Monthly Archives: February 2016

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e-cigarette battery explosion

E-cigarette Batteries: Vaping for journalists, Part 1

Vaping advocates have known for a couple of years now that the standard of media reporting on e-cigarettes is truly dire. Personally I hoped that when Public Health England said last year that scaremongering about tiny amounts of chemicals was frightening people back to smoking there would be a sudden improvement in quality. After all, surely the most in-depth study yet would carry some weight with the media?

No, apparently not. If anything reporting has got worse since then, and I didn’t think that was even possible. So the problem isn’t that journalists can’t find any accurate and reliable sources; it’s that they ignore them and listen to fanatics instead. In short it’s down to bad journalism. Of course not all journalists are bad, and we’ve seen a couple of excellent articles recently, but most of them are pretty awful. Sarah Knapton at the Daily Telegraph is the worst. But then Jasper Hamill at the Mirror is the worst too. Dozens more are almost as bad.

Anyway, just on the off chance that these hacks are actually capable of learning, I thought I’d put together a series of short guides on how to at least avoid looking like a complete idiot. Here is the first.

There is no such thing as an e-cigarette battery

The latest crop of scare stories seems to focus on people who’ve blown themselves up or set themselves on fire with “e-cigarette batteries”. Unlike clouds of formaldehyde and Stan Glantz’s mythical ultrafine particles there’s actually a real hazard here, and some people have managed to injure themselves quite badly with the batteries in their vape gear. But before I go into any more detail, please read the section title again:

There is no such thing as an e-cigarette battery.

E-cigarettes need quite a lot of power, and the only way to store that without carrying a battery pack as big as your head is to use rechargeable lithium-based batteries. Most of the time that means lithium ion batteries, but some devices use lithium polymer ones instead. Lithium batteries have revolutionised portable electronics because, compared to other types, they can store a huge amount of energy. That’s why they’re used in practically everything. Your phone, iPod, laptop and tablet all run on lithium batteries. So do electric cars.

Now, when someone designs a battery-powered device they don’t bother designing a new battery as well. Instead they use a standard model, and fit that into their design. Most TV remotes use AA or AAA cells, for example, and e-cigs are exactly the same. Most of them use standard cylindrical batteries such as 18650 or 18350 sizes. Others have built-in batteries – but if you take one apart you’ll find that, in fact, they use standard sizes too. Popular box mods like the iStick have one or two 18650s hidden away inside; eGo and cigalike devices use smaller, but still standard, batteries.

So there’s no such thing as an e-cigarette battery, just like there’s no such thing as a TV remote control battery, a fire alarm battery or a mobile phone battery. There are just plain old batteries, which can be used to power anything you want to pack enough of them into. If you open up the battery for your laptop what you’ll find inside is eight to twelve 18650s wired together – standard units again. Old-style removable phone batteries are just the same – plastic boxes with one or more standard lithium ion cells inside. Except don’t take battery packs apart to look inside, because it’s dangerous and they might explode.

Focus on batteries, not on vaping

There is no specific problem with e-cig batteries. The problem, such as it is, is with lithium batteries in general. Quite simply, they contain so much energy that if you don’t handle them safely it can escape suddenly – and, as energy tends to do when it escapes, it converts itself to heat.

The energy stored inside a lithium battery can convert itself to a lot of heat. If you have an electric immersion heater at home it probably draws a current of about 15 to 20 amps, and that can produce all the hot water your house needs. The three VTC4 batteries in the mod I’m using right now can each deliver a constant current of 30 amps. They can’t do that for very long of course, because they can only draw on their stored energy while your immersion heater is wired to the mains, but if you make a mistake it doesn’t take long for things to get very hot indeed. The worst-case mistake you can make with a high power battery is to short-circuit it.

A short circuit is where the positive and negative terminals of the battery are connected by a conductor that isn’t actually using the electricity, but just letting it flow through. Essentially you’re taking energy out one end and feeding it back in the other. Batteries don’t like this, and if you short one it will rapidly overheat. Very rapidly – in a matter of seconds. When it gets hot enough to boil the electrolyte liquid inside, the casing will burst; the electrolyte – and anything it touches – will probably catch fire.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Any battery has a positive and a negative terminal. On a cylindrical one like an 18650 or the familiar AA we think of the positive terminal as the nipple or flat contact plate at one end, and the negative as the bare metal surface at the other. This, however, isn’t quite accurate. The whole metal case of the battery is the negative terminal, with the positive surrounded by an insulator and inserted into the open end. The plastic sleeve that covers most of the case isn’t just there to make the maker’s logo look nice; it’s also an insulator. If that sleeve is cut or torn it becomes very easy to accidentally create a short circuit.

If you read past the headlines of incidents like this one, or this one, or this dramatic video, you’ll find that, despite the hysteria, no electronic cigarette was actually involved. What really happened was the victim was carrying a spare battery, loose, in either a pocket or a bag. This is frankly insane. We carry all sorts of things in pockets and bags, and many of them – coins or keys, for example – are made of metal. Stuff a high-powered battery in there too and a short circuit, followed by an explosion and fire, is just a matter of time. Even if there’s no metal in there with it, what happens if it rains and your trousers get wet? Water’s a conductor too, and that can cause a short.

Hybrid Hellfires

There’s another easy way to short a battery, and that’s by using a modern tank atomiser hybrid-style on a mechanical mod. Hybrids don’t have a separate contact between the battery and the atomiser; they depend on having the atomiser’s insulated centre pin protruding enough to contact the battery’s positive terminal, while the threaded negative that surrounds it is in contact with the mod’s metal case. The case, in turn, completes the circuit to the battery’s negative terminal. But most modern tanks don’t have a protruding centre pin; it’s flush, and designed to work with the spring-loaded pin on a regulated mod. Screw that down through your hybrid adapter onto the top of the battery and there’s a good chance both the pin and the threads will be touching the terminal. If they are, as soon as you press the fire button the current from the positive terminal will take the path of least resistance – skipping the atomiser, through the case and straight into the negative terminal. An instant short circuit.

Every case I’ve read about where a removable battery exploded either involved a hybrid device or the battery was being carried loose. Every case where a built-in battery went bang happened while it was being charged.

Of course most people will never short-circuit a lithium battery. They’re actually pretty safe. After all there are literally billions of them in daily use, and every day only a handful explode or catch fire without having been abused first. If you handle them sensibly the chances of an accident are negligible. But if you don’t handle them sensibly then you’re probably going to get hurt. Unfortunately lots of people buy them without knowing what the potential hazards are. You may argue that vendors have a duty to teach customers about battery safety, or you might feel that people should have enough sense of personal responsibility to educate themselves, but it comes to the same thing: Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when a battery explodes it’s because someone did something they shouldn’t have. The hundredth time it’s usually caused by a minor flaw in the battery that suddenly causes a failure. What it’s never caused by is the fact the battery was used in an e-cigarette, instead of a torch or Rampant Rabbit.

So stop saying “e-cigarette battery”. You’re blaming the wrong thing.

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Vendors, explosions and the TPD

In this post I’d like to make two suggestions to all vape vendors. This isn’t something I really want to do, because many of you are doing a great job for the vaping community, but right now I feel I have to raise both these points. What you do with them is up to you, but I hope you’ll at least consider them.

Exploding batteries: It’s not your fault, but it is your problem

The first one is to ask that you please supply all lithium ion batteries in a proper battery box. Most of us know the potential dangers of this sort of technology, if it’s abused or mistreated. Unfortunately some idiots don’t. I know it isn’t your job, as vendors, to educate people about basic safety before selling them things, but images of grilled numpties are not the sort of publicity vaping needs right now. So don’t do what one German vendor did to me recently:

Battery safety

Well okay, if you do this it IS your fault…

When someone orders batteries, send them out in a box. Basic protective cases hold two 18650s or four 18350s, and cost 40p on ebay. You can probably get them wholesale for half that. Anyway, it’s packaging; you can add it to your shipping charge.

Brexit, the TPD, and why it’s time to end ignorance

The EU’s Tobacco Products Directive goes into effect on the 20th of May this year. The British government doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about it, and has watered it down as much as possible, but they have no choice: It’s been voted through by our overlords in Brussels, so it has to become British law. This is awkward for the government because they’ve committed to a referendum on the 23rd of June, and they’d rather like us to vote to stay in the EU. Anyone who’s just been to the local vape shop and found that their favourite liquid has been banned by a Brussels directive is, I’d guess, not too likely to vote that way.

So the government has done something devious, and staged the introduction of the law so its full effects won’t become obvious until May next year. That way they can keep the EU happy by putting it on the statute books, but put off the moment vapers realise what’s been done to them until the referendum is out of the way.

Just in case anyone’s under any illusions about what the TPD does, here’s a quick reminder:

  • Ban on all liquids stronger than 20mg/ml
  • Ban on all liquid bottles larger than 10ml
  • Drip rate regulation for bottles – which effectively bans glass bottles
  • Ban on all atomisers with a tank capacity greater than 2ml
  • Ban on all atomisers that aren’t leak-proof, child-proof and tamper-proof
  • Ban on advertising
  • New products can’t be sold until six months after they’ve been officially registered

There’s also a clause that says if any three EU members ban a type of refillable atomiser the EU Commission can impose a blanket ban in all member states.

There’s even more bad news. Manufacturers and importers will have to register every device they sell, along with every strength and flavour of liquid. The expense of running this system won’t be paid by the EU; it will be paid by vendors. It will cost £220 to submit the paperwork for each product – and the paperwork will just be shoved straight into a cabinet, because it isn’t actually meant to achieve anything. Then there’s a further £60 charge per year (per product, remember) for the dust that collects on it.

Notification fees will grind down your choices

Think about that for a moment. Lots of us enjoy the sheer variety of liquids on the market, but how is that variety going to survive the cost of the TPD notification system? Take my favourite liquid brand, Manabush. Right now Manabush sell sixteen different flavours, and you can get each of them in three nicotine strengths. That’s a total of 48 products, and in May Manabush is going to have to register them all – at a total cost of £10,560. For a small business that is not a trivial expense. Then, every year, there will be another bill for £2,880. Every time they add a new flavour to the range there’s another £220 to pay, and the annual bill goes up by £60.

And remember – Manabush doesn’t get anything for all this money, except the EU’s permission to keep on doing what they were doing perfectly well anyway. It’s just another unnecessary expense imposed by ignorant bureaucrats, who mostly don’t understand business because they’ve never had a real job.

So when the TPD starts to bite, Manabush are going to look at the product range and start checking sales figures. Any liquid that doesn’t make enough profit to cover the TPD fees, plus the time and effort it takes to fill out the paperwork, is going to disappear – and they’ll be more reluctant to introduce any new ones, because who knows if they’ll sell well enough to make the cost and effort worthwhile? This is what’s going to happen at every manufacturer and importer of vape gear from now on.

Choice is going to be even more limited than you expected, because many products not actually banned by the TPD will be killed off by the fees.

Unfortunately there are a handful of vapers, including some of the organisers of UK Vapefest, who have spent the last two years playing down the impact of the TPD for unsavoury reasons of their own. They constantly tell people that it won’t make any difference; that products will get better and safer; that it’s nothing to worry about. And thanks to David Cameron’s frog-boiling strategy of delaying the law’s full impact, some people are going to keep on believing their malicious tripe until the hammer crashes down on 20 May 2017.

Promote the truth

So here’s my second suggestion to vendors. Once you’ve sorted out your battery boxes, knock up a logo for your website and add it to your images of any product that will be banned by the TPD. Every tank that holds over 2ml; every glass bottle; every 30ml bottle; every 24mg liquid. Let your customers know what will be disappearing from the market next May, and make bloody sure they know whose fault it is. If everyone who buys vape gear starts getting that message pounded home from 20 May onwards, hopefully by 23 June they’ll realise exactly how bad it’s going to be. And they’ll also know they can vote to change it.

TPD warning logo

Update: I’ve just been made aware in the comments that there are other significant costs involved – testing and literature searches. I’d assumed that was only for those who braved the road to medical licensing but no, it isn’t – it’s for everyone. How much will this cost? Who knows, but a quick search has turned up estimates from £3,000 to £8,000 per product. For most small companies that’s completely unrealistic. It’s not likely to affect hardware so much, because most of that’s imported and we’ll probably see single large importers emerge for each main brand. For most juice makers, however, it’s the end of the road.

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vaping and the eu referendum

Boiling frogs

Category : rants , vaping

It’s often claimed that if you put a frog in a pan of water, then slowly heat it up, the frog won’t notice the rising temperature and will stay in there until it’s boiled alive. I’ve always had my doubts about this – surely it stays in there because you put the lid on the pan? – but I’ve never tried it, because I’m not the sort of person who boils frogs. If you’re looking for that kind of witless sadist I’d suggest you track down a Labour or Lib Dem MEP.

Whether or not it works with frogs, however, the British government seems to be hoping the same principle works on vapers. The abominable Tobacco Products Directive goes into effect on the 20th of May, and as anyone who’s been following it will know, the effects are horrific. Every single atomiser I own will be banned; so will all the liquids I use on a daily basis. The only liquid I ever buy that’s compliant will probably disappear anyway, because its maker will be driven off the market by the cost and hassle of the notification regime. Once the law is fully in effect you can forget about getting your hands on the latest hardware; for no very apparent reason except sheer spite, the TPD builds in a six-month delay that will ensure products are obsolete before they even go on sale.

It has to be said that the British government isn’t too enthusiastic about the TPD. They’ve tried to interpret the EU directive as liberally as possible, to minimise the impact it’s going to have on vapers. In fact it looks like they may even have gone beyond what’s allowed. The EU built in a twelve-month transition period to allow vendors to sell off old stock, but the UK has ruled that non-compliant products can even be imported and produced until the 20th of November, and won’t have to come off the market until May 2017.

At first glance that looks like good news for vapers, but I’m not so sure that it is. The aim seems to be to make the TPD’s introduction as painless as possible, so painless that nobody except vendors – who’ll immediately start being hammered with fees and pointless paperwork – will even notice. If vapers don’t notice any change then they won’t be absolutely furious when the referendum on EU membership comes around, most likely in November. Of course behind the scenes the water in that pan will be slowly heating up, but it won’t come to the boil until next May – with the referendum safely in the past and unlikely ever to be repeated.

When David Cameron decided to hold the referendum he probably thought an “In” vote was already as good as in the bag. Consistent majorities have supported staying in for decades, after all. But since he started his negotiation process the EU has tripped on its dong time after time – accidentally provoking war in the Ukraine, trashing what remained of the Greek economy and bungling the migration crisis so badly it’s hard to believe they aren’t screwing up on purpose. Public opinion has shifted dramatically, with most polls showing the two sides neck and neck and a few even putting “Out” in the lead.

This is a problem for the government, because Cameron and the leaders of the other main parties all want to stay in; after all, the EU is a proven way for people who failed at national politics to keep their snouts in the tax trough for a while longer. If the TPD hit with its full force in May, it’s safe to bet that three million or so angry vapers would be making their feelings known at the ballot box – and with the polls the way they are right now, that would deliver a crushing victory for the “Out” side.

It’s possible that the government actually is trying to protect e-cigarette users as much as possible, but the cynic in me says that they really, really don’t want all those vapers to notice the rising temperature and hop out of the pan. So they’re trying to turn up the heat as gently as they can in the hope we won’t realise we’re cooked until the first bubbles appear.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t know if frogs can be fooled so easily. I do know something else, though. Vapers are smarter than frogs, and if we get fooled we have nobody but ourselves to blame. So don’t lose sight of how appallingly bad the TPD really is. Don’t listen to the divisive voices that say it won’t make much difference. Write to your MP to let them know that if Article 20 hasn’t been flushed down the toilet of history by the day of the referendum you’ll be voting to leave the EU. If they get enough letters saying that, the political will to do something might magically appear. And if it doesn’t, then vote “Out”. It’s not like it’s a bad idea anyway.