How Inkjet Printers and Ink Cartridges Work

We buy ink cartridges and don’t give a second thought about the working of an HP inkjet printer until we experience a printing problem or difficulties installing the HP ink cartridge. However, knowing a few basics may not enable you to solve all your printing problems, but will at least make you appear less like a novice when calling the technician or speaking to the cartridge sales person.

How the Cartridge Looks

The HP ink cartridge is the unit that holds the ink that will eventually end up on the paper surface once you press the print button. Within the cartridge, you will find either a single ink reservoir or three in one, which is known as the tri-colour cartridge.

The Cartridge is Printer Dependent

Thermal inkjet printers use ink cartridges that have reservoirs with heating elements, which also contain metal resistors.

When you send the print command, the printer gives the cartridge a signal in the form of a current, which then heats up the resistor and then the ink that comes in contact with the resistor becomes a very thin stream of vaporised ink that ends up in the cartridge nozzle. The nozzle is where the ink will pass through and be sprayed onto the print surface. This stream is little more than a droplet. The pressure inside the reservoir forces the ink through the nozzle and it ends up on the print surface. This is all done faster than the blink of an eye.

The quality of the print is dependent upon how effortlessly the ink flows onto the print surface. If the ink becomes dry on the print head, you can get clogging and subsequent streaks, dots and lighter printing. Using a lint-free damp cloth, you can clean the print head or nozzle. Make sure that you use distilled water, as the minerals in tap water can cause damage to the print head. Never try to print with a depleted cartridge, as it will cause over-heating inside and eventually the print head will be damaged beyond repair. If you get the “ink is low alert”, print the final pages and get to the print cartridge outlet to have your HP ink cartridge replaced.

Ink Varieties

You will notice that when you want to print a poster at a printer that they ask you to specify the CMYK colours. CMYK is not a fancy word. It simply stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. The K is representative of the black colour and actually stands for Key.

You get two main types of black – the one that is almost waterproof and is used for the black text printing, and then the one that can blend with other colours and is used for the printing of graphics. You will find that although tri-colour cartridges are available, where the three colours of yellow, magenta and cyan are mixed to produce black, most modern HP printers have a separate cartridge for black. This is to ensure best quality text printing with almost water-proof black ink. If you mostly print photos, you will benefit from using special cartridges for the purpose.

Costly Printing

A common problem experienced by consumers is the high price of original manufacturer HP ink cartridges. Although more expensive than refills, generic, compatibles and remanufactured cartridges, the original ones tend to give fewer problems and provide superior quality. However, if you print a lot, then printing costs can cut into your budget. With such, you can choose generic, compatible or remanufactured cartridges, provided that you buy them from reputable suppliers.

There are also systems for home refilling of cartridges, but until now, very few such systems have been effective and the process can be rather messy. One major problem with refilled cartridges is that the printers often don’t recognise the cartridge ink levels because the printer manufacturers have installed chips in their cartridges to ensure single usage only. However, the problem can be solved with resetting of the chip, which is normally done at reputable suppliers.

HP is one such a manufacturer that has taken many steps to prevent the refilling of their cartridges and has even initialised lawsuits against companies alleging that they dilute the brand with poor quality ink. Refilling and remanufacturing, however, do help to reduce the impact on the environment. Indeed, well over 300 million ink cartridges are thrown away every year and with the cartridges taking up to a millennium to decompose, one can see the need for recycling.


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