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Refilling Ink Without Dipping Further Into the Green

April 12, 2001|JOHN CORRIGAN |

Getting an inkjet printer for about $100 seems like one of the true bargains of the digital age--until you find out it costs $30 to replace an ink cartridge. But there's good news for the thrifty: Kits allow you to refill both your black and color cartridges for a fraction of the cost of a new one.

The kits are relatively easy to use and available both online and at office-supply stores. But these things might not be for everybody. It's a bit like changing your car's oil yourself--you'll save money, but expect to get your hands dirty.

Most inkjet cartridges are designed to be thrown away after each use, providing a steady stream of profits for printer manufacturers. The kits enable you to override that design flaw, but the level of difficulty varies by printer, and you'll want to follow the instructions carefully to avoid a leaky cartridge.

I tested two refill systems for my Hewlett-Packard 600C color inkjet printer: the Dataproducts Corp. Color Inkjet Refill Kit ( and the Re-Ink-Kit by Definitive Data Solutions (

Both companies had kits specifically designed for the HP 51629A and 51649A cartridges used by my printer. I also ordered a one-size-fits-all kit online after being hit with an Internet mass-mailing. More on that later.

Like most HP inkjet printers, the ink cartridge also serves as the print head, which means it can be refilled only three to five times before the print head wears out and you need to buy a new cartridge.

The Dataproducts refill kit, which retails for about $33, comes with vials of the three hues used in the color cartridge--magenta, cyan and yellow. There's enough ink for four refills.

The kit also comes with a screw-driven "cracker" to pop the top off your existing cartridge and a replacement cap.

The Re-Ink-Kit costs more--$45, plus an extra $6.95 for the cap popper--but it comes with both black and color ink. There's enough ink to refill your black cartridge twice, plus nine or 10 color refills.

There are only a few small differences between the two products. The Re-Ink-Kit, for example, comes with bottles of ink and syringe needles to inject the ink. Dataproducts supplies the ink in containers topped with a built-in needle. I thought the syringe gave slightly better control in dispensing ink.

Another difference is that the Dataproducts kit comes with a replacement cap to put on top of your cartridge after you refill it. With the Re-Ink-Kit, you have to reattach your old top with black electrical tape, which is not included. I had some in my toolbox, and it worked fine, but it would have been good to know up front that you're going to need it.

There are different procedures for refilling color and black cartridges. In both cases, though, some words to the wise: Do this in a garage, on a patio or over a kitchen counter covered with plastic or newspaper. Trust me, you don't want to do this over a coffee table in the living room. And if you can, put on a pair of plastic gloves. If you spill ink on your hands, the manufacturers recommend removing it with bleach. I decided to try laundry detergent first and got most of it off.

Refilling the color cartridge entails removing the top with that special cracker tool. It's like a vise; you put the cartridge in the middle and turn the screw until the pressure pops the top off. Exposed, the top of the cartridge shows a white foam top with dots of magenta, cyan and yellow ink. Stick the needle in the color for each one and squeeze in some ink. When you're done, clip the top back on with tape or use the new top, and you're ready to install the cartridge in the printer.

The process seems easy, but when I reinstalled the cartridge and printed out a color page, the sheet rolled out blank. Obviously, I had done something wrong. Or maybe not.

The trouble-shooting guides with both kits noted that ink cartridges can dry out over time when they are not being used. To tell you the truth, I couldn't remember the last time I used the color cartridge.

Following instructions contained in both kits, I first tried blotting the cartridge with a damp paper towel to draw the ink out. That got the cartridge to print, but in magenta only. I then tried soaking the cartridge in a saucer of water for 10 minutes. That worked--sort of. The sheet now printed out in different, but muted, colors. The cartridge apparently had been dry for too long, and to get sharp color quality I'd have to buy a new one.

Refilling the ink in the black cartridge is a lot messier. Instead of popping off the top, you essentially drill a hole in the top of the cartridge to inject the ink. But because the cartridge is pressurized, there are some critical steps to follow--and no matter what you do, there is going to be some leakage.

The first step is to cover an air hole in the bottom of the cartridge with a small piece of electrical tape. Then, you turn it over and use a small screw to drill a hole for the injection needle.

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