Inkjet printers aren’t nearly as complex as laser printers; therefore, there’s less that can go wrong with them. On the flip side, many inkjet printers sell for well under $100 and just aren’t built to last. The vast majority of problems with inkjet printers involve either communications problems or problems with print quality. Here are a few solutions to the most common inkjet printer problems.

A word to the wise

Before I get started, I’d like to point out that this article is intended only to assist with basic printer repair and maintenance. If you’re unsure of your ability to perform any sort of printer repair, or if performing such repairs will void the printer’s warranty, you should contact a qualified service professional or the manufacturer.

Print quality and the print head
By far the most common problem with inkjet printers is poor print quality. Usually, these problems manifest themselves in the form of horizontal white lines running through each line of print. These white lines are caused by clogged nozzles that aren’t dispensing ink. Some printer manufacturers are trying to solve this problem by incorporating the print head into the ink cartridge. By doing so, each time you get a new ink cartridge, you also get a new print head.

Replacing the print head along with the ink cartridge may sound like a good solution at first, but what happens if you are using a printer that doesn’t have a disposable print head, or if your ink cartridges aren’t ready to change yet?

Cleaning the print head
In such cases, you can sometimes fix the problem by using a cotton swab to rub alcohol on the surface of the print head. Alcohol is a solvent and will usually help to dissolve any ink buildup that might be clogging the print head. After cleaning the print head with alcohol, I usually use a paper towel to gently wipe any excess ink off of the print head. When you’re done manually cleaning the print head, turn the printer on and run the printer’s built-in cleaning process. The method for initiating the cleaning mode varies widely between printer models, so you’ll have to check your manufacturer’s recommendations to see how to initiate the cleaning mode on your particular printer.

Read all about it!

For more printer troubleshooting tips, check out these other articles from Brien Posey:

Check the print head ribbon
Occasionally, you may run into a situation in which cleaning a print head doesn’t fix the problem. There are a few other things that can cause the white lines besides just a dirty print head. One other possibility is that some of the printing instructions may not be making it to the print head. Although I’ve never seen this occur on a newer printer, it’s not at all uncommon for the print head ribbon to work its way partially loose on some older printers. If you’re trying to fix an older inkjet printer, make sure that the print head ribbon is secured firmly to the print head. You can see the print head ribbon in Figure A. The ribbon is the wide gray cable connecting the print head to the printer’s system board.

Figure A
On some older printers, the print head ribbon has a tendency to come loose.

Paper dust
Another thing that can cause the white lines that I described earlier is paper dust interfering with an electrical connection. You may have noticed that a print cartridge contains potentially dozens of electrical contact points, as shown in Figure B. When a printer is very heavily used, paper dust can sometimes work its way in-between the print cartridge and the cartridge housing. This dust can interfere with the printer’s ability to send instructions to the print cartridge. To remove the dust, unplug the printer and clean the print head’s electrical contacts with alcohol. Make sure that the alcohol has dried completely before reinserting the ink cartridge or plugging the printer back in.

Figure B
You can sometimes fix a printing problem by cleaning the print head’s electrical contacts.

If all of these techniques fail to fix the problem, then there’s a good chance that a mechanism inside of the print head has gone bad, and the print head will need to be replaced.

A failure to communicate
The other major cause of inkjet printer malfunctions is communications failures. Inkjet printers are susceptible to the same sort of communications problems as any other printer. Therefore, if your printer is printing gibberish, or nothing at all, turn off the printer and the PC to which it is connected. Verify that all cables are tight and that the printer is getting power. Turn the printer back on and then the PC. Most of the time, this will fix any sort of communications problems that might be present.

Inkjet in the enterprise

With high-capacity, network laser printers dropping in price, do inkjet printers still have a place in the enterprise? Can inkjet printers serve adequately as local printers under the right conditions? Post a comment to this article and tell us what you think about inkjet printers in the enterprise or write to Brien Posey and share your thoughts on this article.