Everything you need to know about vaporizers ..
Vaping hit the news headlines in 2014 when the Oxford Dictionary made it their word of the year. Use of e-cigarettes for nicotine and portable pen vaporizers for cannabis had sky-rocketed and it seemed like everyone was vaping something everywhere. For many of us used to joints or pipes, and for those coming to medicinal marijuana for the first time, there’s some confusion about what a vaporizer is and what it does. After all a joint is simple: you mix your bud with a little tobacco to make it burn more evenly, set it on fire and inhale the resulting smoke. So what makes using a vaporizer different?
The difference between smoking weed and vaping:
Well, despite the emergence of “vaping” (verb) in the past 2 years, as the graph below shows, the term vaporizer hit its peak useage at the turn of the last century when vaporizing machines were used to inhale medicines to treat a wide variety of illnesses.
Put simply, a vaporizer is a machine that heats any material up to the point where certain elements in its make up are released in the form of vapour. When you light up a joint or a pipe you set fire to the raw material, and at this hot temperature all of the bud is burnt, leaving only a grey ash. There’s a little more science to vaping: if you think back to your school chemistry lessons you may have gently heated liquids over a Bunsen burner until a certain temperature. You then collected the evaporating vapour, condensed it via a glass tube and analyzed the contents of your collection container. If you’d done the experiment correctly, you’d managed to extract one element of your source material through the process of vaporization.
Because the active ingredients of cannabis are released at a cooler temperature (from 140C/284F) than the plant material burns (240C/484F) using a vaporizer enables you to inhale ONLY the cannabinoids present, and not the combusted plant material, tars, nicotines etc found in a joint made with mixed weed and cigarette. And instead of being left with a small pile of ash, your vaporizer chamber may still contain what looks like your original bud: the difference is that it is no longer psychoactive: you’ve inhaled all the THC and terpenes and what is left is inert leaf and flower.
Now unless you are using the wonderful Verdamper then your vaporizer will look nothing like the glass sets you used in high school chemistry.
So how does a vaporizer work?
Although vaporizers now come in a plethora of shapes and sizes, all will consist of basic parts which combine as a whole to make the vape machine:
- the mouthpiece and delivery tube
- battery or power source to power the heating element
- heating element
- filling chamber
So in its essential form, all vaporizers follow the same principle:
The heating element draws power from the power supply to increase temperature up to the desired degree. Raw material, whether wax, oil or bud, is then placed in the filling chamber where it heats to the point that cannabinoids are vaporized but the source material does not ignite. You then draw the vapor down the delivery tube into the mouthpiece and inhale. As the ad says, “Simples”.
And yet …
Given the price difference between a budget vape-pen and a high end table top vaporizing machine, there is obviously more that you need to know about vaping before investing a sizable sum of money in order to get the best machine that suits you.
Heating Methods: a fundamental difference in design and function
As we said above, a vaporizer is any device which heats up to the temperature necessary to convert a particular substance into vapor for inhalation. It will do this either by conductive heating or convection heating (although strictly speaking all vaporizers use a combination of both: the categorization below refers to the dominant form used).
- Conductive Heating: A metal sheet / grill is heated to the correct temperature. Your plant material / extract sits on this grill inside a chamber and is warmed through to that temperature.
- Convection Heating: This method heats the air first before moving the heated air through the bud. This means there is no charring of the raw material.
- Fast to use
- Simple design
- Uses less power to heat up (so battery lasts longer)
- Possibility of combustion rather than vaporization
- Inaccurate heat control making them less easy to use for the novice vaper.
- Uneven heating (it only heats on direct contact) meaning you have to shake/stir the bud
- More efficient with regards to getting the most from your bud
- Better temperature control
- More even heating & higher vapour quality
- Cause less coughing and irritation than conductive heated vaporizers
- Takes longer to heat up
- Need more power to heat up (so are traditionally power-point devices) ALTHOUGH the new Crafty is a portable conductive vape.
- This large amount of power/heat to create thermally charged air needs to be managed so that the vaporizer is not too hot to touch
- More expensive
Both types of heating produce a slightly different effect, taste and vapor quality. Experienced vapers tend to prefer one type over the other, although either preference is equally valid. In other words, before you buy your first vaporizer try to test as many different machines as possible to work out what works best for you!
The different types of vaporizer
Functionally then vaporizers can be divided into two groups, those using convection or combustion as the means by which they heat up cannabis just to the point of cannabinoid vaporization. But with a plethora of different models available there are other factors you need to consider:
Table-top or “at home” vaporizers
These larger model machines are best suited for convection heating as they don’t rely on a battery to thermally heat the air pushed through your bud. They come in a variety of styles and quite frankly none of them are very discrete. Lets face it, with any of these on your coffee table, nothing shouts “I’m using cannabis right now!” to an unexpected visitor:
But assuming you have no problem with this (or a lock on the front door) then a table top vaporizer has lots going for it. using either a “whip” or a “balloon” (options are generally available for both) you get great control over how much you inhale. If you’re using a whip style vaporizer, the technique is pretty simple: pre heat the vape, load up the bowl and attach to the vaporizer. Let the vapor accumulate and then take medium size hits every minute or wait a little longer for a full-on effect. When drawing, inhale deeply and slowly through the mouthpiece, hold for a few seconds whilst the vapour fills your lungs, release and breathe again. Using a balloon bag, the technique is similar, but you squeeze the vapor filled bag to push it into you.
The obvious plus to table top vaporizers is that they are incredibly sociable. Sitting around a Volcano with friends is a great way to spend an evening. But even if you are a lone toker, or are intending to use for medical reasons, the convection heating element most use makes for a purer, cleaner inhale. Combine this with a greater level of control over temperature (they have more settings than portable vapes) and the fact that that most models have great build quality, making for long durability, then if portability is not your main priority a table top vape is the one you should be investing in.
There’s been a great deal of energy put into portable vapes over the past year. Probably 90% of new vaporizers released onto the market will be portable ones. Why? Because despite the many advantages of the desktop vape, portable vapes are just that: portable.
Advantages of portable vapes:
- Enjoy vaping where-ever you are
- Discrete and easily hidden away (some models have extra stealth as they mimic another item)
- Cordless and rechargeable
Cons of portable vapes:
- Although the R&D is making huge developments, some people believe that to date, a table top vaporizer still gives you a better overall quality of vapor and cleaner taste – and will continue to do so for longer than a small model.
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN PURCHASING A PORTABLE VAPE:
- Heat. With less surface area to discharge the heat necessary for vaporization models can get quite hot to handle – and being portable, they are designed to be held. So a well-designed model will work around this problem, a poorly designed model won’t.
- Charging times and battery life. Waiting several hours for your machine to recharge can be frustrating, but so can a session finishing quickly because your battery doesn’t last. Are spare batteries available and how costly are they? Or does it use butane?
- Can it run more than one type of substance eg oil as well as bud? And is this important to you? (but see below)
- What level of control does it give you? This varies from model to model and is worth researching before you invest. One of the best – the Magic Box Launch Box – offers no variation at all but scores highly in reviews because of its portability, power and price.
- How portable is it? Weight and dimension variations at this size need only vary slightly to make the difference between carrying it around effortlessly and being conscious of the fact that it doesn’t quite fit ..
- Design. Especially with regards to portable vapes, design and “want factor” is a major element. HOWEVER this has to be combined with discretion.
- Draw duration. Its more comfortable using a machine with a shorter draw.
- Durability. The purest vaping experience tends to utilize glass pipes and mouthpieces as the experience is not contaminated with a tint of plastic. But is the glass used of high caliber that’s less likely to chip or shatter? And are replacement parts easy to get hold of?
- Accessories. Check out the available accessories – car chargers, carrying cases, etc and if you are stuck between two different models, the variety and pricing for these may be the deciding factor.
- Cleaning Equipment – and this goes for ALL vapes , you’ll need a cleaning kit to get continued use.
Matching your machine to what you vape:
Although some portable vaporizers claim to be multi-purpose, in fact they are most suited to one source material or another, needing adaptations to use for alternative forms. Why? Because the design of the heating element best suits one or the other ..
No Exposed Heating Element
Made of stainless steel and ceramics, these are purpose built for fast heating of dry bud material with a lesser risk of combustion.
Cheaper models use an exposed element and rely on the use of a glass screen to help dissipate heat and prevent igniting the bud.
To vape oil in one of these models you need to soak cotton with the oil and then heat up.
Dual Coil Design
These have 2 exposed heating elements coiled around cotton wicks to ensure fast high temperatures needed for vaporising wax and concentrates.
If you use bud with one of these, it will produce smoke (and thus work quite effectively as a pipe rather than a vape) unless you use a glass screen.
These deserve a sub-category of their own, because whilst they are “portable” the difference in size and shape from the relatively bulky “portable vaporizers” listed above actually makes huge differences in capability. The slender pen (or joint sized) form means that they are restricted in the way they vaporize the weed/concentrate and ultimately means they provide a lesser quality result with an often ridiculously short life span. On the plus side, pen vaporizers are a cheap, very discrete means of vaping on a budget.
If I don’t have the money to buy the most expensive vaporizer is it worth purchasing the budget version?
The biggest plus point about the high end models is temperature control. Cheaper versions can run hotter or colder than they should and if that becomes the case you will need to adapt accordingly.
Precision can be important, particularly if you intend vaping for therapeutic reasons (its not as necessary if you just want to get high). If you are a mmj patient and need to vaporize certain cannabinoids and terpenes then you need the definition the more expensive vaporizers give you this to achieve this consistently.
Efficiency. On the whole, the dearer vaporizers will make up the difference in outlay cost over the long term. Not only are they made from better materials (thus less need to replace broken parts, or worse still, repeatedly buy new vapes), they also produce more vapour per gram of bud, meaning you need less to get high.
All this said, there are some great, cheaper models out there that work perfectly fine. There are lots of websites just dedicated to vaporizers with some in depth reviews. Read and research and find a machine that fits your budget and your needs!
So, having explained how vaporizers work and the two different types of heating used in the process of vaporization, and ran through the differences in design and capability of the three subcategories of machine available, what else do you need to know?
Temperatures and Vaping Cannabis
At the beginning of this guide we explained that the difference between vaping and smoking is that when you smoke weed, you inhale the combusted plant material, whereas when vaping, the raw material is heated only to the point where the cannabinoids boil and evaporate. Getting the right temperature is therefore a vital part of successful vaporization.
What is The Perfect Temperature for Vaping Cannabis?
Well there isn’t one. Rather, experimentation has revealed (gosh some scientists have a tough job!) that different cannabinoids are heated to the evaporation point over a range between 157 and 220°C (314 – 428F) and the combinative effect produced varies along this range. If you are using a good table top vape such as the digital Volcano you can reproduce the experiment by setting the machine at different temps and noting the distinct effects.Chemically, cannabis contains not only the major cannabinoids – THC, THCA, CBD, CBN etc but also flavonoids (a group of plant metabolites thought to provide health benefits through cell signalling pathways and antioxidant effects) and terpenes. Setting your vape to heat at the higher end of the pre-combustion range means that the vapour will contain all elements released up to that temperature. If you wanted to inhale only the higher end components then you would have to heat to a slightly lower point, fill then vacate the balloon/whip, then increase the heat to where the cannabinoid you are looking for is vaporized. (see Vaporizing CBD below)
Most models don’t offer such precision control, but instead have pre-set options that enable you to hit the right hits.
Because THC is the frst major cannabinoid to vaporize, choosing a cooler preset selects a mainly psychoactive effect, particularly when using a sativa based strain. Like a treble espresso shot, this will either jumpstart your creativity or leave you a jittering heart racing wreck!
HOWEVER some analysis has shown that at this cooler setting:
- Total yield of vapour is lower (as much as 1/3 less volume produced at 170°C than at 200°C)
- Below 200°C the sample of the particular strain tested had high levels of THCA (as opposed to THC) meaning that decarbolization had not taken place.
Selecting a hotter temperature means more cannabinoids and terpenes are vaporized, with any CBD, linalool and THCV moderating the effect of the psychoactive THC. The result is a larger volume of vapour (obviously as more chemical elements will have been brought to boiling point) and the effect will be more of a body high, deeply relaxing and pain relieving.
I had wanted to include a “what element is released at what temperature chart” but found this almost impossible to do. Why? Because even with scientific papers, there is conflicting detail. For example, some websites report CBD as being converted to vapour at 160-180C, whereas others specify as hot as 200-230°C. There can be many explanations for these fluctuations:
- Model of Vaporizer used
- Dryness of bud used, and possibly length of time of cure.
- Strain of cannabis used – and even the method used to grow it as this can effect THC% – who knows what effect it may have on the development of other chemical compounds?
- Whether bud was ground before putting into the vaporizer
And simultaneously with writing this piece I came across this in my news feed from the High Times: “What’s the real boiling point of THC?” citing differing scientific sources varying from 157°C to 199°C. The High Times author points to atmospheric pressure as being a vital factor that’s not always included in the scientific descriptions, with some experiments taking place in extremely low pressure conditions – and in that case the boiling temperature of anything will be lower.
Generally speaking High Times likes to vape hot, but I suggest you start a little lower, and just experiment. There are no rules for personal experience and you will soon find what suits you and your usage best.
Having run through what vaporization is, and what you need to consider when choosing a vaporizer, its worth coming back to the question:
Why do people choose to vape?
- It’s more discrete. Vapour doesn’t have the distinctive weed smoke smell that a joint does, and you can preload a portable vaporizer to use on the go. The pen style vaporizers, whilst not as efficient or effective as the more expensive models, can be indistinguishable to a common use e-cig.
- It’s more flavorful. Although die-hard joint smokers miss the harsh hit of a draw when first making the move to vaping, it’s a fact that combusting your weed means that you lose a lot of the finer subtleties of flavor as terpenes burn off quickly. Vaping at a lower than combustion point means these terpenes aren’t being lost in the flame, and the vapour is richer and full of more subtle flavouring as a result. If this sounds like an advert for good wine, then you get the point. Stop drinking cheap beer and learn to appreciate the finer things in life!
- It’s more efficient. You’re just inhaling the cannabinoids terpenes etc and not the plant matter itself. Also you can use the “scrap” leaf material you’d normally discard when making a spliff. A joint burns inbetween draws where a vaporizer stores the vapour in the delivery tube. *this means that gram for gram you get more hits from a vape ..
- It’s easier on the lungs than smoking. There have been plenty of medical studies showing that smoking weed does NOT increase the risk of lung cancer, that in fact the cannabis mixed with tobacco seems to protect the body from tobacco’s harmful effects: BUT that notwithstanding, those who have made a permanent switch tend to report less lung irritation and shortness of breath.
- The high is “cleaner” than a cigarette based joint which adds a nicotine rush to the hit.
Using a Vaporizer in order to consume marijuana for medical reasons
As said above, a large proportion of vape buyers intend using their vaporizer therapeutically. Whoopi Goldberg, for example, has a vape named Sippy, which she uses to treat her glaucoma. “The vape pen has changed my life,” Goldberg wrote at The Cannabist. “With each sip comes relief — from pressure, pain, stress, discomfort.
If you’ve got this far into this article then we’ll assume you already know about how cannabis helps with pain relief, muscle spasms, nausea, appetite, sleeplessness and depression. A good proportion of vaporizer users come to vaping weed for treatment purposes. The reasons for this are multifold:
- For those new to cannabis use, a vaporizer can have a more scientific appearance than rolling a joint, which for some people has negative connotations.
- It’s a smoother inhale which is easier for anyone with health problems.
- Let’s face it, if you are concerned about your physical health and don’t smoke cigarettes, starting (even in an altered format) is probably a no-no.(see below)
- The effect is instantaneous and much more controllable than edibles or tinctures.
- It’s perfectly possible to draw vapour smoke using short shallow breaths which makes it more accessible to the very poorly.
- General assumption used to believe that if smoking tobacco had such a clear and direct link with lung cancer, then smoking cannabis using a tobacco based burning material must also lead to cancer. However there have been many recent scientific studies showing that smoking cannabis does not increase your chance of developing lung cancer BUT IN FACT REDUCES IT. It is felt that the beneficial advantages of boosting the body’s cannabinoid system by using cannabis actually outweighs the negative damage done by the tobacco.
- But: and especially if you are coming to cannabis use for therapeutic purposes, it is also fact that the act of combustion releases toxins not found in the heating of marijuana to the temperatures necessary for vaporization. Until more conclusive evidence is available, this dichotomy is enough reason to choose vaporizing cannabis over other forms.
WARNING: This isn’t by any means a common thing, but as Campo Cultivator experiences this problem, I’ve done a little web-digging on this one. For a very few people, vaporizing cannabis can induce blackouts that they don’t experience when smoking weed. It seems something to do with blood pressure, but there’s no conclusive studies of what or why this is. If you have BP issues, don’t vape alone until you’re sure you won’t be effected in this way, as falling unconscious on the exhale can be a scary thing (and dangerous if you hit anything on the way down)
Selecting CBD using a vaporizer
Some conditions get prescribed a CBD rich therapy (see “The science of the CBD”). This is usually taken in the form of edibles or tinctures. But inhaling CBD provides a much quicker means to relief. Unfortunately most cannabis strains contain a much higher ratio of THC than CBD. So is it possible to selectively vape CBD?
In October 2015 researchers in Australia answered this question (with a yes!) and describe the methodology to do so, using a Volcano Digital Vaporizer and a standard 10L balloon. The results were a little ambiguous (amounts of CBD produced will depend in part on model of vaporizer). But yes, CBD is vaporized at a slightly higher temperature than THC, and that in their lab conditions, with the strain that they used, the amount of CBD vaporized increased at 230°C . Interestingly they also found that the smaller amount of source material used (for example 4g) a higher percentage of CBD was released (as much as 97%) in comparison with a much larger amount of raw material (200g converted only 40% of the CBD).
Because CBD vaporizes at a slightly higher temperature than THC it should be possible in theory to burn off the majority of the THC at the lower setting, then increase the heat to the point where CBD is vaporized. An experiment detailing this hypothesis (using a 1:1 THC:CBD strain) would be extremely relevant and I look forward to seeing the conclusion!
Tips and techniques for vaping weed:
• Use a grinder to break down your bud into small pieces. This enables the hot air produced by the vaporizer to reach as big a surface area possible and get the maximum amount of vapour possible.
A Very Handy Infographic on Vaping!
Big hands up to Dylan and the guys at thaVapeShop for the cool infographic!