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Refilling Ink-Jet Cartridges
Is It Really Worth It?


 
So. . . .  You're thinking about refilling your ink-jet cartridges?

In concept, the idea has merit.  Since you often have a perfectly good cartridge, all it's missing is the ink that used to be in it.  And it makes sense to replace the ink instead of the cartridge.  Or, as one refilling site put it, you wouldn't replace your car just because you ran out of gas.  Right?

One of the points that the cartridge refill sites love to make is that most, (if not all!), ink-jet manufacturers sell cartridges that are woefully short of ink.  To illustrate this point the folks at Printer Filling Station showed the result of a cartridge tear-down.  What these folks did was to take an OEM cartridge that was brand new, right out of the box in its sealed foil packaging, and open it up.  What they discovered was that it was actually less than half-full.

 
Photos courtesy of  http://www.printerfillingstation.com

And that's exactly where the printer manufacturers want it, because when you think about it, the printer manufacturers aren't selling the printer, they're selling the supplies because that's where the huge profits are.  And it's a virtual lead-pipe-cinch that if you have two printers manufactured by the same company, purchased at the same time in the same store. they will not use the same cartridge, unless they're the same model, or you're extremely lucky.  So, you need to stockpile multiple cartridge types if you have multiple printers.

Another kicker is that ink-jet cartridges have a very limited shelf-life, (like six months or so), even if the sealed package is not opened.  If you are smart enough to have spares on hand, and if you bought them more than six months ago, there's a good chance they won't work, or won't work properly.  And that's that.

That being said, this leaves you with the following choices:
 
  • Punt and Go Retro:
    Pen-and-ink, as well as pencil and paper still work, and it's a lot less expensive than any of the other choices.  Not to mention that typewriters can be had for a song at garage sales and flea-markets.
     
  • Abandon ink-jet technology:
    Laser printers are often more cost-effective on a per-page basis, and the supplies don't usually have the shelf-life problems of ink-jet cartridges.  Unfortunately a good laser printer is not cheap, and a cheap laser printer is often not very good.
     
  • Cave in and take your lumps:
    You buy the "Genuine" manufacturers cartridges, (that might be significantly under-filled), at hugely inflated prices.
     
  • Aftermarket Supplies:
    You can buy a "refurbished" cartridge for about half the price of buying one brand-new.  This is an attractive option for those who don't want to mess with refilling cartridges themselves, but don't like the idea of being taken to the cleaners by the ink-jet manufacturers.
     
  • Refill the cartridge yourself:
    You can refill the cartridges on your own and save huge amounts of money.

The last bullet-point brings us to the topic of this post:  Is it really worth it to do manual refills yourself?

 

Like everything else in life, there are two sides to this question, and depending on what your priorities are, refilling cartridges yourself may, or may not, be your cup of tea.  So, let's take a look at the pro's and con's of refilling.

The Good:
 
  • Cost:
    Refilling a cartridge can be significantly less expensive than buying a new one.
    • The folks at Printer Filling Station, sell a refill kit with a full set of inks, (three colors and black), for my HP OfficeJet 6500, right at $40 if you use the pigmented black ink, (which, IMHO, is the best choice), or $35 if you get the "regular" black ink.  Having bought the kit, you can get four, five, or maybe even six refills depending on the cartridge, and the size of the ink bottles you bought.
    • Here's a comparison of "Club" prices for "OEM" 920XL ink for my HP6500 printer:
      • Sam's Club:
        920XL Black two-pack: $61.98
        920XL Color three-pack, (one each of C, Y and M) $51.48
        Total:  $113.46
        ($82.47 based on 1/2 the double cartridge price for the black ink)
        See Search Results Here
      • BJ's:
        920XL Black two-pack: $57.99
        920XL Color three-pack, (one each of C, Y and M) $42.99
        Total:  $100.98
        ($71.99 based on 1/2 the double cartridge price for the black ink)
        See Search Results Here
      • Costco:
        920XL Black two-pack: $61.89
        920XL Color three-pack, (one each of C, Y and M) $41.89
        Total:  $103.87
        ($72.84 based on 1/2 the double cartridge price for the black ink)
        See Search Results Here

       
    • A comparison of non-club retailers for the same supplies:
      • Wall-Mart:
        920XL Black single cartridge pack: $34.48
        920XL Color cartridge single-packs, one each of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow at $15.98 each: $47.94
        Total:  $82.42
        See Search Results Here
      • Best Buy:
        920XL Black single cartridge pack: $34.99
        920XL Color cartridge single-packs, one each of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow at $15.99 each:  $47.97
        Total:  $82.95
        See Search Results Here
      • Staples:
        (They also have a combo pack, one 920XL black, and three standard 920 cartridges for the three colors for $58.89)
        920XL Black single cartridge pack: $34.99
        920XL Color cartridge single-packs, one each of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow at $15.99 each:  $47.97
        Total:  $82.96
        See Search Results Here
         
      • Newegg, Tiger Direct, and OfficeMax had identical pricing to Staples when I checked.
         
      • Micro Center did not stock the "genuine" HP 920xl inks when I checked them.  They did sell refilled cartridges for about half everyone else's OEM cartridge price.
         
      • Some suppliers also sell aftermarket cartridges, but I did not include that information here since I wanted to show the pricing for OEM cartridges.

       
    • Good sites also give you everything you need to refill your cartridges, as well as four bottles of ink - the three colored inks and a bottle of black.  They also give you the support you need to get you "over the hump" of refilling.

     
  • Ecological:
    I like the idea of replacing the ink, not the cartridge, since the cartridges themselves can often be re-used over and over and over again.  By simply replacing the ink, you keep a whole lot of cartridges out of the landfill.

The Bad:
 
  • It's time consuming.  Refilling a cartridge is not something you do in five minutes, or even fifteen minutes.  Especially if you're not experienced or, like me, you don't have the world's steadiest hands.
     
  • It's messy.  Some refill sites will tell you how clean, and easy, refilling is.  Don't you believe it!  When I refill cartridges, I have a big, thick towel to put on the desk, I wear a smock to protect my clothing, and I wear the crappiest, grungiest shirt and pair of pants I own.  And I don't wear good shoes.
     
  • It requires a bit of skill and patience.  Like I said before, this isn't a quick job.  If you want just "plug-and-play" you should go with refilled cartridges, or brand new.
     
  • Your printer might not want to use refilled cartridges.  Most printer manufacturers do NOT want to give up their ink-sale profits, so they program the printer's firmware to be really pissy and anal about cartridges and their replacements.
    • It is not uncommon for your printer to receive an "update" and afterward you discover that the refilled cartridges you have been using for years, stop working.
    • If the printer is totally anal about this, (there are some Epson and Canon models that do this), you can purchase a small electronic tool that resets the cartridges chip to read "full" again.
    • Other cartridges cannot be reset by reasonable means, but you can buy replacement "chips" that you use to replace the existing chip, allowing you to use the cartridge again.

The Ugly:
 
  • Printer manufacturers do not want you to refill your cartridges!  Why?  Consumables are a HUGE source of profits for the printer manufacturers.[1]
    • John Shane, a director at InfoTrends/CAP Ventures and an industry expert on the ink and toner market, had this to say about it on news.cnet.com
       
      The estimated retail value for cartridges used in HP inkjet machines in the United States in 2004 was about $6.3 billion, according to Shane. That's just more than half the $12 billion Shane estimates as the amount for all cartridges for all machines used for desktops last year.
    • This same blog posting has a number of user comments, most of which go something like this:
       
      I am convinced that HP is deliberately doing something to prevent the use of replacement cartridges. My HP Photosmart C4680 rejects replacement cartridges, even ones that go under their specs. I don't know if they're somehow installing something on my machine (especially during any updates) or software installations.
Assuming you have the patience to deal with all of this, then it is possible that refilling cartridges is right for you.

 

So, you want to take a try at refilling?  What's next?

Again, just like everything else, there are things you have to know before you just dive in.
 
  • Get GOOD supplies:
    There are a lot of refill sites, and there are a lot of refill kits available in stores, and most of them are pure junk.  The inks are total crap, the tools stink, and it's just a bad deal all around.
    • The solution is to do your homework, and find a refill site that sells good supplies, and gives you the information you need to make an informed choice.  One of the best I've seen, (and the one I use), is Printer Filling Station.  They're located within the US, (Georgia to be exact), so you don't have to wait for your stuff to come by Hong Kong Post.
    • These guys have the best ink I've seen - and I've seen a bunch.  (And I have the totally ruined shirts and pants to prove it!)
    • Their support is nothing less than amazing.  I had some troubles with some HP 920XL cartridges and Gordon, the "haid-man-boss" down there, was with me the whole way.  Making suggestions, shipping out replacement components; it was like I was dealing with a member of the family, not a merchant in a state hundreds of miles away.
       
  •  Make sure you have a clear and uncluttered work area that can get messy.
    • Despite your best efforts, you will have to deal with some ink going where it does not belong.
      • As a side note, Windex is an excellent solvent/cleaner for ink that goes awry.
    • Wear old clothes, or a smock/apron of some kind and - if you can deal with them - latex/nitrile gloves.
    • Keep rags or paper towels around for general cleanup.
       
  • It is extremely important that you avoid cross-contamination of colors at all costs, since contaminated colors, even slightly contaminated colors, are essentially useless.
    • This is usually accomplished by the use of separate, clearly labeled syringes and needles for each color as well as black, and making sure that the syringes are thoroughly cleaned after use.
    • It is important to make sure that you do not press the syringe plunger all the way down into the barrel of the syringe after cleaning.  Since the plunger will stick, pulling it back about a half inch or so while it is still slightly damp gives you room to push back in the next time you want to use it, freeing the plunger up.  If it is pressed all the way in, it is often impossible to remove the plunger without the rubber tip coming completely off.
       
  • If you are going to be refilling your own cartridges - or buying "reconditioned" cartridges - it is absolutely essential that you do not allow any firmware or software update downloads to your printer.  Despite what the manufacturers say, these updates often have little to do with the "performance" or "quality" of your printer.  Rather they are periodic updates to the firmware so that it will recognize, and reject, refilled cartridges.[1]  HP's own web site says it succinctly:
     
    The HP Cartridge Authentication feature for HP printers helps protect you ["You"?  They mean their 6.3 billion dollar annual profits!!] by checking and verifying the authenticity of each cartridge installed in your printer. HP Cartridge Authentication comes standard with all HP inkjet printers and All-in-Ones.
     
  • It is also important to carefully read, and follow, the instructions provided by whomever supplies the refilling supplies.
Done carefully, with a certain amount of forethought, ink cartridge refilling can be a very economical way to stretch your printing supplies dollar.

What say ye?

Jim (J.R.)

[1]  There are a number of web-sites out there that discuss the practice of printer manufacturers deliberately "killing" replacement cartridges to force you to buy only the higher priced OEM consumables.

Rumors Circulate That Lexmark Firmware Update Locks Out Non-OEM Supplies

http://inkandtonerexperts.com/support/troubleshooting.php where they say:
 
Turn off auto updates - If you have your printer set up to do automatic updates from the printer manufacturer, you need to turn that function "off" or to "manual" instead of automatic. The reason this is important is because some manufacturers have been known to use this software upgrade as a tool to identify refilled cartridges in your printer and "kill" the cartridge(s).
HP says I can't use refilled ink

HP cracks down on cartridge refill industry

Firmware Updates Prevent You from Using Refilled Cartridges
 

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