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Is your printer wasting your precious pricey printer ink?

Printer leaking colour ink

If it seems like your printer is guzzling ink when you rarely use it, maybe that’s because it is. Our latest tests show that downtime between prints can massively increase the print cost per page.

The cost of printer ink has many of you riled, but the outright cost of the cartridges is just the start.

Over the last year we’ve been running a number of tests on printers to look more closely at ink use. We’ve tested to see how much ink is wasted by head-cleaning cycles when you only print occasionally, and if this problem gets worse when you leave the printer off or in standby.

One print for the price of six

When we compared occasional printing (one page seven times a week for eight weeks) to continuous printing (50 pages in one day) we were shocked by the difference in ink use.

The most wasteful printer on test, the HP Officejet Pro 8500A Plus eAIO, used 525% more ink printing colour pages over the longer period. It’ll cost you £2.50 to print 50 pages in quick succession, but this jumps to £17.48 if you only occasionally print and switch it off in between. If you keep the printer on standby between occasional printing, the cost drops to £5.92.

That’s not to say all printers behave like that. With the Canon Pixma MX885, continuous printing would cost £7 per 50 pages, £14.13 for occasional printing (switching the printer off), and a whopping £19.11 for occasional printing (leaving the printer on). You can see how both perform against the more modest Epson Stylus SX620FW in this picture:

Printer ink waste cost tested and compared

So, if you only use your printer now and then, you could be paying for ink that will never even make it on to the page.

Of course, the idea of saving up all your prints and running them all off in one go to get the lowest costs per page is lunacy. When you need to print, you need to print.

Ink costs are a minefield. There are a number of variables that may determine when your inkjet printer cleans its print head, and how much ink gets wasted along the way. At present, when you walk into a shop, there’s no way of knowing how much your prints are going to cost. We think that needs to change.

Printer manufacturers need to explain ink waste

What we need is some clarity from manufacturers around how ink is wasted by printers, and why some waste more than others.

We’re going to continue our printer ink tests use to find the biggest wasters and factor this into our printer reviews. In the meantime we’ll be speaking to manufacturers to get more clarity about the true costs of ink. So if your printer seems to get through ink really quickly, we want to hear your experiences so we can share them with manufacturers. Is your printer wasting ink?

Do you think your printer wastes too much ink?

Yes (79%, 823 Votes)

I don't know (18%, 183 Votes)

No (4%, 38 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,045

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Many years ago I worked out that it was best to leave an Epson Colour Stylus 400 switched on and do continuous printing wherever possible. That minimised the amount that the printer spent going through cleaning cycles.

Though I’ve been aware of the issue for 15 years I cannot be bothered worrying about it. Most of my printing is done on a b/w laser printer and I have no idea of whether this ‘wastes’ toner.

Bob-Stokenchurch says:
23 November 2012

Laser printers “use” toner every time you turn them on and they go through a start up routine. They also use some toner every time they become ready to start printing even a single page. Toner is spread on the charged drum and this gets removed to the waste toner collector whenever the print drum (or photoconductor) rotates. To get the best possible cartidge life, batch up your print jobs and send them to the printer at one time…

Inkjets are always going to “waste” ink when not doing continuous printing by the very nature of the printing method – any dried or degraded ink has to be flushed or cleaned away everytime it is used.
However, obviously some makes & models are more efficient than others at this.
It is just the sort of info which WHICH? should add to their future reviews and would set their reviews apart from other magazines’.

I would not expect lasers to have this problem as the toner is in powder form and although early laser printers had toner waste containers which needed emptying I havent seen any on recent models.

After posting my previous comment I remembered that laser printers do waste toner. I assume that it is collected within the cartridge that contains fresh toner and the drum. I had a fairly recent Lexmark colour printer that used a separate waste toner container.

Everyone needs to be aware that ink-jet printers need to ‘waste’ ink to avoid blockages of the print heads. If one of the four (or more) print heads was blocked due to inadequate cleaning then we would waste ink and paper as a result of unsatisfactory prints. The problem arises when head cleaning is done more than necessary, for example when the power is switched on again after the printer has been in use a short time before.

A related problem is that ink-jet printers can become unusable when the waste tray becomes full.

tenire says:
25 November 2012

Very true, and I recently had to spend a day sorting this out because I was sure that my Pixma 350 was not actually faulty. I rang the Canon service line, and they asked me to remove the print head. It is not removeable. I had a code 5200 error which told me to refer to the handbook. There’s nothing in it. Canon is not interested in service, judging by this.
I’m no fan of open forums generally, but there was sufficient info. on there to enable me to use a reset sequence. Apparently Canon have a counter which disables the printer after a preset limit. I sponged out the waste-ink pan, reset the printer and bingo it’s printing perfectly with it’s Tesco kit refilled cartridges.

Malcolm Chisholm says:
20 November 2012

My Epson RX500 tells me when the printer cartridges need replacing, but when I install a new cartridge there is always ink still sloshing around in the “empty” one.

I have found the best and cheapest way on my Epson is a continuous ink system not expensive to buy and very cheap to run (check for your model on ebay) the scaremongers will tell you that it will block up your jets etc. but i’ve been using mine now for over 3 years with absolutely no problems – and have saved a fortune in throw away cartridges.

Gabriel says:
23 November 2012

CIS systems are great, although sometimes temperamental – I run 9 A3 Epsons 1400’s in a school art department and we worked out that to run them on Epson Branded cartridges would cost around £7000 per year!

The systems cost around £60 on Ebay and ink costs vary. I’ve just bought 7 x 500ml refill bottles for £70 – bearing in mind that a single Epson 0.5ml Cartridge costs around £14 and you need 6 for the 1400 (Essentially you get 1000 times more ink for more or less the same price)
Ink quality is good too – we produce lots of photographic quality prints and have yet to notice significant fading after a year.

With regards to printers ceasing to work once their internal ink waste reservoirs are full (Epsons 1400’s are programmed to request maintenance to empty these tanks every 3000 pages (Epson charge £100 for this service) You can counteract this by installing external tanks and bypassing the internal tubing, which again can be purchased on Ebay for around £10 and fitting the tanks is simpler than it sounds.

You do also need software (PC only) to reset the waste ink counter to fool the printer into thinking it’s been to a Epson service centre. This software is usually available from the same Ebay sellers.

I very much recommend these systems although you do need a little patience, but considering the savings, it’s very much worth it.

reader37 says:
20 November 2012

When my Canon PIXMA iP3000 print head burnt out after years of reliable service, I replaced it with a (then) current iP4700 because it was not sensible to attempt a costly repair. The iP3000 was very economical with ink, but every now and then needed a print head clean because it was not in constant use, which never caused a problem. I expected the new Canon to be similar – the pages per cartridge figures Canon quoted said it was better! The iP4700 uses 4 smaller colour cartridges and a large black for B&W only. Unlike the unchipped iP3000, these use chips on the cartridges (so you can’t refill them) and cost easily twice that of the iP3000 for the same ink.
As soon as the iP4700 “sees” the ink in any cartridge is less than completely full (even 3/4), it goes through a protracted self-cleaning cycle before (and often after) nearly every printing – although it doesn’t when the cartridges are full. Which means printing off a Word doc can take nearly 5 minutes sometimes. And it gobbles ink in the process. Then at other times, it prints immediately without delay. There is no consistency. Canon’s help services says there is nothing amiss, and reacted as if I was daft for asking, but this printer empties the 4 colour catridges even when the printer is set to B&W (greyscale)! This is very expensive, especially when I can replace the 4 colour tanks 2 or 3 times for every one change of the big black tank – and only have printed B&W most of the time.
I have unininstalled all software and reinstalled the very latest Canon drivers etc. from their website to no avail. It is obviously a design feature to massively increase the consumption of very expensive ink, bad enough if the printer was cheap at purchase, but this was not a cheap printer despite being fairly basic.
Fortunately, in all other respects, this is a very good printer with perfect prints.

David Sharp says:
23 November 2012

I too have a Canon iP4700 and I can verify that it uses a lot of ink even though my printing needs are modest and occasional. However I routinely refill my cartridges with inks readily available online. I have a cartridge re-setter also bought online which works like a dream and makes the printer think that it has been fitted with a brand new cartridge every time. Recomended.

Interesting article but hardly a revelation.

One thing you should add to your test is a reference to the Epson practise of building into their printers a genuine service life. The printer will decide by itself that they have printed X amount of pages and simply stop working saying that the waste ink pads are saturated. They aren’t. The official fix is expensive. The unofficial fix still involves spending money to reset the printer.

A quote from Epson SX235W manual (at the end of the “Status Monitor” section:

“If an error message appears indicating the printer’s ink pads are nearing the end of their service life, contact Epson support to replace them. The message will be displayed at regular intervals until the ink pads are replaced. When the printer’s ink pads are saturated, the printer stops and Epson support is required to continue printing.”

For the Epson Stylus Office BX305FW Plus the same info is on page 80 of the manual:

Since the printer itself decides to do this there is no way to predict when it will happen unless you use clever little utilities.

In the USA the result is different. You simply fill in a request on the Epson website and they will send you a free reset utility. In the UK you have to see an official Epson dealer (or cheat) but in the USA you download a file.

Bearing in mind that all printers use/waste too much ink it is obvious that we are being penalised in every direction. Ink is ludicrously expensive. Printers waste that ink whenever they get the chance. And Epson printers (possibly other makers as well) use that extra wasted ink to help justify an expensive and unneccesary repair.

I fitted my Epson Stylus Photo R360 with a continuous ink system and a waste ink collection system. No ink goes into the waste pads but the ‘error’ still occurs.

Do you want to estimate the chance that I will ever buy another Epson product?

It may be a silly question, but where does this excess ink go? I’ve noticed that ink seems to be used up faster than my relatively occasional use would suggest and the printer goes through long self cleaning cycles. But nothing is printed out and when I look inside everything is nice and clean with no messy dried ink anywhere. As everyone knows the volume in 5 containers is quite high, so I ask again where does the ink go if not used for printing?

Waste ink is fired into a waste ink absorber container built in to most printers, this is meant to last the life of the printer, I presume it is open and allows evaporation of wet ink.

For some years now I have had a Brother DCP-135 ink jet printer. A full set of one [larger] b&w and three colour cartridges costs around £30 and they do tend to print a large number of pages before exhausting. The printer only seems to do a head clean after replacing a cartridge so there does not appear to be much waste. I always ignore the “replace ink” message as I invariably find I can run off scores more pages before the machine stops printing. Assuming the amount of ink used to print a given amount of text and images is the same regardless of how many pages it runs to [except, of course, that every page has a header and footer consuming ink], my biggest gripe is the badly formatted content that wastes paper and electricity by spreading the text across more pages than necessary and usually leads to the final page having just a line or two of text on it!

This is a big problem with printing Web pages. Many don’t know how to turn off printing coloured backgrounds.

Copying and pasting the information you actually need to print is a great help.

Printing blank pages should not waste ink but obviously it wastes paper.

Thanks Wavechange. I do that when I can remember but sometimes I just want to have the full article or document.

I forgot to mention that the Brother printer is actually a surprsiningly good machine. Mine has been very reliable, works every time without glitches or paper jams, and produces good copies. I use it for basic photocopying as much as for Word documents or web content and probably do an average of 100 pages a week. There is a copy shop five minutes walk away which I use for bigger jobs or when I need something collated and stapled and that is surprisingly good value. Earlier this week they did a big legal document for me [approx 100 A4 in b&w plus a few A3 maps/plans in colour] for only £9.20 while I waited [under ten mins].

Continuing the web printing sub-conversation:
can provide useful facilities . I have it installed in Firefox and it usually works !

That looks extremely useful. Thanks rarrar.

Tackling this problem from a different angle I’ve found a non-proprietary cartridge brand, Peach, costing a fraction of the original Canon No’s 8 and 5 cartridges for my MP830 printer.

Even on A4 full colour photo’s it would take a very expert eye indeed to spot any difference in quality between the two sorts. The savings I’m making put the problems highlighted in this thread into some sort of perspective.

What really annoys me is the contempt shown by the printer manufacturers for their users. We all KNOW that we are being ripped off but they just ignore us. I’ve been using refilled cartridges from IJT on Epson printers for years without any loss of quality. They cost about a third of the Epson ones. I seem to recall a quote that printer ink costs more than vintage champagne. As for the claim that printer failures are due to use of cheap refills – that is just a straightforward lie. Why doesn’t somebody just produce a good printer, charge a real price for it and sell ink at the real price, which must be about tuppence a bucketful. They would hardly be able to satisfy the market and would make millions.

It does puzzle me how many people seem to KNOW what the real price of an inkjet cartridge should be.

The cartridge delivers an extremely precise quantity of ink. It applies just the right amount of heat to vapourise this ink which then instantly condenses into vast quantities of microscopic droplets. These droplets then fall onto the paper with such precision that the end result is often beyond the limits of human vision. It does this millions of times for each page printed.

The technology is gobsmacking. It’s staggering that manufacturers can produce these technology marvels for as little as £20.

Of course that’s why refills are so much cheaper – all you pay for is a few pence worth of ink. The amazing technology is reused. But the technology can only cope with single use, although there is no doubt a safety margin that makes them good for a few uses. If we are being ripped off, it’s by the refillers whose only cost is a few pence worth of ink and no technology costs whatsoever.

So what’s the answer? If you KNOW you’re being ripped off by the cartridge manufacturers, hand in your notice at work on Monday morning and set up in business making new cartridges. If the rip off is bad as you KNOW to it be, you’ll be a multi-millionnaire by next Christmas.

I agree about that we take the technology for granted, gradivus. However, I do think there is a big difference between buying an ink cartridge with an integral print head and one that is just a container of ink.

I don’t think the manufacturers have done their reputation any good by selling printers very cheaply and a set of (full size) ink cartridges at little more than the cost of the printer. I accept that it is necessary to ‘waste’ ink to keep print heads working but it is quite evident that some printers are doing this far more than necessary, which points to poor software design. If a print head needs to be cleaned then it should be possible for this to be done for the affected colour and not waste other colours.

I am surprised that some refills are so cheap because inkjet ink is actually carefully designed to meet the requirements of the printer and remain homogeneous for an extended period.

David says:
27 November 2012

About Gravidus’ response to your well-made criticisms: if I handed in my notice every time I was ripped off by a large corporation I would never have the opportunity to develop the skills necessary for the suggestion in his/her final paragraph. Someone suggested that Gravidus represents the interests of one of the printer companies – but I’m sure this is too cynical.

David, Let me reassure you that I have no connection whatsoever with any of the printer companies. I’m retired now; I’ve spent my entire adult life working in the IT industry, first half in the public sector, second half with the third biggest IT company in the world. So I do know a little (and I really do mean a “little”) about the subject under discussion.

But here’s the point, David. Do you or Alan Braddock have any industry knowledge or experience of producing inkjet cartridges? Have you ever been responsible, say, for designing (or costing) production machinery that can take a wafer thin piece of metal and create microscopic holes in it to a precision of (I’d guess) hundredths of a millimetre? We’re not talking here of using a Black and Decker drill to make holes in a wall, this is technology far, far beyond the capabilities of all but the most advanced hi-tech factories in the world. Even the watch you’re wearing on your wrist is basic, crude workmanship in caparison.

We all know how to make a sandwich so we can come up with a reasoned assessment of whether Subway on the High Street is ripping us off or not. But I suspect no one on this thread has any experience, not even the slightest, tiniest hint of a suggestion of experience, of design, engineering and manufacture of such precision components? If you have, please say so and make some relevant comparisons.

Yet somehow these people with no knowledge or skills whatsoever simply KNOW what the correct price is.

My final paragraph was very tongue-in-cheek. If you KNOW so much about this alleged rip-off, if you KNOW that the shop price is too high, if you KNOW that ink cartridges can be produced so much more cheaply………. But the point is, you don’t KNOW, do you? You have absolutely no idea whatsoever.

By the way – just for the record in case you think I’m defending the printer manufacturers:

I too have very strong suspicions that printer manufacturers trim the profit on their printers to the absolute bone then rely on a much healthier profit margin on the replacement ink – especially when the cartridges that come with a new printer are often “Starter” cartridges containing very little ink. But like everyone else, I’m not qualified in any way to say whether or not the prices of printer and cartridge are “right” or not, it’s only a suspicion.

But I think this is an inevitable consequence of living in a competitive, capitalist society.

It’s why, as some on this thread have mentioned, you cannot clean the print heads individually. Such a facility would add to the cost of the printer – probably quite a tiny cost – but the makers are desperate to shave every penny they can off the price of their printers.

As an aside, I notice Kodak are advertising printers with low ink costs. Anyone know if these are selling well?

David says:
27 November 2012

I recognise tongue-in-cheek, but do you? Glad to learn, though, that you have no connection with the rip-off printer companies. However, if we took your stance there would be very little we would be able to challenge – which is precisely what the large corporations would like (we don’t have to just meekly accept the consequences of ‘living within a capitalist society’). You may well have some technical knowledge which put the rest of us to shame in comparison, but I wonder if this extends to economics? Whatever the initial costs of designing inkject technology and constructing the machines to produce them, I would have thought that by now economies of scale would have kicked in to allow appreciable price reductions. Incidentally, how would you account for the practice of built-in obsolescence that many other contributors have pointed to – or should we keep our mouths shut because of our appalling ignorance?

Please, please, please get out there and challenge. I’ll support you 100%. Which? has a degree of influence so even writing on these convos could have a small effect, but get out there and actively challenge.

And I did stress that I know only a little about printer cartridge manufacture, probably not much more than average, but I do recognise that the technology is pretty hot and won’t come cheap, even with the economies of mass production.

I know no more than the average man-in-the-street about national or world economics. But, given my work role in the latter part of my career in IT, I’m supremely confident that I know much more about business operating costs than the majority of people. Not enough to know the “true” price of inkjet cartridges, but enough to know they aint going to be cheap.

Obsolescence is a tangent. But it’s built in because that’s what we want. Over the decades we’ve moved towards throwing things away and buying the latest, shiniest version, rather than getting them repaired (and often when they don’t need to be repaired). Yes, yes, there is an element of chicken and egg here, but manufacturers compete with each other to make profit. And one of the key factors is giving the customer what he/she wants. That’s why businesses make throw-away products and their former rivals no longer make repairable equivalents.

I agree that this is an absurd situation.

But it is surely just as absurd to sell a copier and printer for (say) £29. It would surely cost £20 to ship an empty box with cables only from Korea to the UK and give everyone a mark-up.

About 10 years ago I bought the then basic HP all in one for a bargain £99. Cartridges cost £20 plus depending on where you get them. A typical replacement machine is now under £40 so unsurprisingly they overcharge for the ink. I’m not sure who is kidding who! If we paid a decent price for the kit, with all the R&D and manufacturing costs, then maybe the ink would cost less?

Maybe you can give away printers with the magazine?

The EU comes in for a lot of criticism but I can see this as our only hope of stopping this practice, which encourages people to throw away printers and buy new ones.

Tony B says:
23 November 2012

The unforgotten side of this issue is “where does the waste ink go”. I have an HP 8500 Officejet and the manual (online) does not (obviously) mention the well that keeps this waste , nor how you maintain it when full.

Paul Beale says:
23 November 2012

Hello Everyone, Yes we might be complaining about the price of Ink; but lets put this into perspective; the cost of printing off a few pages in black and white or colour when you need is the price your pay for immediate convenience and trust me going to your local stationery store or office they might want 20p or even £1 to print off a couple of pages.

Further more the cost of printers have drastically reduced, become better quality and much faster, so remember before when you had a noisy dot matrix printer only available in black ink, no scanning or colour facilities or high speed printing, I still think that the cost of home printing is very cheap, and if you use your printer on a regular basis with say more than 20 pages per day then your costs drastically reduce per page. Worry about other costs that are more important like the costs of builders, plumbers or the cost of petrol in your car or the cost of parking your car. By the way I am not in the print business;

Kieran Daly says:
23 November 2012

My Lexmark S605 “wastes” ink by constantly “realigning the printhead” which involves printing a full colour test-card type page.

I use generic, non-branded cartridges (from the excellent stinkyink.com) which are much cheaper than Lexmark’s own and work just fine. As other commenters have said – ignore the low-ink warnings and just keep on going.

The crucial thing is never download the Lexmark firmware updates. Whatever else they do, they are designed to prevent the generic cartridges from working. If you download the firmware then you have to wait months while the clever cartridge guys puzzle out how to outsmart the new firmware and then everything works again. Printer ink is one of the great modern rip-offs – up there with mobile phones and car-hire. I have no compunction about fighting back.

Another interesting point is that ALL printer manufacturers use similar tactics to rob their customers. This obviously points to an industry-wide cartel, with Epson, Lexmark, Canon etc all getting together to fix prices. This is illegal in most countries. In the past several American firms have been seriously challenged by their government over price-fixing and been forced to pay large penalties. Anybody know any congressmen?

I have used several makes of printer over the years.
I seldom use colour but none of them worked unless there were colour cartridges installed.
In spite of this I have had to replace colour cartridges regularly when they run out, sometimes when I have never colour printed at all!
Manufacturers should be made to produce that printers work when only a black cartridge is installed in spite of their being designed to accommodate colour cartridges.
I now refill cartridges myself.

The problem is that print heads can block due to dried up ink, so cleaning the heads is not entirely a waste of ink. My solution is to use a laser printer for black & white printing.

John Howat. says:
23 November 2012

Please can you tell us some thing about the contiuous ink supply devices which are available and feed the printing heads by fine bore pipes from a much larger resevoir(s) situated outside the printer.

Peter Robinson says:
23 November 2012

I went away 3 weeks ago with my yellow cartridge showing low but no yet needing replacement – returned this week to find it showing empty! Guess which printer i have – HP Officejet Pro 8500A!!

Cameron Hills says:
23 November 2012

I also realised the voracious appetite Epson printers have for carts and started testing many alternatives. I also moved to HP which seem to have user replaceable inkjet heads, but have not yet blocked after 3 years. I finally settling on JetTec compatibles which have yet to fail me. Not the cheapest but very worthwhile savings from a reputable supplier. I also got a Samsung B&W laser printer which works out much cheaper per page and prints large documents for my student kids far faster with less hassle.

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