help you dig deeper into the subject.

Part 2: More About Cartomizers
E-Cigarette Resources for New Vapers
Ecig Wiki: Atomizers
Ecig Wiki: Cartomizers

Shameless commerce (hey, you gotta buy this stuff somewhere, right?): Affiliated vendor list

Steve K

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