You already know printer ink is expensive. Actually, it's one of the priciest liquids you buy. Ounce-per-ounce, even the cheapest ink (about $13 an ounce) costs more than fine champagne.
But here's the real shocker: A lot of that precious material doesn't get onto the paper but ends up wasted.
Consumer Reports found that some printers gobble up a significant amount of ink—50 percent or more—for nonprinting functions such as cleaning print heads.
The extra cost of using a model that soaks up ink for routine maintenance could be as much as $120 a year, the editors estimated.
"We were surprised by the amount of ink some printers used," said Electronics Editor Paul Reynolds.
(Read More: 3-D Printing: This Generation's 'Moon Shot' Moment)
Consumer Reports investigated the problem of disappearing ink after readers complained that they weren't getting their money's worth—fewer copies than the magazine projected based on its rigorous tests.
Its engineers suspected the problem was caused by intermittent printing. So, they designed a new test to simulate real-world conditions: print a few pages now and then, and keep the machine off in the meantime.
The revised test protocol was to print 30 pages of text or color graphics intermittently over a three-week period.
In the lab, Consumer Reports put several dozen big-name all-in-one inkjet printers through their paces. While most of the models used most of their ink to print, only a few came within striking distance of using all of it.
Based on this new testing, the researchers verified the cause, documented the difference between models and figured out how to get more pages per cartridge.
"Our tests confirm that it's worth paying attention to how much ink is used for cleaning and maintenance, and to make that part of your buying consideration," Reynolds said.
The worst offenders for wasted ink were the HP Officejet Pro 8600 and the Lexmark OfficeEdge Pro 4000.
(Read More: Amazon Rolls Out 3-D Printer Shopping Section)
Brother stood out from the pack. All three of its printers tested were consistently frugal with ink when used intermittently. Consumer Reports named the Brother DCP-J140W at $80 a CR Best Buy.
With other manufacturers, the amount of maintenance ink used varied widely, even within brands. For example, the HP Envy series of printers used relatively little ink for maintenance, while HP's Photosmart series used a lot more.
Good news: You don't need to sacrifice performance to save on ink. Several models that were fine performers were also some of the stingiest with maintenance ink.
(Read: "The High Cost of Printer Ink" from the August issue of Consumer Reports)
Why Is So Much Ink Wasted?
Whenever you power up your printer, it goes through a maintenance cycle that uses ink. That's what's happening when the printer head moves back and forth after your turn it on.
This intermittent use can burn through more than half the ink in the cartridge. A few of the models Consumer Reports tested were so wasteful that only 20 percent to 30 percent of the ink in the cartridge ended up on the paper.
Manufacturers are aware of these results. They told the magazine it's necessary to use this ink to preserve quality.
Reynolds said he understands this and realizes that every printer cannot be as miserly as the best ones tested. But people should be able to turn their printer on and off without triggering more cleaning and maintenance than is needed, he added.
"If manufacturers can make some printers that are frugal, why can't they better apply those design lessons to make more models use ink efficiently?" he asked. "We encourage manufacturers to learn from the best models they have and apply that to some of the worst."
How to Squeeze More Ink Out of Those Expensive Cartridges
There's no way to directly control the frequency of your printer's maintenance cycle. That's determined by each manufacturer. But based on Consumer Reports testing, we know that turning the printer on triggers a maintenance cycle. Obviously, the fewer cycles the better.
That's why the magazine now suggests leaving the printer on. It did that with some of the most ink-hogging models and got noticeably reduced consumption.
Yes, that will use more electricity, but Reynolds said inkjets go into a sleep mode and use very little power when they're not in use.
"Your ink savings should considerably outweigh the energy cost," Reynolds assured me.
Other money-saving suggestions from Consumer Reports:
- Don't change cartridges unless you must. Whenever you exchange an ink cartridge that still has plenty of ink left for, say, a less-costly off-brand one for less-critical work, you trigger an ink-consuming initialization cycle.
- Print in draft mode for less critical work. This will reduce the amount of ink used in printing (though not the ink used in maintenance). And, don't print lots of large photographs, especially in high-quality mode, as they use the most ink.
- Consider buying a laser printer as a second printer for black-and-white, as they don't use maintenance ink and they do an excellent job with text.