The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Electronic Cigarettes
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by: James Dunworth

Why this guide?

The Smoker's Angel Question Mark.

Plunge into the world of electronic cigarettes and you could easily get confused.

There is so much information, and so many terms – but at the end of the day getting started can be as simple as picking up a disposable electronic cigarette and inhaling on it.

In this comprehensive guide you’ll get a complete overview of everything you need to know to choose the correct electronic cigarette for you. There’s a lot of information here, so feel free to bookmark it and come back later.

Why Use Electronic Cigarettes?

i. Scientists Claim Health Benefits

If all the smokers in Britain stopped smoking cigarettes and started smoking e-cigarettes we would save 5 million deaths in people who are alive today. It’s a massive potential public health prize.

Headshot of Professor John Britton. Professor John Britton, chair of the Tobacco Advisory Group of the Royal College of Physicians Source: BBC

Many scientists believe that electronic cigarettes are vastly safer than tobacco cigarettes – in fact Professor Carl Phillips has argued that the benefits of switching are almost identical to those of quitting.

You see, 99% of the problem with smoking is not nicotine, it’s the combustion. When you burn tobacco, you create thousands of chemicals, dozens of carcinogens and tar.

In contrast, electronic cigarettes do not burn tobacco. It vaporises a liquid (called e-juice or e-liquid) which contains nicotine. And scientist Professor Michael Siegel argues that while we have yet to identify all the chemicals in cigarette smoke, we know exactly what is in e-liquid. (For more information see our section on e-liquid below.)

Also see: Are Electronic Cigarettes Safe: The Shocking Truth

Our own surveys suggest that users may experience quick benefits – see the Electronic Cigarette Lung survey for the most recent results.

Smoker's cough after switching, results of an online survey.

Side Effects

While usually perfectly safe, the propylene glycol (PG) in electronic cigarettes can cause dryness of throat and sore throats. In addition, a small percentage of people are allergic to PG.

At times, allergic symptoms may be confused with the effects of quitting smoking. Quit smoking symptoms can include:

  • mouth ulcers
  • coughing
  • chest pains
  • respiratory problems
  • mood swings

See here for a full list. 

If you have any concerns at all, consult with your doctor!

ii. How Much Can You Save With An Electronic Cigarette?

It’s possible for a UK smoker smoking 20 cigarettes a day to save close to two thousand pounds a year.

Exactly how much depends on the amount you spend on cigarettes, and how much you are going to spend on e-cigarettes, which e-cigarettes you use, how you use e-cigarettes (long or short drags) etc.. If you are using regular e-cigarettes, our handy calculator will give you a very rough idea of how much you could save.

See what our customers said about money savings or click here to read about how one customer saved enough to buy a house.

iii. Can You Quit With Electronic Cigarettes?

At the time of writing, electronic cigarettes may not be marketed as a quit smoking aid unless they have a medical authorisation. No company has yet been able to develop an electronic cigarette which matches this medical authorisation.

Nevertheless, a number of studies suggest that smokers may be able to quit smoking – or at least switch to a different form of nicotine usage.

iv. Ability To Use In More Places

Enjoying an electronic cigarette while having a bath.

Above: William enjoys an electronic cigarette in the bath! See our image gallery for more user-submitted photos. 

Currently, e-cigarettes can legally be used in most public places, indoors as well as outdoors. Some pubs have banned electronic cigarettes on the basis that they could be confused with regular cigarettes. However, this is a decision made by the owner of the establishment, not a legal requirement.

In the US, e-cigarettes are currently banned on airlines – but in the UK some airlines sell electronic cigarettes. If you are not sure, check. Be sure to point out that electronic cigarettes ARE legal to use indoors.

v. Taste and Ability to Smell

Sense of smell after switching to vaping.

A story I love is when vapers talk about, a few days or a couple of weeks after switching to vaping, they walk into a kitchen and suddenly realise they can suddenly smell the coffee brewing!

Indeed, when we surveyed vapers in 2009 in a study analysed by the University of Alberta, 79.8% reported an improvement in sense of smell after switching to e-cigarettes.

How does it compare to a regular cigarette?

Smoking a regular cigarette.

Weight: I think we’ve already discussed health and returning taste buds. So, the other principal difference you’ll notice first is the weight of the electronic cigarette. While a disposable or regular electronic cigarette does not weigh a great deal, you will notice a difference the first time you use one. However, I’ve yet to meet a vaper who has not got used to this after the first few days, and many users progress onto heavier, refillable tank systems or variable voltage electronic cigarettes.

Taste: Depending on what cigarettes you smoke, and what electronic cigarette flavour you order, the taste may be different or it may be very similar. What I find is that many users want something as similar as cigarettes as possible to start with, but as they go on they start to graduate away from tobacco flavours and experiment with other flavours. (My favourite is pinapple coconut rum flavour!)

Throat hit: Throat hit is a massive discussion subject amongst vapers, and refers to the hit you get at the back of your throat after inhaling the vaper from an electronic cigarette.

It’s been so long since I smoked a cigarette now I can barely remember what the throat hit from a cigarette is like. However, when I asked a newly converted smoker what the difference was, he said it depended on the e-cigarette he used – one was slightly tickly on the back of his throat, while another was virtually identical to a cigarette.

Quick Glossary

A to Z Button

Users of electronic cigarettes (vapers!) have evolved their own vocabulary. You can read a full guide to vaping terminology here, but here’s a quick guide to the terms that will help when reading this article.

Atomiser: The part which heats the e-liquid in an electronic cigarette.
E-juice (or e-liquid): A liquid which contains nicotine.
Vape: To use an electronic cigarette (equivalent of smoking a cigarette!)
Vaper: A person who uses an electronic cigarette.

We’ll go into several of these phrases in more depth later in this blog post.

How do electronic cigarettes work?

Diagram showing how electronic cigarettes work.

Click for a larger image.

While there is some variation between electronic cigarettes, the following is applicable to most e-cigarettes.

Contained within the cartridge of an electronic cigarette is an atomiser. (This may also be a separate part which screws onto the electronic cigarette.)

In regular e-cigarettes there is a wad of absorbent batting, while in other electronic cigarettes a wick extends from the bottom of the cartridge which soaks up the e-liquid, and draws it down to the atomiser.

Cut out diagram showing how the Smoker's Halo e-cigarette works.

The atomiser is activated when you either inhale or press a button. As you inhale, the atomiser heats up a liquid which contains nicotine. This creates a vapour which resembles smoke (although, crucially, it is NOT smoke.)

The vapour produced is created by the use of propylene glycol, which is also used in stage smoke, air-conditioners, drinking water, medicines and cosmetics. Click here for more information about propylene glycol.

Two things to look out for when you choose an electronic cigarette

1. Free Trial Scams

Or

How Do You Avoid Scams and Why Free E-Cigarettes are Not Usually Free

Unfortunately, the e-cigarette industry seems to attract scams, some of them (barely) legal.

The most common form of a scam is to offer a free electronic cigarette – typically, you’ll only have to pay for the packing and shipping. However, hidden in the terms and conditions is a term where you pay for refills to be sent monthly – this can be high as £60 a month. These can be difficult to cancel, and you’ve almost no chance of getting money back from the company. As these companies have no interest in building a long term relationship with customers or a reputation in the market place, you’ll probably also find that the e-cigarette you are sold is complete rubbish.

(A Chinese factory owner once told us: “I can supply electronic cigarettes for any price you want – but the quality will be terrible.”)

2. The ECITA Logo

Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association (ECITA) Logo

In the UK, the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association polices its members with strict twice yearly audits. It has also developed its own strict standards, and its Industry Standard of Excellence has been described by a Trading Standards officer as:

…a Code any industry would be proud to have.

So its logo is worth watching out for.

Of course, just because a company is not a member does not mean that you need to avoid it (ECITA is expensive, and many smaller suppliers cannot afford the membership) but at least if you see the logo you know you are dealing with a reputable company.

What Types of Electronic Cigarettes Are There?

1. Disposable E-Cigarettes

The key benefit to disposables is they are readily available – and there is no faffing around with them. Instead, you just pick one up, inhale, and enjoy.

However, I think you need to be careful with disposables. They sound like a great way to test electronic cigarettes without laying out for a kit, but the problem is the quality can be poor (and they are very rarely as good as a good starter kit.) Their best function, IMO, is for when you run out while on a trip and can hopefully pick one up in a shop.

Disposables can cost anything from about a fiver to eleven or twelve pounds. A few quid may sound like too much, but if you compare the value of a kit which you can carry on using every day for a year or more it’s really very expensive. If you really want to try a kit on the cheap, head over here and use this discount code mkit2012 to get the Smoker’s Halo mini kit for £9.99 :)

2. Regular ECigarettes

Three Part and Two Part Electronic Cigarettes

Blowing vapour rings.

Electronic cigarettes used to consist of three parts, consisting of a battery, an atomiser and a cartridge. The atomiser was screwed onto the battery, and the cartridges were either screwed or pushed on to the atomiser.

While a great improvement on smoking, the main problem was that the atomiser was prone to failure. Increasingly, atomisers are now built into disposable cartridges. Not only do these seem to be more reliable than the original atomisers, they are less fiddly, and if you do get an atomiser going wrong you have only lost a single cartridge.

How Do You Use a Regular Electronic Cigarette?

Please note that you get a full, illustrated interactive to refillable electronic cigarettes written by renowned expert vaper and blogger Steve Vape when you sign up to our newsletter. Steve knows more than me about refillable electronic cigarettes, but I’ll cover some of the basics here.

Getting Started

As soon as you get the kit, give it a good charge. Batteries may come with some initial charge, but by giving it a long initial charge you condition the battery. Then screw a cartridge into a battery, lift it to your lips, inhale – and enjoy :)

Position it is held in

Ideally, you’ll hold your electronic cigarette in a roughly horizontal position. This will avoid any danger of e-liquid leaking out of the cartridge (as technology has improved this happens less often, but it can still happen.)

When to change batteries

A standard e-cigarette battery will last an average vaper two or more hours under typical use. Once the battery is ready for a recharge, the LED tip will flash and will no longer activate. Simply attach the charger to the battery and connect to a power source. The charger will indicate when the battery is recharged.

When to change cartridges

Unlike batteries, cartridges do not have a visual indicator to let you know they’ve run out of e-liquid. Rather, it’s up to you to realize when it’s happened. There are a few different things you may notice when the e-liquid has become depleted.

You may notice that there’s simply not as much vapour coming out of the e-cigarette as before. In some cases vapour may cease to come out at all! In some extreme cases, you may notice a harsh, burnt taste. That is an indicator that the cartridge has run out of e-liquid and the internal atomiser is now burning through the material in the cartridge. Stop using the cartridge immediately in this case.

Replacing cartridges is simple, just remove the old one and recycle it, then screw a new one back on and resume your puffing.

For an example of a regular e-cigarette, check out the Smoker’s Halo Electronic Cigarette.

3. Refillable Electronic Cigarettes

The Halo Ultra Tank - unboxed.

Refillable e-cigarettes come in a variety of styles ranging from regular e-cigarettes with refillable cartridges to highly specialized handmade devices designed for hobbyists. The most popular systems currently on the market are often called tank systems because of their high-capacity clearomisers or glassomisers.

Most tank systems consist of:

i. A battery – Usually between 500 – 13000 mAh and rechargeable.
ii. A couple of Clearomisers – These house the atomiser and are the REFILLABLE part of the tank.
iii. USB charger – The batteries can be recharged on the computer or via a USB adaptor to a mains socket.
iv. Eliquid – Most starter kits will give you a bottle of e-liquid for free.

If you’re looking for something with a bit more than an e-cigarette, then a tank system is definitely the way to go. With a much higher capacity and a huge variety of strengths and flavours, it’s not a surprise that tank systems are quickly becoming a most popular alternative to both tobacco cigarettes and regular e-cigarettes.

For an example of a refillable electronic cigarette, check out the Smoker’s Halo Ultra Tank.

There are several key differences to using regular e-cigarettes:

1. Throat Hit: With a more powerful battery, you get more vapour – and a bigger hit to the back of the throat.  This bigger hit to your throat may allow you to use a lower strength nicotine than you would use in a standard e-cigarette. (I’ve given this to smoking friends and it has made them cough the first few times they have used it!)

2. Longer Lasting Battery: It may be heavier, but it lasts several times as long as a regular e-cigarette.

3. Greater Variety of Flavours: Usually, regular flavours are limited with regular e-cigarettes – but check out all the flavours you can get with eliquid!

4. How it looks: Most tank systems don’t look like a cigarette, which might put you off at first. Some people are at ease with the idea, while others may find the transition more difficult if the device does not somewhat resemble a traditional cigarette.

How Do You Use A Tank System?

Here’s a video giving an overview of the process (there’s more detail below on refilling electronic cigarettes):

If you’re looking for something with a bit more than a typical e-cigarette, then a tank system is worth considering. With higher power and a huge variety of strengths and flavours, it’s not a surprise that tank systems are quickly becoming a most popular alternative to both tobacco cigarettes and regular e-cigarettes.

If or you have a friend who uses a tank system and can show you how to use it, or if you are happy with fiddly gadgets, you might be better off starting with the Tank. Tank systems allow you a stronger throat hit and allow you to try a wider variety of flavours. However, if you want a speedy start, if resemblance to a regular cigarette is important to you or if you don’t like fiddly gadgets, you’ll probably be better off with a regular e-cigarette.  Regular e-cigarettes are lighter, easier to use and bear more resemblance to a tobacco cigarette.

For an example of a refillable electronic cigarette, check out the Smoker’s Halo Ultra Tank.

Variable Voltage/Wattage E-Cigarettes

Once a rare and exotic example of technology, variable voltage ecigarettes have become increasingly popular. Variable voltage electronic cigarettes allow you to increase or decrease the amount of voltage passing from the battery through an atomiser. As a result, you can fine-tune the power output of the device depending on:

a. The e-liquid you are using
b. Your personal taste
c. The atomiser you are using

You will need to play around a bit to get the right voltage. Make it too low, and you won’t get enough vapour. Make the voltage too high, and you could get a burnt taste. You’ll also need to adjust the voltage to suit the e-liquid you are using. These devices are recommended for experienced users as there is a learning curve associated with variable voltage/wattage devices.

Mods

Traditionally (or as traditionally as can be for a hobby that started just a few short years ago) mods referred only to electronic cigarettes that had been modified or built by vapers themselves.

Mods can be anything from a beautiful handcrafted wooden electronic cigarette (as above) to an adapted piece of junk fitted with an atomiser and a mouth piece.

Again, you need to know what you are doing, or buy a mod from someone that knows what they are doing – batteries will and can explode when you do the wrong thing to the wrong type of battery. There are lots of tips on forums like ecigaretteforum.com – accompanied by warnings which you should pay heed to!

Some companies are also selling mass made mods, which look unusual but do rather spoil the original idea!

What Types of Refills Are There?

Dismantled Aspire Clearomiser.

Blank Cartridge: Needs to be filled with ejuice.
Filled Cartridge: Comes prefilled – check before refilling as some are not designed to be refilled, and refilling may void the warranty on your electronic cigarette. Originally these came with a separate atomiser which had to be screwed on, but these are increasingly rare with mainstream electronic cigarettes.
Cartomiser: Comes with an inbuilt atomiser, can be filled or empty.
Clearomiser: Also a cartomiser, its clear sides enable you to see how much juice you have left.
Tank: A large clearomiser or an actual small tank that holds a specially modified cartridge. Tanks are built to hold large amounts of liquid, reducing the number of refills required.

How Do You Refill Electronic Cigarettes?

Dan from ECigaretteDirect creating a new mix.

Above, Dan from ECigaretteDirect.co.uk mixes two flavours together in a CE5 clearomiser.

Methods for refilling e-cigarettes vary with the design of the cartridge or tank.

Regular e-cigarette cartridges are actually slightly more difficult to fill. The trick is to saturate the material inside the cartridge without over-saturating, leading to a condition called “flooding.” The filler also must be fully saturated, otherwise dry spots come into contact with the hot atomiser and burning, causing a terrible burnt flavor.

The simplest method of filling one of these cartridges is to simply drip liquid from the bottle onto the material inside the cartridge. Once the material becomes saturated, let it sit for several minutes allowing for the liquid to absorb into the material. The process must then be repeated several times until the cartridge is completely saturated. This can be a tedious process requiring the steps be repeated several times, although some prefer this method believing it gives a purer taste.

More typically, cartridges are refilled via either a syringe or e-liquid bottle with a long, narrow tip. Insert the needle or tip between the metal side of the cartridge and the filling and push it in as far as it will go. Then, squeeze the bottle or syringe slowly while slowly withdrawing the needle. This takes a little practice, but it fills the cartridge from the bottom up ensuring there are no dry spots.

Bear in mind that if you refill a cartridge in a kit not designed for refilling, you may void the warranty.

How Do You Refill A Clearomiser?

The new generation of clearomizers and tanks are by far easier to fill than traditional cartridges. Tanks were designed to be refilled, and the process is much easier. While it varies from style to style, you simply open the tank, tilt it slightly and transfer liquid directly into the chamber.

There are two important things to remember. First, avoid getting liquid down the tube in the centre. This is the airflow, and filling it with liquid will lead to serious performance issues. Second, do not overfill. If there are graduated measurements on the tank, do not fill the tank beyond the top marking. Overfilling can cause liquid to be forced down the centre tube.

For more information on clearomisers, see: The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Clearomisers.

Dripping

Dripping eliquid into an atomiser.

Dripping is a method of vaping that has its share of fans, but seems to have somewhat fallen out of favour recently, possibly due to the popularity of tank systems. Dripping is a simple method that involves a dedicated atomiser like the ones found with the older style three-piece e-cigarette kits or atomisers designed specifically for dripping.

Simply apply several drops of e-liquid directly into the atomizer. Then place a blank cartridge, or specially designed “drip tip” on the atomizer. Continue to apply liquid after every few puffs to keep the coils wet.

There are some very good reasons for dripping that fans of the method swear by. First is flavour and performance. Despite the advances in cartomiser technology , there is just something about the flavour profile which dripping liquid directly onto the heating coils can provide. The other advantage is that it’s easy to sample different flavours since you don’t have to go through a large reservoir of liquid before you can try the next flavour.

There are several drawbacks:

  • eliquid can flow onto the battery, which could damage automatic batteries – dripping should be used only with manual batteries.
  • there is an increased risk of flooding the atomiser
  • you may overheat the atomiser

Trouble Shooting

Flooding

Blowing through a clearomiser.

When too much e-liquid gets into an atomiser it can flood. You’ll usually know when this happens because:

  • there is a gurgling sound from the atomiser
  • vapour production is poor
  • you may get the unpleasant experience of eliquid in your mouth

Sometimes you can resolve the issue with several draws on your e-cigarette, or by removing the clearomiser and just giving it a couple of flicks. At other times you need to leave the atomiser to drain.

Removing the cartridge and blowing through it into a paper towel is also an effective method for clearing excess liquid. See Three Easy Ways to Clear an Atomiser for more detail, or read the free guide you get when you sign up to our newsletter.

Burnt Out Atomisers

Atomisers can burn out, especially the lighter version. When inhaling, you’ll either get no vapour or a burnt taste coming through. The only solution is to replace the atomiser – good retailers will have these under warranty, so contact them for a replacement.

The internal atomisers in clearomisers are also susceptible to burnout. Fortunately, many modern clearomisers feature replaceable heads. Rather than replacing the entire unit, only the head needs to be swapped out for a fresh head. The method to do so varies depending on the model, but generally the steps are as follows:

  • Remove excess e-liquid
  • Take apart the clearomiser by unscrewing the endcap
  • Unscrew the replaceable head, much the same way you unscrew a cartomizer
  • Screw on the replacement head and reassemble the clearomiser
  • Treat the rebuilt clearomiser like a brand-new unit

Cleaning Atomisers and Clearomisers

Running a clearomiser under a tap.

I’ll be honest, I never clean my atomisers – good atomisers don’t really need it, and as atomisers are usually under warranty you can get a replacement if they fail.

However, some people do like to maintain their atomisers. Here’s a few methods:

1. Simply flush the atomiser with warm (not boiling, as this can damage the atomiser) water. Allow to dry before re-using – as a minimum, leave overnight to dry.
2. Soak the atomiser in a white alcohol such as vodka. If available to you, try pure grain alcohol. Avoid isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol.
3. If you really want to go the whole hog, use an ultrasonic jewellery cleaner using either water or alcohol.

Regular cartomisers can be cleaned in the same manner, but to be honest, the results are often less than optimal. Cartridges were designed to be disposable.

Clearomisers and tanks may also benefit from a cleaning. Many of the tanks on the market now offer replacement heads (the portion with the atomizer and wick attached). It is generally easier to just replace the head when it finally becomes too gunked up to use.

If you want to make your heads last as long as possible, cleaning them is a very simple process.  Remove the batter, disassemble the clearomizer and remove the head as if you were replacing the head.  Clean the head using any of the methods outlined above.  Allow the head to dry at least 24-48 hours then reassemble the clearomizer. The first few draws may be weak if there is still water in the head, but this will work itself out with use.

More About E-juice (E-liquid)

Cartoon of a man on a motorbike.

American Red, one of our most popular tobacco flavours.

What’s in e-liquid?

We’ve analysed several of the ingredients in eliquid before, so click on the links if you need more information!

Is Eliquid Safe?

E-liquid bought from a reputable supplier, which has been batch tested in the UK by a UK government approved lab, is pretty safe. At the same time, do keep it out of reach of children! (All reputable suppliers provide e-liquid with child proof caps – if you have children in the house, go to every effort to keep it out of children’s reach.)

There have been some scares with eliquid sold from dodgy companies where the nicotine content was too high. There is also a growing number of people who mix their own liquid. Nicotine in concentrated form is highly dangerous, and unless you really, really know what you’re doing (i.e. you’re a chemist) we advise against messing with it.

Which Strength is Right For You?

You’ll need to test which is the correct strength e-liquid for you, but as a general rule of thumb start off with 1.2% if you smoke weak cigarettes, 1.8% if you smoke regular cigarettes and 2.4% if you smoke strong cigarettes.

Because straight nicotine without all the chemical additives of cigarettes tends to be absorbed less quickly into the body, you may want to consider ordering an eliquid strength at the next higher level. This may compensate for some of the things missing in e-cigarettes. It’s easy to adjust the strength down from that point to a level with which you are comfortable.

Finally…

Did you get some value out of this blog post? If you did, and you think others would too, I’d really appreciate it if you shared it using one of the share buttons on this post.

Thank you ;)

(Note: Huge thanks to Steve from Steve’s Vaping World for his help with this post!)

Further reading

If you are new to electronic cigarettes, I recommend you read the following:

The One Mistake Most New Vapers Make (Video Tutorial – with script for those who don’t like videos)
The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Clearomisers
The Ultimate Beginners Guide to ECigarette Batteries
Five Quit Smoking Side Effects You May Experience: An Essential Guide for New Vapers
Are Electronic Cigarettes Safe: The Shocking Truth
Nicotine In Electronic Cigarettes: 10 Facts All Users Should Know
The Electronic Cigarette Glossary: Essential Words, Phrases and Slang for New Vapers

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6 Responses to “The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Electronic Cigarettes”

  1. Simon August 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Hi James, interesting comment regarding filling the clearomiser as I have found I get a better vape from a full clearomiser than one with a small amount of eliquid left. As a result, I tend to keep my clearmoiser as full as possible.

  2. M Nimmo January 24, 2014 at 3:20 pm #

    Hi James great reading and tips ……….and just to say I have been on holiday with 2smokers had my e ciggy with me and for the first time did not bring duty free home

  3. James Dunworth January 24, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    Thanks for the feedback, Nimmo, glad vaping is working for you :)

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