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Fixing a Clogged Printer

If you've owned an inkjet printer any length of time, no doubt you've experienced a clogged print head at least once. Some people seem to have more problems than others, but no one seems to be immune. Sooner or later, it's going to happen.

Not all clogs are created equal of course, just as not all printers work the same way. As such, I can't address every possible cause across all makes and models of printers. With that said, I'll limit the present discussion to what I have the most familiarity with: Epson printers. If you're dealing with a clogged printer from a different manufacturer some of this may be applicable to you as well, but I can't any promises. Even if you are an Epson user, there are times when a printer really is on its last legs and a clog can't be cleared. Sometimes a clogged head on an old printer may be a sign that it's time to upgrade to the latest new wonder from Epson. You know you want one. But before you use this article to rationalize acting on that desire, let's see what can be done with the clog in your current printer.

Even among Epson printers, the user interfaces aren't all the same, but they are similar. The Utility tab should have buttons for both Head Cleaning and Nozzle Check. These are the tools Epson provided to keep things working as they should. Their presence is proof positive that even if you do everything you should and then some, you may still get a clog and they are where we need to begin in order to get a handle on this whole problem.

Current implementations of Nozzle Check operate in one of two modes, the basic one initiated by clicking on the "Print" button, and the full blown method labeled "Auto." If you just need to check if you have a clog or not, click on "Print" and visually inspect the results. The printer will generate an interesting pattern that tests each nozzle. If there are any gaps or skips in the pattern, it's time to do a head cleaning cycle. So long as you stay in the Nozzle Check dialog, each iterative head cleaning and check causes the printer to use more suction than the one before it to work through more stubborn clogs. If you want the printer to do all the work for you, press the "Auto" button instead. This will print a full square for each ink color so it will require marginally more ink, but doing so allows the printer itself to sense if there are any problems. If it finds any, the printer will do a bit of head cleaning and then print a new row of colored squares. If it gets to the bottom of the page and still thinks things aren't printing as they should, it will stop and you'll be left to your own devices. Because the printer knows which colors are printing better than others, it can concentrate the head cleaning on the problem colors, although all colors will be purged to a degree.

Head cleaning causes the printer to spit out ink into its overflow ink tank in the hopes of forcing out whatever is clogging things. Not only can it use up a lot of ink, all that ink has to go somewhere so it can also start to fill up your ink tank. If you do any borderless printing, this is the same place that any ink pat the edges of the page goes so you can fill it up eventually even in the best of circumstances, but head cleaning is the surest way to fill it. Once full, the printer will stop until you replace the waste tank. Depending on your printer model, this may be easy or it may officially require sending it back to Epson for service. Your printer manual will tell you for sure. If yours it user replaceable (and most current models are), it can be worth having a spare one on hand for when the need arises, just as you probably buy ink cartridges before the ones you are printing with run completely dry. The ink tank is filled with a special padding material that absorbs the overflow ink and I know some folks who have worked out how to replace the pads themselves without buying a new waste tank, but that's beyond the scope of this article. Just be advised that if you want to try it, all that ink can be quite messy indeed.

Because it consumes up ink without creating any beautiful prints for your walls, your friends or your customers, only do a head cleaning when you really need to. Either print a basic nozzle check first, or if you suspect problems let the printer do an Auto nozzle check. Once you start a head cleaning cycle, don't turn the printer off or bad things can happen. The printer won't even start cleaning its heads if the ink levels are too low so you may have to change a cartridge even if it's not completely empty yet.

Sometimes it can take more than one nozzle check and head cleaning cycle to clear a clog. Sometimes even quite a few attempts won't solve a stubborn clog. If not, your clog may not be a normal clog, and this is where things can get interesting.

Sometimes a clog isn't caused by dried ink at all. Air bubbles can form in the print line between the ink cartridge and print head that can appear to be stubborn clogs. The tell tale indication that you may have air bubbles is that the nozzle check problems come and go from one test to the next. Simply forcing through more ink into the waste tank may not get rid of the bubble since the ink can simply flow around it. A better way to solve air bubble problems that uses far less ink is to simply print a lot of whatever color is causing your problems. There are still some Epson printers that print with just four inks but most use more. Even among those that print more, not all use the basic cyan, magenta and yellow plus light variants color scheme. But whatever colors yours uses, the trick is to create a document in Photoshop or your favorite program and fill it with that color. Solid cyan has an RGB value of 0,255,255. Solid magenta and yellow are 255,0,255 and 255,255,0. The light ink colors are harder to specify exactly since Epson doesn't advertise their exact values, but on most models they are somewhere around 128,255,255 for light cyan, and 255,128,255 for light magenta. To be safe, you can create a document with a magenta gradient from 255,128,255 on up to pure white to cover everything in the "light magenta" range. For a jpeg test image you can use or modify as needed, click here. In order to work your way through any air bubbles, be forewarned that you may need to print at least a couple pages of the solid color in question. If even five to ten doesn't do the trick, you may not have an air bubble after all.

If you have a color that refuses to print at all or prints so spotty that it may as well not be printing, it may be time for a more controversial fix: using solvents to clear the clog. I did say controversial, didn't I? Now, before you go reaching for paint thinner or some other nasty chemicals, I'm not taking quite that controversial. If you cure the disease but kill the printer, it would be a hollow victory indeed. What I am talking about here comes down to Windex glass cleaner. It's relatively safe and relatively effective based on the experiences of quite a few internet users including your humble author. For readers in other parts of the world who are unfamiliar with Windex, an internet search should help you find a local equivalent, but you are looking for those pale blue glass cleaners with a trace of ammonia. Windex also has a "new" formula based on vinegar which not what you want. I've heard reports that Fantastik all-purpose cleaner works even better than Windex, but the latter is what is generally mentioned and is all I have personally tried.

Once you find your solvent, you'll need to know what to do with it. Don't just start spraying the stuff all over. In fact, you won't be spraying it at all. What you need instead is a clean eyedropper. Make sure your Windex is clean too. If you've got a spray bottle under the kitchen sink you've had for years since you rarely actually clean your windows, it's probably time to invest in a new bottle.

Before we go on, you won't find this method of unclogging print heads in any Epson manual. I'm quite sure they would not recommend this but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. If you do this though, you accept full responsibility for your actions, not Epson, and not me either. I can tell you it worked for me when I did have to resort to it, and a quick Google search will point you to others who have done the same, but it's your printer and what you do to it is your responsibility. There. I said it.

Now that we've got the disclaimer out of the way, turn on your printer and start printing something, perhaps a nozzle check page since you already know it's not going to print well due to your clogged nozzle. When the print head has moved as far away from its starting position as possible, open the cover or hit the pause button to make the carriage stop moving. Now shine a flashlight over to where the heads park when not printing and look for the rectangular area with foam padding. The pad will likely be black since it gets colored by the combination of all your inks. Use your eyedropper to drip no more than about six drops of clean Windex on the pad. Don't overdo it. Now let the printer finish the nozzle check and then turn the printer off and walk away from it. The printer will park its heads against the foam pad, allowing the Windex to begin dissolving your clog. By osmosis, it will work its way at least somewhat into the head too.

Let the printer sit for at least an hour or two if not overnight for maximum effect. Then turn it back on and run a head cleaning cycle and nozzle check to see if you've made any progress. A typical clog may well be gone after just one treatment, but a nasty clog-from-hell can require two or three such Windex treatments before you are back in working order. This method though has been known to clean out clogs that would otherwise cause you to take your printer to the dump or recycling center.

I've seen people out on the internet warning that you can cause serious damage to your printer with this method but they invariably seem to work for companies selling expensive print head cleaning fluids. They may still know more than we do, but I've never come across an Epson user who has caused a problem with judicious Windex treatments when needed. There may be clogs so severe even this won't clear them up, but I've never hears firsthand stories of the treatment itself being the source of a problem. If you've experienced successes or failures cleaning heads this way I'd be interested in hearing about them. I've only had to resort to this myself once but it did do the trick. A sample of one isn't really statistically valid but it did work and I do know others who have had similar successes.

The best way to avoid having a clog in the first place is to use your printer regularly. Exactly how often constitutes "regularly" depends not only on your specific printer model but also on where you use it. More specifically, it depends on the weather in your area, or more specifically still, on the relative humidity. User in dry climates generally report more problems with clogged heads than those that live in more humid areas. Dry air tends to promote clogs. If you are plagued with clogs more often than you want to deal with but don't have anything you need to print, at least turn your printer on occasionally and print a basic nozzle check pattern. Doing so uses little ink and should keep the plumbing in your printer flowing smoothly. If you still get a clog, do this more often. You'll eventually figure out what "regularly" means in your situation. Just be aware that you probably can't completely do away with clogs this way, but if you do still get a clog, it should be a minor one that can be cleared up with a normal head cleaning cycle the way Epson intended things to work.

Date posted: January 3, 2010


Copyright © 2010 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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