Your money

Guzzling printers can waste $100 of ink a year

July 1, 2013 at 1:47 PM ET

Image: HP Officejet Pro 8600
HP
Consumer Reports says the worst offenders for wasted ink were the HP Officejet Pro 8600, above, and the Lexmark OfficeEdge Pro 4000.

You already know printer ink is expensive. Actually, it’s one of priciest liquids you buy. Ounce-per-ounce, even the cheapest ink (about $13 an ounce) costs more than fine Champagne.

But here’s the real shocker: A lot of that precious ink is wasted and never winds up on the paper.

Consumer Reports discovered that some printers gobble up a significant amount of ink – 50 percent or more – for non-printing functions, such as to clean the print heads.

The extra cost of using a model that guzzles ink for routine maintenance could be as much as $120 a year, the editors estimated.

“We were surprised by the amount of ink some printers used,” said Paul Reynolds, the magazine’s electronics editor.

Consumer Reports investigated the problem of disappearing ink after readers complained that they weren’t getting their money’s worth – fewer copies than the magazine projected based on its rigorous tests.

The magazine’s engineers suspected the problem was caused by intermittent printing. So, they designed a new test to simulate real world conditions – print a few pages now and then, and turn the machine off in-between.

The new test protocol is to print 30 pages of text or color graphics intermittently over a three-week period.

In the lab, Consumer Reports put several dozen big-name all-in-one inkjet printers through their paces. While most of the models used a majority of their ink to actually print, only a few came within striking distance of using it all.

Based on this new testing, Consumer Reports verified the cause, documented the difference between models and figured out how to get more pages per cartridge.

“Our tests confirm that it’s worth paying attention to how much ink is used for cleaning and maintenance and to make that part of your buying consideration,” Reynolds told me.

Consumer Reports says the worst offenders for wasted ink were the HP Officejet Pro 8600 and the Lexmark OfficeEdge Pro 4000.

Brother stood out from the pack. All three of its printers tested were consistently frugal with ink when used intermittently. Consumer Reports named the Brother DCP-J140W at $80 a CR Best Buy.

With the other manufacturers, the amount of maintenance ink used varied widely depending on the brand line. For example, the HP Envy series of printers used relatively little ink for maintenance while HP’s Photosmart series used a lot more.

Good news: You don’t need to sacrifice performance in order to save on ink. Several models that were fine performers were also some of the stingiest with ink used for maintenance.

(Read: The High Cost of Printer Ink from the August issue of Consumer Reports)

Why is so much ink being wasted?
Whenever you power up your printer, it goes through a maintenance and cleaning cycle which uses ink. That’s what’s happening when the printer head moves back and forth after your turn it on.

This intermittent use can burn through more than half the ink in the cartridge. A few of the models tested by Consumer Reports wasted so much that only 20 to 30 percent of the ink landed on paper.

Manufacturers are aware of these results. They told the magazine it’s necessary to use this ink to preserve quality.

Reynolds said he understands this and realizes that every printer cannot be as miserly as the best ones tested. But he said, Consumer Reports believes people should be able to turn their printer on and off without triggering more cleaning and maintenance than is needed.

“If manufacturers can make some printers that are frugal, why can’t they better apply those design lessons to make more models use ink efficiently?” he asked. “We encourage manufacturers to learn from the best models they have and apply that to some of the worst.”

How to squeeze more ink out of those expensive cartridges
There’s no way to directly control the frequency of your printer’s maintenance cycle. That’s determined by each manufacturer. But based on Consumer Reports testing, we know that turning the printer on triggers a maintenance cycle. Obviously, the fewer cycles the better.

That’s why Consumer Reports now suggests you leave the printer on. When they did that with some of the most ink-hogging models, it did noticeably reduced consumption.

Yes, that will use more electricity, but Reynolds said inkjets go into a sleep mode and use very little power when they’re not in use.

“Your ink savings should considerably outweigh the energy cost,” Reynolds assured me.

Other money-saving suggestions from Consumer Reports:

  • Don’t change cartridges unless you must. Whenever you exchange an ink cartridge that still has plenty of ink left for, say, a less-costly off-brand one for less critical work, you trigger an ink-consuming initialization cycle.
  • Print in draft mode for less critical work. This will reduce the amount of ink used in printing (though not the ink used in maintenance). And, don’t print lots of large photographs, especially in high-quality mode, since they use the most ink.
  • Consider buying a laser printer as a second printer for black-and-white, since they don’t use maintenance ink and they print excellent text.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitteror visit The ConsumerMan website.

More from TODAYMoney:

  • Student interest rates just doubled -- what now?
  • Guzzling printers can waste $100 of ink a year
  • 14 best (safest, most reliable) cars for teens
  • Cut back on Champagne and caviar, Jeeves, it's too expensive now!
  • Have you worked for a mortgage servicer? Tell us your story
  • Follow TODAYMoney on Twitter and Facebook

    TOP