Getting Started: Electronic Cigarette Basics

How an electronic cigarette works

At a very basic level all electronic cigarettes work the same: a battery fires a heating coil which vaporizes liquid nicotine, which is then inhaled by the user.

Here is a basic diagram showing how a “cigalike” (an electronic cigarette that has a form factor similar to a traditional cigarette) operates:

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

If you replace the battery and micropsocessor with an eGo type battery, and everything else with say, a Kanger EVOD, you have essentially (at a very basic level) the same device. There are a variety of ways to achieve this, some better than others.

Why would you want more than a cigalike?

If all electronic cigarettes are the same, why do some look like cigarettes, and some look like lightsabers?

A 1996 Honda Civic and a 2013 Chevrolet Corvette will both get you to Las Vegas, but with a very different user experience.

Cigalikes are generally regarded as the least common denominator in vaping. They have terrible battery life, and deliver poor vapor. Pretty much anything else is going to give you a better vaping experience, but will have a larger form factor.

Battery Types

Essentially you have four battery type options for electronic cigarettes:

  • Cigalike batteries.
  • eGo type batteries.
  • Rechargeable batteries (removable).
  • Passthroughs (no batteries, plugs directly into wall or vehicle power).

By far the most common and versatile are the eGo and rechargeable type batteries.

For more information on batteries see the Getting Started: Battery Basics.

Topper Types

Once you make the selection of battery type, you need something to go on top of it to vaporize (and possibly hold) the e-juice.

NOTE: For information on e-juice see Getting Started: Juice Primer.

Toppers come in many shapes and sizes, some of which are intended only for use with specific devices (this is mostly when you get into RBAs). You’ll want to ensure the topper you are looking at will work with your battery device before purchasing.

Warning: Do not over tighten the topper when attaching it to the battery. In many cases this will push the positive contact pin on the battery connector (not the one on the topper) down, and due to the nature of variance in mass manufacturing, this may cause other toppers to be unable to fire on that battery connection.
A good rule of thumb here is to tighten the topper until it will barely fire when the battery is activated, and then tighten it an additional quarter turn. 

Dripping Atomizers

Dripping atomizers are probably the most basic way to vape. All you need is an actual dripping atomizer and a drip tip. There are two types of atomizer that are most prevalent; the 510 and the 306.

They both fit a standard 510 connection, the major difference is that the 306 is like the innards of a 510. The drip tip goes over the outside of the 306 rather than inside it, like with a 510.

Essentially this is a battery connection with a heating coil sitting on top of it. You drip a couple of drops of e-juice directly onto the coil, put the drip tip on, and fire it. The coil vaporizes the e-juice which is then inhaled by the user.

An example of a 510 atomizer is this SLB 510 LR (low resistance, this one is 1.7homs – found here):


click to enlarge

This type of atomizer accepts a standard 510 drip tip (and some – this one included – can be used with cartridges, essentially turning it into a cartomizer).

An example of a 306 atomizer is the LR 306 (also 1.7 ohms – found here):

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

This particular example of a 306 atomizer comes shipped with a drip tip that will fit over it.

Changing juice flavors with a dripping atomizer is as simple as it gets, just rinse it with bottled water, pat it dry and fire the atomizer for a second or so once or twice to vaporize any remaining water.


A cartomizer is essentially a drip atomizer with a cartridge permanently attached to it that holds a small amount of e-juice so that you don’t have to continually drip e-juice into it after one or two puffs. You can get them prefilled with e-juice from some vendors, or you can get them empty and add your own juice.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

In the image above, the red arrows show the flow of e-juice into the cartomizer (ignore point ‘B’ for now, we’ll get to that in a minute. This hole does not exist on all cartomizers).

An example of a cartomizer is the Boge (2 ohm stainless steel – found here) cartomizer shown here:

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Changing juice flavors is not really feasible with cartos, they are generally intended to be used with a single juice, or at best with very similar flavored juices.

Cartomizer Tanks

Remember when I said to ignore point ‘B’ in the cartomizer anatomy picture? That’s because it is only relevant when talking about cartomizer tanks. A cartomizer tank is a tank that is designed to slip over a cartomizer that has had a hole punched into it (you can buy them from the vendors like this, or you can punch them yourself).

NOTE: Don’t try using a punched carto without a tank, your juice will leak out and it will generally be an all around bad experience.

How a cartomizer tank works:

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

They are a relatively simple concept, but are prone to opening and leaking.

The above example is a Boge F16 tank (found here):

click to enlarge

click to enlarge



Essentially a clearomizer is a cartomizer that uses a clear shell so that you can see how much e-juice is remaining. Clearomizers come in many varieties, including the CE4 or “stardust type”, the Kanger EVOD, the Vivi Nova, the iClear 16 and so on. Generally these are made from varying kinds of plastic, though many are also made from glass (the Kanger Protank for example). Clearomizers using glass tanks are sometimes referred to as “Glassomizers” (glass clearos are relatively new).

A popular clearomizer is the Kanger Protank (found here):

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Some clearomizers have replaceable ‘heads’ (the part that contains the heating coil atomizer), some are disposable.

Clearomizers come in two types; top coil (TCC) and bottom coil (BCC). The protank above is an example of a BCC.

An example of a TCC is the iClear 16 (found here):

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Bottom coil clearomizers generally have issues with leaking and gurgling (to varying degrees), and top coil clearomizers generally have issues with leaking and dry hits (to varying degrees). This is not a knock against clearos, all toppers have their drawbacks, which is why everybody doesn’t use the same thing.

Changing juice flavors with a clearo generally entails rinsing the clearo thoroughly with distilled water and letting it dry before adding a new flavor.

Occasionally a flavor will linger, requiring a 10-20 minute soak in pure grain alcohol (such as vodka or everclear – you don’t want to use anything flavored), followed by a flush with distilled water to remove traces of the flavor.

Rebuildable Dripping Atomizers (RDA)

Rebuildable Dripping Atomizers (RDAs) are the first step into do it yourself territory. These are more advanced versions of the Dripping Atomizer listed above. These devices allow the user to build the wick and coil assembly so that the unit is reusable, and the vapor experience is fully customizable.

An example of an RDA is the IGO-L (considered by many the best entry level RDA – found here):

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Rebuildable Dripping Atomizers generally come without a coil or wick installed (though some do come preassembled). RDAs usually only hold what e-juice is dripped directly into the wick (usually 5-7 drops), though some use a small lip around the deck to allow more to be used (this is the case with the IGO-L pictured).

After assembling the wick/coil, the coil is attached to the positive terminal (#5 above), and negative terminal (#6 above) to complete the circuit. Rebuildables are considered an advanced topper (though some people have started out in vaping with them).

Changing juice flavors with an RDA is generally no more complex than flushing the wick/coil with distilled water, and then firing the atomizer to burn off any remaining water in the wick.

Rebuildable Atomizers (RBA)

The term rebuildable atomizers (RBA) is used to cover devices that use a tank or reservoir below the atomizer deck (they are intended to alleviate the need to drip liquid directly onto the wick).

An example of a popular RBA is the RSST (found here):

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

This is often referred to as a Genesis style atomizer.

Ohm’s Law

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click to enlarge

Ohm’s law is an electrical theory formula that is far outside the scope of this post, but you are (knowingly or not) using it every time you vape. This is a formula that is used to determine the proper voltage/wattage/resistance relationship in a given circuit. In vaping we generally have a set value for one of those things (resistance, which is measured in ohms), and are going to designate another (either wattage or voltage).

This is important to know (at least on a very basic level) because if your device is not variable voltage or variable wattage (like say a basic eGo-C battery), you will need to use a lower resistance atomizer to achieve a good vaping experience.

There are various ohm’s law calculators that can be found on the web and as apps for your smart phone. I would recommend using one of these if you have questions about a setting or whether or not your equipment is working correctly.

Follow this link for more information on Ohm’s Law.



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