How do you know when cartridges in your inkjet printer are really empty? Strangely enough, it’s not when the printer driver tells you to change cartridges because, for most inkjet printers, between 10% and 25% of the ink still remains in the cartridge – and usable – when the first ‘out-of-ink’ warning appears.


How do you know when cartridges in your inkjet printer are really empty? Strangely enough, it’s not when the printer driver tells you to change cartridges because, for most inkjet printers, between 10% and 25% of the ink still remains in the cartridge – and usable – when the first ‘out-of-ink’ warning appears.

It’s also difficult to calculate precisely when a cartridge will run out because the amount of ink used is dictated largely by certain image parameters. Scenes containing mainly pastel hues and light tones will use up a lot less ink than prints for fireworks against a black background. Different scenes will also consume colours at different rates. The green fields and forests of Europe will use more green than Australia’s ochre landscapes, which will use more yellow and red.


An image like this with predominately light tones, will use less ink than average when printed.


An image like this with predominately dark tones, will use more ink than average when printed.

Consequently, calculating precisely when an ink cartridge will be depleted is an inexact science. If you wish to use every last drop of your expensive ink without running out of a particular colour part-way through a print, a different strategy is necessary. You have to learn to ‘read’ the printer driver and gauge how much ink remains by utilising the information provided by the ink level monitor.

It’s important to understand that, by design, ink cartridges will always have some ink remaining even after the printer indicates that the cartridge is totally depleted and can no longer be used. This feature is intended to protect the permanent heads of the printer from going dry (see below). As well as varying with different types of images, the amount of ink remaining will also be affected by the number of cleaning cycles the printer has been through, the number of times the printer has been switched on or off, and how long it is left on and not operating. We’ll deal with some of these factors below.

Factors That Increase Ink Usage
Getting the most out of ink cartridges requires an understanding of the factors that cause printers to consume ink. This gives you some control over actual ink consumption – although some ink loss is inevitable under certain conditions.

When you buy a new printer, a certain amount of ink must be drawn up into the print head before printing can be commenced. Many printers are supplied with low-capacity cartridges to enable this to happen and buyers of such printers shouldn’t be surprised if they see low ink warnings after about 20 prints. Each time a new cartridge is installed, the printer will normally spend a minute or so charging the print head, which again uses ink – although not as much as the first head-charging cycle when the printer is new.

Ink is also consumed during the print head cleaning operation and during the self-cleaning cycle that is performed each time the printer is turned on. Extra ink is run through the head to clear blockages so don’t initiate a cleaning cycle unless you see missing dots or lines in your prints. These are signs of a blocked nozzle.

Many printers have pre-installed pads that capture the ink that passes through the print head when a head cleaning cycle takes place. These pads prevent ink from being spread about inside the printer where it could become deposited on the paper.

Eventually these pads will reach a pre-set limit of ink received and need to be replaced, and the printer will cease working. Replacement – and re-setting of the print counter – requires an authorised service technician, so the more you can cut back on cleaning cycles the longer the printer will run without requiring pad replacement.

Some ink will also evaporate over time because cartridges can’t be completely sealed due to altitude variations during shipment and temperature variations during storage and use. There’s not much you can do about this and, fortunately, the quantities lost through evaporation are generally very small.

Some coloured inks will also be used for black and white printing, largely to improve apparent print quality. Again, the quantities involved are usually small. However, it’s worth thinking twice before using a photo printer for document printing, particularly if an alternative document printer is available.

Minimising Wastage
Meticulous attention to cleanliness in your work area will help you to reduce the need for head cleaning. Print heads can pick up dust from the environment as well as from sheets of paper that are stored in the open. To prevent this, keep the paper In and Out trays on your printer closed or covered with a lint-free cloth or sheet of plastic when you’re not using the printer and remove paper from its packaging just before you make each print.

You can minimise the number of self-cleaning cycles by reducing the occasions when you make only a few prints at a time. Reserving your images and documents for one long printing session will save you ink – and, in the long run, time, because you won’t need to set up your workflow repeatedly. Your prints are more likely to show consistent quality when they’re made together as you will compare each one with others as you work.

Turn the printer off at the control panel before turning off the wall switch. This allows the print head to locate itself in a protected position that minimises the risk of the ink in the nozzles drying out. Switch the printer off when you’re not using it for printing. Automatic cleaning cycles are activated at intervals while the printer is on and these will continue, whether or not you are printing.

Don’t leave your printer idle for months at a time. It can cause the print head to dry out and this will require one or more cleaning cycles. The print head may also dry out if the ink cartridge is not installed promptly, so make sure you always install a new ink cartridge immediately after removing a depleted cartridge.

You can use up as much as 5% of a cartridge’s capacity with repeated cleaning if nozzles get clogged. And, when cleaning cycles fail to unclog the nozzles, professional services – and often an expensive replacement head – will be needed.

Think carefully about the resolution setting you use for printing as it will affect ink consumption. Images printed at lower resolutions generally use less ink than images printed at higher resolutions. Experience will teach you where to set the output resolution on your particular printer. In most cases, you should start with the lowest ‘photo’ setting and work up from there if prints are not to your liking.

Monitoring Ink Usage
All inkjet printers designed for enthusiast and professional photo printing provide ink level monitors. If you’re a Windows user, you can view the ink level monitor by double-clicking the printer-shaped shortcut icon on your Windows taskbar or opening the printer software. If you’ve chosen the former, click on the Maintenance tab and select the Status Monitor 3 button.


Ink level monitors (circled in red) can be found in most printer drivers.


Low ink reminders start to appear when about 20% of the ink remains in one cartridge.

Most printers will warn you about low ink levels when approximately 20% of ink remains in a cartridge. Some status monitors also provide an estimate of the number of pages that can be printed before ink runs out. However, this information may relate only to office-style printing, which uses much less ink that photo printing, so it may be misleading.

Sometimes low ink warnings start when almost half the ink remains. These early warnings are provided to give you time to purchase replacement cartridges and can be safely ignored if you’ve already done so.

Follow-up warnings may appear when ink levels reach 15%, 10% and 5% of capacity and, unless you’re making a huge print, you can probably ignore the first two. At the 5% mark it’s wise to have a replacement cartridge at hand – and also keep a close watch on print quality.

The next step depends on your printer. Some printers will continue to operate when one of the cartridges is depleted and, although print quality will deteriorate markedly with the loss of one colour, the paper will pass through the printer normally. However, most printers will stop the moment they detect a depleted cartridge.

This isn’t as disastrous as it seems; once you’ve replaced the depleted cartridge, printing usually continues normally. However, a line of discontinuity will probably appear on the print showing where the new cartridge was installed. Either way, you waste a sheet of paper so, for maximum frugality it’s wise to swap to making smaller prints when ink levels in any cartridge fall below 5%.

Checking Manufacturers’ Claims
The majority of printer manufacturers publish ink usage figures for different types of printing. However these should be viewed with some scepticism because they only provide ‘average’ usage figures for a specific type and, particularly in the case of photo printing, may not reflect ‘real world’ usage.

The ISO/IEC 24712 suite of test images that is often quoted in manufacturers’ websites consists of five sample documents which represent typical office documents. No photographs are included. The office documents used as references in this standard will use much less ink than photo prints, so this information can’t be used to assess potential ink yields.

Some independent testing services include a suite of 10 standard snapshot-style photos. However, data from these tests can be difficult to translate to provide reliable yields for larger print sizes, particularly when borders of different widths are involved. Some manufacturers also use a ‘standard’ A4 photo print for reference – but it doesn’t really represent a typical photo since it contains mostly low-density tones plus large areas of white.

Always look at the images on which each manufacturer’s claims are made before placing any credibility in them. In the end, your own experience with your own photographs will be the best guide you can have to actual ink usage.

What to Do With Depleted Cartridges
According to environmental monitoring organisation, Planet Ark, Australians send 34 printer cartridges to landfill every minute. That’s equivalent to 5000 tonnes of waste per year.

Don’t be tempted to re-fill spent cartridges. For starters, you may not be able to without damaging the cartridge itself and its interface with the printer. A more important reason for not refilling cartridges is that you have no guarantee the inks you use will be colour accurate or will blend predictably.

Print quality and longevity will be reduced by third party inks – and you may damage your printer and clog print heads because the inks you use are not compatible with the printing system or the ink already in the print head nozzles.

Planet Ark has joined forces with leading printer manufacturers to set up the innovative ‘Cartridges 4 Planet Ark’ program, for recycling of every type of cartridge used in printers, photocopiers and fax machines to keep them out of landfill. This world-first printer cartridge recycling program is the only one that guarantees zero waste to landfill from the recycling process. In this venture, Planet Ark is working with Close the Loop, an Australian hi-tech resource recovery company.

‘Cartridges 4 Planet Ark’ bins are located in most post offices and retail outlets like Dick Smith Electronics, Dick Smith Power House, Harvey Norman, Office Works and Tandy. Simply take your spent cartridges to one of these outlets to ensure they will be 100% recycled. For details of the ‘Cartridges 4 Planet Ark’ program, visit