How to Clean a Printer

Printer maintenance may be the last thing on your mind, but your trusty printer will fail without some basic precautions. See more computer accessory pictures.
Printer maintenance may be the last thing on your mind, but your trusty printer will fail without some basic precautions. See more computer accessory pictures.
Don Carstens/Getty Images

You probably don't spend a lot of time worrying about printer maintenance. When you need to print something, you just turn the printer on, send the print command from your computer and wait for the printed sheets to stack up on the printer's tray. Maybe you wipe the dust off the top of your printer once in a while, but beyond that, how much maintenance can a printer possibly require?

Depending on what type of printer you have, there may not be too much printer cleaning involved at all -- in fact, the printer will pretty much take care of that itself. But if you use an inkjet or laser printer, you might need to undertake some fairly involved cleaning procedures now and then to keep your printer running smoothly. From the microscopic ink nozzles in an inkjet printer to the mirror and rollers in a laser printer, there are some complicated parts that need occasional maintenance.


Cleaning your printer when needed will prolong its life, give you better printing results, and allow you to get the maximum number of printed pages out of your ink cartridges. Considering the cost of printer ink, keeping your printer running at full efficiency could be a major money saver. That's why we're going to break down why, when and how to clean your printer.


Cleaning a Printer Head

The printer head is the part of an inkjet printer that contains all the tiny nozzles that spray ink onto the paper. If the printer head gets very dirty or clogged, it will really foul up your print job --some colors might not print correctly, or things might print with weird lines, streaks or smears. Luckily, modern printers do a pretty good job of making sure you rarely, if ever, have to manually clean the printer head. Hewlett Packard printing technology specialist Thom Brown explains how printer heads keep themselves clean:

"Most modern printers are designed so that the inside of the printer will clean itself. Between print jobs the print carriage (that holds the print cartridges) docks itself in a special place away from the paper path. This docking process accomplishes two things: it protects the ink cartridges and printer heads from dust, debris and dry-out, extending the life of the cartridges?. It also serves as a cleaning station between print jobs."


Brown continues, "The print head servicing process is where a miniature 'wiper blade' wipes across the print head to remove any old or dead ink and prepare the print head for printing. By performing this servicing, your printer stays healthy and ready for optimal performance."

If you keep your printer in a dirty environment, such as an auto repair shop, the printer head will be exposed to additional dust and debris. You might want to consider keeping a plastic cover over the printer when it's not in use to guard against these extra contaminants.

If you find you need to clean your printer head despite the automatic cleaning procedures, there are a couple of ways to go about doing so. The driver software that came with your printer should have a cleaning or maintenance cycle that you can activate. See your printer's owner's manual for details. The manual should also offer some additional troubleshooting tips, and can help you find the printer head itself if you need to clean it manually. In general, use isopropyl alcohol and a lint free cloth or swab -- the alcohol evaporates quickly without leaving residue.

If the print nozzles are clogged, you might have a more involved cleaning procedure ahead of you.

How to Clean the Ink Nozzle on Your Printer

As long as you use your printer regularly and correctly, you shouldn’t have any problems with its ink nozzle.
As long as you use your printer regularly and correctly, you shouldn’t have any problems with its ink nozzle.
Jetta Productions/Getty Images

If you don't use your printer for several weeks or months, this can cause ink to dry out and clog the nozzles. Inferior inks can cause clogging issues as well. Of course printer manufacturers will always tell you to use the right brand and formulation of ink, but it's not all just marketing -- cheap ink can cause all kinds of headaches with your printer, and might end up costing you more in the long run. Today's high-resolution inkjet printers have extremely fine ink nozzles; the inks are specially designed to flow through them without clogging, and to dry quickly on the paper without drying on the print head or in the nozzle.

When you find you do need to clean the nozzles, you can try several different procedures. The same cleaning cycle you used for the print head can be used for the nozzles. Also, check to see if your model of printer houses the nozzles on the ink cartridges or on the printer. If they're on the cartridge, and the cartridge is mostly empty, you can just replace it. The new nozzles will obviously be unclogged.


Seriously clogged nozzles can be cleared with some isopropyl alcohol and another run through the clean cycle. There are kits that will force the alcohol through the nozzles to clean them, although some people have had success using a dropper or syringe to apply alcohol, or filling an old, cleaned out ink cartridge with alcohol and running a cleaning cycle. These generally aren't "official" cleaning procedures, so proceed with caution: They could damage your printer or void your warranty.

The best way to keep your printer running smoothly is to avoid having to resort to drastic cleaning measures in the first place by using proper maintenance. Next, we'll give you some tips of cleaning and maintaining your printer.

Tips for Cleaning Ink off Printers

Cleaning dust off the top of your printer is a simple task. All you need is a damp cloth. Just don't use any solvents that could harm the plastic casing. This basic maintenance task can keep dust from working its way into the printer's inner workings. If you end up with stray ink in places you don't want it, isopropyl alcohol is generally considered a safe and effective solvent. It's flammable, so be careful.

Laser printers use a fuser and toner instead of nozzles and ink. Cleaning one is a more involved process and can be dangerous, since some parts of a laser printer can be very hot, and toner particles can irritate your lungs if you inhale them. Follow the procedures in your laser printer's manual -- and when in doubt, call a professional printer service technician.


Your best bet is to avoid printer problems with maintenance and proper usage. Print a page or two -- each in black and white and color -- each week if the printer hasn't been used. It wastes some ink, but keeps print nozzles from clogging.

An often overlooked aspect of proper printer care is the paper you put into it. "Choose high-quality papers," said Brown. "Low-quality papers tend to have a rougher finish which will cause unnecessary wear and tear on your printer, from the rollers to the paper pick to the output tray. These papers may also leave tiny traces of paper fibers within in the printer which can clog a print nozzle. Beyond that, low quality papers will also affect the ink-toner interaction with the paper and result in lower quality prints." He also emphasized the importance of using quality inks and cartridges -- third party or recycled ink products can give you short-term savings but cause long-term problems.

For more information on appliance maintenance, see the links on the next page.

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  • Brown, Thom. Hewlett Packard printing technology specialist. Personal correspondence. Nov. 19, 2010.
  • Lexmark. "Steps for Manually Cleaning the Print Cartridges on a Lexmark X2450, X2470 and X2480." (Nov. 18, 2010.)
  • TechRepublic. "Clean your laser printer safely with these tips." Sept. 20, 2001. (Nov. 19, 2010.)