Dear Thermos….

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 4:30 pm

I thought I would take a moment out of my nonproductive Sunday afternoon to offer up my thoughts about one of your products, the Element 5 Vacuum Insulated Travel Tumbler.

Element 5 Travel Tumbler

Like an appreciable number of First-World denizens with little better to do with their lives, I have devoted considerable time and money in the pursuit of the ultimate coffee mug for travelers. My list of criteria is fairly straightforward. The vessel must hold as much coffee as is practical to consume while on the go (16 to 20 fluid ounces seems to be the sweet spot). It must be insulated using materials with real insulative properties (vacuum, for instance). It must be durable (stainless steel, preferably, with no glass vacuum bottle). It must be easy to drink from while driving (the spout must be accessible without having to use both hands to open it). Lastly, it must fit comfortably in the standard beverage holder on the average car….or at least, in the standard beverage holder in my car.

By these standards, the Element 5 is very nearly the perfect commuter’s coffee mug, but it misses the mark in a couple of significant ways.

First, the good stuff: The Element 5 keeps coffee hot for several hours even without an initial “priming” of hot water, easily as long as any other vacuum bottle I have ever owned, including my half-gallon Stanley. Additionally, this thing has the most ingenious spout design I have ever seen on a travel mug. The seal on the lid is, as far as I can tell, completely leakproof: I regularly clip this thing to my backback and throw it in my car for long journeys without a single thought about my car upholstery.

Element 5 Lid

The 360° drink lid is, hands-down, a stroke of genius. The mug goes from absolutely leakproof to easily drinkable in the space of a quarter-turn of the lid. Even when the lid is set for drinking, an overturned mug will dribble coffee much more slowly than many other designs. If that system was designed in-house, I hope the person who came up with the idea was given a bonus large enough to allow him/her to purchase their own small Tahitian island.

Overall the look and feel of the mug is great; I imagine that you were trying for a precision-machined, ready-for-anything look, sort of like a high-tech snowshoe or something. Mission accomplished! With a capacity of 16 fluid ounces it is within my limits for acceptable capacity as well. The overall circumference of the mug might be a little large for those with smaller hands, in which case they can avail themselves of the model with the handle.

Now for the bad: firstly, despite your obvious need to give the mug a “sturdy” look, I wish with all of my heart that you had elected to make it taller and narrower. The large, clunky hard rubber base will simply not fit into a (read: my) car’s cup holder. That base is one of the mug’s more foolish affectations. Your description of a “Rubberized shock absorbing base with wide stance for stable footing” is, to be charitable, a bit of poetic license. I can’t speak for others, but personally, even if I believed your claims of shock absorbency (which I don’t), I don’t particularly need a “shock absorbing base” for my coffee mug. I may be worried about spilling my coffee, but I’m rarely concerned with the possibility of bruising it. As for its “extra-wide stance”: I think you may have misinterpreted the primary functions which this unit will fulfill with your customer base. I think it is safe to say that very few of your customers will be sipping lattes from their new travel mug while plowing through the chop of the Pacific ocean on a Zodiac, on a mission to harass Russian whaling vessels. If they are carrying the mug during periods of instability at all, they no doubt will be leaving it sealed. Most if not all of your potential customers will be using this product in their cars (where the stability would be greatly enhanced by the ability to fit in a car’s cup holder) or in the home or at the office (where people have survived the imbibing of hot beverages without the intervention of an extra-wide rubberized shock-absorbing base since time immemorial).

Element 5 Travel Tumbler

The second and most important problem with the Element 5 is the size of the internal opening. Ideally, the diameter of the inner opening should be as close to the diameter of the rest of the vessel as is possible to allow the unobstructed flow of the contents. The comparatively tiny diameter of the Element 5’s opening makes it almost impossible to retrieve the last three or four ounces of liquid from the mug without upending the thing over your head. In a stationary environment like a home or office setting this is an annoying inconvenience; in a moving vehicle this could conceivably be quite dangerous. This design oversight keeps me from using the Element 5 during my regular commute, which is a shame, given all of the unit’s other redeeming qualities.

All in all, the Element 5 is an excellent product with a couple of serious design oversights that keep it from being the ultimate insulated travel mug it was destined to be. As it is, it is merely penultimate, suitable for a number of special-purpose situations but less than ideal for everyday use. It is my fervent hope that you will attend to these design problems and re-engineer the product to overcome them. If you do, I hereby promise that I will buy the new and improved Element 5 for everyone on my gift list. And possibly a few extra for complete strangers.

6 Responses to “Dear Thermos….”

  1. Valerie Says:

    In my first “bought all by myself ‘cuz I’m a grown-up” car–which was of necessity an economy car and not just in terms of gas mileage–there were NO cupholders. Those were options for more luxurious models. This was not a problem for the first generation of go-mugs (non insulated) which were those really wide and squatty ceramic mugs with a rubberized bottom. Talk about a wide, unyielding stance! I could set that thing on the floor of the passenger side, and it wouldn’t budge an inch. But alas, that model went the way of the dodo bird when the sleek aluminum vacuum models came into fashion. Very tippy. But I read a somewhere that for those without cupholders, or for those who’s cupholders were sized to take a wax paper cup from a drivethru window, you could take a fresh roll of duct tape and set it on the floor in the shotgun seat and it would make an adequate–though redneck–substitute. The residual adhesive around the edge kept the roll of tape secured to the carpet, but easily removable if needed. The inner diameter of the tape roll accomodated the fancy schmancy vacuum go mugs. The heft of the full roll of duct tape made sure everything stayed in place. AND you had a roadside emergency kit as well! The only problem was, well, besides the rednecky aspects, you needed to have the kind of car where you could reach the floor of the opposite seat. Which was not a problem in my GEO!

  2. Uncle Andrew Says:

    Geez, Val; even my used 1981 Suabru GL—my very first car—had cupholders. 😛 And you can still buy Volcano Mugs; they’re just not so much in vogue these days. But they suffer one of the same design flaws as the Element 5: you practically need to upend the damn thing over your head to get the last few sips out of the thing.

    I have a new mug en route that might fit the bill; I’ll post here if it does.

  3. Matt Says:

    Came across this post while looking for a replacement for my E5 which, inexplicably, just stopped keeping coffee hot a few days ago. I believe this mug to be the ultimate evolution of coffee-on-the-go. Decades of mobile coffee drinking has inevitably led to this device. It is truly remarkable and I have been singing its praises for the 10 or so years that I have owned it.

    All of that said, I agree with you about the size of the base — it does not fit in most (but not all!) car cup holders. As for the opening size, though, I posit the following — I think it is necessary in order to have the leak-proof top AND the 360-degree drinking feature. I do not see it as much of an issue, particularly given the other benefits of the mug.

    I’m going to be really unhappy with whatever I get to replace my beloved mug.

  4. Uncle Andrew Says:

    Hey Matt, thanks for stopping by! While I still love my Element 5, I’ve since moved onto a Klean Kanteen insulated travel mug with the optional Cafe Cap as my primary coffee delivery device. With the cap it’s not nearly as leakproof, but for my needs it’s a bit easier to use on a day-to-day basis.

  5. Se7eN Says:

    I know this is an oldie but goodie thread, but hear me out. You CAN remove the gargantuan base of the Element 5. It will then nestle all snug in your standard vehicle cup holder until you’re ready to snap it back on. I, too, have owned this mug for many moons and when I read another gracious reviewer complain of this particular downfall workaround; I was elated! It worked! You really do have to work at it to get it loose, but it will pop off. I just pull and twist with a sturdy grip. Good luck, and hopefully it’ll add just enough convenience to warrant a few more useful adventures as your go-to 😎 !


  6. Uncle Andrew Says:

    Hey, great tip, thanks! I’ll definitely give it a try. If it ends up snugly fitting the cupholders on an ’04 Subaru, this may be a renaissance in this thing’s future after all. 🙂

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