Become a pro at laser printer repair

Focusing on the HP LaserJet 4000 series, Steven Pittsley passes on some tips and tricks for solving laser printer problems. He also covers some general problems and solutions that will apply to most laser printers, including paper jams and error codes.

Printer repair might be the least favorite activity of support technicians. Most support techs will tell you, however, that the job of servicing laser printers might not be glamorous, but knowing how to do it can make you a valuable asset to the organization. That said, allow me to show you some tricks of the trade for printer maintenance and service.

Author's note
Because there are so many different makes and models of printers available, I will use the popular Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 4000 series of printers in my scenarios. While some specific examples I give may not be exactly the same for your model of printer, the concepts should be quite similar.

The basic components of the laser printer
Despite the horror stories that seem to get worse at each telling, laser printers are actually very simple devices to service and work with. In general, printers are made up of many subassemblies working together to put an image onto a piece of paper. When one subassembly isn’t working correctly, you can usually replace it, and the printer will once again work like new.

Regardless of the make and model of your printer, it will have at least one paper tray, a manual feed tray that allows you to use odd-sized or colored paper, a toner cartridge, a fuser, an output bin, and onboard RAM. Other subassemblies include a formatter, motor, power supply, display panel, frame, and covers. The printer will also have a designated paper path that contains rollers to move the paper as it travels through the printer from the paper tray to the output bin.

While printers are mechanical in nature, you usually won’t be taking apart the subassemblies, just replacing them using basic hand tools like screwdrivers, pliers, and the occasional wrench. In fact, I’ve found that a multipurpose tool, such as the Leatherman Super Tool, can handle most of the common fixes, so you won’t have to tote around a whole tool kit.

Using the printer's menu
Modern laser printers boast some outstanding features incorporated to help you troubleshoot problems. Even the most rudimentary laser printer has a button that allows you to print a demo page to ensure that the paper path is clear and that the printer is capable of printing properly formatted output.

Like most high-end printers, the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 4000 has a display screen and menu system that allow you to configure the printer. It also comes in handy for troubleshooting. The menus consist of the Information menu, Paper Handling menu, Print Quality menu, Printing menu, Configuration menu, Input/Output (I/O) menu, Enhanced Input/Output (EIO) menu, and Resets menu. Each menu contains several items that either perform an action or allow you to configure a feature on the printer.

The LaserJet 4000’s control panel contains four buttons for navigating the various menus. These buttons are Menu, Item, Value, and Select. To enter the menu systems, press the Menu button. The display will show the menu or item that you are currently using. To select an item from the menu, press the Item button. If the item allows you to perform an action, such as printing a configuration page, you can press the Select button to initiate the request. If you want to select a new value for an item, press the Value button until the appropriate selection is displayed and then press the Select button to change the value.

If you would like to see the current settings of the LaserJet 4000’s configuration, you can print a menu map, which shows each menu, item, and value on the report. To list the map, press the Menu button and then press the Item button until Print Menu Map is displayed. When you press the Select button, the menu map will be printed.

You can also use the menu to print a configuration page by pressing the Item button until Print Configuration is displayed. Then press the Select button. This configuration page will give you information on the printer’s serial number, the status of accessories, such as an internal JetDirect card, and a brief error log. By printing this page, you will also be testing the paper path and printing capability of the printer.

The LaserJet 4000 also keeps an event log that shows the last 30 errors that occurred on the printer. The page count is also displayed on the report, allowing you to determine how often an error has occurred and whether or not it has occurred recently. To print the event log, navigate through the Information menu to Print Event Log and then press the Select button.

You can test the paper path with the Print Paper Path Test item found on the Configuration menu. After selecting the item, use the Value button to select a 10-, 50-, or 100-page test. Then press the Select button to begin the test.

Clearing paper jams
The most common printer problem is the paper jam. Moving a very thin piece of paper through a mechanical device requires great precision. Things like worn rollers or small scraps of paper can quickly erode these engineering marvels and cause the paper to get stuck or tear.

Usually, paper jams are easy to locate and fix. In the case of the Hewlett-Packard 4000, the display will show the 13.x Paper Jam message and specify the location of the sensor that has detected the paper jam allowing you to quickly locate and clear the jam. For example, a 13.01 Paper Jam message means that there is a paper feed problem in the input tray area, and a 13.05 Paper Jam message indicates a jam in the fuser area.

Some of the more common areas to find paper jams in laser printers are the paper trays, the area near the toner cartridge, the fuser, the output bin, and any location where the paper makes contact with a roller or bends. Also, optional items such as envelope feeders, duplexers, and additional paper trays are notorious for causing paper jams.

When you locate a paper jam, take a look around the area before removing the paper to see if you can determine what caused the jam to occur. Look for paper scraps, parts that have become loose or were inadvertently removed, or parts that may have been installed incorrectly, like a toner cartridge. When you remove the paper, be sure to pull it out slowly so you don’t tear the page. If the paper is in several pieces, make sure that you have removed them all, or the remaining pieces will cause another jam.

If you are unable to visually determine what is causing the jam, you can take a few steps to help isolate the problem. An easy way to make sure the toner, fuser, and output assembly are working correctly is to print using the manual feed tray. Doing so will ensure that the other components are working correctly. If the page prints out okay, the problem is probably in an area between the paper trays and the toner cartridge.

If you have more than one paper tray in the printer, remove all of the trays except one and print some test pages to see if the jam still occurs. Continue to print from each tray until you have narrowed down where the problem might be. If the printer has additional components such as an envelope feeder or duplexer, remove them until you can locate the source of the jam. Occasionally, one of these components will cause paper jams. Often the duplexer is the culprit.

Another area where paper jams occur is with the roller mechanism that moves the paper through the printer. Over time, these rollers become glazed and slippery, allowing the paper to feed erratically or not at all. Also, printers used to produce labels often end up with rollers that become sticky because labels have gotten stuck on the rollers. Since the input rollers and output bin rollers are used the most, they will often wear out. If your printer is experiencing frequent paper jams near a particular roller, consider changing it. Rollers are generally inexpensive and easy to replace.

Paper jams can also be caused by environmental problems such as high humidity or static. These two issues cause paper to stick together more than normal and can cause paper-feed jams in the paper input area. In addition, paper that has been in a paper tray for a while may also stick together, especially on smaller printers that feed the paper into the printer vertically, like in the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 1100.

The good news about paper jams is that you can take some simple, proactive steps to eliminate a great majority of them. First, ensure that you are using high-quality paper made for a laser printer and not copiers. While you may save a few dollars on cheaper paper, using good quality 20-pound paper will reduce the number of paper jams you will be called on to fix. If you have any doubt as to what type of paper to use in your HP laser printer, you can request a copy of the free HP paper specification guide. If you are using a different printer manufacturer, you should be able to contact its support division for advice.

Routine cleaning of the printer will also eliminate printer problems. It should only take a few minutes each time and will definitely reduce the number of paper jams. You should remove scraps of paper and dust that accumulate inside the printer with compressed air or a vacuum cleaner. You should also check for bad rollers and run a few test pages to verify that the output is free from smudges, streaks, and spots. Printing a sheet with very little type or images on it should help you locate these types of problems.

Other types of error messages
A somewhat common problem on the LaserJet 4000 is the 50.x Fuser Error message indicating a problem with the fuser. You can power the printer off for about 20 minutes and see if this resolves the problem, but usually this message means that you need to install a new fuser. If you check the page count and the printer is due for a maintenance kit, you may want to go ahead and install one. This kit takes only a few minutes to install and includes paper tray rollers, a manual tray feed roller, transfer roller, and fuser. To reset the page count to 0, hold down the Item and Value buttons when you turn on the printer.

The 62.x Printer Error alerts you to a problem with the printer’s onboard RAM. The value of x reflects the number of the actual DIMM slot where the problem occurred, making it easy for you to determine which DIMM to replace.

If your laser printer doesn’t have much RAM, occasionally a page will be sent to it that it cannot interpret, causing the 21 Page Too Complex and Press Go To Continue messages to be alternately displayed. To clear these messages, you can press the Cancel Job button or change the Configuration menu item Page Protect value to On. Temporarily changing this value will allow the job to be printed without losing data, although it may not be formatted correctly. After the job prints, change the value back to Auto so that the printer’s performance does not degrade.

While the error messages that your specific model of printer displays may be different, the problems shown in this section are quite common for most of today’s laser printers.

Printer maintenance messages
Many printers keep a page count of the total number of pages that have been printed by the device. Not only is this a useful feature for determining usage but it also allows the printer to notify you when certain components such as rollers and the fuser should be replaced.

For example, the HP 4000 requires maintenance to be performed every 150,000 pages. When the printer reaches this page count, it displays the Perform Printer Maintenance message. You should then order and install a printer maintenance kit. Replacing the components in this kit according to the manufacturer’s recommendation will give your printer a healthy tune-up and cut down on future service calls.

Learning the many components of your company’s laser printers, such as the printer menu options, will help you quickly identify and locate problems. You can also access the manufacturer’s Web site for additional support information. If your company uses HP printers, there is an excellent HP support page that contains areas to download drivers, ask questions, and order replacement parts. While not all manufacturers have great support sites, most provide helpful technical information for their printers when you contact them.

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