Back in the Stone Age of vaping, meaning before 2010, “atomizers” were used to vaporize eliquid. Initially, these were small metal tubes with various kinds of threaded connectors at one end (510, 808-d, 401, etc.), but by about 2010, the 510 connector had become standard. Inside these “old school” 510 atomizers was a ceramic cup that contained a coil (usually Kanthal), with some type of wicking material through the coil (usually silicon strands). Surrounding the cup was more wicking, this time a wire mesh that extended to a “bridge,” which was like a little metal roof over the coil. Eliquid was dripped into the open end of the metal tube onto the bridge, which wicked the liquid to the coil. Resistance of the coil was typically from 1.5 to 3.0 ohms.
Starting around 2010, people began to tire of dripping eliquid, and many “improvements” on old-style atomizers began to appear, first as cartomizers (atomizer tubes stuffed with wicking to hold 1-4 ml of juice), and then as various kinds of tank attachments that used atomizers and cartomizers.
Many vapers complained that cartomizers and tanks dulled the flavor of eliquid, which sparked a resurgence of interest in dripping, since dripping juice directly onto the coils and wicks seemed to provide the purest and best flavor from juices.
Around that time, some vapers began experimenting with “building” their own atomizers by buying wire and wrapping their own coils. By mid-2011, the combination of dripping’s resurgence and homemade coils (with various types of wicking—silicon, cotton, rayon, hemp, etc.) resulted in the first wave of production RDAs, an acronym that means “Rebuildable Dripping Atomizers.”
In the nearly five years since then, we’ve come a long way in the design sophistication of RDAs, but the basic principles remain unchanged.
RDAs, which are usually round, consist of a base with a 510 connector and a “deck” that contains metal posts (positive and negative electrical connectors) with screws for attaching either homemade or store-bought coils. Wicking material is passed through or around the coils. All RDAs will have air holes somewhere, and mot RDAs will also have a “well” providing a reservoir to hold a small amount of eliquid. This whole assembly is then surrounded by a cap (usually metal) that has a hole on top for a drip tip (mouth piece).
RDAs are used by dripping eliquid — drop by drop — directly onto the coils mounted on the deck, or onto the wicks that extend into the well. Typical RDAs hold anywhere from 10 to 30 drops of juice. The eliquid may be dripped through the drip tip or the drip tip hole, but most often the cap is removed before dripping. A “full” RDA will allow a couple minutes of vaping before the wicking dries out — exactly how long depends on the particular RDA, the coils, the wattage, and other variables. The “trick” to vaping an RDA is to add more eliquid before the wick goes dry. Otherwise, the vaper will get the dreaded “dry hit.” [This is where “temperature control” mods are most useful, since they regulate the voltage in a way that prevents dry hits. Brilliant!]
Over the past four years, many of the variations in vaporizing technology emerged in large part from dripping atomizers:
- Kinds of coils: micro-coils, twisted coils, Clapton coils
- Coil wire: Kanthal, Nickel, Titanium, Stainless Steel
- Improvements in wicking methods
- Advances in variable air flow designs
For any newer vaper considering the purchase of a first RDA, YouTube is an invaluable resource for determining what will be needed and the how to go about making a build. Any popular RDA will have numerous videos on YouTube demonstrating everything from a parts breakdown to doing various types of builds, from simple to complex.
In very real ways, RDAs are the mad scientists’ favorite laboratory for pushing the envelope in the vaping experience.
Vapers using RDAs are what popularized the high-wattage, sub-ohm movement that began four years ago. A small number of intrepid vapers discovered that wrapping lower resistance coils and using more power (higher wattage) resulted in a vape that was intensely flavorful and also produced voluminous clouds of vapor. This spawned a revolution.
All the myriad sub-ohm tanks that have flooded the market over the past two years share a single fundamental goal: to replicate the intense flavor and copious vapor of a well-designed, high-quallity RDA, while eliminating the need to drip every couple minutes. For many of us, sub-ohm tanks get close enough to that goal, but RDAs continue to be the purest form of vaping and the first choice of a sizable percentage of hard-core vaping enthusiasts.
This competition between sub-ohm tanks and RDAs is akin to the difference in an automobile between an automatic and a manual transmission. Modern, high-end automatic transmissions are very, very good, and “hybrid” transmissions with paddle shifters may be the wave of the future, but most driving purists (and a majority of racing drivers) continue to prefer the hands-on control and sheer exhilaration of a manual transmission.
RDAs are the manual transmissions of the vaping world.