How to fix your printer

Question: I see a lot of specific printer problems solved in your column and on your website (, but what about an overview of the most common printer problems and solutions? – G.A.

Answer: That’s a fine idea! Printers can be one of the most frustrating and trouble-making technologies, both at home and in the office. Many helpdesk workers will tell you that they spend too much of their time answering the plaintive cry, “I can’t print!” As a matter of fact, a lot of the requests I receive have to do with printer problems. So here are a variety of printer problems and their solutions to make your printing life easier.

If nothing has been changed on your printer or in your printer settings on your computer, then chances are that the problem is quite straightforward. Check these potential problems:

  • POWER – First, check to be sure the printer is on, especially if the trouble occurs first thing in the morning. Perhaps someone turned the printer off when the day’s work was finished.
  • PRINTER STATUS – Check the printer status lights, or the status LCD screen. If there’s a flashing light, or if the status screen shows an error, then it’s your first clue to a problem. Most printer manuals have a diagnosis process for alerts.
  • PAPER – Check to see whether the paper tray is empty. If so, refill it but not necessarily with as much paper as it can possibly hold – many printers like a little elbow room in their paper trays. Make sure to feather the pages to eliminate static. Hold the pages in one had and flip through the pages at a fast rate with your thumb. If the paper tray is not empty, check for a misfeed. A sheet may have been caught in the mechanism. There may be a variety of printer access doors to check. Pull out any remnants. Even the smallest piece of paper could be causing the problem, so check carefully. Tweezers are handy for this procedure.
  • TONER & TONER CARTRIDGES – Many common problems are related to toner or toner cartridges. If the problem is toner-related, check to see if the toner cartridge is empty or low. The printer warning should indicate this. Swap it for a new one and the unit should work. (You might find good deals by ordering on-line from 123 Inkjets.) Some laser toner cartridges have an ejected toner reservoir. There’s usually a trap that can be emptied.
  • TONER DRUM – The toner drum on a laser printer needs to be replaced periodically, usually once a year, depending on the volume of printing the device handles. Print-outs will become fuzzy or faded when the toner drum starts to go. The printer’s error lights should indicate if the drum has become a problem.
  • PC CONNECTION – If all the physical hardware on the printer seems to be fine, check to be sure that it is connected to your computer. Personal printers connect via either a parallel or USB (universal serial bus) connector to the back of the printer. Follow the cable from the back of the printer to the back of the computer to make sure the connection is good.
  • NETWORK CONNECTION – If the printer is connected by what looks like an oversized telephone cable or coaxial cable (like the cable for cable television), your printer is connected through a network. If this is the case, the problem gets suddenly complicated. If your network-based printer is acting up for everyone in the office, you’ll need to call in your resident network expert – you probably have a print server, hub, or cable problem. If it’s just you having a problem with your network printer, make sure that your computer is connected to the network.
  • DRIVERS – If the printer works, but spews strange characters or it appears as though the PC and printer aren’t working together properly, you probably have a printer driver problem. When a printer acts up and there is no hardware problem, the solution is often driver-related. A printer driver is a piece of software that allows a computer to “talk” to a printer. It’s a kind of translator. Occasionally, if a printer has worked previously, but suddenly doesn’t work with a newly installed program, there could be driver problems. To remedy this, download a driver from the printer maker’s website, remove the old driver, and install the new driver. Drivers are normally available under the “support” area of a website.
  • PRINTER HEADS – If you have an inkjet printer and you get smudged or blurry images, you might want to look up the utility on the printer that cleans and or aligns the printer heads. Most inkjet printers have either software that can start this process, or a setting on the printer itself that can kick-start it.

If all of these solutions fail, you might want to search the manufacturer’s support area for printer issues. Often, there will be bulletins issued on how to fix newly discovered bugs.

If you have a scanner and a printer, and experience printing problems, take heart—this one is easy. Detach both devices, and remove the software and drivers for both devices. Then reinstall the printer first and the scanner second.

Failing any of this, you’re a candidate for technical support. Call the printer manufacturer. Their phone number, hopefully a toll-free one, is usually available on their website. Be sure you have the make and model of your printer, the make and model of your computer, and any warranty information, and know what operating system you’re using. Make the call from the desk where the printer is installed.

If you develop hives when you call a manufacturer’s support line, try a third-party solution. has a good selection of experts offering advice. Turnaround time varies, but you will normally get some response within a day. If you want real-time help on a printer issue, a live help desk advisor can be hired from the folks at Keen.

I also suggest you sign up to our TechnologyTips Help Forum and post your question there. Most questions usually get answered within a day.