The squeaky wheel gets his answer

A Gripe Line reader wants to know why his Hewlett-Packard printer isn't really out of ink when its software says it is

Ray wrote to me more than a month ago with, as he says, "a gripe that has been around for a while." Even old gripes are irritating, though. "And this has recently really gotten to me," he says. "I have an HP Officejet Pro K5400 color printer at my desk. This printer came with HP's software package that is supposed to manage my printer to extend life of the cartridges." But Ray feels that the software actually diminishes the life of the cartridges and, by doing so, costs him money.

"About two weeks ago," he says. "A message popped up from the HP software telling me that my cyan color cartridge was empty and needed to be replaced. I had a spare, but it was on the other side of the building. So I opened the cartridge cover and removed and reinstalled the cartridge. Voila! My print job printed fine. Over the last few weeks, I've done that a few dozen times and have probably printed close to 30-45 color pages with no noticeable difference in quality.

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"What really gets me, though, is that if I followed their onscreen instructions, I would have replaced a cartridge that still had its proverbial legs. I would like to know what HP has to say about this. Why don't they add a feature that would allow you to continue to print -- especially if you're not printing photo-quality images?"

I use Ray's strategy myself to eke a bit more ink out of cartridges when I don't have a replacement handy. So now I was curious. I forwarded Ray's letter to HP. And we both heard back almost immediately from HP. I got a link to an in-depth explanation of how ink works in a printer.

And Ray? "Literally the day after I sent my original note to the Gripe Line," he says, "I received an e-mail from Daniel at HP." Ray and Daniel exchanged quite a few e-mails and phone calls before they finally connected. "During our phone tag games (my issue, not theirs)," explains Ray, "he offered to replace the printer if I felt it would help. We then finally got through to each other, and I explained to him my issue with the software. Once he understood that it was more of a curiosity (and financial) gripe than a printer failure, he asked if I would be willing to work with a technical person to better understand the software issue. I told him that I would be more than willing. He closed by saying that he would get a technical person to call me, and that if I needed any printer cartridges to send him an e-mail and he would send me some."

And that -- at the end of March -- started another volley of communications with HP's technical division, which Ray was dedicated to seeing through to the end. "This was never intended to be a 'let's get something for free' issue," he explains. "But my way of seeing if we could find out how they figure out the software/ink levels. Obviously ink cartridges are a profitable part of HP's business, and the more they replace, the more they earn. But cartridges are not cheap. So as a consumer, I want to make them last as long as possible."

Three weeks after his original e-mail to me, Rays says, "I have yet to replace this cartridge and am still printing. I will admit that it is MUCH lighter now than the others, but at this point, I plan on printing with it until I see blank spaces."

Today, after quite a bit of e-mail back and forth, Ray finally connected with a printer technician who could answer his question.

"I just spoke with Jim," says Ray, "a very nice guy who seems to be as much of a true tech guy as I am. He told me that the software gives that warning on purpose. HP needs to ensure that the cartridge does not get too low. If it did, it would allow the print head to burn out. The heating elements would burn out if there was nothing was in the nozzle since the ink acts as a coolant to the print head. This definitely sounds good to me and there is probably some truth in it as well. But with as many pages as I have printed, coupled with Jim's comment of, 'I like your idea of telling you that you can continue to print a few more pages,' makes me think that the truth is merged with some corporate influence of selling more cartridges." This conclusion came more than a month after Ray got that initial message telling him to replace his print cartridge. "I still haven't replaced the yellow or magenta," he says.

If we see an addition in next year's printer software offering users the option to continue printing a few more pages once they get the "out of ink" warning, maybe we have Ray to thank for being the squeaky wheel?

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