Your Printer's Ink or Toner Is Low - Wait Longer or Replace Now?
Has this ever happened to you?
Your printer tells you that its ink or toner is running low. It might tell you on its front panel, or put a message on your computer screen, or both. Some higher-end printers also have the ability to send “low ink” email alerts.
Should you replace that cartridge right away, or wait until it’s empty and the printer refuses to print?
Know your printer
Most printers I’ve seen fit into one of these categories:
- A simpler color inkjet printer with 2 ink cartridges (one black, one tricolor).
- A higher-end color inkjet printer with 4 or 5 ink cartridges (one black plus 3 or 4 colors).
- A monochrome (black & white) laser printer with 1 (black) toner cartridge.
- A color laser printer with 4 toner cartridges (black plus 3 colors).
It’s important to know this about your printer so you can better understand your options, since ink and toner have very different characteristics.
What does “low” ink or toner mean?
For most printers, when a “low” ink or toner message first appears, it’s just an early warning, so you will probably be able to continue printing. I suggest you check the ink levels right away. In my experience the low cartridge’s level is typically 10-20% at this point.
Wait longer vs. replace now: Pros and cons
What you do at this point is your choice.
If you keep printing:
- You’ll get the most from that cartridge.
- You’ll save money by not discarding a cartridge that isn’t empty yet.
- You won’t be able to predict how many more pages you’ll get before it runs out.
- When the cartridge gets low enough, the printer will refuse to print until you replace it.
- That might happen at an inopportune moment, like in the middle of an important project.
If you replace the cartridge now, before it runs out:
- You’ll waste a little money by not using up all the ink or toner.
- However, you’ll prevent that low cartridge from running out just when you might need it.
Other things you should know about printer cartridges
Regardless of what you might choose to do, here is my core advice:
- Keep a list of your cartridge model numbers nearby. I tape mine to the front of my printer.
- Keep spare cartridges on hand, but don’t buy more than you need in the short term.
- When you start to use a spare cartridge, buy more (as appropriate) so you’re always ready when the active ones run low, or if they develop a problem.
- Unopened ink cartridges generally have a 2-year shelf life, and they usually also have an expiration date on the package. I circle those dates with a black marker. Don’t buy expired ones, and if you receive any that have already expired, contact the seller immediately for a return or a replacement.
- Once you’ve unsealed a new ink cartridge, it will last about 6 months before it dries out, whether you actively use it or not.
- Toner cartridges contain finely ground plastic plus other dry ingredients. There is no liquid so they can’t dry out. Unused ones typically last for years.
- Genuine, name-brand cartridges (HP, Epson, Canon, etc.) cost more than generic ones, but they often work better.
- Generic (compatible, refilled, refurbished, or remanufactured) cartridges (or refill kits) may cost less, but they may not work as well, and can sometimes report that they’re empty while they still have a significant amount of ink left.
- HP Instant Ink: Don’t sign up for this monthly subscription ink service without understanding how it really works. It may save you money if you correctly estimate how many pages you print each month, but while it’s in effect your printer will refuse to use any cartridges that you buy on your own (including the ones already inside your printer when you sign up). And if you cancel, any cartridges you’ve bought with your subscription (including the ones inside your printer) become unusable right after your last monthly billing cycle ends.
Where to go from here
If this seems too complicated to manage on your own, I recommend that you talk to someone you know and trust to help you.
In the following searches, replace “X” with the make and model of your printer, e.g., “HP OfficeJet Pro 8600”: