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Have you read the Vapor Jedi blog post about cleaning your atomizer with a Q-tip? It's surprisingly easy and simple. What the post didn't mention is that there's another uncomplicated method of cleaning your e-cigarette. It's not highly recommended by experts, but many vapers have been doing it for years.
The trick is to dry burn your coil to loosen the gunk before scraping it off with a needle or pin. The more experienced vapers among us know about this trick. What many of the newbies may not have been aware of, however, is Doctor Farsalinos' opinion on this matter.
Dry-burning the coils means heating them to temperatures well above 700oC (we have both measured temperatures under these conditions). This is expected to have significant effects on the structure of the metal and the bonds between metal atoms. This heat treatment in the present of oxygen will promote coil oxidation, change grain size of the metals/alloy, promote new bonds between metal atoms, etc. To this, we should add the continuous contact of the coil with liquid. The liquids may have corrosive properties on the metals, which could further affect the molecular structure and integrity of the metal. Finally, the vaper is inhaling the aerosol directly from the coil itself. All these factors may contribute to the presence of metals to the aerosol.
Together with his friend, Pedro Carvalho, a material sciences expert, Dr. Farsalinos urged vapers to avoid dry-burning their coils as much as possible:
How much is metal exposure elevated by dry-burning the coils? Probably not very much. That is why we think the vapers have over-reacted to my statement on RY4radio. However, we do not see a reason why the exposure to metals should be elevated by doing something which can be avoided. There may be other ways of dealing with the issues related to coils. We think it would be preferable to spend some time making a new coil rather than cleaning a used coil using dry-burns. If you want to remove residues from the manufacturing process of the wires, you can use alcohols and water to clean the wire before preparing the coil.
A vaping veteran named DaveP imparted this sage advice to fellow vapers over at E-cigarette Forum:
Wicks are made from a silica material that is fireproof. The coil can burn out while dry burning, but a steady hand and a little practice and you can do it without damaging the coil. Washing can be enough, but you have to let it sit overnight to dry.
Dry burns let you burn off the residual juice baked onto the coil and allow you to refill it and vape immediately. Dry burning probably does shorten the life of the coil, but if it needs a burn off, it's either do it or toss it.
Some do an alcohol soak and let it dry overnight. Only use alcohol that you would drink, like Everclear or Vodka. Rubbing alcohol isn't really good for an atomizer.
Dry burns should only be done after doing a water wash. A dry burn with juice around the coil area will just bake and burn the juice onto the coil. Washing an atomizer consists of running hot water from the tap through the barrel for a while to wash out juices and partially clean the coil.
After washing, do a dry burn. Put on glasses to protect your eyes in case a drop pops out at your face. Look down into the atomizer and press the fire button. Hold it and listen to the sizzle. When you see a reddish glow, release the button. Pulse the button until the coil glows at a dull red level. Don't let it get bright or you may pop the coil wire. Just find the on-off sequence that will keep it glowing dull red.
This should be done in a semi-dark room to allow you to see the glow at the lowest point. Wisps of smoke will emerge from the tube from time to time. This is residual juice being burned off. When you are through, blow the atty out and refill your cart with juice.
Never dry burn a carto, [or] you'll cook the polyfill [sic] filler material. If it doesn't taste right, toss it and open a new one.
So, if you're planning to dry-fire your coil hoping to burn off whatever residue was left behind, consider these wise words from those who knew best about this method. Check out this E-cigarette News article and this Vapor Hut blog post on how to correctly dry-burn coils and whether it's good or bad for your health.