Printers remain one of the most frustrating pieces of consumer electronics, but it turns out a thirst for pricey ink and occasionally chewing up and choking on paper aren’t the biggest challenges of using an Epson printer. As some users have discovered, the hardware might be programmed to simply stop working one day, if used too frequently.
The phrase ‘planned obsolescence’ gets thrown around a lot with consumer electronics, as a practice where a product is specifically designed and built with a limited lifespan so that it needs to be upgraded or replaced in just a few years’ time. Most companies deny using this approach, or will cite very specific but questionable reasons as to why it’s necessary, as Mark Haven, a writer and lecturer at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, recently discovered.
Haven recently took to Twitter to share a frustrating experience with their wife’s “very expensive @EpsonAmerica printer” which, seemingly out of the blue, displayed a warning message stating that “it had reached the end of its service life.” It then simply stopped working, requiring either a servicing to bring it back from the dead, or a full-on replacement.
So what was the issue with the printer? A dead motor? A faulty circuit board? Nope. The error message was related to porous pads inside the printer that collect and contain excess ink. These wear out over time, leading to potential risks of property damage from ink spills, or potentially even damage to the printer itself. Usually, other components in the printer wear out before these pads do, or consumers upgrade to a better model after a few years, but some high-volume users may end up receiving this error message while the rest of the printer seems perfectly fine and usable.
According to the Fight to Repair Substack, the self-bricking issue affects the Epson L130, L220, L310, L360, and L365 models, but could affect other models as well, and dates back at least five years. There’s already videos on YouTube showing other Epson users manually replacing these ink pads to bring their printers back to life. The company does provide a Windows-only Ink Pad reset utility that will extend the life of the printer for a short period of time, but it can only be used once, and afterwards, the hardware will either need to be officially serviced, or completely replaced.
A few years ago, Epson released its EcoTank line of printers, which were specifically designed to address the extremely high cost of replacing the ink cartridges for color inkjet printers. The printers featured large ink reservoirs which could be easily refilled with cheaper bottles of ink, and although Epson’s EcoTank printers were more expensive as a result, in the long run they would be cheaper to operate, especially for those printing a lot of color imagery. But that assumes they actually keep working for the long run. Videos of users manually replacing their Epson printers’ ink pads seem to indicate that the company could redesign the hardware to make this part easily user-serviceable, which would extend the life of the hardware considerably. But as it stands, the company’s solution runs the risk of contributing to an ever-growing e-waste problem and forcing consumers to shell out for new hardware long before they really need to.
We’ve reached out to Epson for comment about this functionality and have asked the company which models specifically are affected by this limitation. We’ve also asked whether servicing is covered under the printer’s warranty, and what the cost may be if not, and will update this story when we hear back.
Update 8/8/22, 5:10 PM ET:
As some readers have pointed out, absorbent ink pads are an inherent and crucial part of the design and functionality of all inkjet printers, including those made by other companies like HP, Canon, Lexmark, and Brother. As anyone who’s had an unfortunate run-in with a leaky inkjet cartridge or had a mishap while attempting to refill cartridges using third-party tools can attest, you don’t want that stuff ending up anywhere but on the printed page.
The issue at hand, as is evident by Mark Haven’s tweet, is that printer makers aren’t properly educating users that the life of the expensive printer they purchased may be potentially limited, or that mandatory service will be required down the road. That’s something that’s expected with other costly purchases, like a car. The dealership will explicitly outline the required maintenance you’ll need down the line, but at least with models targeted at the average consumer, printer makers aren’t as forthcoming. Your first time hearing about this issue shouldn’t be from an opaque and unexpected error message that tells you your printer “has reached the end of its service life,” especially when most of its parts are perfectly functional.
Epson has already taken steps to reduce the amount of e-waste its printers produce through the EcoTank line, which allows ink reservoirs to be refilled instead of having to buy new inkjet cartridges and dispose of the old one, which each feature actual electronics inside. But it could definitely be doing more, particularly with issues like this. For certain models, like those expected to have high usage, the company has implemented hardware designs allowing the ink collection devices to be easily replaced by the end user through maintenance kits.
But it’s not a feature you see on consumer-targeted models. Instead of gambling that the printer itself or other components will be obsolete or non-functional before the inkpad needs maintenance, the companies could be more transparent about the potential lifespan limits from the start. Inkjet printers are aggressively eager to let you know when ink levels get low, so let’s make information about a printer’s potential need for maintenance obvious too, even if a user will never get close to actually needing it.
As it stands now, there are undoubtedly many users getting an error message like this that simply replace their printers entirely, when they’d certainly be happy to instead pay for a $15 maintenance kit that quickly gets them running again, keeping more devices out of recycling facilities or garbage dumps.