Why I Don’t Fix Printers

I get this question all the time: “Do you fix printers?” My pat answer to that question is “No”, because most of the printers I’m asked to look at are cheaper to replace than to have me fix, and the few that aren’t require special training and access to dealer/authorized servicer parts that I simply can’t get. That said, many SOHO printers can actually be fixed without breaking the bank, but only if you have the basic repair skills and time to do it yourself, and if your time wouldn’t be better spent doing something else.

I will illustrate this by relating my recent experience fixing my own printer, a Canon MAXIFY MB5120. In short, this printer is a beefed-up inkjet all-in-one that offers faster-than-average printing and scanning, better-than-average paper handling, automatic duplex printing and scanning and a host of networking options that make it accessible to all my devices, whether they’re computers, tablets or phones, both at home and via the Internet. But at the heart of all that, it’s still an inkjet printer, and it’s subject to the same problems that affect all inkjet printers. The most common of those problems is clogging of the print head, and that’s exactly what happened to my MB5120.

Inkjet print heads get clogged for many reasons. Most often, the cause is disuse. Printer ink is a liquid that gets sprayed on the page by the print head (in a highly ordered way, of course, so as to make clear, sharp, full-color printouts with crisp text) and dries there to make the printout permanent. Obviously, in order for the ink to dry before you get a chance to smear the printout, it needs to be formulated to dry very quickly when exposed to air. But as an old, possibly obscure song says, “The air, the air is everywhere.” That includes inside your printer, just outside of the print head. If left undisturbed long enough, that ink just inside the print head will dry out and harden, clogging the head. That’s why inkjet printer experts advise users to print, and print often, preferably in full color. (That’s right — that setting your boss wants you to use to print monochrome on your office’s color laser printer to save money on toner? That’s false economy if you do it with your inkjet printer at home.) I’ve heard a lot of recommendations about exactly how much you really need to print, but a good guideline is at least 5 full color pages per week.

I’m familiar with that guideline, and I have plenty to print on my printer, so lack of full color page printouts wasn’t the reason why my printer’s head clogged. Other possible reasons include poorly formulated ink (possibly a factor in my case, as I unabashedly use compatible ink tanks that I buy online instead of expensive, genuine Canon brand ink), the trend towards ever-tinier ink nozzles to get those increasingly sharp inkjet printouts, and poor overall print head design. Canon and I will disagree on this, no doubt, but I have good reason to suspect that those latter two potential causes may have come into play in my case. But at least Canon gave my MB5120 a print head that can be removed (with effort) and cleaned or replaced if necessary. At least one other manufacturer whose printers I have owned makes it next to impossible to remove their print heads. I will leave them nameless for the time being.

After the clogged yellow nozzles were diagnosed, and the Canon-ized (sorry, couldn’t resist) fixes of cleaning and then deep-cleaning the print head via the menu had been tried fruitlessly, I began warming myself up mentally to the messy and somewhat time-consuming task of removing and cleaning the print head. This would not be my first time doing this; part of why I was so reluctant was because I knew I would be spending 2-4 hours between actually fixing the thing and trying not to get ink all over the place; the latter is the part I find most daunting.

For my Canon MAXIFY MB5120, the tools for the job include a #1 Phillips head screwdriver, a small, plastic container, some Windex window cleaner, some water, some paper towels, a spray can of 100% isopropyl alcohol (sold at Micro Center, for cleaning electronics) and a lot of patience. I’m not going to get into a lot of detail, because the detailed procedure would only help you if you own a Canon MAXIFY MB5120 or one of its MAXIFY MB series siblings. (They are mostly sold online, and, therefore, are not very popular.) There is a lot of variation in the way printers are put together. If you want specific instructions for working on your own printer’s print head, I recommend searching for your printer model on YouTube, iFixIt.com or both.

For my printer, the first step is removing the ink tanks, which takes a bit of ballet with turning the printer off, turning it back on and unplugging when you hear the print head do its power-on self-test sweep, because Canon, in an apparent attempt to protect us from ourselves, did not provide a menu-driven means of removing an ink tank before the printer detects that it’s empty. The second part of beating that “safeguard” is manually turning a plastic gear inside the printer in order to activate the cartridge eject mechanism. I had to do this four times, once for each ink tank. After the ink tanks are removed, out comes a clipped-in plastic shield. Now I have access to the print head, but before I can operate the lever that releases it, I must remove two hard-to-reach screws that are there because… well, apparently, because Canon thought it was a good idea. (Anti-magnetic screws in a recessed location just above a spot where the only place they can fall is into the innards of the printer? Really, Canon?!?)

With the print head finally out of the printer, my next step was to give the print head a several-hour soak in what amounts to a sitz bath of a 50/50 mix of Windex and water. Ideally, I would be using a solvent specially made for cleaning inkjet print heads. Also, ideally, I would be using a sort of syringe with a short hose made specifically to fit on the print heads ink input ports. And at very least, it would be best if I were using distilled water for mixing with the Windex and flushing later. But, again, I don’t fix printers on a regular basis, so I don’t have those things. So, a sitz bath of tap water and Windex would just have to do, followed by a careful water rinse, trying to blow it out with the spray alcohol, and then an overnight dry-out period of just sitting on a pad of paper towels.

Fast-forward to the morning, and I reverse the print head removal procedure to put the head back in the printer and reinstall the ink tanks. But the process isn’t over yet, because remember that those print heads are supposed to be made to help prevent the problem I was trying to fix in the first place. In other words, no matter how hard you try to dry the print head out, there’s going to be some water and solvent trapped inside. That’s probably for the best, if you think about it, because loosening and flushing out as much dried ink as possible from the print head, only to have something else dry in there and clog it, would be a bad thing. But until all remaining water and solvent are flushed out, your printouts are going to be fuzzy, prone to smearing, and possibly dripping. So, the first thing I did after putting it all back together was a print head Deep Cleaning via the menu. Since that basically tells the printer to flush out the print head with a substantial amount of ink, that should have been just the ticket for flushing out the leftover solvent. After the Deep Cleaning was done, I printed a test pattern and… seeing that I was still getting very little yellow ink in the test pattern, I did another Deep Cleaning. This time, the test pattern looked a lot better — not perfect, but at least passable — so, the next step was to start printing every full-color e-mail in my Inbox to make sure that ink got flowing and displaced any solvent still left in there. I should probably print another 50 pages or so before I attempt any photographs.

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of why I don’t fix printers. My Canon MAXIFY MB5120 would have cost about $200 to replace. At what I charge clients per hour, the 2-4 hours it would take for me to do something like this to your average printer would end up costing close to $200, and maybe more, and most of my clients with inkjet printers have models that cost less than mine. Note that most of the YouTube videos that show how to fix printers are made by technicians who live in countries other than the United States. In the US, computer hardware is cheap compared to labor. In many other countries, hardware is more expensive, and people are paid less, so repair is a more attractive option. But not here. So, why did I go to the trouble of cleaning my own printer’s print head? Let’s just suffice to say that due to circumstances beyond my control, it made more sense to take the time to fix it than to go shopping for a new one.

But, what about other kinds of printers? In the US, expensive laser printers and office copiers are worth fixing. In fact, many offices have service contracts for their copiers, because they can be very expensive to service. But I don’t handle those, either, because, as said earlier, fixing those requires special training and access to parts that I can’t get.