Five Printer Nightmares and How to Avoid Them

The printer ate your TPS reports, but no excuse matters when you're rushing off to meet clients empty-handed. No wonder everybody loves to hate printers. When you need them most, they'll display a stupefying error message and create a hot mess of jammed paper and spilled ink.

But before you pick up a baseball bat to express your printer rage, take a deep breath. With some patience and attention, you can probably overcome the printer problem that vexes you--and avoid having the nightmare recur in the future. Here's how to address five of the most common printer complaints.

1. Paper Jams

Printer jams occur when the paper feeding through the printer goes awry. Sometimes the printer ignores the problem, soldiers onward, and extrudes a crumpled mess into the output tray; on other occasions, the printer stops in midjob, and the crumpled mess--or part of it--remains trapped somewhere inside the machine.

When a paper jam occurs, some printers flash lights at you and scream for help. Others sense where the jam is and provide guidance on clearing the blockage. If your printer offers diagnostic advice, follow it. Also, take time to check the printer's documentation for help in clearing jams. Here are the basic steps you'll follow to correct the problem:

Turn off the printer. If you're going to be working inside the printer, you don't want any trouble with electricity or moving parts. And if you're dealing with a laser printer, you also don't want the fuser to generate additional heat. If the paper is jammed in or near the fuser unit (you'll feel the heat as you come near it), you'll have to wait for the fuser to cool off before clearing the jam.

Open all doors leading to the paper path. If you can't tell which door leads to the paper jam, start by removing or opening the input tray and following the paper path all the way to the output tray, opening every door or panel that you can find along the way.

Carefully pull out paper sheets and scraps. Check for paper sheets that are stuck or askew, as well as for paper scraps. Pull paper out of the path firmly but very carefully and slowly. When possible, pull paper in the direction it is supposed to go in under normal conditions--not backward, which could strain the printer's mechanics.Take care to remove all of the paper: As any scraps that remain could cause further jamming. If you have the misfortune of breaking a mechanical piece in the printer, stop what you're doing and call for service.

Close all doors and turn on the printer. Once switched on, the printer should reset itself automatically. If the printer reports that it is still jammed, double-check for stray paper scraps, and then close all the doors again. If the printer continues to complain, try turning it off and then back on. If the complaints continue, you'll have to call for service--and hope that a deep-seated piece of paper--rather than a broken mechanical part--is the source of the problem.

How do I avoid this next time? As in most relationships, good communication and kind treatment will help your interaction with your printer go smoothly. Use only one kind of paper at a time in your input tray. Whether you have a single input tray in your printer's driver or many input trays, tell the printer what kind of paper you have in the tray: Most printer controls include a section or drop-down list where you can pick a paper by name, type, thickness, or other quality. If you aren't sure whether your printer takes a certain kind of paper, check its documentation. When you reload your input tray, pay attention to the tray's needs, such as how the paper should be loaded and whether the length or width guides need adjusting.

In Video: How to Choose the Right Printer

2. Stuck in the Print Queue

Regardless of how sophisticated it is, a printer can print only one job at a time. Sometimes a job will get held up for some reason and block every job behind it. If you've confirmed that the printer hasn't stalled for a mechanical reason, such as a jam or a lack of paper, toner, or ink, check the print queue to see whether a specific job in front of yours might be the culprit.

If your printer is not networked: If your computer has a dedicated printer associated with it, you can get to the print queue directly. On Windows, access is through the Control Panel's Printers program item; on a Mac, it's through the Utilities' Print & Fax program item. Any stuck jobs will be listed there, and you can easily cancel them.

If your printer is on a network: On a networked queue, you have control only over the jobs that you send from your own PC. If another person's job is the problem, you must either contact them for help or ask your IS department to intervene.

How do I avoid this next time? If the print queue clogs up regularly, your IT staff needs to figure out why it's happening and then address the root cause. Common problems include trying to print a job whose file size is so large that it chokes the network or your printer's memory; trying to print to a special kind of paper--such as letterhead--without loading the paper or specifying the tray in which it's loaded; and requesting a print job that requires you (or some other user) to feed the paper manually, but failing to perform this step.

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