If you are relatively new to vaping, then you might feel overwhelmed by the amount of technical lingo that vapers tend to throw around. While you don’t need to learn all the vaper slang to start vaping, there are certain terms you ought to know and understand.
One of those terms is “atomizer,” which is a one of the main components that e-cigarette are made of. In fact, the atomizer is one of the most important parts of a vape, and no e-cigarette could work without one.
It gets confusing, however, when you start to consider all the different types of atomizers with confusing names like clearomizer, RBA, and RDA. That’s why, in this post, we’re going to give you the full run-down on atomizers and show you exactly what they are and how they work.
What Does an Atomizer Do?
An atomizer is, more or less, what makes an e-cigarette “work.” Without an atomizer, an e-cigarette would just be a useless tank full of e-liquid that you can’t do anything with at all.
On the most basic level, an atomizer is a technical term that describes anything that turns a liquid substance into a mist. In the context of vaping, an atomizer is the device inside the e-cigarette that actually turns the e-liquid into vapor.
E-cigarette atomizers do this by gently heating the e-liquid until it evaporates into a vapor that you can inhale. That’s why the atomizer is always found in-between an e-cigarette’s tank and mouthpiece; it has to take in liquid e-juice from the tank on one end in order to output e-liquid vapor from the opposite end.
The only exception to this is a special type of atomizer known as a dripping atomizer or RDA. This kind of atomizer releases vapor from the same end that it receives e-liquid from, but we will go into more detail on RDA’s later on.
The Anatomy of an Atomizer
At this point, you are probably wondering exactly how an atomizer is able to turn a liquid substance into a vapor. The answer is relatively simple if you understand how an atomizer is designed.
First, you need to understand the basic parts that make up an e-cigarette and the atomizer itself. Then, you can understand how they all work together to make an e-cigarette function.
Here are the basic components of an e-cigarette and what they do:
- The E-liquid Tank: This is simply a reservoir used to store e-liquid. E-cigarette tanks come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, including large, open tanks and tiny disposable pods and cartridges.
- The Battery: The battery contains the energy used to power the atomizer. It provides the electricity the atomizer needs in order to turn the e-liquid into a vapor.
- The Atomizer: The atomizer uses electricity to heat up a coil, which is used to warm up the e-liquid. The atomizer is connected to all the other e-cigarette components, including the battery, tank, and mouthpiece.
- The Mouthpiece: This is where you put your mouth to inhale the vapor from your e-cigarette. Its purpose is to direct the vapor into your mouth and give some extra space between the hot atomizer and your lips.
The way these components are connected is relatively simple: the battery is connected to the atomizer so the atomizer has power to work. The tank is also connected to the atomizer so the atomizer can take in the e-juice and heat it into a vapor.
Finally, the mouthpiece is attached to the atomizer and serves as a tool to collect the vapor that the atomizer creates and deliver it to your mouth.
Simple enough? Okay. Now let’s take a closer look at the atomizer itself.
Here are the basic components of an atomizer and what they do:
Battery Connection Port
This is simply a place for the battery to connect to the atomizer so that it can supply the atomizer with power. This connection, called a 510 port, is a round port with threading so you can screw the two parts together.
Coil (Heating Element)
This is the part of the atomizer that actually heats up the e-liquid. It is usually made up of one or more metal coils that receive electricity from the battery in order to heat up.
Some atomizers have just one coil, while others have room for two coils to heat up simultaneously. Single-coil setups tend to run cooler and use less power, while dual-coil setups are more powerful and drain the battery faster.
Unfortunately, coils go bad after only a short period of time, heating unevenly and taking on a burnt taste when you vape. Once the coil is no longer good, you either have to throw out the atomizer (if the atomizer is disposable) or replace the coil with a new one (if the atomizer is re-usable)
How often you have to change out the coil depends on how much you vape. The coils in re-usable atomizers usually last a week or two, while disposable atomizers are designed to last the whole lifetime of the disposable device or cartridge it is attached to.
The heating coils in an atomizer are always accompanied by a wicking material of some sort. The purpose of the wick is to pull e-liquid into the atomizer and hold it by the heating element.
Wicks come in all different lengths and sizes, and different types of wicks are appropriate for different types of atomizers. Some use cotton filling instead of a proper wick, while others have extra long wicks for soaking up e-liquid from the bottom of a tank.
Wicks and wicking material are strung through the center of the coils so that the e-juice they’re soaked with heats up evenly. In re-usable (aka rebuildable) atomizers, you generally replace the wicking material each time you replace the coil.
How Does the Atomizer Work When You Vape?
The way an atomizer operates when you vape is relatively simple. First, the wick or other wicking material draws in e-liquid from the tank. This e-liquid soaks the wicks or cotton filling surrounding the coils in the atomizer.
When you “fire” your e-cigarette by pressing the button or drawing air in through the mouthpiece, it activates the battery, which powers up the atomizer via electricity. The atomizer then turns this electric energy into heat, which is used to heat up the coils.
Within just a few moments, the coils get hot enough to heat the e-liquid in the wick into a vapor. That vapor then fills the space around the coils and in the mouthpiece until you breathe it in.
As you keep vaping, the wick continues to pull more and more e-liquid into the atomizer to replace the liquid that evaporates. As long as the wicking material stays wet with e-liquid and the coils stay hot, the atomizer will continue to create vapor.
Now that you understand these basic components and how they function in an e-cigarette, you can see why the atomizer is considered the most critical part. But even though they work through a very simple process, there are endless variations in how atomizers are designed.
Not All Atomizers Are Equal
Because it is such a critical component, the atomizer plays a large role in the overall design of an e-cigarette. It also plays a huge role in the quality of the e-cigarette and what kind of vaping experience you get.
Because an atomizer is such a simple device at its core, it can be assembled and designed in a wide variety of ways. That’s why e-cigarette atomizers vary so widely in size, shape, components, and how its various components are connected.
All of these factors, including how the atomizer connects to the other parts of the e-cigarette, determine the e-cigarette’s overall quality and how it functions. That’s why it’s good to know about different varieties of atomizers and how they affect the vaping experience.
Disposable atomizers are single-use atomizers that are often small and cheaply made. These are usually only used in disposable e-cigarettes and cartridge-based devices like Juul.
Vapes with disposable atomizers are great for beginners who don’t know how to maintain a re-usable device. Re-usable atomizers require regular maintenance, including changing out the heating coils often, and this is something that most inexperienced vapers don’t have the experience or desire to do.
Disposable atmoizers are usually contained in the same compartment as the e-liquid, and are meant to be thrown away when the e-liquid runs out. Cartomizers and clearomizers are some of the most common types of disposable atomizers, and we will go into more detail on both below.
Rebuildable atomizers are atomizers that allow you to replace the coils with new coils that you build and install yourself. They require a greater amount of knowledge and practice to use than other types of atomizers and are popular among more experienced vapers.
Rebuildable atomizers are known as RBA’s (Re-Buildable Atomizer), and they refer to any atomizer that allows you to install your own homemade coils. However, if you don’t know how to wrap coils yourself, you can also buy pre-wrapped coils that are ready to be installed on an RBA’s deck.
Many different types of e-cigarettes use RBA’s, including mods, advanced personal vaporizers, and some pen-style vapes. They are also common in clearomizer tanks, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.
All types of RBA’s require regular maintenance, which includes regular cleaning and changing out the coils. Because heating coils have a relatively short lifetime, you have to change out the coils in an RBA fairly often.
You attach new coils to an RBA’s “build deck,” which is usualy made up of two or three metal posts on the top of the atomizer. These posts contain slots where you insert the ends of the coil, and deliver power from the battery to the coil.
Different RBA’s can hold different numbers of coils, depending on how they’re designed and how many posts they have. A two-post deck will only hold one coil, while a three-post deck can hold two coils, often referred to as a dual-coil setup.
Dual Coil Setups
Three-post decks tend to be more expensive and more difficult to use. And whenever the coils go bad, you have to replace two coils instead of one.
However, dual-coil setups get hotter and produce more vapor than single-coil setups, making them popular among cloud chasers and more experienced vapers. However, they also burn through more e-juice and drain the battery more quickly.
Single Coil Setups
Two-post decks have the advantage of being generally cheaper and simpler to work with than three-post decks. Since you only need to replace one coil, they are cheaper and quicker to build on as well.
Single coil atomizers tend to run cooler and produce smaller clouds, but they use up less e-liquid and less battery life. Single-coil RBA’s are best for beginners and vapers who don’t mind more modest clouds.
The Different Types of RBA’s
RBA’s can be further split into three more categories: rebuildable tank atomizers, rebuildable dripping atomizers, and rebuildable tank dripping atomizers.
Rebuildable Tank Atomizers
Rebuildable tank atomizers, or RTA’s, are designed to be used with an e-liquid tank. They often have long wicks in order to pull e-liquid from the tank into the coils.
RTA’s are tank-specific, meaning that each type of atomizer is designed to fit a specific tank. Nearly all RTA’s come as a tank-RTA combo, and they are used in most types of vape mods.
Rebuildable Dripping Atomizers
Rebuildable dripping atomizers, or RDA’s, are different in the sense that they are meant to be used without a tank. Instead, they use smaller wicks meant to catch drips of e-liquid that you drop directly onto the coils. We’ll talk more about dripping atomizers in the following sections.
Rebuildable Tank Dripping Atomizers
There is a third category of RBA, known as a rebuildable dripping tank atomizer, or RDTA. This is a kind of cross between an RDA and RTA; you can screw the atomizer into a tank, or you can use it on its own without the tank as a driping atomizer, instead.
Atomizers with Replaceable Coil Heads
Many beginner vape kits and mods use a special type of atomizer that uses replacement coil heads. Unlike RBA’s, you cannot install your own homemade coils; instead, you simply pop in pre-made “coil heads” that fit easily into the atomizer.
The point of replaceable coil heads is to make it simple for beginners—who used to have to rely on disposable atomizers—to use more sophisticated, re-usable ones. Replaceable coil heads make replacing the heating element as simple as it can be, which is important because you have to replace it so often to keep a re-usable atomizer in good shape.
Putting it All Together: The Most Common Atomizer Designs
The different atomizer features discussed above can be combined in a myriad different ways to create devices tailored for a specific use. Often, atomizers are designed to be used with a particular category of e-cigarette or a certain type of tank.
As a result, atomizers are often labeled based on their specific parts (heating element, wicking material, tank attachment) and how they fit into a particular type e-cigarette. These terms help to further divide different atomizers based on their function as well as their design.
The term “dripper” refers to a dripping atomizer, which is a specific type of rebuildable atomizer that is not designed to draw e-liquid from a tank. Instead, you are meant to drip drops of of e-liquid directly onto the atomizer’s coils whenever you’re ready to vape.
Unlike most atomizers, dripping atomizers fit directly between the battery and the mouthpiece in an e-cigarette. Their large, exposed coils are usually seated in a small divet or “well” that is meant to catch and hold small amounts of e-liquid when you drip.
Because they are not meant to be used with a tank, drippers have no need for long wicks. Instead, most simply use a small amount of cotton wicking material strung through the center of the coils.
Dripping atomizers are often preferred by more seasoned vapers for their superior taste and vapor production. However, many find dripping too cumbersome because of the hassle of continually dripping e-liquid as you vape.
A clearomizer isn’t an atomizer exactly; it’s more like a kind of tank-atomizer setup. It’s basically just a large, clear e-liquid tank which has the atomizer built into the tank.
Because the atomizer is built into the inside of the tank, it puts it in closer proximity to the e-liquid. Because of this, the atomizer’s long wicks can go directly into the tank and bathe in the e-liquid.
Clearomizers are usually all-in-one, meaning you cannot swap out the atomizer that it comes with. However, you can replace the coils, either by building your own or using a replaceable coild head.
One of the greatest benefits of clearomizers are their large tank capacities and the fact that they are generally high quality. However, they also tend to be more expensive and have a reputation for being prone to leaks.
Some clearomizers are disposable, some have rebuildable coils, and others use replaceable coil heads. Clearomizers are also often separated based on whether the atomizer is seated at the top or bottom end of the tank.
Top-coil clearomizers are the classic design, and have the atomizer seated at the top of the tank with long wicks to soak up e-liquid at the bottom. You fill this kind of clearomizer by unscrewing the top part (containing the heating element) and pouring liquid into the tank.
Bottom-coil clearomizers are a newer design that is better at keeping the coils wet and feeding juice to the atomizer. However, they are more prone to flooding, and often more difficult to refill.
A cartomizer is another kind of atomizer/tank combo, except unlike clearomizers, they are usually housed in a tiny, sealed cartridge instead of a traditional tank. While this type of atomizer is often considered outdated, it is still used in disposable e-liquid cartridges and cig-a-like devices.
Cartomizers contain the atomizer, wicking material, and e-liquid all together inside a compact casing. The cartridge is usually sealed up tight, since it is not meant to be opened or refilled.
Cartomizers are generally built to be cheap, simple, and single-use; you simply throw them away as soon as they run out of e-liquid. However, some vapers have found ways to open up cartomizers and refill them in order to save money or use their own flavors.
Unlike RBA’s, cartomizers don’t require any maintenance and don’t have replaceable coils. Since you only use them for a short period of time before replacing them, you don’t have to worry about anything except throwing them out when they’re empty.
Choosing the Right Atomizer
Because the atomizer makes up the “meat” of an e-cigarette, it is often one of the most important things to consider when you are choosing a new vape. This is particularly true if you are building your own e-cigarette from parts.
The atomizer is often a moot point, however, if you’re a buying a starter kit or any kind of disposable e-cigarette. These are simple devices with built-in parts that you can’t swap out, and it’s better to judge them based on their features and overall performance.
Choosing an RBA
If you are buying an RBA for a mod, advanced personal vape, or another open-system device, then getting the right type of atomizer for your buld is key. That’s why it’s important that you know what to look out for and how to compare different atomizer types.
The information in this article should give you a good place to start, but there’s much more to learn when it comes to RBA’s. That’s why it’s s important to do plenty of research both before, during, and after your search for a new atomizer or vape.
Before you install a new RBA in to any open-system vaping device, you need to learn about wattage, resistance, and e-cigarette battery safety. You also need to know how to compare the specs of different parts to make sure they are compatible with one another.
Even once you’ve learned the essentials, it’s still easy to make mistakes. That’s why, unless you’ have lots of practice, it’s a good idea to seek advice from more experienced vapers before starting to build on an RBA.
If you are new to building or RBA’s, don’t underestimate what other vapers can teach you. Communities like Vaping_101 on Reddit and the New Builders Corner at the Vaping Underground Forums exist specifically to help beginner vapers and builders.
Forums like these are wonderful places to ask questions and get helpful advice from seasoned e-cigarette users. Community members are always happy to give e-cigarette recommendations, building advice, and even check your calculations for potential problems and errors.
Cig-a-likes, Disposables, and Other Closed-System Devices
If your e-cigarette is a disposable or cartridge-based vape, then you won’t need to worry about the atomizer, because it comes built in to your device. Depending on the model, the atomizer may be located in the disposable cartridges, or it may be attached to the main base of your e-cigarette.
If the atomizer is built in to a disposable cartridge, then you’ll have a fresh new atomizer each time you switch in a new cartridge. Most other closed-system e-cigarettes use disposable atomizers or disposable coil heads that are incredibly simple to replace as needed.
If you are choosing a closed-system device, then you should probably be more concerned about convenience, design, battery life, and other characteristics of the e-cigarette. While different closed-system devices do vary in the type of atomizer they use, it’s more important to compare them based on other features and overall performance.
If you care a lot about having a quality atomizer, then it’s best to stick with mods and other open-system devices that use RBA’s. They tend to be more expensive and require more skill to maintain, but there’s very few alternatives if you want a high-performing vape.
Even if you don’t know how to wrap your own coils, you can always buy pre-wrapped coils if you want to use an RBA. Or, you can enjoy the advantages of a more powerful atomizer along with the simplicity of a disposable one by buying an e-cigarette that uses replaceable coil heads.