Five printer nightmares and how to avoid them

With some patience -- and these practical steps -- you can solve common printer hassles.

The printer ate your TPS reports, but no excuse matters when you're rushing off to meet clients empty-handed. No wonder everybody loves to hate printers. When you need them most, they'll display a stupefying error message and create a hot mess of jammed paper and spilled ink.

But before you pick up a baseball bat to express your printer rage, take a deep breath. With some patience and attention, you can probably overcome the printer problem that vexes you -- and avoid having the nightmare recur in the future. Here's how to address five of the most common printer complaints.

1. Paper Jams

Printer jams occur when the paper feeding through the printer goes awry. Sometimes the printer ignores the problem, soldiers onward, and extrudes a crumpled mess into the output tray; on other occasions, the printer stops in midjob, and the crumpled mess -- or part of it -- remains trapped somewhere inside the machine.

When a paper jam occurs, some printers flash lights at you and scream for help. Others sense where the jam is and provide guidance on clearing the blockage. If your printer offers diagnostic advice, follow it. Also, take time to check the printer's documentation for help in clearing jams. Here are the basic steps you'll follow to correct the problem:

Turn off the printer. If you're going to be working inside the printer, you don't want any trouble with electricity or moving parts. And if you're dealing with a laser printer, you also don't want the fuser to generate additional heat. If the paper is jammed in or near the fuser unit (you'll feel the heat as you come near it), you'll have to wait for the fuser to cool off before clearing the jam.

Open all doors leading to the paper path. If you can't tell which door leads to the paper jam, start by removing or opening the input tray and following the paper path all the way to the output tray, opening every door or panel that you can find along the way.

Carefully pull out paper sheets and scraps. Check for paper sheets that are stuck or askew, as well as for paper scraps. Pull paper out of the path firmly but very carefully and slowly. When possible, pull paper in the direction it is supposed to go in under normal conditions -- not backward, which could strain the printer's mechanics.Take care to remove all of the paper: As any scraps that remain could cause further jamming. If you have the misfortune of breaking a mechanical piece in the printer, stop what you're doing and call for service.

Close all doors and turn on the printer. Once switched on, the printer should reset itself automatically. If the printer reports that it is still jammed, double-check for stray paper scraps, and then close all the doors again. If the printer continues to complain, try turning it off and then back on. If the complaints continue, you'll have to call for service -- and hope that a deep-seated piece of paper -- rather than a broken mechanical part -- is the source of the problem.

How do I avoid this next time? As in most relationships, good communication and kind treatment will help your interaction with your printer go smoothly. Use only one kind of paper at a time in your input tray. Whether you have a single input tray in your printer's driver or many input trays, tell the printer what kind of paper you have in the tray: Most printer controls include a section or drop-down list where you can pick a paper by name, type, thickness, or other quality. If you aren't sure whether your printer takes a certain kind of paper, check its documentation. When you reload your input tray, pay attention to the tray's needs, such as how the paper should be loaded and whether the length or width guides need adjusting.

2. Stuck in the Print Queue

Regardless of how sophisticated it is, a printer can print only one job at a time. Sometimes a job will get held up for some reason and block every job behind it. If you've confirmed that the printer hasn't stalled for a mechanical reason, such as a jam or a lack of paper, toner, or ink, check the print queue to see whether a specific job in front of yours might be the culprit.

If your printer is not networked: If your computer has a dedicated printer associated with it, you can get to the print queue directly. On Windows, access is through the Control Panel's Printers program item; on a Mac, it's through the Utilities' Print & Fax program item. Any stuck jobs will be listed there, and you can easily cancel them.

If your printer is on a network: On a networked queue, you have control only over the jobs that you send from your own PC. If another person's job is the problem, you must either contact them for help or ask your IS department to intervene.

How do I avoid this next time? If the print queue clogs up regularly, your IT staff needs to figure out why it's happening and then address the root cause. Common problems include trying to print a job whose file size is so large that it chokes the network or your printer's memory; trying to print to a special kind of paper -- such as letterhead -- without loading the paper or specifying the tray in which it's loaded; and requesting a print job that requires you (or some other user) to feed the paper manually, but failing to perform this step.

3. Spilled Toner or Ink

Printer toner and ink are formulated to spread, adhere, and last -- but that's supposed to happen on paper, not on the floor.

Set the Right Toner

Toner can spill inside the printer during regular use, or it can spill onto surfaces, clothing, skin, or carpets when you're replacing a cartridge.

Basic Precautions

  • Keep spilled toner dry and contained.
  • Do not use hot water, cold water, or heat for cleanup; use any general cleaning solution with caution.
  • Do not use a conventional household vacuum cleaner, as it might blow the toner out the back.
  • Avoid inhaling the toner.

Three Basic Ways to Remove Spilled Toner

  • For spills on hard, smooth surfaces, you can use a disposable sweeping device (cardboard, paper or envelope, paper towel) to sweep the toner carefully into a plastic bag or other sealable receptacle for disposal.
  • Special toner-cleaning cloths use static to attract the toner for easy wiping. Regular paper towels or cotton towels will also work adequately.
  • A special toner vacuum is the only kind of vacuum you should consider using. It has attachments designed to reach into small spaces and to pull toner from the interior of a printer or from an unlucky area of carpet, along with a receptacle designed to trap very small particles.

How do I avoid this next time? Handle toner cartridges carefully, especially during insertion and removal. Before working with toner cartridges, protect surrounding areas from spills by covering them with newsprint or paper towels.

Don't Cry Over Spilled Ink

It's unusual for ink to spill from a cartridge unless the cartridge has been punctured, cracked, squeezed, or crushed. A refilled cartridge may be more susceptible to leaking or spilling; handle it carefully.

Online advice about cleaning up printer ink spills recommends using substances ranging from rubbing alcohol to WD-40 to hairspray to bleach. The effectiveness of these nostrums will depend on where the ink landed, as well as on the ink's chemical content.

A common-sense approach would be to handle spills quickly yet cautiously, starting with basic cleaning procedures and escalating as necessity dictates. Before applying any cleaning substance over a large area, test it to ensure that it doesn't cause damage of its own.

First step in all cases: Blot spilled ink with an absorbent cloth or paper towel.

Ink on skin: Use soap and water to clean further. If ink remains (and it probably will) try scrubbing. Use additional solutions on your skin cautiously -- and at your own discretion.

Ink on fabric or carpet: With soap and water, brush the stain using an upward-inward motion -- upward so as not to push the ink deeper into the fabric, and inward so as not to spread the stain across a wider area. Use additional cleaning solutions with caution.

Ink on hard surfaces: If a stain remains after blotting, try another method or cleaner that is appropriate to the particular surface.

Ink in the printer: This is a messy job, and the outcome of your efforts is uncertain.

  • First, turn off the printer, if you can. If the printer offers access the cartridges only when it is on, keep it on for now. Check the ink cartridges. If the offending ink cartridge is still in the printer, you must decide whether the spill is likely to be worse if you leave the cartridge where it is or if you remove it. Do whatever you can to minimize further spillage while you clean.
  • Turn off the printer now if you haven't already done so, access its interior, and find and remove as much spillage as you can through blotting. Then use rubbing alcohol and lint-free cloths to clean further, taking care not to get anything stuck in the printer.
  • Run a test page and check for evidence of leftover ink, such as splotches or continuous streaks on the page. Observe the printer as it operates to ensure that it is acting normally again.
  • If you're lucky, everything will be fine after you run pages through the printer so the spilled ink can print itself out. If you're unlucky, ink that you couldn't remove will lead to further damage.

How do I avoid this next time? Handle ink cartridges carefully, especially if they're refills, and especially during insertion and removal. If you're spill-prone, use newspaper or paper towels to protect the surrounding area.

4. Power Loss in the Middle of a Print Job

If this ever happens to you, you can treat it as if it were a special kind of paper jam.

Turn off the printer. You don't want its parts to start churning unexpectedly while you're working on recovery.

Clear the paper path. Remove any paper that's stuck in midprint.

Turn on the printer (assuming that power to the machine is restored). As the printer initializes, check for error messages or odd noises that might indicate a malfunction or internal damage. If you have a laser or LED printer, check the documentation for a maintenance routine you can use to clean untransferred toner from the drum. An inkjet cartridge that stopped in midsquirt may require cleaning. Run a test page and check the output for stains, streaks, and other abnormalities. Consult your printer's documentation for further troubleshooting guidance.

How do I avoid this next time? The odds that a printer will turn off on its own are low. If power outages are relatively frequent in your area, plug your printer into a UPS device so that it can finish printing and power down normally the next time the electricity fails.

5. Printing on the Wrong Side of Photo Paper

You wait eagerly for your photo to come out of the printer, but what you get is big splotches of ink sitting -- and not drying -- on the wrong side of the photo paper.

Cancel the print job if you can. This is especially important your print job calls for printing multiple sheets of photos, as each wrong-way sheet will just add to the mess.

Remove the paper carefully, making sure that the ink doesn't run. Avoid getting it on your hands by wearing gloves or by using a napkin or paper towel to handle the paper.

Throw the whole thing away. Yes, you'll have to say goodbye to that expensive piece of paper and all that costly ink.

How do I avoid this next time? Check the printer's documentation and tray markings to make certain that you are inserting the photo paper correctly.

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