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Color sticker shock: refilling cartridges is very easy and saves money.

There's no denying the appeal of color laser printers. They are an affordable purchase, produce excellent quality color output, offer very large monthly duty cycles compared to many inkjet printers, and provide an excellent cost per-page over the lifetime of the printer.

The only real downside is the sticker shock that you get when it's time to replace a toner cartridge. While the overall cost per-page is very reasonable, the cash outlay to buy a new toner cartridge is often in the range of $80 to $130. That's for each cartridge, and color printers take four different color toner cartridges.

They don't always go empty at the same time, though they certainly can. When the starter cartridges that came with a Samsung color laser all emptied simultaneously, it was a more than a $400 purchase to put the printer back in service. Not only is that a lot of money for a small office, it's not much less than the original purchase price of the printer.

Fill 'er up with yellow ...

Cost conscious inkjet users have been saving money for years by refilling the cartridges when they go empty. Some vendors have put chips into the cartridge to try and prevent this, and enterprising refill ink vendors have introduced replacement chips to fool the printer into thinking it's getting a new cartridge, not a refilled one.

The printer and ink vendors often warn users about using third-party supplies, but unless the vendor can prove that using these third-party supplies actually damaged the printer, they can't void the warranty. At the same time, you will generally get the best looking output results by using ink and paper from the original printer vendor.

You can save by refilling your monochrome laser printer and laser-based photocopier toner cartridges with black replacement toner from RechargX ( A laser toner cartridge can't be refilled an indefinite number of times, because the photoconductor drum in the cartridge eventually gets too badly scratched and starts to produce mediocre-looking output. It can, however, often be refilled between two and five or more times by just adding replacement toner.

Actually, just adding additional toner isn't anything new. Some of the original laser printers from Xerox and other vendors required that you perform this task, and there are still photocopiers which use the same dry xerographic process that require you fill the toner from bottles, rather than replacing cartridges.

Laser toner cartridge refilling companies are plentiful, and you can save a significant amount of money by recycling used cartridges, turning in the empties and getting someone else's cartridge that has been refilled.

Refilling the empty toner cartridge yourself isn't very difficult, and there are a number of vendors which conduct business over the Internet which now offer color laser toner.

Actually refilling a cartridge is either easy, or very easy, depending on the design of the particular cartridge. Some cartridges simply disassemble partially when you remove several screws, and expose a port where you simply pour the toner from the supplied bottle into the cartridge. Reassemble the cartridge, pop it back into the printer, and you're good to go. The total time for refilling this type of cartridge is about 10 minutes. RechargX supplies the toner in the desired color, instructions, and even several sheets of old newspaper or wrapping paper to cover your work surface (spilled toner is very messy, though not dangerous.)

Some toner cartridges (RechargX will tell you which ones) aren't quite as easy to fill, as they can't be easily disassembled by most users. The ones for the previously mentioned Samsung printer fell into this category. For these, you'll need to purchase a $13 toolkit. This is a one-time purchase. The toolkit includes a modified soldering iron, needle-nose pliers, and even an egg timer. These tools are used to melt a small hole into the toner compartment on the cartridge through which the cartridge is refilled.

The process sounds a lot more complicated than it really is. The tool needs to heat up for three minutes--thus the egg timer. The illustrated instructions show you exactly where the hole needs to be melted, though if you are a bit off with your placement, you aren't going to ruin the cartridge.

You push the tool lightly against the cartridge, the heat does the work, and the pliers are there in case you need to fish the plastic that you've just melted out of either the cartridge or the tool.

Once you've created the hole, shake the toner bottle a bit to loosen any packed down toner, and remove the tip. Holding the toner cartridge at an slight angle, place the tip of the toner bottle into the cartridge and let about a third to a half of the contents flow into the cartridge. Remove the bottle, tilting it upright and place the toner cartridge flat on the work surface. RechargX usually supplies a small plastic plug to close the hole that you've created, and allow you to quickly refill the cartridge next time by simply removing the plug. These plugs didn't work with the Samsung cartridges, they wouldn't fit back in the printer with them installed (the instructions point this out) so the holes were covered with a small piece of duct tape.

RechargX suggests that you use only a third to half of the supplied toner with each refill. That way, if the print quality of the cartridges degrades right after a refill, you haven't wasted the entire bottle of toner. Since it takes only a minute or two to perform another refill after the first time, using only part of the toner bottle is good advice.

Even with burning the hole in the cartridge, refilling each of the four cartridges took less than 15 minutes.

Show me the money

For most of this column, the mechanics of refilling a laser toner cartridge have been discussed. It's the economics, though, that really make it not only practical, but desirable.

Prices vary depending on the particular brand and model, but the four toner cartridges needed to get the Samsung printer back on line cost about $49 each. Add in another $13 for the one-time purchase of a tool kit (which you may not need), and it's less than half the price of buying new cartridges.

If you are able to refill the cartridges three or four times before print quality becomes unacceptable and you need to spend the money on a new set, the bucks saved add up quickly. Just to sweeten the pot, RechargX offers cartridges for many printers that were used only once at a very attractive price. They don't always have these empties, but if they do, you can refill them two to five more times and save even more.

Ted Needleman is the former associate publisher and editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology magazine. He is now a technology consultant and writer based in Stony Point, N.Y. His email address is
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Title Annotation:Office Technology
Author:Needleman, Ted
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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