Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Us Versus the Man, Round 1

As promised in my previous post, these are the continuing adventures of a frugal couple trying to beat the system and avoid spending more than they have to.

Round 1: Amy and Brian versus HP

First, some background: As I noted in my entry on "Stuff Most People Pay Too Much For" back in 2010, printer cartridges are both ludicrously overpriced and incredibly wasteful. Printer manufacturers make most of their money not on the printer itself, but on the ink cartridges; the Investopedia article that was the original source for my 2010 entry claims that over the lifetime of your printer, you can expect to pay about five times its original cost in ink. The article quotes a cost of 71 cents per milliliter, but prices have gone up since then; an HP 56 inkjet cartridge containing 19 milliliters now costs $21.25 at Amazon.com, or $1.12 per milliliter. By contrast, a magnum of Dom Perignon, at $469, costs a mere 31.3 cents per milliliter.

Rather than pay this ridiculously inflated price each time we need to refill a printer cartridge, we paid about $50 for a one-liter bottle of black ink back shortly after we got our old HP5600 around eight or nine years ago. (We also bought some color ink refills, which were a bit more expensive.) This big bottle paid for itself within the first few refills, and there's still about three-quarters of it left. We did eventually have to replace the cartridges because the print heads wore out, but still, we've gotten at least a dozen refills so far out of $12.50 worth of ink—a little over a dollar per refill, as opposed to more than $20.

The problem is, HP and other printer manufacturers have caught on to this gambit. So their counter-move has been to program their printers to recognize a specific ink cartridge and refuse to accept it if it's been used before. When we started refilling the cartridges on our old printer, we found a site that explained how to trick the printer into thinking the cartridge you're giving it is a new one. (Basically, it involves covering one of two tiny little holes with tape each time you refill.) But our new HP printer (the Deskjet 1000) takes different cartridges, and the site doesn't have instructions for these. However, when we first looked at this printer, the sales guy at Staples assured us that refilling the cartridges would be no problem; this printer didn't have the little chip-recognizer in it, so there was no need to "spoof" it after refilling. (This was a complete reversal of position on Staples' part since the last time we'd bought a printer there, when the salesperson urged us not to attempt to refill the cartridges because "it destroys the print heads." I suspect the change is due to the fact that Staples now offers its own ink-refilling service, so they stand to make more money off us by persuading us to refill our ink cartridges than by selling us the manufacturer's overpriced cartridges with a minimal markup.)

Unfortunately, we discovered this weekend that the sales guy was wrong. We had already refilled the cartridge a week or so earlier when the black print started to look a little fuzzy, using the ink refill kit we'd bought for the old printer, and that had worked fine. However, the chip inside the printer, which estimates the ink level based on how many pages you've printed since you last replaced the cartridge, was still convinced that the ink level was low—and when we tried to print out a page on Saturday, it popped up a message saying something like, "The original HP ink in your cartridge has been exhausted" and refused to print another word. We tried taking the cartridge out and putting it back in; we tried searching online for instructions on how to spoof the printer; Brian even tried to find some little pinholes in the cartridge that might correspond to the ones we used to cover with tape on our old printer, but to no avail.

Knowing that the printer can only keep track of the last three cartridges it's had, I suggested that maybe the best thing to do would be to go on Freecycle and ask for some empty HP 61 ink cartridges. Then we could just pop two empties into the printer in succession before replacing the original, refilled cartridge. In the meantime, we'd just have to make do without the printer, or print only in color. Brian agreed to this and decided to check the number of the color cartridge, too, so we could ask for some of those as well. But just as I was preparing to type up the request on Freecycle, the printer suddenly whirred to life and started printing our page, just as if nothing had ever been wrong.

We're guessing that this means the printer can only keep track of one cartridge at a time. By removing both cartridges at once, we tricked the printer into thinking it had two brand-new cartridges, instead of one new and one old (refilled) one. This might explain why the sales clerk at Staples thought it wasn't necessary to spoof this printer: he'd always routinely removed and refilled both cartridges whenever one of them ran dry, so he'd never gotten the "out of ink" message. So what we're hoping is that if we simply do the same the next time we need to refill the ink, we won't get the message either.

Round 1 winner: None declared. We've managed to keep the printer working for now without having to give in and buy a new cartridge (or try to scrounge around for old ones), but until the printer decides it's out of ink again, we can't be certain whether the trick we've discovered will actually work. So HP might end up winning this round down the road—though we will certainly try other tricks to beat it if we can.
Post a Comment