Five Printer Nightmares and How to Avoid Them

3. Spilled Toner or Ink

Printer toner and ink are formulated to spread, adhere, and last--but that's supposed to happen on paper, not on the floor.

Set the Right Toner

Toner can spill inside the printer during regular use, or it can spill onto surfaces, clothing, skin, or carpets when you're replacing a cartridge.

Basic Precautions

  • Keep spilled toner dry and contained.
  • Do not use hot water, cold water, or heat for cleanup; use any general cleaning solution with caution.
  • Do not use a conventional household vacuum cleaner, as it might blow the toner out the back.
  • Avoid inhaling the toner.

Three Basic Ways to Remove Spilled Toner

  • For spills on hard, smooth surfaces, you can use a disposable sweeping device (cardboard, paper or envelope, paper towel) to sweep the toner carefully into a plastic bag or other sealable receptacle for disposal.
  • Special toner-cleaning cloths use static to attract the toner for easy wiping. Regular paper towels or cotton towels will also work adequately.
  • A special toner vacuum is the only kind of vacuum you should consider using. It has attachments designed to reach into small spaces and to pull toner from the interior of a printer or from an unlucky area of carpet, along with a receptacle designed to trap very small particles.

How do I avoid this next time? Handle toner cartridges carefully, especially during insertion and removal. Before working with toner cartridges, protect surrounding areas from spills by covering them with newsprint or paper towels.

Don't Cry Over Spilled Ink

It's unusual for ink to spill from a cartridge unless the cartridge has been punctured, cracked, squeezed, or crushed. A refilled cartridge may be more susceptible to leaking or spilling; handle it carefully.

Online advice about cleaning up printer ink spills recommends using substances ranging from rubbing alcohol to WD-40 to hairspray to bleach. The effectiveness of these nostrums will depend on where the ink landed, as well as on the ink's chemical content.

A common-sense approach would be to handle spills quickly yet cautiously, starting with basic cleaning procedures and escalating as necessity dictates. Before applying any cleaning substance over a large area, test it to ensure that it doesn't cause damage of its own.

First step in all cases: Blot spilled ink with an absorbent cloth or paper towel.

Ink on skin: Use soap and water to clean further. If ink remains (and it probably will) try scrubbing. Use additional solutions on your skin cautiously--and at your own discretion.

Ink on fabric or carpet: With soap and water, brush the stain using an upward-inward motion--upward so as not to push the ink deeper into the fabric, and inward so as not to spread the stain across a wider area. Use additional cleaning solutions with caution.

Ink on hard surfaces: If a stain remains after blotting, try another method or cleaner that is appropriate to the particular surface.

Ink in the printer: This is a messy job, and the outcome of your efforts is uncertain.

  • First, turn off the printer, if you can. If the printer offers access the cartridges only when it is on, keep it on for now. Check the ink cartridges. If the offending ink cartridge is still in the printer, you must decide whether the spill is likely to be worse if you leave the cartridge where it is or if you remove it. Do whatever you can to minimize further spillage while you clean.
  • Turn off the printer now if you haven't already done so, access its interior, and find and remove as much spillage as you can through blotting. Then use rubbing alcohol and lint-free cloths to clean further, taking care not to get anything stuck in the printer.
  • Run a test page and check for evidence of leftover ink, such as splotches or continuous streaks on the page. Observe the printer as it operates to ensure that it is acting normally again.
  • If you're lucky, everything will be fine after you run pages through the printer so the spilled ink can print itself out. If you're unlucky, ink that you couldn't remove will lead to further damage.

How do I avoid this next time? Handle ink cartridges carefully, especially if they're refills, and especially during insertion and removal. If you're spill-prone, use newspaper or paper towels to protect the surrounding area.

4. Power Loss in the Middle of a Print Job

If this ever happens to you, you can treat it as if it were a special kind of paper jam.

Turn off the printer. You don't want its parts to start churning unexpectedly while you're working on recovery.

Clear the paper path. Remove any paper that's stuck in midprint.

Turn on the printer (assuming that power to the machine is restored). As the printer initializes, check for error messages or odd noises that might indicate a malfunction or internal damage. If you have a laser or LED printer, check the documentation for a maintenance routine you can use to clean untransferred toner from the drum. An inkjet cartridge that stopped in midsquirt may require cleaning. Run a test page and check the output for stains, streaks, and other abnormalities. Consult your printer's documentation for further troubleshooting guidance.

How do I avoid this next time? The odds that a printer will turn off on its own are low. If power outages are relatively frequent in your area, plug your printer into a UPS device so that it can finish printing and power down normally the next time the electricity fails.

5. Printing on the Wrong Side of Photo Paper

Photograph: Marc Simon
You wait eagerly for your photo to come out of the printer, but what you get is big splotches of ink sitting--and not drying--on the wrong side of the photo paper.

Cancel the print job if you can. This is especially important if your print job calls for printing multiple sheets of photos, as each wrong-way sheet will just add to the mess.

Remove the paper carefully, making sure that the ink doesn't run. Avoid getting it on your hands by wearing gloves or by using a napkin or paper towel to handle the paper.

Throw the whole thing away. Yes, you'll have to say goodbye to that expensive piece of paper and all that costly ink.

How do I avoid this next time? Check the printer's documentation and tray markings to make certain that you are inserting the photo paper correctly.

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