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Exploring the Differences Between Electric and Air-Driven Handpieces


Dentistry is a craft as much as it is a science. While the theoretical knowledge you gained in school and on the job is crucial, the quality of your work also depends on how well you wield your tools. Among these, dental handpieces are key pieces of equipment, and it's vital to choose the right ones for your practice. 


Although it might seem like a straightforward decision, selecting the ideal handpiece involves balancing several factors. It's not as simple as opting for the most advanced model on the market. Considerations like budget, personal preferences, and long-term value also play a significant role. 


An essential question to ask is which type of handpiece suits your practice best – an electric handpiece, an air-driven handpiece, or possibly a combination of both?  


Let’s take a closer look at both types of handpieces, discussing their strengths and weaknesses and comparing them to help you make an informed decision.


What is an Air-Driven Handpiece?


The air produced by a practice’s air compressor system powers air-driven handpieces. This air spins a turbine impeller at approximately 400,000 RPM, generating enough torque for the handpiece to cut through hard objects seamlessly.  


Air-driven handpieces have been an industry standard for dentists for decades. They remain timeless in effectiveness and a preferred tool of many practitioners.


Air-Driven Dental Handpiece Parts and Features


As mentioned, the turbine impeller in an air-driven handpiece spins at about 400,000 RPM. This is an incredibly high speed, where the velocity tops out. 


The air compressor of an air-driven handpiece doesn’t maintain consistency with speed and torque. So there’s also an air-water syringe you can easily connect to a handpiece delivery system for spraying. 


Sable Industries offers high-quality air-driven handpiece replacement parts for all SABLE high speed handpieces as well as premium replacement parts compatible with BIEN AIR, KAVO, MK DENT, NSK, PALISADES, SIEMENS, SIRONA, STAR, VECTOR, AND W&H high speed handpieces. All premium quality Sable turbines carry a 12 month warranty.


Pros and Cons of Air-Driven Handpieces


Air-driven handpieces are a traditional staple in dental offices. But like any technology, these handpieces have distinctive pros and cons. Let’s dive into these advantages and drawbacks, shedding light on the practicality of air-driven handpieces in modern dentistry.


Pros of Air-Driven Handpieces


  • Air systems required for air-driven handpieces already exist in your practice; this helps with the air-water syringe because you can tap into the air system.  
  • Comfortable and lightweight, reducing user fatigue. 
  • Possible to change head angles and sizes easily, enabling users to achieve optimal torque with a larger head or access hard-to-reach areas with a smaller head. 
  • Manufacturing these high-speed handpieces is relatively simple, making them more cost-effective.  
  • More sensitive work process because users can “hear” contact with the tooth. While they have high speeds, the touch is lower versus electric handpieces.  
  • Resistance increases and decreases the speed (as needed) to 50,000 to 300,000 RPM when the piece contacts the tooth.
Cons of Air-Driven Handpieces


  • Generally break down more often than their electric counterparts because their high spin speed is conducive to problems. 
  • Cannot create the same level of torque as electric handpieces; while larger heads can increase torque, this impedes maneuverability and hampers small-area access.

What Is An Electric Handpiece?


No air is required for electric handpieces (although some models have an air switch while running on power). 


Instead, electric handpieces have an electric motor system that employs electrical currents to spin an armature (located in the motor)—the motor for electric handpieces splints at 20,000 RPM. 


There’s a 1:5 attachment atop the motor, bolstering the speed ratio to spin the bur at 100,000 RPM. All electric 1:5 speed increaser replacement parts come with a 12 month warranty. 


Electric Handpiece Parts and Features


While electric handpieces have far less speed than air-driven handpieces, they make up for it with tremendous torque. Moreover, this torque remains consistent–even as the bur meets resistance. 


Also, as we mentioned, these handpieces have an electric motor. They also have programmable settings. 


Sable Industries offers high-quality electric 1:5 speed increaser replacement parts for BIEN AIR, KAVO, MIDWEST, SCICAN, and SIRONA.


Pros and Cons of Electric Handpieces


Electric dental handpieces represent an innovation in dental technology, offering a unique blend of features that cater to modern dental needs. The qualities and capabilities of electric handpieces make them an attractive choice for many dental practitioners, although they, too, come with their unique sets of pros and cons.


Pros of Electric Handpieces


  • Torque is abundant and maintains itself regardless of the speed. 
  • Maintains its RPM regardless of how much pressure you apply to the bur, ensuring there’s no freezing or slowing down of the bur.  
  • Smaller head diameter since electric handpieces lack an impeller; they have a geared spindle instead.  
  • Shorter and take up less space. 
  • Tend to last longer than air-driven handpieces. 
  • Produces a smoother and more precise cut 
  • Patients typically prefer electric handpieces since they don’t produce much vibration and are quieter than air-driven models. 
  • Modern electric motors often have LED lighting to provide a visual advantage.

Cons of Electric Handpieces


  • Electric handpieces have many moving parts, making them more expensive to purchase. 
  • Repairs are required less frequently, but the upfront costs are much higher than air-driven options. 
  • Compared to air-driven models, more parts require repairs after a break in electric handpieces, calling for more labour costs. 
  • Electric handpiece attachments necessitate comprehensive motor systems installed in offices, adding to the required expenses. 
  • While shorter, these electric devices are heavier than air-driven models because all the internal parts are needed to boost the speed at a 1:5 ratio.

Comparing Electric and Air-Driven Handpieces


Here’s a head-to-head comparison between electric handpieces and air-driven handpieces.


1. Performance and Efficiency


Electric handpieces require less speed to function. However, they’re also heavier than air-driven handpieces and have more moving parts, calling for more complex repairs (although they need to be repaired less.) 


Moreover, electric handpieces use smaller heads, providing better viewing angles than air-driven models.  


Air-driven models can be implemented more seamlessly into practice systems, increasing efficiency.  


So, both options have efficiency and performance advantages/disadvantages.


2. Speed and Torque Capabilities


Electric handpieces are highly acclaimed for their torque capabilities. Unlike air-driven handpieces, they can maintain a consistent torque level regardless of the applied pressure, making them ideal for heavy-duty procedures. In addition, they offer steady and robust power throughout the procedure, even when faced with hard substances such as amalgam or enamel.  


This consistent torque enhances precision and control, making the process smoother and more predictable.  


However, electric handpieces usually operate at lower speeds than their air-driven counterparts, ranging from 1,000 to 200,000 RPM. 


On the other hand, air-driven handpieces can reach impressively high speeds, sometimes as high as 300,000 to 450,000 RPM. This speed advantage makes them particularly effective in tasks requiring fast cutting, polishing, or cleaning.  


Air-driven handpieces face limitations when it comes to torque. The torque in air-driven handpieces is less consistent than in electric ones; it can fluctuate depending on the pressure applied, sometimes leading to a stalling effect when in contact with the tooth.


3. Noise Level and Vibration


With their high-speed turbine operation, air-driven handpieces tend to produce a characteristic whining noise that can sometimes cause discomfort or anxiety in sensitive patients.  


Additionally, the rapid rotation of the turbine can cause a noticeable level of vibration. Although typically manageable, this vibration may lead to some degree of hand fatigue over extended periods of use and slightly less precision during delicate procedures. 


On the contrary, electric handpieces operate at a considerably lower noise level, creating a more comfortable and relaxed atmosphere for patients. This feature can be particularly beneficial in a practice where patient comfort and minimizing anxiety are top priorities.  


Additionally, electric handpieces exhibit significantly less vibration compared to their air-driven counterparts. The vibration reduction not only enhances the precision of the dental work but also promotes the comfort of dental professionals during lengthy procedures.


4. Maintenance and Durability


Due to their mechanical simplicity, air-driven handpieces are often easier to maintain on a routine basis. Basic cleaning and lubrication of the turbine are typically the primary requirements. However, it’s worth noting that they might require more frequent servicing due to potential breakdowns, as the turbine’s high-speed operation could lead to increased wear and tear.  


Electric handpieces, on the other hand, are generally more robust and durable due to their sturdy electric motor. As a result, they often have longer service lives and require less frequent replacement compared to air-driven handpieces, potentially reducing long-term maintenance costs. However, they require meticulous maintenance to ensure optimal performance and longevity.  


Electric handpieces usually have more intricate components, making their maintenance process slightly more complex than air-driven handpieces.


5. Cost Considerations


Air-driven handpieces are more cost-friendly upfront. This could make them an attractive option for practices working with a tight budget or those just starting. However, considering their tendency for more frequent breakdowns and potentially shorter lifespan, the long-term costs could add up due to more frequent repairs or replacements. 


Electric handpieces, on the other hand, usually come with a higher upfront cost. The sophisticated electric motor that powers these devices generally makes them more expensive to manufacture and purchase. However, their superior durability and less frequent need for replacement often translate into lower long-term costs.  


Also, considering their consistent torque and reduced noise and vibration, the higher initial investment might be justified by the potential for improved patient comfort and procedural efficiency.


Choosing the Right Handpiece


Electric and air-driven handpieces each have pluses and minuses (primarily pluses). Deciding which is best for your practice requires in-depth contemplation. This process includes grasping your practice’s specific needs (e.g., budgetary and logistics). 


Consider reaching out to other dental professionals for their input. They’ll have a good idea of what would work best for a practice like yours. 


Also, weigh the availability of replacement parts for electric and air-driven handpieces. A handpiece you can’t repair can cost you significantly in the long run.

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