17 May 2014

CISS for Massive Printer Ink Savings

I'm dedicating my inaugural post on this blog to something that has saved me many hundreds of dollars.

Like many of you, I have a color ink jet printer at home. And for a long time I spent a lot of money on ink cartridges. Consumer Reports has found that printer ink costs between $13 and $75 an ounce. Indeed, we once had a printer that only cost $65 and yet a replacement set of ink cartridges cost $70. It went through ink so rapidly that we ended up giving it away just to save money.

We tried a number of alternatives such as recycled ink cartridges, refilling services, and refilling our own cartridges. All worked, all saved money, but none came close in convenience or savings to a Continuous Ink Supply.

Continuous Ink Supply

There is a cluster of manufacturers making Continuous Continuous Ink Supply Systems (abbreviated "CIS" or sometimes "CISS"). These include replacement ink cartridges with a set of tubes that connect to large inkwells which you place next to the printer.

In my case, I use an HP OfficeJet 6500A All-In-One that uses HP 920 Ink Cartridges.

This model has been discontinued and so remaining units are overpriced. But when it was new it cost me $225. Similar, but newer models are available. I originally chose it over less expensive models because, at the time, it was rated as one of the best for cost of supplies. Even so, a new set of cartridges cost $69.50 on Amazon.com. So after four sets of cartridges I exceeded the cost of the printer.

Two years ago I chose a CIS system from InkXPro.com. At the time it cost $99.00 which was less than two sets of cartridges (it costs even less now). Yet it came with 400ml of ink pre-installed. It's hard to tell for sure but a rough guess is that it's equivalent to around 20 sets of cartridges. That was a huge savings! But almost as important, once I got it installed I went for nearly a year without having to mess with ink in any way. No need to replace cartridges. No bad prints because of expended cartridges. And no additional costs.

Here's a shot of my printer with the system installed. You can see the case with the add-on inkwells to the right.

Here's a picture of the interior. You can see the aftermarket cartridges and ink tubing ribbon that feeds them.

And here's a closeup of the inkwells. You can see the notch I cut in the printer cover with a nibbler tool to allow the ink tubing to pass inside.

When the ink finally got depleted to about 20% (which is when they recommend you replenish the ink), I bought six 100ml bottles of ink (three of black and three colors) for less than $30.

Too Good to be True?

It's not all a cakewalk. The instructions aren't going to win any prizes for quality writing. I had to cut a notch int the printer for the ink ribbon. I would have voided the warranty if it hadn't run out already. The installation is a bit fussy – requiring some trial and error. And you need gloves and a bunch of paper towels because it's inevitable that you will have a few ink drips when installing.

However, once you get the system functioning it can go for months or years and thousands of prints with minimal additional care.


Here are some tips from my experience. Hopefully they'll help you get functioning quickly.
  • Time: Allocate a couple of hours for the installation. It shouldn't take that long – the instructions are simple enough and there aren't very many tasks to perform. But I've installed these twice and both times I had to fuss with them before things worked well. So have enough time and be patient trying things until everything works. The rest of these tips will give you an idea of some of the things I had to fuss with.
  • Protect your workspace: During installation, put the printer on a non-absorbent surface and have a roll of paper towels handy. Ink drips are virtually guaranteed. The water soluble ink will easily clean up from non-porous surfaces. But anything porous (tablecloths, clothes, etc.) can be stained.
  • Protect youself: Wear gloves (to keep your hands from being stained) and grubby clothes.
  • Youtube it: See if there's a YouTube video showing installation of a CIS on your particular printer model. I found one for mine. Though I didn't follow the exact same approach (I routed my ink ribbon differently) it was still very helpful. Try searches for "CIS" or "CISS" and your printer model.
  • Priming the printhead: If you have a brand new printer, use the manufacturer's cartridges to begin with. The printer has to prime the print head and many printers won't do that properly from the CIS (or from any aftermarket cartridges for that matter).
  • Chip wars: To limit the aftermarket for print cartridges, most manufacturers (including Epson and HP) have chips embedded in their print cartridges. Some CIS kits include instructions for removing the chips from OEM cartridges and installing them on the new CIS cartridges. Some manufacturers redesigned their cartridges to make the chips harder to remove. Lawsuits followed. At this point, most CIS kits come with cloned chips. In my case, the printer displays the message "non-HP cartridges installed" whenever I restart the printer. After I clear the message everything works. Before buying a kit, find out what the chip situation is for your particular printer and CIS combo.
  • Chip Removal: If your kit DOES require chip removal there are two common methods. One is to carefully remove it with an X-Acto knife. The other is to heat it gently with a lighter or heat gun to soften the adhesive. I've used both methods successfully. If using heat, don't get the lighter too close or let the flame actually touch the chip. Within about half an inch for two seconds is sufficient. 
  • Dye vs. pigment ink: There's a lot of discussion online about pigment ink (which have suspended color solids) vs dye ink (where the color is dissolved in the liquid). Generally they say that pigment has more vivid colors and doesn't fade as easily. However, dye inks have improved over the last decade (more fade-resistant than before) and they have always been less prone to clogging the printhead. I recommend using whatever your printer originally used. In my case, (HP 6500A) that means pigment for black and dye for the colors. I've had excellent results with this setup.
  • Syringes for ink transfer: The same vendor that sells your CIS will also sell chip refilling supplies. One of the most common tools is a 5ML syringe with a blunt needle. These are the best and least-messy way to transfer ink. They also aren't very expensive. Have a few on hand.
  • Chip positioning: The manufacturer of the cartridges in my kit could have done a better job of making moldings to align the chips right. This is where I spent the most time fussing with it. I had to remove the chips (they're held on with double-stick tape) and re-position them using an original cartridge for comparison. It took several tries before the printer would recognize the cartridges.
  • Caps and air filters: The ink wells have vents in the top. They should come with the vents plugged with caps. After installation but before printing you must remove the caps and replace them with air filters. The instructions on my kit weren't very clear about this. It's worth purchasing some spare filters. I've had ink splash into them, clogging them up. And they don't cost very much. Here's what the air filters look like:
  • Position the tanks low during installation: To install the cartridges, you have to remove covers, turn them opening side down and snap them into place. The first time I did this I dripped ink all over the inside of the printer. You can prevent this (or at least reduce it) by doing two things. First, make sure the vents on your ink wells are plugged (see "Caps and air filters above"). Next, position the wells as far below the level of the printer as possible during the installation. This will create negative pressure in the cartridges and reduce dripping.
  • Position the tanks level with the printer during operation: The ink flows according to pressure. Keeping the tanks level with the printer will keep things flowing properly. (Some, unusual setups have you put the wells above the printer. When in doubt, follow the instructions that came with your kit.)
  • Use "clean print heads" liberally: To get things started, remove bubbles from the ink lines and so forth you can run your printer through it's head cleaning cycle. This wastes ink but with a CIS that's no longer a serious concern.
  • Make sure the cartridges in the printer are at least 2/3 full of ink: During installation, or after many months of use, the air gap at the top of the cartridges may grow. The cartridges should be at least 2/3 full of ink. If ink drops below you need to "purge" the air. Here's my method: 1) Glove up and get a roll of paper towels. 2) Fill a syringe with ink of the appropriate color (use the blunt-tipped needle). 3) Cap off the vents in all of your inkwells. 4) Move the inkwells to a level below the printer. 5) Carefully remove the tube from the top of the cartridge that is low. 6) Fill the cartridge to the top using the syringe and blunt needle. 7) Replace the tube. 8) Blot up any ink that dripped using a paper towel. 9) Restore the inkwells to the right level and restore the air filters. 10) Run the printer through a head-cleaning cycle to clear bubbles from the ink tubes.
  • Refill your inkwells when they near 20%: If you let your inkwells run dry then you'll get bubbles in the system and have to spend a bunch of effort priming the system again. Better just to keep your inkwells topped off. I found the least messy way to transfer ink is with the syringe/blunt needle combo even though it takes several repeats with large inkwells.
Reading the above seems like it takes lots of fussing to get things to work right. It does take a bit of fussing at the outset and then occasional service after lots (and lots) of prints. Since installing the CIS we've printed more than 10,000 pages on this printer. We've kind of gotten a bit liberal with printing because ink costs so little. So, proportional to the number of pages printed it's actually been very reasonable amount of effort.

Here are some of the vendors from which I've purchased products. I don't know if they're really better than others but they've worked for me.

(Full disclosure: I have an Amazon Partners account. So, if you purchase something from Amazon after following one of my links I'll get a minuscule commission. I have no relationship to the vendors listed below and don't get anything for mentioning them.)
  • InkXPro: This is where I bought my kit.
  • BCH Ink: Seems to be one of the better brands of ink with lots of endorsements (and occasional counterfeits). I've used it to refill my system with good results. I usually buy them on Amazon.
  • InkProducts: I've bought a few supplies from these guys. One innovation is that they offer "chip blocks" for printers using HP 920 and 564 ink cartridges. These blocks hold the chips in exactly the right place so you can insert and remove aftermarket ink cartridges without chip issues.
  • HotZone360: I haven't dealt with them at all. But they sell and support printers with pre-installed CIS systems at reasonable prices.
  • InkSystem: Another vendor with a line of printers with pre-installed CIS systems. That's a great way to avoid the installation complexities!
  • CISInks: Yet another vendor. I haven't tried them but their website offers a complete line and helpful videos.
I hope you have similar success to mine!

(Updated with more tips on 15 December 2014)


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  3. Extra onboard memory increases efficiency and allows for processing of larger graphics and documents with ease. And if scanning and photocopying are important to you, get an MFP with a higher resolution.
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  10. The cost of replacing the ink can sometimes cost more than the printer itself! This is one of the most commonly overlooked factors when printers are reviewed and yet one of the most important things to consider before handing over your hard earned cash.cartucce Epson T1811

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