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From the Tips Box: Revitalizing Ink Cartridges with a Water Infusion

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If you’re convinced your ink cartridge has more ink to share than it is willing to give up, you’re right. Read on to see how How-To Geek reader Max squeezes extra life out of his cartridges with plain old water.

Max wrote in with his simple solution. He wasn’t as interested in refilling his cartridges as he was in getting all the ink out of them. Here’s his detailed guide to getting nearly every drop of ink out of your high-priced ink cartridge:

The ink in many brands of ink jet printer cartridges is generally water soluble. To see if your ink is water soluble, wet your finger and rub it across a page from your printer you don’t mind wasting.  If the print smears the ink is obviously water soluble.

The top of the printer cartridge generally has the manufacturer’s label attached. It covers tiny holes through which the ink was injected into the cartridge during manufacture.

Each of the ink chambers contains a small sponge which holds a miserably tiny quantity of ink. When the ink runs out it is only the water content that is missing. There is still plenty of color left in the sponge.

How do you remedy this dried up sponge problem? Suck up about 3ml of water into a syringe and probe the paper label until you locate the filling holes. Poke the needle through the paper into the hole and inject about 3ml of water into the sponge chamber.

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Important precautions and considerations: color cartridges generally have three or more filling holes and black cartridges may only have one (although it is possible both types of plastic cartridges may be of the same physical design so either types may have three or more holes). The black cartridge may only have one sponge and yet it may have several filling holes, so don’t over fill it. Unfortunately the only way to establish the exact design of the brand of cartridges you use is to hack one apart and look inside. Photo by zeathiel.

Once refilled you can ignore warnings that the ink is low until such time as you notice the quality of your printing is beginning to suffer.

This method just about doubles the life of a cartridge and doesn’t appear to damage the printer.

If you’re simply looking to extend the effective printing life of your cartridges before throwing them away this is a great solution for situations where you don’t mind slightly decreasing print quality to save some serious cash. It’s also a good step between squeezing extra life out of the cartridges and outright refilling them. If you use distilled water there is little reason to expect any damage at all to the cartridge and the cartridge can easily be refilled with replacement ink in the future. Thanks for sharing Max!

Have a tip of your own to share? Send us an email at tips@howtogeek.com; the best tips will find their way to a future From the Tips Box post!

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 03/10/11

Comments (15)

  1. MJ

    Maybe I try this on some cartridges that my printer says are damaged (both HP 350-XL). Supposedly those were not depleted.

  2. ProstheticHead

    This would need to be done soon after the cartridge has run empty, ideally before it is completely empty. Take care not to fully saturate the sponge(s).

    After you have injected the water, check the print head (usually a small plate on the underside of the cartridge) for any leakage. If there is leakage, suck some if the water back out, otherwise it will continue to leak until the sponges aren’t fully saturated, which can be messy. A little ink goes a long way!

    Also, wear some rubber gloves.

  3. ProstheticHead

    @MJ. That won’t work if the printer thinks the cartridges are damaged. Try cleaning the contact strip (the copper thing) with some alcohol.

  4. Terry

    worked like a charm :) Thanks

  5. WebGyver

    Wonderful info, considering the price of ink cartridges for printers that are a few years old, still work pretty dang well but insist on only accepting brand-name replacements. (Anyone know a way around that?)

    And now to my stupid question: Where do you get syringes?

  6. Sandra P

    What a great (but obvious) idea! I WISH I thought of it as I’ve RECYCLED dozen of cartridges!

  7. Been there, done that

    to add to ProstheticHead’s answer, a better description would be the copper dots, but be sure to clean both the cartridge’s dots and the contacts in the printer. sometimes you will see that the contacts have ink on them and won’t pass on the electric signals.

    Some ink cartridges are transparent, and some have tops you can slide a box cutter type of blade (or a sharp, non-serrated knife) between the top and the body of the cartridge and then pry the top off. This way you can use the water, or refill with replacement ink, (kits are available in a number of stores as well as online, complete with instructions), and not worry about over saturation, as you can see the ink level come to the top. You wouldn’t put in enough water to do so, but if you are going to do this, you might as well refill for about the same effort. Once the ink at the top becomes shiny, you have oversaturated the sponge, and then just draw back enough ink to lose that shine. This will actually put in up to twice the ink that the manufacturer originally used. I haven’t seen any cartridges where the foam was filled to capacity by the manufacturer.

    I have seen some HP cartridges where if you took out the sponge before refilling, you could see that the sponge had only been filled to about a quarter of its capacity, as they used the same cartridge and sponge combination for different “models” of the cartridge, with minor price differences.

    The top then can be resealed with a glue gun, or just use Scotch tape to hole the top in place.

    If you would rather refill through the holes in the top, it is better to peel off the label so you can see when the ink starts to overflow, and immediately draw back some ink. You will notice that the filling holes have grooves leading to past the edge of the label, to allow air to replace the ink you are using, otherwise the normal air pressure outside the cartridge would actually push the ink back into the cartridge with its lower air pressure, and so you wouldn’t be able to print. Just make sure when you replace the label to not cover the ends of these grooves.

    Some cartridges can’t be refilled, or at least not once the printer driver has determined that the cartridge is empty, but these will often work if you refill before that happens.

    Others, for example some HP cartridges have a due date, so even if you kept it in its original box as a spare, they stop working on that HP determined date. You can change the date in the computer, but that would mess up so many more things that it is not worth it, but on these cartridges you just have to keep in mind that “best before” date, as it is a drop dead date, not just a suggestion. Other HP cartridges have a code that the printer reads off, and won’t let you put it in because it “knows” that you have just refilled it, but generally, if you rotate three cartridges, then it forgets the code when you finally get back to the a cartrdidge in rotation.

    For some cartridges, notably Canon, sometimes there is a way to reset the printer, not so it thinks that the cartridge is new, but at least it will disregard the fact that it was refilled. One difference though is that now it won’t track usage and warn when you are running out of ink.

    Epson used to have cartridges you could reset to be “brand new” with a gizmo that you pressed against the contacts, but on later models the pins were different, and I don’t know if new reset gizmos have been created for these. They also had some without contacts that you could refill almost indefinitely.

    That’s probably enough for now, but food for thought in case you want to save on ink. Considering how little ink there is in those cartridges, you are paying a fortune on a per volume basis. I don’t know of any other liquid for which you pay that much per volume.

  8. snert

    I’ve been refilling my HP inkjet cartridges with aftermarket ink.
    It’s good to know I can use cheaper distilled water.
    Thanks, Max.

  9. geof bowcock

    Another way to deal with cartridges that don’t do much good after cleaning the heads is to dip the head in lukewarm water for a few minutes,then dry and clean them thoroughly with a soft cloth
    gabaga

  10. Prairie Pickle

    @Been There Done That….

    Perfume. A liquid per volume of which you pay a fortune.

  11. May

    Thanks but I to would like to know where to purchase the syringe ??

  12. www.tptoners.com

    Wow! This is a great piece.

  13. Terence John_tj_uk

    Syringes can be purchased from places such as Maplins (in the UK or via mailorder worldwide?) or good model shop. These suppliers will sell units with non-sharp tips – ok for printers not for people! Failing that buy a one-off cheap refil set with a syringe in the pack. I’ve refilled for ages and am looking forward to trying the “water” method with my Epson P50 cartridges.

  14. MJ

    Hi again.

    I cleaned with some alcohol both the pins and the nozzle of my two damaged cartridges. One of them worked again, the other did not.

    I also tested the water trick with a depleted cartridge but I may have done that wrong, it did not work again, I will try again sometime.

  15. Mr.J

    I peeled off the copper on both ink cartridges are there any way to save them?

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