When you buy vape coils, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the materials the coils are made from. Instead, you simply make your choice out of whatever is available for the tank you’re using. You might have a few different resistance levels to choose from, and you might have the ability to select a mesh coil or a standard wound coil. Whether a given manufacturer makes the heating surfaces for its coils from kanthal, nichrome, stainless steel or another material, however, might not be something that factors into your decision at all when you’re buying a vape tank.
As you continue to gain experience as a vaper, though, you’re going to learn that vaping really is all about the details – and no detail is so small that it can’t have a noticeable impact on your vaping experience. So, what’s the difference between kanthal, nichrome, stainless steel and other popular vape coil materials? Should the types of coils available for a given vape tank affect your buying decision? Let’s learn more.
Kanthal Vape Coils
Temperature Control Compatibility: No
Kanthal is an alloy of iron, chromium and aluminum. It’s one of the most popular materials for use in heating elements for products like toasters, toaster ovens and hair dryers. The reason why kanthal works so well for heating elements is because it behaves in an extremely predictable fashion when an electrical current travels through it.
Kanthal immediately forms a protective layer of aluminum oxide when it’s heated, allowing it to remain extremely durable in long-term use. As you likely know, a product like a toaster or hair dryer can easily last for years. The same is true of kanthal vape coils. When you need to replace a coil, it’s almost never because of a problem with the wire itself. You’re replacing the coil because e-liquid residue has collected on the heating surface or because the wick is burned. The wire itself can last for an extremely long time.
The most important quality of kanthal – both for vaping and for any other purpose that requires a heating wire – is that heating a kanthal wire doesn’t cause its electrical resistance to change significantly. That makes it ideal for wattage-based vaping; your vaping device doesn’t need to read the resistance of the coil continuously as you puff.
The final quality of kanthal that makes it attractive for use in vape coils is that, for most vapers, it’s the most familiar coil material. You know that a kanthal coil will work with every vaping device you have, and you’re also familiar with the flavor characteristics of kanthal. Every coil material affects flavor in a subtle way. Since you’ve probably used kanthal coils as long as you’ve been a vaper, though, your perception will be that kanthal coils essentially have no flavor.
Nichrome Vape Coils
Temperature Control Compatibility: No
Nichrome is a popular alternative to kanthal for heating wires and was, in fact, invented before kanthal. Nichrome is a blend of nickel and chromium. The ratios of the two metals can vary; the most common nichrome alloy for vaping is Ni80, which consists of 80-percent nickel and 20-percent chromium.
Elaborate RDA coils like these are usually made from nichrome.
Nichrome has many properties in common with kanthal. One of those properties is the fact that it forms an oxide layer – chromium oxide, in this case – when it’s heated. The oxide layer protects the metal from further oxidation and enables it to remain in service for a long time. Like kanthal, nichrome is used for heating elements in a wide variety of products, such as hair dryers, toasters and space heaters. Nichrome is also common in kilns used to fire pottery.
Also like kanthal, nichrome changes very little in electrical resistance when it’s heated. That makes nichrome suitable for wattage-based vaping only.
The primary quality of nichrome that makes it attractive for vaping is the fact that, for a given gauge of wire, nichrome has a lower resistance than kanthal. That means it’ll operate at a higher wattage, and it also means it’ll heat up more quickly than a similar kanthal coil. With a regular single-coil or dual-coil atomizer, you may not notice a difference in ramp-up times between a kanthal coil and a nichrome coil.
You’ll really notice a difference, though, when you’re using a more elaborate coil made from very thick braided or twisted wires. If you use or have ever used a rebuildable atomizer, you’ve probably noticed that many companies sell pre-wrapped coils for use in RDAs. You just insert the coil into the FDA, trim the leads and vape. The coils are typically large and elaborate and may include Clapton coils, alien coils, staple coils and more. Pre-built RDA coils are usually nichrome because they’re so massive.
Compared to kanthal, nichrome has two small drawbacks. The first drawback is that a few people suffer from nickel allergies. If that’s true of you, you’ll want to avoid using nichrome coils. The other factor that you should be aware of when using nichrome is that you can’t dry burn a nichrome coil as aggressively as you can a kanthal coil. If you heat a nichrome coil until it glows bright red, the metal may break.
Stainless Steel Vape Coils
Temperature Control Compatibility: Yes
Nichrome is a common material for pre-wrapped RDA coils, but you won’t see it often in the world of sub-ohm tanks. When you’re shopping for sub-ohm tank coils, kanthal and stainless steel are the materials you’re most likely to see. Compared to kanthal, stainless steel has a slightly lower resistance and a slightly faster ramp-up time for a given wire gauge. Unlike some of the other non-kanthal coil materials, people generally find that stainless steel doesn’t introduce any off flavors that require getting used to.
Stainless steel also has the benefit of being an easy material to work with from a tooling standpoint. You can stamp stainless steel into shapes that wouldn’t be possible to create with kanthal. In the mid-2010s – before mesh coils became the standard for cloud chasing – manufacturers were experimenting with unusual coils such as “notch coils,” which were cylinders with notches cut out of them. Shapes like that would only be possible with stainless steel.
One of the most interesting features of stainless-steel coils is that they’re the only vape coils that you can use for either wattage-based or temperature control vaping. For temperature control, all that you need is a vaping device that supports stainless-steel coils – which almost all mods built in the last few years do – or allows you to enter a custom TCR.
Compared to the other two coil materials used for temperature control vaping – nickel and titanium – stainless steel has a significantly lower TCR. That means the material’s change in resistance as it’s heated is not as easy to measure. Some vape mods may not be completely accurate when estimating the temperature of a stainless-steel coil.
The last thing to consider before you buy a vape tank using stainless-steel coils is that stainless steel does contain a small amount of nickel. If you are allergic to nickel, you’ll probably want to avoid stainless steel and stick with kanthal coils.
Nickel and Titanium Vape Coils
Temperature Control Compatibility: Yes
We’ll group the last two coil materials together because they’re similar in purpose and because they were both popular for a very brief time before fading into obscurity.
In the mid-2010s, temperature control vaping was a new technology that looked almost certain to completely overtake the vaping industry. Temperature control made it possible to set a temperature limit for your coil, and if the coil ever exceeded that limit, your mod would cut its power immediately to prevent a dry hit or burned wick. For temperature control technology to work, the electrical resistance of the coil needs to change when the coil heats up. The greater the change in resistance, the easier it is to measure – and the more accurate the resulting temperature estimate will be.
Kanthal and nichrome don’t work for temperature control vaping because their resistance remains essentially stable as they’re heated. Nickel and titanium were chosen for the first temperature control coils because their resistance changes greatly when they’re heated – even more so for nickel than titanium – which makes it easy to get an accurate temperature estimate.
Nickel and titanium coils are intended for temperature control vaping only and should not be used in wattage mode. Even if the resistance of a nickel or titanium coil is within your mod’s supported range, wattage-based vaping is intended only for a coil that remains relatively stable in resistance during use.
So, why did nickel and titanium coils fade from popularity so quickly? The first reason was because they were simply too complicated. A vaping device can’t automatically detect the type of coil that’s installed. Explaining the different vaping modes and the different coils that work in each mode results in information overload for a new vaper. Stainless steel works in temperature control mode for those who prefer TC vaping. Since it also works in wattage mode, though, there’s no chance of configuring things incorrectly.
The other reason why nickel and titanium coils never became particularly popular is because they’re pretty disappointing in terms of cloud production. The main purpose of temperature control vaping is that it helps you avoid dry hits. Well, you can also do that yourself by vaping at a reasonable wattage and remembering to refill your tank. In that sense, temperature control vaping is an interesting gimmick, but it’s completely unnecessary for most people.