Save on ink refill costs - but take care

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE PEOPLE I KNOW who have bought ink jet printers over the past few years are delighted with the quality of their machines but appalled at the cost of the ink.

This reaction usually sets in after their kids decide to run off 25 colorful party invitations and a couple of dozen crafts projects. Suddenly, the well runs dry, and a trip to the office supply store leaves the adults $75 in the hole.

When I mentioned this lamentable state of affairs in a column on ink jets a couple of weeks ago, a half-dozen readers wrote in with suggestions for saving money on ink. So I took their advice, did some research and came up with these possibilities.

First, shop carefully for your cartridges. At various online and brick-and-mortar retailers I found a $20 spread on a set of black-and-color cartridges for my Lexmark Z51. I also discovered that online shopping wasn't always a bargain because of shipping charges that varied widely by store. They ranged from $5 to more than $12. Here are the results, including shipping costs (usually ground delivery) and sales tax, where applicable.

Egghead.com $65.93

PCWonders.com $68.27

Lexmark.com $73.93

Carrotink.com $74.85

Office Depot $75.60

Staples $80.83

CDW.com $83.76

Ramcoweb.com $84.90

MicroWarehouse.com $85.97

Shopping online is particularly useful if your printer cartridge isn't a common one. There are so many printers on the market today (and so many discontinued models), even large retailers can't stock all of them.

For example, I've had trouble finding a high-capacity black cartridge for a Canon multifunction machine that we use primarily for receiving faxes. At a reader's suggestion, I tried Carrot's Ink Cartridges online, which shipped it overnight for a $5 charge. Although Carrot's cartridge prices weren't the lowest in my survey, the company's inexpensive overnight shipping makes it a good prospect if you're in a hurry.

A good place to start shopping online is ComputerShopper.com. Just enter the phrase "ink jet cartridges" in the site's search prompt, and you're on your way. Once you've found the model you want, you can generate a list of online merchants that carry it, along with their prices.

Another way to save money on ink cartridges is to buy one before your printer is high and dry, which always happens at the worst possible time. Retailers often run specials. Pick up a cartridge when you see a good price, and you'll have peace of mind as well as a few extra dollars in your pocket.

Some readers also suggested buying third-party cartridges, remanufactured cartridges and refill kits. There's no doubt you can economize here - by 40 to 80 percent.

But there's always an element of risk. A leaking or damaged cartridge can clog your printer's ink jets or cripple its circuitry. This isn't likely to happen - major manufacturers have superb quality control - but the chances of a problem are somewhat greater with an alternate cartridge or do-it-yourself refill.

Also, remember that printer makers get most or all of their profits from consumables, and they hate people who threaten their income stream. A few may warn that you'll void the warranty on your printer by using third-party cartridges or refills, but federal law prohibits that kind of arm-twisting. If you use a third-party cartridge and your printer's power supply goes up in smoke while it's under warranty, the company has to fix it. On the other hand, a manufacturer may legally refuse warranty repairs to a printer damaged by a refill or a leaking cartridge from another company.

The safest bet is a third-party cartridge. These are generally clones of the manufacturer's cartridges or remanufactured units that are 40 to 50 percent cheaper than the originals . You'll often find them on the shelves of major retailers - a good indication that they won't trash your printer. Big retailers don't like unhappy customers.

Unfortunately, you won't find third-party cartridges for every printer. Over the past few years, manufacturers have become more aggressive about designing cartridges that are hard to reproduce, and they're protecting them with patents and armies of lawyers. If you're shopping for a printer that's going to get heavy use, look for one that accepts third-party cartridges. This can save you hundreds of dollars over several years.

Refill kits are also popular and incredibly cheap. For $15 to $20, you can buy enough ink to refill your cartridges three or four times. But they take a lot more attention and care on your part. These kits come with ink bottles that have syringe tops. You'll have to open your cartridge or drill a small hole through the top and then pump the ink into the reservoir.

Depending on the cartridge design, this can be a simple matter or a real nightmare. For example, many popular cartridges have an internal sponge that actually holds the ink supply.

These can be particularly difficult because the sponge wasn't designed for refills, and you have to work slowly.

Thousands of users swear by refill kits, so it's hard to condemn them. But frankly, they involve a lot more finagling than I want to get involved with.

They're also potentially the most dangerous option for your printer. If you're reasonably dextrous and adventurous, they may be worth a try. But for the kind of printing most of us do at home, the savings probably aren't worth the risk.

Safety questions aside, you may also be disappointed at the quality of both third-party cartridges and refills. Printer manufacturers have spent millions of dollars formulating their inks.

Some third-party outfits take great care to reproduce the original ink, or they buy it from the same manufacturers as the printer makers.

Others substitute cheaper inks that run, smear or fade in the long run.

So you may have to try a couple of different brands before you find one you like.

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