Although many organizations are progressing toward paperless environments, don’t count the laser printer out just yet. Far into the foreseeable future, IT support professionals will be called upon to replace toner cartridges, clear paper jams, and unscramble garbled text. To help you improve your laser printer prowess, here’s a look at the two most common categories of laser printer problems: image quality problems and pure gibberish.

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Image quality
Faded print
Perhaps the most common image quality problem is when a printed page appears faded in some areas. People traditionally associate this problem with the printer being low on toner, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

Because toner is a powder, if the printer is moved around or isn’t sitting level, it’s possible for the toner inside the cartridge to accumulate at one end of the cartridge. Assuming that you aren’t really low on toner, you can solve the faded page problem by removing the toner cartridge, rocking it back and forth to evenly distribute the toner, and then reinserting the cartridge.

Clumps of toner
Another common problem is that there may be clumps of toner on the printed page. This problem is typically caused when a printer is overworked and hasn’t been cleaned in a while. Excess toner accumulates in the printer, where it eventually manages to get on the paper and pass through the fuser. A leaky toner cartridge can also cause the problem. You can usually fix it by checking the toner cartridge for leaks and by cleaning the printer. For some of the higher-end printers, this may mean installing a printer maintenance kit.

Black dots
Another problem that can be caused by toner buildup is black dots on the printed page. With this problem, there will usually be a row of evenly spaced black dots trailing down the page. This happens when toner permanently sticks to the drum, or when the drum has a spot that is damaged in some other way. Since many printers have the drum built in to the toner cartridge, you can usually solve the problem by changing the cartridge.

Blank spots
Still another print quality problem occurs when small areas on the printed page are completely blank. Sometimes this problem can be attributed to a damaged fuser. Because the fuser consists of wax rollers, it can be easily damaged by staples, paper clips, or a number of other things that I’ve seen fed through printers. In one case, I even saw an extremely bad paper jam total a fuser. If you suspect a problem with the fuser, it’s time to call your hardware service provider.

Darn those bad drivers
The most common cause of gibberish is using the wrong printer driver. For example, if you use a driver for an inkjet printer to print to a laser printer, the resulting print will be gibberish. This will also be the case if you send postscript codes to a printer that doesn’t support postscript printing.

But why do you sometimes get gibberish even when you’re using the right driver? Laser printers hold a print job in memory until the entire page has been received before printing that page. If the person who printed before you used the wrong driver, then it’s likely that some remnants of that print job remain in memory. When you send your print job, your job is appended to what’s already in the printer’s memory, resulting in gibberish. The standard solution to this problem is to reboot the printer.

Other causes of gibberish
Occasionally, you may run into a situation in which no one has used a bad driver, but the printer is spewing out garbage anyway. There are several reasons why this can happen. One is that the printer cable is loose (this usually only applies to parallel printing). Check both ends of the cable, reboot the printer, and then reboot the PC that’s hosting the printer.

I’ve also seen situations in which a printer’s system board has gone bad. Power surges can damage a printer to the point where the printer never completely stops working, but it doesn’t print anything readable. Most of the time you can run a printer’s built-in diagnostic tests and print a test page to determine if this is the case. If the printer can’t even print the built-in test page, then it’s usually safe to say that the system board is bad. In such a case, you should contact your hardware vendor for service.

Calling all laser printer masters

Are you a laser printer whiz? Can you spot a paper jam or hear a low-toner alarm from three offices away? If so, we want to know your secrets. Post a comment to this article and share your laser printer tips.