By Spencer Brooks
Vaporizers (often called “vapes”) are an excellent way to use medical cannabis, especially if you’re looking for a gentler alternative to smoking.
Vapes are great because they don’t produce smoke. They heat cannabis, releasing cannabinoids and active compounds like terpenes, but they stay cool enough to avoid combustion (burning). Combustion is what creates smoke, along with carcinogens, tar, and other toxins.
Vapes deliver the active ingredients in cannabis in vapour form, without irritating your lungs the way traditional smoking does[*].
There are two main types of vape: conduction and convection vapes. This article will help you decide which one is best for your medical cannabis needs.
What are conduction and convection vapes?
Cannabis starts to combust and produce smoke at between 220-240 degrees Celsius[*]. However, it releases its active compounds -- THC, CBD, terpenes, and so on -- at around 155-200 Celsius.
This is why temperature control is essential for vaporizers. Vaporizers should stay in that lower-temperature sweet spot. They should vaporize the cannabinoids and terpenes -- turning them into a gas that you can inhale, without getting hot enough to produce smoke.
To maximize temperature control, vapes use one of two heating methods:
- Conduction, which is when heat transfers through a solid surface. For example, many conduction vapes have cannabis flower or oil sitting on a metal surface. The metal surface heats up, vaporizing the cannabis compounds that come into contact with it.
- Convection, which is when heat transfers through a liquid or gas. Convection vapes often heat the air around the cannabis flower instead of sending heat through a metal surface.
Both conduction and convection vapes work well, but there are a few differences between them. Here’s a look at each one individually.
Pros and cons of conduction vapes
Conduction vapes usually use either electric coils or hot plates in a small chamber. You add either fresh, ground cannabis flower or use a cannabis oil cartridge, depending on the vape. When you press a button, the coil/hot plate heats up, vaporizing the cannabis.
There are several pros to conduction vapes:
- Fast vaporization. This is the biggest plus side to conduction vapes. Conductive metal comes up to temperature in seconds, which means you can press the button on your vape and draw vapour almost immediately.
- Affordable price. Conduction vapes have simple electronic parts, which makes them inexpensive to manufacture. They tend to be more affordable than convection vapes are.
- Low maintenance. Conduction vapes require minimal cleaning and maintenance, which makes them the most convenient option for vaping. A lot of newcomers choose a conduction vape because it's so easy to use. You grind the herb (or insert the oil cartridge), press a button, and go. However, there are a few tradeoffs you make for the convenience and low cost of a conduction vape.
- Less temperature control. Because conduction vapes heat a surface instead of the air, you get uneven heat throughout your vape chamber. This is a particular concern if you’re vaping with fresh ground cannabis, as opposed to a cannabis oil. You have to grind the cannabis flower very fine to maximize surface area, and you should move it around the chamber between draws to heat the different parts of the flower more evenly.
- Risk of burning cannabis. If you heat the coil/hot plate of your vape for too long, the cannabis that comes into direct contact with it can burn, creating smoke that’s harsher on your lungs. You can avoid combustion by taking shorter draws and, if you’re using fresh ground cannabis, moving the ground cannabis around between draws.
Conduction vapes are a great choice when you’re looking for portability, convenience, and speed.
Pros and cons of convection vapes
Convection vapes use more modern vaping technology to deliver a smoother vaping experience (although they come with a few of their own drawbacks).
There are several benefits to using a convection vape:
- Even vaporizing/temperature control. Because convection vapes heat the space surrounding the cannabis, you end up with near-perfect, even heating. As a result, the active compounds in cannabis extract more evenly, and you don’t have to move ground cannabis around the chamber to make sure every part of it sees the heat.
- No risk of burning cannabis. Many convection vapes store cannabis/oil in a separate chamber from the heating element, then pump either steam or hot air. There’s no direct contact with the heat source, which effectively removes the risk of your convection vape, burning the cannabis and producing smoke.
- More flavour. The even heating at a lower temperature means convection vapes preserve the flavour of cannabis better. You can taste all the different terpenes and volatile compounds in the cannabis you’re vaping, which can lead to a more pleasant experience. This is especially true if you love the taste of cannabis and you want to really perceive the different flavour profiles of cannabis strains. That said, convection vapes aren't for everyone. There are several downsides to convection vapes as well.
- Higher cost. Convection vapes are more complex than conduction vapes. They have multiple, separate chambers that interact with one another. As a result, they’re more costly to produce, and you end up paying more for a convection vape.
- Longer heating time. Convection vapes bring an entire chamber up to a consistent temperature, which takes longer than directly heating a small metal coil. Most convection vapes have to preheat for anywhere from 2-6 minutes. Some vaporizers use a hybrid conduction/convection heating method, which reduces heating time to around 60 seconds, but they tend to be more expensive.
- Cleaning/maintenance. With multiple chambers and more moving parts, a convection vape requires occasional cleaning and maintenance. Most manufacturers include instructions, and maintenance is usually fairly simple, but the inconvenience can be a dealbreaker for some people. Convection vapes trade speed and convenience for maximum quality. Whether or not that's a worthwhile trade-off is up to you.
Conduction versus convection: Which vape is best for you?
Which vape type is best for you depends on your needs.
If you want something that’s convenient, inexpensive, and ready to use within seconds, a conduction vape is your best bet.
If you want something that eliminates all risk of combustion/smoke production, preserves the flavour and aroma of your cannabis, and maximizes your vaping enjoyment, a convection vape is a good choice.
Here are a few good options for both conduction and convection vapes.
Conduction + Convection
Take a look and find the vaporizer that best suits your needs. If you’re just starting out with vaping, take it slow at first until you find an effective dose -- and as always, consult your healthcare provider before consuming medical cannabis.