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Surviving a Clogged Cartridge

By Mike Pasini, Editor
Imaging Resource Newsletter

It may have been a dull week for some, as the digicam world charged its batteries for Seybold San Francisco, but we had quite an adventure. The color cartridge in our inkjet ran out of yellow.

We use our Nameless Inkjet infrequently, and are old hands at unclogging the jets, but we found the whole experience a great deal more annoying than it had to be this time. Especially since we were testing a new paper. So we thought we'd tell you the story. The whole story and nothing but the story.

Where's that guy with the conch shell?

Who's on First?

"Whatever kind of cartridge your printer has, the first thing to do with clogged heads is to use the printer's own cleaning routine to unclog them."

We opened our photo of an antique tea set on a hand-painted Polish tablecloth and fiddled a bit with it, until we were happy enough to print it. A few minutes later, we looked at the printout and blinked our eyes in disbelief. The warm, persimmon tones of the bone china had turned into the cool, ice cube colors of an igloo.

A loupe confirmed the obvious: We had magenta, we had cyan, we had black, but we had no bananas today. Without yellow, the image was doomed.

Our survival instincts took over immediately. Vote this baby off the island.

But buying a new printer is a little drastic, even if it is always our first reaction. How about a little diagnosis?

OK, is this a computer problem? The quick way to rule out the computer (it can take a while to go through the operating system, color calibration, printer drivers, driver settings, etc.) is to use the printer's own self test. Asking the printer to print by itself might rule out anything going on in the computer.

And, in our case, it did. But if our printer's self-test had looked as gorgeous as the one we printed the day we bought it, or at least the one when we last changed cartridges, we'd have gone back to our computer for the solution.

It's a great diagnostic tool to have -- a sample printout from your new printer or cartridge -- so don't skip it, and put it somewhere you can find it in an emergency.

Just for fun, we visited to make sure we had the latest drivers (we didn't) and to check the Support section, and to see if they had any FAQ that might help (they didn't). If you don't drop by the manufacturer's Web site when you have a problem, we figured, when would you? So, at least we got the latest driver.

Jets Not Taking Off

Having isolated the problem to the printer, we confessed it had been a good long time since we'd turned the printer on (over a month), and we've had some cold (and very hot) days here recently. Ideal conditions for clogging the print head.

Now what exactly do we mean by "print head?" We're talking about the nozzles that spit ink onto the paper. Printer design varies. Your printer, particularly if it's an Epson, may separate the ink cartridge from the print head, keeping the print head in the printer and making it no simple task to clean. Other printers use cartridges that contain the print head, so replacing the cartridge gets you brand new, unclogged print heads.

Both kinds of heads can get clogged.

Especially, we should point out, if you are in the habit of powering your printer on from a power strip rather than its own power button. Using the printer power button will ensure the print heads are properly parked at the "service station" during shutdown. That seals them from evaporation. Leaving them exposed to the air for as little as 30 minutes can clog them.

Shutting down from a power strip can also persuade your printer that it has suffered a power outage of some kind. It may feel obliged to cycle itself, spitting out a blank sheet of paper, when you next turn it on.

But back to the chase. As it happens, the Nameless uses the kind of cartridge that includes print heads.

Whatever kind of cartridge your printer has, the first thing to do with clogged heads is to use the printer's own cleaning routine to unclog them. This may be a button on the printer, or an option in the printer driver software.

This routine spits out a lot of ink. And even more if you have to repeat it. But it's always worth trying. And it's usually all we have to do.

It didn't help.


Desperation is the Mother of . . .

We reasoned (desperate for a new approach) that with only yellow missing, there was no sense cleaning the black, magenta, and cyan nozzles. So we created a new CMYK document and filled a big rectangle with 100 percent yellow and no black, cyan, or magenta.

Just to prove the image had been printed, we added a line of 100 percent magenta.

And then we printed it . . . getting nothing but a line of magenta. Several times.

At this point we took a leap of faith and put in a new color cartridge. With, surprisingly, the same results. No yellow.

But rather than revert to our survival instincts, we decided to experiment with the old cartridge. First we made sure the electrical contacts were clean. And left the printer on and waited a few hours.

"A loupe confirmed the obvious: We had magenta, we had cyan, we had black, but we had no bananas today."

We'd read somewhere that letting the cartridge come up to room temperature (which could take four hours) with the printer on might help. The fact that it was room temperature to begin with didn't impress us, because it's a cold room. Not refrigerated, really, but drafty. The whole place is drafty, come to think of it.

This actually helped.

After a couple of hours, the printer made a desperate little striped pattern of yellow in our box. No bananas yet, but we could smell them.

And a little while later, the pattern was filled in enough for us to try our print again.

We were delighted to see the persimmon pop out -- for the first inch of the print. Then, the cartridge really did run out of yellow ink.

Why isn't there a law that all inkjets must tell you how much ink is left in the cartridges?

The Drawing Board

You can: a) always find more yellow at the drawing board, and b) dream about finding more yellow, too. So before going back to the drawing board, we went to bed. Sleep on it, we reasoned.

In the morning, after a scientifically extracted cup of espresso, we got technical. We hit the Web sites pretending to know.

And we learned a lot.

If you've got an Epson with clogged jets (and you've followed the recommended procedure at, you'll want to read Blake Patterson's "How to Clean Clogged Inkjet Printheads" at, not only for his sobering experience, but for the 50 responses to it. To summarize, he dropped 7-10 drops of isopropyl alcohol in the receptacle where the cartridge sits, replaced the cartridge, and ran the cleaning routine 15-20 times. Fellow Epsoners refill a cartridge with isopropyl alcohol for just this purpose, but he found it a bit messy in concept.

Our problem was a little different. We'd run out of yellow in the old cartridge and the new one wasn't printing yellow. We have to admit the new one had been sitting around for a while (about a year and half, actually; no, make that two and half). Long enough to clog.

The Solution

Rather than wait another four hours, we thought we'd try a few of the, uh, solutions we'd found (the least radical first), to revive our $40 investment.

The first was hot water. Someone had suggested boiling water, but why melt the reactor on our first attempt? Hot would be fine. Several articles suggested hot running water, but we thought we might easily damage the fine nozzles doing that, or contaminate the triple-distilled, water-based ink itself (forcing water into the cartridge rather than drawing it out).

We remembered (distinctly) some advice at not to use tap water on the print head. They recommended distilled water only to avoid impurities that might react with the ink.

We don't have triple-distilled water coming out of our tap, but we did have a paper napkin wetted with the hot water on our side. A bright idea, we thought, since the napkin (and gravity) would draw the ink to it through the natural capillary action of its thirsty fibers.

Of course, if it drew very well, we'd have ink running through the napkin, so we needed something to protect the rest of the kitchen. A saucer was one recommendation, but we didn't think our bone china tea set needed another distinguishing mark, so we found an old dish and flipped it over (so our work wouldn't be detected by subsequent generations of bargain hunters).

Some sites recommend spiking the hot water with bleach. Up to 50 percent bleach, in fact. But this is color we're messing with here, we reasoned. Let's not bleach it. Another punch recipe called for adding isopropyl alcohol. Just a bit, to soften the dried ink in the jets. That sounded fine to us -- if we needed it.

An article by A. Lee Piepmeier at explained more than we wanted to know about ink formulations for inkjet printers. But it was interesting to learn that they are water soluble. From 50 to 90 percent of the ink is water, acting as a solvent. Actual colorant (which varies from a fairly transient dye to a longer-lasting pigment) runs from 1 to 15 percent. And chemicals to prevent evaporation from 2 to 20 percent.

Back in the kitchen, we followed the advice we found at We touched the print head to the wet napkin folded over a couple of times, holding the cartridge up in its printing position, and it immediately began to bleed. We saw yellow at last.

But back in the printer, the self-test showed, oddly, no yellow.

OK, it was time to get serious. Out came the isopropyl alcohol. We wiped the heads with it and tried the self-test again. Still nothing.

Defeat Snatched From the Jaws of . . .

Was it the electronics in the printer itself? Could we have contaminated the print head? The only way to tell would be to start with a new color cartridge.

With nothing left to loose (that's freedom, Janice), we decided we might as well prime this cartridge using the cleaning option in the driver. If we have to replace it anyway, we might as well get some use out of it.

We might have tried one other suggestion we found sufficiently scientific, if somewhat desperate. That was to cover the nozzles and then hurl the cartridge like a 90 mph fastball -- without actually letting go. Centrifugal force would, the theory, goes, free those clogged pores. But we don't have a 90 mph fastball. Junk, yes, but no heat.

So we cleaned. And we primed. Twice. And for the first time saw yellow. The crowd cried out for more, as someone once sang.


"What are you doing?" came the cry from the kitchen. We'd left our surgical implements -- and all those dirty napkins and cotton swabs -- lying around the sink. We really should have disposed of the evidence.

"Working!" we confessed, extracting the only drop of revenge we could think of from this ridiculously difficult, two-day attempt to use our simple Nameless Inkjet to test some very nice paper (Hammermill's Jet Print Photo, Superior Gloss Finish, at $13.99 for 15 extra heavy sheets at OfficeMax).


"Yeah, I'm writing this article for the Journal of the American Medical Association, comparing the effects of various techniques for reviving an inkjet cartridge on blood pressure."

"Oh. You finally got the printer to work?"

As if it had been that easy.