Paper World

Cobra Ink System

Cheapest printer inks

Good riddance paper! Someday.

Meanwhile I have stacks of color pages I have to print. I am designing a few full-color books and that means proofing them on paper so I really need really cheap printing. Those spammy refill ink cartridges aren’t cheap or dependable enough.

After much research and trial and error I found that the easiest cheapest method of printing is a continuous ink supply built into a printer. Once you are set up you can buy ink inexpensively by the pint, quart or gallon. A pint bottle of ink will cost no more than one of those itty bitty 1 oz. cartridges and will last hundreds of times as long.

A continuous ink system runs tubes from the refillable ink containers into the moving ink head in the printer. The printer operates normally. You simply refill the outside container with bulk ink and keep printing on the same originally installed cartridges. There are a number of outfits that will sell you a kit to do this yourself. I’ve heard of occasional satisfaction with this method. But installing this gear can get really messy and hairy. You are on your own if it does not work correctly. And some printer models are easier to retrofit than others.

I opted for a more elegant and not that much more expensive option: have the pros do it. Cobra Systems will install their continuous ink supply system on twelve different brand new Epson printer models. For about $50-100 more than the cost of the new printer, they will ship you a ready-to-use modified new printer with refillable ink containers already installed. Because this modification voids Epson’s warranty, they provide their own warranty. They guarantee it will work. Period. In fact, in my experience Cobra’s service is amazing. They will make absolutely sure your system is working to your satisfaction no matter what, even if they have swap it out at their cost.

Because Epson (and all the other printer manufacturers) discourage these kinds of workarounds of their pricey inks, there are some kludgy maintenance steps (like squeezing a bypass switch every now and then) needed to fool the cartridges into going beyond their programmed death. But these inconveniences are minor.

The Epson printers work as advertised. You can get a new 8×11 Epson Workforce 30 installed out of the box with a bulk ink system for $100. I’ve been using a new Epson Workforce 1100 with the Cobra-modified system installed for $280. It’s a serious large-format general purpose printer for up to 11 x 17 inch pages, with 5 huge ink tanks. After about 30 minutes of easy set up, purging the system of air from shipping, I was ready to print. I now churn out hundreds of 11 x 17 full color pages for a few dollars worth of ink. I saved the extra cost of the continuous ink system in the first week of use. (It’s shocking how much ink is consumed when a printer cleans its heads.) You can get long-lasting pigment inks, or high-heat inks, or plain old dye inks. Half a liter (a pint) of dye ink goes for $27. Compare that to the thimblefull in most ink cartridges.

Important caveat: You need to situate the printer in a work place you don’t mind getting stained with spots of color because even though the system is well designed to minimize spills, the inks are not sealed and sooner or later you WILL spatter some ink at some point. Count on it. Also, since the ink tanks are velcro’d to the side of the printer, these units won’t win any style prizes if that is important to you.

For most folks a bulk system is overkill. If all you need is infrequent home printing, I still recommend the previously reviewed HP OfficeJet K5400 as the cheapest per page cost for an off-the-shelf device. But if you are doing large volume printing, saying proofing a book, or running a T-shirts business (Cobra’s main customers), or printing flyers and posters, then I recommend Cobra’s continuous ink system and their fantastic support. (You can also send them your own Epson printer and have them add their continuous ink supply.)

-- KK 09/6/11

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