This article describes some of the troubleshooting tips I’ve discovered for solving problems printing labels with Zebra Eltron label printers.
Power Supply Problems
Most of the label printers you get on eBay come without power supplies. However, other sellers have power supplies that are claimed to be for these printers available for $10 or so, and I’ve bought a lot of them. Everything has been fine until recently when I started having printers fail in a way that points to the power supply.
The original OEM power supplies were big bricks rated at 14VAC and 4A. Much to my surprise the power supplies from eBay are rated at 20VDC at 3.25A. My guess is that the original power supplies feed AC to a rectifier directly, and feeding it DC gives the same result without the rectifier having to do anything.
There’s also the issue of 14V vs 20V. Maybe the 14VAC ends up closer to 20VDC after being rectified; I’m not an expert on electronics but 20VDC seems to work. Sort of.
I also don’t know how many amps a rectified 14VAC at 4A becomes when it gets converted to DC
I just ordered a new batch of power supplies and this time they were 20VDC at 2A. I sent them back.
The Failure Mode
At best the printers I sell with 3.25A supplies tend to print lines that cover the full width of the label somewhat washed out. I always thought it was caused by a weak power supply, but it was never bad enough that I was motivated to try to figure it out.
Now, I have several printers that with the 3.25A supplies will print an inch or so of the label then die. The way it dies is that the printer stops, the light on the button goes out, and it makes a strange “burp” noise. The light on the button then comes back on and the printer is back to normal. The light going out momentarily suggests strongly that the printer overtaxed its power supply. It gets about an inch of label printed before this happens.
Another clue: with the 2A supplies it gets a quarter of an inch of label printed before dying the same way. Less current, less label.
I’ve had the same results with several printers and several power supplies. Something is going on.
Inside the printer are two big capacitors, 22000 uF if that means anything to you. The printers are all getting to be 20 years old, so it’s possible that the capacitors are failing. Capacitors store electricity and could be doing two things inside the printer: smoothing out the rectified AC, and building up a reserve of power for doing things like printing wide black lines.
I’ve ordered a 4.5A 20VDC supply to see if it works better. I’ve also ordered a couple of new capacitors, and I’m hoping that they will make the problem go away.
Update 1: I got the new capacitors today, installed them, and the printer still failed the same way. So it isn’t the capacitors. Oh well, I had hoped that would explain things.
Update 2: I tried printing with a bigger (4.74A instead of 3.25A) and the problem went away. So it sounds like this is indeed a power supply problem. But with the “solution” given in the next section, you (and I) can manage just fine with the smaller power supplies.
A little careful searching led me to the solution. If you crank the darkness up to the maximum in the printer driver this failure will happen. I had recently tried turning up the darkness. So I backed it off to 12 or so and the problem went away.
There is a setting in the driver for this printer that controls dithering. This is one of several techniques used to compensate for the low resolution of the printers by smoothing out edges. It’s useful if you are trying to print photographs or low-resolution graphics, but it causes print quality problems when printing labels. Unfortunately the default setting in the driver is for dithering to be on.
It can sometimes be hard to recognize labels with the jaggies. Often the sense is just that things don’t look as good as they should, or that some labels look better than others. The problem is especially acute if you’re trying to print a scanned label. Here is a label, printed with stamps.com software, that has the jaggies:
Look especially at the “XI” logo next to the return address. Once you start seeing the jaggies they are all over the place. Now compare the above label with this one, printed with dithering turned off:
Turning Off Dithering
If you think you have dithering turned on (it’s on by default) it’s easy to check the setting and change it. Get into Printer Preferences for the Zebra Eltron printer (there are many ways to do this, and they vary by which version of Windows you are using). There will be several tabs; pick the Graphics tab. Look for the Dithering section. One of the options will be selected; if the option None isn’t the one selected, select it. Then just pick OK and you’ll be done. Here’s a picture of the dithering settings:
This is a cautionary tale. Hopefully it will encourage you to not try to install a fresh copy of XP, or it will give some hints which will make an impossible project a little less impossible.
So I got an old XP computer given to me and I wanted to sell it on eBay so I had to wipe the hard drive. It didn’t have an OS recovery partition so I just found an old XP CD and reloaded it. That’s where the fun began.
I expected XP to just load and work. But I forgot that back in the XP days you had to load drivers for your computer (or motherboard) and all installed cards, for anything important, like a network card, to work. And of course I didn’t have any of the necessary drivers.
It took two days to find, download, and install the drivers I needed. To download the chipset drivers I had to pry the heatsink off the motherboard chipset chip to read the number off it. (I found out they make thermal compound in cement form for gluing such heatsinks back on.) For other drivers I started with the hardware ID found in Device Manager’s properties and did some serious searching. It also turned out that the Internet Archive (http://archive.org) has a lot of the old driver CDs that came with old motherboards — you don’t need to find the exact same one, if you’re lucky one for the same chipset will work.
At this point it is a good idea to activate Windows. It seems that the online activating service run by Microsoft no longer works, but the phone activating service still does work. It’s a giant PITA but just do it. Eventually the phone activation service will stop as well and we’ll all be stuck. Microsoft originally promised that they would release a patch that would eliminate the need for activation in such a case but I’m not holding my breath.
With the network card driver installed and Windows activated, I was able to start looking for updates through Windows Update. But it wouldn’t work, and Internet Explorer wouldn’t load pretty much any website. I figured out that the encryption certificates loaded with XP were all out of date, and nowadays almost all websites are https, none of which would load without current certificates.
After some fruitless searches for sources of current root certificates, I decided to try to get Windows Update working. I needed to load all available updates anyhow, and Windows Update was where certificates used to come from. That led me to discover that Microsoft has turned off Windows Update for XP, as well as most (or all) other unsupported operating systems. Last time I tried this, years after XP support ended, it still worked. No more.
More searching led me to a website in Germany, http://wsusonline.net. The owner of this site has built a tool for updating Windows computers’ Microsoft software without a network connection. A side benefit of this website is that it has access to old updates for no-longer-supported software like XP. [I don’t know if he has copies of old updates or if he just knows a way to download them from somewhere on Microsoft’s website.] In any case the website will get you the updates you need.
From wsusonline.net, you need to download an update-generating program, run it to generate a folder containing all the updates you want, move that folder to the computer you want to update, and run an included updating program. It sound involved and does take time, but it works. Follow these steps:
On some other computer, download the update-generating program from http://download.wsusoffline.net. There are many versions covering different ranges of software. For XP you want Version 9.1. It’s the last version that supports XP.
Unzip the resulting file and run the program UpdateGenerator.exe. Start by selecting the Legacy Products tab. That will get you into the section for XP updates. It all looks pretty complicated but just pick what you think you need. I suggest selecting all the Internet Explorer and .NET stuff too.
Select the output medium. I tried creating an ISO file first but it didn’t work. So I tried outputting to a USB drive and that did work. I used an 8GB drive and it almost filled it up.
Click Start to generate the updates on the USB drive. It will take a while. I don’t remember if it asks questions during the process but you’ll figure it out.
Move the USB drive to the computer you want to update.
Run the UpdateInstaller.exe program from the USB drive. It will run a long time, it will ask questions, and it will request that you reboot several times.
Keep running UpdateInstaller.exe until it gives an unambiguous message that it has concluded successfully. It takes three or four restarts to be finished.
Now you have a running and updated copy of Windows XP running on your machine. Make an image backup of it (I recommend the Image series from http://terabyteunlimited.com), since you don’t know how long the procedures described here will continue to work.
There is still a problem with root certificates. The updates loaded with the above procedure didn’t get the certificates updated enough to work with today’s websites. I don’t know how to solve this. Maybe a different browser would supply its own certificates. I don’t have the time or patience to pursue this, but if you know an answer I’d be happy to hear about it.
I have an old house, built around 1888. It still has a lot of the original stuff and I try to preserve what I can. One thing I’ve been having trouble with is the door hardware, which is typically worn out or not working. There are expensive reproductions out there, but I’m cheap, and I like to keep what I can of the original stuff. I also like fixing things.
There are two problems I’ve found with old locksets: the cam is worn in the covers so the doorknob rattles, and the springs are usually broken or missing. I couldn’t find replacements for the cams, so I epoxied brass bushings on the wear surface and ground them down to fit. I also couldn’t find the leaf spring stock used in the locksets, but found that spring steel wire makes a good substitute.
The lockset described in this post is from an exterior door so it’s bigger than the common ones on interior doors, but the repair technique should work for any similar lockset. Also it’s a surface mount lockset; presumably mortised-in ones have the same problems and these techniques will work.
Take the lockset off the door and take it apart. Clean and de-rust the parts. Soaking them in vinegar overnight will remove the rust. Remove all paint with paint remover or heat. Wire brush everything and paint the exterior of the lockset. I like satin black spray paint for this.
Now it’s time to figure out what you’ve got and what needs to be fixed. If parts are missing I can’t help; maybe you can find something on eBay. But probably everything will be there except the springs, and any springs that are still present will be brittle with age and may even break when you remove them.
Notice the two springs in the first picture. On the left side is some light-weight spring wire somebody added to try to get the latch part to work. It barely did anything. On the right is an original flat spring for the lock bolt part. It broke from negligible force when I removed it.
I found some stainless steel spring wire online that works well in these locksets. In most cases the round springs will fit where the flat ones were and work fine. The spring wire bends easily and can be cut with an angle grinder or compound diagonal cutters which you can find on Amazon for around $15.
I’m selling short pieces of the spring wire on eBay cheaply; it’s enough to do several locks. A link to my eBay listing can be found at the end of this article.
In some cases you need to bend a little tab on the end of the spring wire to ensure that it stays in place. Some of the pictures show this.
You might find that you’d prefer stronger spring action, though I’ve found this spring wire to be quite satisfactory. If so, just double up the spring wire.
Dealing with worn cams turned out to be a thornier problem. My cam was worn out on the bearing surfaces in the lockset covers, which made the doorknob rattle annoyingly. The solution I came up with was to fit brass bushings over the worn ends of the cam, epoxy them in place, and grind them down so they just fit in the holes in the lockset covers. It’s a little crude but it works, doesn’t show, and will probably last a few more decades.
You may find that the “wings” that do the camming are worn or broken. This particular cam was pretty badly worn but it still worked. If your cam is unusable you’re probably out of luck. If you know a source for cams or have figured out a way to repair them, please let me know.
I found brass bushings with an ID smaller than the work cam, an OD larger than the holes in the covers, and sufficiently thick. Again, I’m selling the bushings on eBay at a reasonable price, and a link to the listing can be found below..
I found that a round file works well to open up the ID, but you might find a Dremel tool with a suitable attachment (like a sanding drum or a large-diameter round rasp) may work well too. Keep filing until the bushing fits over the cam. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In my case it only took a couple of minutes.
Repeat for the other end of the cam. The bushings will be different sizes so don’t mix them up. Once you have both bushings fitted, glue them in place with good epoxy.
Once the epoxy has cured, start fitting the cam bushings into the covers. I found that a Dremel tool makes short work of this. You can grind down the bushing, or open up the hole in the cover (or both). If your cover has sufficient “meat”, you might want to just drill out the holes in the cover to match the OD of the bushings, which starts out as a fractional size. Fitting the bushings into the covers takes a bit more time, but you should be able to get it done in fifteen minutes or so.
Everything should fit together nicely at this point. Put a little grease on the wear surfaces, put it together, and screw the cover on. You’ll have a lockset that works like new.
Replacing the Spindles
When installing the doorknobs, you might want to replace the spindles with threaded ones (you’ll need new doorknobs too). Threaded spindles allow for finer adjustment than the old-style threaded holes in the spindle. This in turn lets you eliminate some more slop in the doorknob assembly.
I’ve been doing a fair amount of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol] work and have learned a lot about replacing both small business and home phone lines with internet-based VoIP service. I’ve found reasonably-priced products and services, and in this post (and hopefully others) I’ll share my experience with the options for replacing one or two existing phone lines with VoIP service.
VoIP service is ready for prime time. It’s crystal clear, and rock-solid reliable. Even if you have an old-style copper phone line, probably most of your calls are going at least part of the way by VoIP already. If you have landline service from your cable company, that’s VoIP.
There are a number of existing VoIP services that sell you the hardware and the service all at once, companies like MagicJack, Vonage, and Ooma. This post is about buying your own hardware and subscribing to a VoIP provider, which can be a much cheaper way to go.
It will cost you well under $50 to get started, and the service will cost about $4 a month per line, plus calls, which typically cost a penny or two a minute. You pay for all calls: incoming, outgoing, and even toll-free. But it doesn’t add up very fast, and there are inexpensive unlimited plans available.
Start out with a pay-as-you-go plan and see how much you use, then switch if it makes sense. It probably won’t.
You can probably keep your existing number. We’ll go into the details, and how to find out, a bit later.
VoIP is insanely complicated. Luckily you can get by knowing very little, but I’ll (eventually) be providing links to other articles that will help you in case you have trouble, or provide explanations of things that you’re curious about.
Prerequisites and Limitations
You need a reliable internet connection, since your phone calls will be sent entirely over the internet. Any broadband service will do; phone service will use only a few Mbps during a call, and almost nothing when idle.
You need to be comfortable with very basic networking configuration. If you can use the web interface to configure a router, you’ll do OK.
Lastly, you’ll need one or more old-style phones, wired together the way you’re used to. If you have a big house with many phones, you’ll need to consider whether the new VoIP adapter will have enough power to drive them all, or you can just hook it up and keep unplugging phones until it works. I have systems with six or so phones on each that work fine.
[Alternatively, you can abandon old-style land-line phones entirely and buy VoIP phones. Doing so will give you access to many more features, but requires a wired internet connection everywhere you want a phone. (WiFi VoIP phones are becoming available but are not yet widespread or cheap; they will be before long.) For most people this approach is not practical for now.]
You’ll need a computer to set things up, but you won’t need to have a computer running to make or receive calls.
VoIP is not 100% reliable for faxing. If you need to connect a fax machine, I’d suggest testing it before making a commitment. It will work well enough for most people, but anyone who depends on reliable fax service may want to keep an old-style phone line to run their fax machine.
You’ll need an ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter) that lets you connect the phones in your house to the internet. It’s a small box that costs $30 – $40. Once you get it set up and working, you’ll probably forget you have it.
You need a location for the ATA that has access to a wired internet outlet, and access to the wired phone system in your house. Probably where your router lives will be best.
I’ve had good luck with Grandstream ATAs. You can get them from Amazon. Grandstream has introduced new models of their ATA series (HT801/802), but the old models (HT701/702) are still somewhat available, especially on eBay, and are cheaper. I will be describing how to set up the newer models but the older ones are similar enough that you should be able to follow along. There is also a slightly lower-cost ATA available from Cisco, but I don’t have experience with it, and this article won’t describe how to set it up.
You can get ATAs that support one phone line or two (or more, but they get expensive real fast). In this context, a “line” means the same as an old-style land-line: it has a phone number and you can plug a phone (or phones) into it.
The HT802 is probably the best choice for most people. It supports two lines (you can just use one if you’d like), and is easy to set up and maintain. If you’re absolutely sure you’re only ever going to want a single line, a one-line version is available for slightly less.
A note about warranties: Grandstream requires you to go through the dealer you purchased the item from in order to obtain warranty service. I’d suggest asking the seller on Amazon if they will handle warranty claims for you; if not you don’t have a warranty. These devices are quite reliable so your exposure is limited, but if it matters to you, check first. Of course with Amazon you’ve got 30 days to return the item if you have trouble with it right off the bat.
The VoIP Service
There are a number of bring-your-own-hardware VoIP providers out there. I use Callcentric. I’ve had good luck with them over the years, they have excellent support, and they are one of the lowest cost providers.
You can set up a phone line, with a new phone number, plus service plans for incoming and outgoing calls (they are separate), for about $5. It doesn’t cost anything to cancel in case you try it and don’t like it.
If you want to get started now, go here to set up an account with Callcentric. Don’t order anything yet; we’ll go over your options first.
Things to Note About VoIP Services
First, incoming service and outgoing service are separate. You need both to replace an existing land-line. The incoming service is what’s associated with your phone number; the outgoing service knows your phone number too, to display Caller ID and to work with E911 service.
You also need plans for both incoming calls and outgoing calls. Start with pay-per-minute plans; you can upgrade later to unlimited plans for either or both.
You need to give Callcentric your credit card number. All calls are prepaid. When you sign up you put $5 in your account, which is then refilled with $20 any time it goes below $5. There are low limits on the number of refills per day and per month, so if somebody hacks your number and makes a lot of expensive international calls, your exposure is quite limited. Be aware that calls billed to your account, even fraudulent ones, are your responsibility; Callcentric doesn’t give refunds.
You can optionally add voicemail to your incoming line(s). You have to sign up for it but it doesn’t cost anything additional.
You need to set up E911 service on your outgoing line(s) so if you dial 911 they will have your address. You’ll get walked through the process when you sign up; be sure to follow all the steps as indicated and to check that you get an email saying that your E911 service is active. You don’t want to find out it’s not working when your house is on fire. Be aware that E911 services discourage “test” calls.
Start with a new phone number to use for testing, while keeping your old service and number. When you’re sure you want to commit, you can have your existing number “ported” to the new service.
Setting up your Callcentric Service
Presumably you’ve already signed up for an account; now add both incoming and outgoing pay-per-minute service. Spend some time looking through the Callcentric website, but don’t worry if much of it is confusing. We’ll explain what you need to know later on, and there’s much you don’t need to know.
At this point you’ll have an account name and password, a Callcentric account number which looks like a phone number with a “777” area code, and a new phone number. Write it all down and don’t lose it.
Next you need to create a default Callcentric extension. With the simple setup we’re discussing, you can forget about extensions and extension numbers; you’ll be using the default of extension 100.
Sign in to Callcentric and from the dashboard, pick “View/Modify extensions”. Pick “Add new extension”. Now fill in the options, most of which are self-explanatory. The extension number is 100, which is the default extension. The password is the most important — use a complex password (I recommend using an online password generator) and write it down. You’ll only need it once (in the next step) so it doesn’t have to be easy to remember so long as you have it written down.
I’d suggest not worrying about setting up voicemail at this point; it’s a bit complex and you don’t need it in a basic configuration.
When you’re done you’ll have one extension, which will be “unregistered” at this point because we haven’t yet set up the ATA. That’s next. Once the ATA is set up as described next, the status should change to “registered” which means that Callcentric is successfully talking to your ATA.
Setting up your ATA
Now that you have your ATA and a Callcentric account, you need to configure your ATA. This is without question the most complicated part of the process, but there’s little you need to know to do it successfully. There are hundreds of options to be set, but most of them can be left set to the default, and many of them don’t matter.
Callcentric has instructions on their website for setting up your ATA which can be found here. This is for the HT802 model ATA. There are also instructions for the HT702. If you have an HTx01 model the procedure is almost the same. All ATAs have pretty much the same set of options.
Two more things you should do are: upgrade the ATA’s firmware to the latest version, and change the default password for the ATA. Be sure to write down the password; I like to put it on a sticker on the ATA.
Once you get the ATA properly configured, the status on the website should change (in a minute or so) to “registered”. Your new phone system is live! As part of setting up your ATA you should have connected a land-line phone to your ATA; pick up the phone and you should get a dial tone. You should be able to dial out (using the area code even with local numbers) as well as receive calls at your new number.
Hint: when dialing, press “#” after entering the number to speed things up. Also, don’t pause for more than a few seconds while dialing or the ATA will try to dial what you’ve entered so far, it won’t go through, and you’ll have to start dialing from the beginning. That delay is one of the options in the ATA setup if it is too short for you.
In Case of Trouble
The unfortunate fact is that when doing something this complicated, it probably won’t work the first time. Your first step should be to go through the entire configuration process and double-check that everything is correct. Get one character wrong and it will fail.
Callcentric has very good support and they should be able to talk you through finding and fixing what’s wrong. Note that their support is intended for people with experience in VoIP, but they seem to be very patient when dealing with beginners.
Callcentric support is accessed from their website and is ticket-based. They don’t have phone-based support (which seems odd for a phone company), but I’ve found that for complex problems they will initiate a call.
Grandstream also has good support, primarily through their user message boards. Find the ATA message board. Note that their message boards ask annoying questions when you first post. This is part of an attempt to limit spam, and it will stop after your first few successful posts.
You can also post a comment here. I’ll do what I can to help, but there will be periods during which I will be unable to respond.
Porting your Existing Number
If you want to keep your existing number, you can probably “port” it to your Callcentric number. It’s quite an involved process, but is well-described in the Callcentric support area. There is a charge for porting, around $20, but Callcentric often has specials where they will waive the fee.
Be aware that porting takes some time to be done; I’ve had it happen within hours of applying, but usually it takes a few days. You’ll get emails from Callcentric telling you what’s happening and when they have a tentative date and time they will let you know.
When the port is accomplished, your existing phone service will stop working and you’ll have to begin using the new Callcentric service for all incoming and outgoing calls.
I strongly suggest that you experiment with the Callcentric service for a few weeks to be sure that it will work for you. Porting can’t be “undone”; if you decide you want to leave Callcentric you’ll have to initiate a new “port” from whoever you want to switch (back) to.
Cutting Over to your New VoIP Service
When you’re ready to switch to VoIP for good, simply unplug the phone wire from your old provider’s equipment and plug it into your new ATA. Everything should then work pretty much like it always did, but you’ll be using your new VoIP service.
If you’re not porting your old number or are starting service in a new location, you’ll be using your new Callcentric phone number. If you are porting, it’s best to make the cutover at the time the port occurs.
Be VERY SURE that you have disconnected the old phone service before plugging your phone wiring into the ATA. If both are connected simultaneously, bad things could happen, including blowing up your ATA. Everything will be ok if you are using the phone wire that used to be plugged into a cable modem or a phone company demarcation point, but if the ATA is in a different location, it’s easy to accidentally have both sources connected at once. Don’t do it. Disconnect the old phone service BEFORE connecting the new. Be aware that if you’ve canceled your old phone provider’s service and your dial tone has gone away, you are still connected to their network. Physically disconnect from it. Sometimes this requires disconnecting or cutting wires.
Note that you can connect to your existing wired phone network at any extension; it doesn’t have to be at the same place the old phone service was connected. That location is usually determined by where the phone wire comes into your house; the new location is determined by wherever you locate your ATA. Just be sure you disconnect from the old network first.
Fancy Stuff You Can Do
Once you’ve got your VoIP service set up, there are lots of things you can do, and a few you can’t:
You have to always dial the area code, including the leading “1”. There are fancy ways to eliminate this need, but until you get some more experience with VoIP (a lot more) you don’t want to go there.
Don’t forget that you can speed up connections by dialing “#” after the number.
There’s no operator. Dialing “0” gets you nowhere.
Callcentric has “411” information service. It doesn’t cost extra (just your regular outgoing call rate) but does have ads.
You can enable or disable international calling. Check to see if it is enabled for you, and disable it if you don’t expect to make such calls. International rates can be looked up on the Callcentric website, but for most countries they are very cheap. You can look up rates here.
You can use a softphone app on your smartphone to connect to your Callcentric account. This lets you make and receive calls on your home number from anywhere you have an internet connection. Your smartphone is just another extension of your home phone. This is great for traveling, and works anywhere in the world.
Callcentric has spam filtering to reduce the number of unwanted calls. I’ve found that it doesn’t block all of them but helps some. You can also filter calls by doing things like requiring callers to press a specific key to be connected. All this is explained on the Callcentric website here.
If you want to create a mixed system with some VoIP phones and some phones connected to an ATA, you can do this. It’s a good way to slowly switch over to a pure VoIP phone system.
Don’t forget to set up voicemail, even if you have an answering machine at home. In that case it will provide a backup so callers can leave messages even if your home phones are down due to a power or internet failure. All about Callcentric voicemail is here.
You should also check and set up your Caller ID and CNAM (the name associated with your Caller ID. Instructions are here.
Callcentric lets you have multiple numbers on your account, even (low-cost) 800 numbers, and have them all ring on your phone.
The first post in this series tells how to avoid having to buy the expensive Sodastream CO2 carbonation cylinders. This second post will introduce various ways to make your own sodamix, so you don’t have to buy that from Sodastream either.
There are several good articles on this subject, which you can find by searching, and which are written by people who are as obsessive about this kind of stuff as I am. Much of what I present here came from that information. But I also learned a lot myself along the way.
What You Need to Get Started
There are some things you’ll need right away. I’d suggest just buying the ones you don’t already have. They’re not expensive.
Dispenser bottles: I started out using the original Sodastream sodamix bottles to bottle my own. I quickly learned that they are just too small to bother with. I found quart squeeze bottles like restaurant kitchens use work very well. I started with six, which has turned out to be a good number. Amazon has lots of them for a couple of bucks each. I got mine from US Plastic, item number 60147. These are also a couple of bucks once you add shipping. The bottles have little red caps that get lost. Just throw them out.
Utensils: you’ll need a container, a funnel, and a spoon. I use a beaker for a container, but any glass or plastic measuring cup will do. If you don’t have an appropriate-sized funnel, just buy a set of them.
Digital scale: you need a good one, that reads to .01 gram and goes up to 500 grams or more. These are dirt cheap on Amazon or eBay. Buy one. Be sure it has a “tare” function; I think they all do.
An Overview of the Process
The key ingredient in making your own sodamix is flavor concentrate. This is very, very concentrated flavor, without sweetening added. I buy it from a company called Rio Syrups, but they aren’t set up for retail sales and sell in large quantities, so I buy it in bulk, rebottle it in pints, and sell it on eBay. A pint of concentrate will make well over a gallon of sodamix, which in turn will make a whole lot of soda, 80 or more liters depending on how strong you like it.
I’m also selling 2-oz sample bottles of flavor concentrate on eBay. If you just want to see if making your own sodamix is something you want to do, it’s a cheap way to try it out. The sample-size bottles make about 24 oz of sodamix (roughly equal to two bottles of Sodastream flavors), which in turn makes about 10 liters of soda.
You’ll also need sweetener. If you don’t mind the calories and the diabetes, you can use sugar. I prefer diet soda and use artificial sweetener. I’ve tried a number of combinations, and have settled on a mix consisting primarily of stevia, since it seems to have the fewest people saying it’s bad for you.
Lastly, you’ll need a bit of preservatives. Sodamix will get moldy if you don’t use them. If you look at the ingredients Sodastream uses, preservatives are in there too. I’ve settled on a little citric acid and a tiny bit of sodium benzoate. I still refrigerate my home-made sodamix but you probably don’t have to with the preservatives in there.
Once you get set up to make sodamix, you measure out the ingredients in grams using the scale, which gets reset to zero before weighing each ingredient using the tare function. Then dump everything in a quart bottle using the funnel. Rinse your mixing container several times with hot water and dump that in too, to be sure to get everything. Shake well, fill the rest of the way with cold water, and you’re done: a quart of freshly-made sodamix.
A note about concentrations and dilutions: there is much variation in how strong your sodamix is, and how much you use in a liter of soda. I started out trying to make everything come out the same as Sodastream’s sodamix, and I think what I’ve come up with is pretty close. But you can vary the quantities of the various ingredients quite a bit to get soda as strong or as sweet as you’d like. Treat these recipes as a starting point. Also, don’t be too fussy about quantities as you measure things.
I use two common preservatives to keep the sodamix from getting moldy: citric acid and sodium benzoate. Both are readily available from Amazon or eBay, in packages much bigger than you need. Citric acid is pretty innocuous but sodium benzoate might be objectionable to you; leave it out at your own risk however.
For a quart of sodamix I use 0.5 gram of sodium benzoate, and 1 gram of citric acid. It’s not much but it does the trick.
Sweetening With Sugar
If you prefer sweetening with sugar, use about 560 grams of sugar to a quart of sodamix. That’s a lot of sugar, well over a pound.
I’ve never tried mixing up sugar-based sodamix, so I don’t know how hard it is to make. It’s probably best to put the sugar in the bottle first, then measure out the rest of the ingredients and add them before adding water. It might not be easy to get that much sugar to dissolve. Using hot water might help.
Sweetening Without Sugar
I went through quite a few variations before settling on a stevia/erythritol blend. Stevia by itself is extraordinarily sweet but has an unpleasant aftertaste. Adding a bit of erythritol kills the aftertaste and makes it taste (to me at least) just like sugar. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol and occurs naturally in some foods.
There are many stevia blends available (often with erythritol), but what we want is pure stevia for our sodamix. It’s a little hard to find but you can get it in liquid form and in powder form from Amazon or eBay. I like to use both liquid and powdered stevia. I’ve found that 2.5 grams of powdered stevia, 9.5 grams of liquid stevia, and 10 grams of erythritol make a good combination for a quart of sodamix.
I prefer to use stevia as I think it’s healthier than other artificial sweeteners like sucralose, which is what Sodastream uses. But using sucralose is cheaper and if you don’t object to it, here’s how: use 2g of acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) plus 8g of pure liquid sucralose instead of the stevia and erythritol. The Ace-K makes it taste better and is in Sodastream’s recipe too.
The Diet Sodamix Recipe
Now let’s put it all together. To make a quart of diet sodamix, use the following ingredients along with enough water to make a quart:
0.5 g sodium benzoate
1.0 g citric acid
10 g erythritol
2.5 g stevia powder
9.5 g stevia liquid
90 g flavor concentrate
When measuring flavor concentrate (or adding sodamix to your soda), be sure to shake well first. Actually I forget about half the time and it doesn’t seem to matter. But the label says to shake it, so I’m passing on that suggestion.
Using the recommended quart squeeze bottle for the sodamix, I like to use two or three squeezes of sodamix per liter of soda — that’s an ounce and a half or two ounces. Enjoy!
As mentioned earlier, flavor concentrates are not readily available in quantities suitable for home use, so I’ve decided to buy them in bulk and rebottle them in pints. A pint of concentrate will make about five quarts of sodamix. A quart of sodamix in turn makes maybe 20 liters of soda. So a pint of concentrate will last you quite a long time.
There are literally hundreds of varieties of flavor concentrate available. Some are great and some not so much, and I’m selling only the ones I like. If you want a flavor not listed, let me know and I’ll try it, and add it if it’s decent. I’ll also be adding ones I’ve tried and liked.
One of the flavors I offer is called Dr Rio, and it’s supposed to be a knock-off of Dr Pepper. It’s pretty good, but it’s not much like the original. If you’re looking for something that tastes like Dr Pepper, try Dr Rio. You’ll probably like it even though it’s not real close.
I’ve been adding some of the other ingredients, individually and in kits, as well as supplies like sodamix bottles, to my eBay store.
My Sodamix Supplies on eBay
I sell ingredients individually and in kits. Since shipping is a large part of the cost of most items, the kits are a much cheaper way of getting what you need. The flavor concentrate bottles will make 5 quarts of sodamix (80 to 100 liters of soda), other ingredients are sized to make 25 or 50 quarts of sodamix.
Many years ago I bought a Sodastream machine to make soda. I figured I’d save some money, and save having to lug bottles home and return them for the deposit. I drink a lot of soda.
Well, it worked out great, with one exception: it wasn’t cheap. I went a few years using Sodastream’s CO2 bottles and sodamix, annoyed by having to spend hundreds of dollars a year on it, to say nothing of the inconvenience of having to return CO2 bottles to the mall which is ten miles away.
So I started exploring alternatives. First was buying a few paintball tanks for CO2, and an adapter that converts paintball-tank threads to Sodastream threads. I found a local sports shop that would fill the paintball tanks for a few bucks, and I was in business.
Everything was great until the sports shop stopped filling CO2 bottles, and I couldn’t find anyone else to do it anywhere nearby. I was back to spending $30 to refill a couple of Sodastream cylinders every couple of weeks.
The next step was to buy a big tank that I could use to fill my paintball tanks myself. You can also get an adapter hose to connect a big tank directly to the Sodastream machine, but I didn’t like that idea, mostly because it seemed awkward. So I bought a big aluminum tank, and another adapter, this one to connect to the big tank, with a hose to connect to a paintball tank, and a couple of valves. It was all pretty expensive, but it doesn’t take long to make back that money with your savings.
Now I pay about $25 to fill the big tank, and it lasts a year. I have three paintball tanks, which I have to refill about once a month.
So that’s the story. The rest of this post tells how to do it yourself. Another post tells how to make your own sodamix, which frees you from having to buy those expensive flavor syrup bottles from Sodastream.
Starting with Paintball Tanks
You want to get 24 oz paintball tanks. That’s the biggest size that will fit in the machine.
Warning: there are many models of Sodastream machines, and I don’t know if they all take the big Sodastream cylinders, or even if Sodastream still makes the big cylinders. Look at your machine and see if the space where the Sodastream cylinder goes is big enough for a paintball cylinder, which is about 3-1/8″ in diameter. If not, I can’t help you (for now…). But you might consider one of the direct-to-big-tank hoses.
Right now 24 oz paintball tanks are about $25 on Amazon and eBay has them for 2/$45. I suggest starting with two of them.
The adapter you need is $15 – $20 on Amazon, and $12 – $16 on eBay. Get one that comes with an Allen wrench.
Note that the paintball tanks use an o-ring for a seal. I’ve had trouble with them leaking. I sell oversize o-rings for paintball tanks on eBay. If you have trouble with leaks, try those.
You need to adjust the adapter after installing it on a paintball tank but before mounting it on your Sodastream machine. Use the little Allen wrench that came with the adapter. Stick it in the top of the adapter and engage it with the adjusting screw. Tighten the screw until gas escapes, then back it off a bit. If you ever push the button on the Sodastream machine and little or no gas comes out (but the tank isn’t empty) you need to perform this adjustment again.
Getting Paintball Tanks Filled
Some sports shops can fill paintball tanks for you. The chains typically don’t. Don’t worry about getting “pure” food-quality CO2 — it’s all pure. There are endless threads on message boards about this. It is people worrying about nothing. Expect to pay $3 – $5 for a fill.
Like me, you’ll probably have trouble finding a convenient place to get this done. That’s why I recommend biting the bullet and getting your own large-size CO2 cylinder. It’s a big investment but you’ll make back your money pretty fast.
Here would be a good place to tell you about CO2 — you need to know the basics to understand what you’ll be doing.
CO2 isn’t like most compressed gasses. When the pressure reaches about 700 lbs it condenses into a liquid, and the liquid form holds way more CO2 than the gas form. You want to be working with the liquid form. CO2 cylinders are rated by their capacity of liquid by weight. A 24-oz paintball tank holds a pound and a half, and a 20-lb cylinder holds, well, 20 lbs. You’re not supposed to overfill the tanks, which means weighing them as you fill them. I’ve never bothered, and never had a problem. The only problem I’ve seen is that it’s hard to get the full weight into a tank.
Because CO2 is a liquid, you need something called a “siphon tube” in your big tank so the paintball tanks will get filled with liquid sucked from the bottom of the tank. Without a siphon tube you’d just end up filling the paintball tank with 700 psi of gas, which isn’t much gas.
When your big tank starts to run out you’ll be getting mostly gas out of it. When you fill your paintball tanks you’ll still be getting 700 lbs of pressure but since you won’t be getting any liquid, the tank will only last for a handful of bottles of soda in your machine. It’s time to get more CO2.
At this point an option would be to use a direct connection from the tank to the Sodastream machine. This lets you use all the CO2 you paid for. More about this later.
It’s important to empty all the gas out of an “empty” tank before refilling it. This goes for paintball tanks and the big tank. You’re only going to be filling it until it get to 700 lbs, and you want the full 700 lbs worth of liquid CO2. If the tank still has 600 lbs of gas in it when you refill it, you won’t get much liquid before it’s “full”.
Be somewhat careful when releasing CO2 to get the tank completely empty. If you do it in a closed space you can die from lack of oxygen. I’ve had the pilot lights on my stove go out after emptying out a big tank in my kitchen. That’s getting pretty well into the danger zone. Now I always empty out the big tank outside.
A note about CO2 and climate change: the CO2 you buy was removed from the atmosphere, and when you use it it goes back into the atmosphere. The net gain of CO2 is zero. Of course like everything else it takes energy to “make” CO2 and that energy likely comes from fossil fuels, but let’s not go there.
Setting Up to Fill Your Own Paintball Tanks
To fill your own paintball tanks, you need a commercial-sized tank, and an adapter.
You can then get your tank filled at any compressed-gas place. There are lots of them, often with “welding supply” in the name. Expect to pay about $25 to get a tank filled. Some places will do it while you wait, some want you to come back later to pick it up. The sizes of tanks that you’ll be dealing with are refilled, and you get the same tank back; they aren’t done on an exchange basis like the really big tanks.
I recommend a 20-lb-capacity aluminum tank. It’s a nice size and not too heavy. You want one that has a standard CGA320 valve and a siphon tube. (A siphon tube sucks the liquid CO2 out of the bottom of the tank — without one you’ll end up filling your paintball tanks with (not much) CO2 gas.) I bought mine from http://www.beveragelements.com, and recommend them. A new 20-lb aluminum tank with a siphon tube costs $126 plus shipping; they also sell on eBay and have the same thing for $139.90 with free shipping. Sounds like a lot? It’s cheaper than ten Sodastream tank refills, and how long would it take you to go through that many?
A note about cylinders (tanks) and pressure testing. Tanks (including paintball tanks) have a date stamped on them — a two digit month and a two digit year, separated by some sort of symbol. The date is when the cylinder was last pressure tested. It is “good” for five years from that date, after which it is supposed to be recertified. If the cylinder certification has expired, the gas place is supposed to refuse to refill it. I don’t know if they actually check, and I also don’t know how one goes about getting a cylinder recertified.
Certification testing (also called hydrotesting) is why I don’t recommend buying used cylinders. You’re likely to get a cylinder that has expired or is about to expire, and you then might have trouble getting it filled.
Now you’ve got a big tank full of CO2 and you need to be able to fill your paintball tanks. What you need is a paintball tank fill station. Search for that on eBay and you’ll find one — they start at about $30. You want something that fits on a CGA320 valve and has a hose connected to something that screws to a paintball tank. You don’t want anything made for scuba tanks.
Some “fill stations” have gauges; most don’t. You can add a gauge if you want. I think they help, even though they don’t tell you how much CO2 is left until the liquid CO2 is gone. The fill station consists of valves and fittings, usually 1/4″ pipe thread. You can buy more fittings, and gauges, to add to it so long as they have the right threads. It’s most useful to have a gauge between the two valves.
A good source for the parts you need is McMaster-Carr. To add a gauge, buy one each of “0-2000 psi 2″ gauge” 32255K7, and “1/4″ high-pressure tee FxFxM” 50925K197. It should cost about $30 plus shipping. Once you get the parts, separate the fill station in the right place and put it back together using Teflon tape.
Filling Paintball Tanks Step-by-Step
To fill a paintball tank, screw your adapter onto your CO2 cylinder, first making sure all the valves are closed. Open the main valve on the C02 cylinder, which shouldn’t make anything happen.
In the next step you will be screwing the paintball tank (which has brass threads) onto the adapter (which has aluminum threads). It is very easy to cross-thread the tank/adapter connection, which will ruin the adapter. The tank should screw onto the adapter smoothly. If it binds, even a little, back it off and try again,
Now that you have been suitably warned, screw a paintball tank onto the adapter at the end of the hose, and screw down the knob to open the valve on the paintball tank. Now, open the adapter valve furthest from the CO2 cylinder. That should let any CO2 left in the paintball tank escape. This is important because you want as much room for CO2 liquid as possible, to get a complete fill.
Close the valve you opened in the last step, and open the other adapter valve. Liquid CO2 should rush into the paintball tank. It will be cold and heavy. Wait until nothing more is happening, and wait another few seconds just to be sure. Close both adapter valves, then unscrew the valve on the paintball tank to seal the tank.
You’re almost done. Before unscrewing the paintball tank from the hose adapter, you need to let the remaining CO2 out of the hose. To do this, open the outer valve on the adapter and let the gas from the hose escape. There will be a lot. Finally, unscrew the paintball tank from the hose adapter, and you’re done.
It takes a lot less time to do than it does to explain.
Directly Connecting a Big Tank
There is another kind of hose you can buy, which connects from your large CO2 tank directly to your Sodastream machine. This is useful for getting the rest of the CO2 out of your tank once you’ve used all the liquid CO2. The hose has a CGA320 connector on one end (to connect to your tank), and a fitting on the other end that srews into your Sodastream machine where you ordinarily attach Sodastream cylinders, or paintball tanks with a paintball tank adapter as described earlier.
It is also a way to connect a big tank to any Sodastream machine that doesn’t have room for a paintball tank, which I think is true of most newer machines.
If you want to skip the whole paintball-tank thing, you need a CO2 cylinder without a siphon tube. If you have a siphon tube in your tank, you’ll get liquid CO2 instead of gas, and that will not work. Remember: with a siphon tube you get liquid, without one you get gas. The Sodastream machine wants gas.
To find the hose you need, search on eBay for “sodastream co2 tank adapter hose”. You don’t want a “fill station” for this. Some of them have a quick-connect at the Sodastream end, which is very convenient. I paid about $25 for mine. Note: the quick-connect fitting uses tiny o-rings, which tend to come out. If they do, stuff them back in — there are two of them, one on top of the other. It’s hard to get them in place, but it can be done with some fussing.
I’ve noticed that the o-rings tend to swell in use. Let them sit overnight and they’ll go in much more easily. If you lose the o-rings, they are 6mm ID and 10mm OD. You can get them from McMaster-Carr, item number 9262K166. Slightly smaller ones might go in more easily: order 9262K576.
So far I don’t have a lot of experience doing this, and it hasn’t been going well. The button in the Sodastream fitting that releases the gas appears to require a lot of CO2 pressure to activate. Under about 450 lbs you can’t get any CO2 out of it. Maybe there’s something wrong with my adapter, or maybe it’s just designed that way. In any case if you want one of these hoses to get the last bit of CO2 out of your tank, you may be disappointed.
Over the past year I’ve managed to scan most of my old photographs. Getting them digitized makes them easier to store and easier to share. If you have an automatic backup like Carbonite (as you should), your photos will be backed up in the cloud. Also, once they are scanned you can throw out the originals which saves space and avoids further fading or deterioration.
One of my projects was to scan close to a thousand old 35mm negatives that I had saved in a paper shopping bag from my high school days. I was the photography editor for the school newspaper and yearbook, and the bag was full of “outtakes”, but still contained many interesting things. You can see them here: http://bit.ly/BHS1968
I’ve found satisfactory ways of scanning most things. In this post I will describe what I have learned.
The most basic task in archiving is the scanning of photo prints. I’ve found that pretty much any desktop scanner will do the job. I use a Canon MX922 multifunction printer.
Just start scanning. Use a “Scanned Photos” folder to collect the unedited scans. I like to use a workflow of scanning, cleaning up the scans, editing the image’s metadata as needed, and moving the finished images to well-named folders.
If you have negatives for your prints, you may want to scan those instead. They are easier to scan, the quality may be better, and if you’re like me you’ve given away some of the prints but still have all the negatives. By scanning the negatives, you won’t miss out on the “good ones” that you gave away.
There are flatbed scanners that have attachments that will let you scan slides and negatives. I’ve never had any success using them, and don’t recommend that you try.
Read the specs and choose a film scanner that will handle the sizes of film that you have. Typically the scanners will accept slides and 35mm negatives (and maybe additional sizes), and will save the scanned images on an SD card. Once you figure out how to work it you can go through a big pile of negatives and slides pretty quickly.
Some scanners will also scan prints. I haven’t used one that does that, but you might want to consider that option. It looks like it’s limited to the more expensive scanners. Just remember that sending your boxes of photos off to a scanning service will cost hundreds of dollars, maybe thousands.
If you are scanning negatives they will typically slide through a plastic holder in the scanner. Be very careful to avoid getting dirt into the scanner as it will scratch both the plastic holder and the negative. You’ll probably want to buy a few spare holders and replace them when scratches get objectionable.
The scanner should have settings for scanning both negatives, and positive images such as slides. It also may let you select black and white or color, but it’s best to just scan everything in color. No matter the source, the resulting image file should be a positive image.
When scanning film or slides, be careful not to scan things so that the result is a mirror image. It’s sometimes hard to tell. Look for pictures with writing in them, like signs. Once you have figured out which way is right, note which side the emulsion (less-shiny) side is, and always scan things oriented that way. If you end up with a bunch of scans done wrong, you can fix them in editing.
Scanning Photo Albums and Scrapbooks
You may have photos mounted in albums that you want to preserve. The easiest way to do this is to remove the pictures from the album to scan them. If this isn’t practical, you can try to scan the album pages, in parts if they are too big, and then extract the individual photos during editing.
Scrapbooks are especially difficult, because they are usually too big to fit on a standard scanner. If I had to scan a scrapbook I would try to set up a stand that would hold a good camera exactly square above a flat surface, and take pictures of the pages. This has to be done precisely or the results will not be satisfactory. As an alternative you may wish to have a professional scanning service do your scrapbooks; it’s not cheap but may well be worth it. A typical price would be $150 for a 60-page scrapbook.
The scanned images you generate will probably not be the best quality. Being able to clean up faded or poorly-exposed photos is one of the great advantages of digitizing.
To edit photos you can use any of a wide variety of photo editing applications. I use one called paint.net which is free and quite powerful. If you want more sophisticated control over things like colors, at the cost of a more complex interface, try Picture Window Pro. It’s also free, and worth checking out.
You may think you need to use Photoshop for this. By all means use it if you have it and know how to use it. But getting good at using Photoshop can take years. I doubt you want to make that kind of commitment, and you don’t have to.
Use the following steps to clean up a photo:
If the image is badly skewed, rotate it to appear vertical
If the image is oriented wrong and/or mirrored, correct the orientation
crop the image to get rid of borders and improve framing
try “Auto-Level” to see if it helps more than hurts; undo it if not
adjust brightness and contrast
sometimes “Sharpen” helps
These steps are quick to do and some can usually be skipped — in most cases you’ll only spend 20 seconds or so on a picture, and will end up with a much improved image. Once done, save the image back to the same file.
Figure out a hierarchy of folders to give your picture library some sense of organization. It won’t be perfect but the goal should be to be able to find things relatively easily. Be sure to include things like dates and places. For example, often a set of photos will have a year printed on the back. That should be in the folder name for the pictures either directly or by hierarchy.
I don’t try to change the file name from the coded name generated by the camera or scanner. It’s just too much work.
Photo files have hidden coding called “metadata”, some generated by the scanner or camera, and some that you can add. There are programs that let you edit metadata, but I just use Windows: right-click on the photo file, pick “Properties, then pick Details. That’s the metadata.
I use the Title, Subject, Tags, and Comments fields, when appropriate, to record things I know about a picture or that are written on the back. Most photos files I generate don’t end up with metadata because the folder organization tells everything I know about the picture.
You can go really overboard with Tags. They provide a way to code details like peoples’ names, places, events, and such. Some programs let you search for photos by tag. I, however, don’t use them.
There are date fields in the metadata. But, at least with Windows, you have to specify a complete date like 1/28/2019, not just a year or a month and year. This greatly limits its usefulness.
Sometimes you have negatives you can’t scan yourself, such as odd film sizes. Or perhaps you have important slides or negatives that you’d rather have done by professionals. There are many places to get this done, including the chain drug stores. What you’ll find out first is that getting this done is very expensive, and the prices vary widely.
I’ve had good luck with a mail-order service called Spartan Photo Center in South Carolina. They are reasonably priced (though you’ll still pay a fortune), and have done good work the few times I’ve used them. The only drawback is a rather complex pricing model, and a corresponding order form that will remind you of doing your taxes.
Throwing Out Your Originals
You will probably be inclined to save the original prints, slides, and negatives. By all means save a few of the most important ones, especially when having the originals has some meaning to you. But you really don’t have to save much.
Remember that you can easily make prints of your digitized photos, that are probably much better than the originals (thanks to your editing), using your printer. Buy some photo paper (look on eBay for a decent price) and get in the habit of making prints to share.
Once you get used to the idea of keeping your valuable photos in digital form, the hard copies stop being so important. Just toss them.
Backup, Archival Storage, and Distribution
The library you create should be something that gets preserved for many years. Make backup copies on DVDs, USB memory sticks, and portable hard drives. Review your backup method from time to time to make sure they stay in a readable form as technology advances. Using a cloud backup service preserves things even if you have a fire or other disaster.
You may wish to upload all your photos to one of the various photo-sharing sites. These are good for short-term sharing, but can’t be depended on to preserve photos for generations. Too many have been bought out or shut down to consider them a viable archival method.
The library of photos you create is something you can share. Send copies of the entire library, on a DVD or USB memory stick, to all your relatives. The more copies that are out there, the more likely that one will survive for generations.
Don’t forget that your photos may have value to others. Consider sending copies to appropriate organizations such as local historical societies, libraries, and such. Often old photos include buildings with historical interest, or even just what a neighborhood used to look like decades ago. Even people who may not know who you are may find elements of your family pictures of interest many years in the future.
I’ve been using (and selling) Canon MX922 inkjet multifunction printers for a long time and very much like them. They do pretty much everything, and I’ve seen them on sale for $50 and are readily available (for now) for $99. If you use them with non-OEM ink, you can get your cost per page down to pretty much the cost of the paper.
I don’t know if non-OEM ink can cause problems, but I use it exclusively with good results. You may have trouble with colors being a bit off when printing on photo paper. You also may end up with a clogged printhead, which is what this post is about. I don’t know if I would have had the same trouble if I used Canon ink, but from what I read online, you will end up with a clogged printhead eventually no matter what ink you use.
This post really needs some pictures but I’m not that motivated right now. Maybe someday…
Your printhead is clogged if there are problems visible on a nozzle check print, and running the printhead cleaning and deep cleaning routines don’t solve the problem, or only solve it for a short time.
What To Do
When this happens you can buy a new printer, they’re cheap after all, or you can buy a new printhead, which will cost as much or more than a new printer. Or you can try to clean the printhead. It’s messy and takes a while, and you risk damaging the printer, but the printer is close to worthless at this point anyhow.
Get Some Supplies
Go to the drug store and get a bottle of ammonia, a bottle of isopropyl alcohol, and a bottle of distilled water. Put on some old clothes, and find a sink you can get dirty. You’ll also need a flat-bottomed bowl to work with.
Take Out the Printhead
I read lots of different advice about this. I’ll describe what I did, which worked. There are no doubt other ways.
Open the printer and the ink door as if you were going to change an ink cartridge. Then unplug the printer. It will complain about this when you turn it back on, but it will get over it.
Take out all the ink cartridges. I put them in a pile and wrapped them with aluminum foil so they wouldn’t dry out. You probably don’t have to.
Make sure the printhead carriage is lined up with the opening. The left edge of the carriage should line up with the left edge of the opening. Move the carriage by hand if necessary.
Open the lower door and make sure it is all the way down (it will click).
Pull on the printhead latch, which is the horizontal plastic bar with all the ink colors on it. Use a finger in each corner of the bar. You have to pull pretty hard. The latch bar should line up with the edge of the opening when it is all the way out.
Remove the printhead. This is tricky, but easy once you know how. First, recognize what part is the printhead. It has the ink ports on it (where the ink cartridges go), and a vertical divider in the middle. Use two fingers to grab it by that center divider. Pull it out, but realize that it rotates as it comes out; the top comes out before the bottom, and it will be rotated 90 degrees (with the back side with the electrical contacts facing up) when it comes out.
Clean the Printhead
It’s OK to get it wet. Fill the bowl with warm tap water and add a little alcohol and ammonia. Dunk the printhead and swish it around. Leave it to soak for a while.
Repeat this process until you don’t see even a trace of color in the water after a good soak. It will take five or ten times. In between soakings, run the printhead under the tap until the water runs clear. Be especially careful to clean the little screens in the ink intake ports. They seem to collect ink-colored gunk, and I think that gunk is the problem you’re trying to solve.
When you’re done the screens should be screen-colored, without gunk or ink residue. Rinse the printhead one more time, this time using distilled water and a good amount of alcohol but no ammonia.
Dry the printhead on paper towels. If you’re in a hurry put it in the oven with it set to 120 degrees F for a half hour, or dry gently with a hair dryer. If you’re not in a hurry let it air-dry for a day. When you’re done you should be confident the printhead is dry inside and out.
Reinstall the Printhead
Put the printhead back in the same way you took it out. Start with the contacts up and the ink intake ports down, with the bottom of the printhead going in first. If you do it that way it will just drop in. Close the latch to secure the printhead.
Get Ready To Print
Put the ink cartridges back in (in the right slots!) I would replace any that don’t have a decent amount of liquid ink in them. Close up the printer (don’t forget that bottom cover) and plug it back in.
Turn it on. It will complain about being unplugged, which is OK. Run a deep cleaning on all colors, then run a nozzle check.
If everything went well, the nozzle check will be perfect. If not, run some more cleanings.
If this procedure doesn’t fix your printer, well, you’re no worse off than when you started. Be sure to troubleshoot any error codes before giving up; you might have the cartridge in wrong or something else might be wrong that’s fixable.
With a bit of luck, the printer should be good for another couple of trouble-free years.
If you’re trying to hook up an old printer or other device with a parallel port (DB25) or Centronics (CN36) interface, but you have a newer computer without a parallel port, there are easy-to-use adapters available for a few bucks that will give you the required port. These are also sometimes called IEEE 1284 ports.
Types of Adapters
There are two types of USB -> parallel port adapters. Both have a USB plug on the computer end, but some give you a parallel port (DB25F) connector on the printer end, while others have a Centronics (CN36) connector on the printer end.
The adapters with a DB25F connector are useful if you are trying to connect to something other than a printer. Examples are scanners or tape drives with parallel interfaces, dongles used to activate certain old software, or old-style data-transfer applications such as InterLink, included with some versions of DOS. Some of these require additional cables or adapters.
You can also use this type of adapter to connect to printers with Centronics interfaces by use of a standard old-fashioned printer cable (DB25M to CN36).
The adapters with a Centronics (CN36) connector will plug directly into a printer and avoid the complication and expense of a printer cable. This is what you need if you’re simply connecting to a printer and do not expect to use the port for other things.
Installing and Using the Adapter
Most of these adapters will just plug into a USB port and work — later versions of Windows have drivers for them built in. Most adapters also come with one of those annoying mini-CDs with drivers for other OSs or older versions of Windows.
Load the CD if necessary (read the instructions that came with the adapter, perhaps on the CD), then plug the adapter into your USB port. Windows should load the necessary driver(s) and create a USB virtual printer port.
Generally Windows will not recognize printers plugged into one of these adapters. You’ll have to create a printer device manually. Go to Devices & Printers -> Add a printer and pick “Add a local printer”. Then pick “Use an existing port”, and scroll down to find a port named something like “USB001 (Virtual printer port for USB)”. If there are more than one “USBnnn” ports shown, use the highest number for your first try.
Finish creating the printer device by selecting the correct printer driver. It won’t happen automatically and you may have to find and download one if Windows doesn’t have one built in. Print a test page and be amazed (or not).
These adapters are fussy. Generally once you get them set up they will just work, but like most computer things, it may take some fiddling to get it right.
In this context “work” means that trying to print makes something happen, even if it isn’t what you want. You may find that there are driver settings that control margins, orientation, paper feed, or other parameters, that need to be adjusted to get exactly what you want.
You’re on your own here, since there a wide variety of printers out there and each driver has its own peculiarities. If you got here from another of my articles, that article may have what you need.
Windows Won’t Load the USB Driver
You may get a popup error message when you plug in the adapter, instead of the desired “Your device is ready to use” message. If this happens try again a couple of times.
Try a different USB port. Try connecting directly to one of the computer’s USB ports without going through a hub or other USB adapter. Try without using an extension USB cable, if you’re trying to use one.
Try ignoring the error and see if you can create a printer device as described above, and then see if it works. Sometimes it will.
If nothing will work, try a new adapter from a different manufacturer. These adapters are cheap and not every adapter will work with every computer/OS combination.
More Than One “USBnnn” Virtual Printer Port
If you follow these instructions once and they work, and you only have one such adapter installed, you’ll end up with a “USB001” virtual printer port, and that’s the one you need to use.
However, if you do a lot of fussing or you have multiple adapters, you’ll end up with more than one “USBnnn” virtual printer port. Unfortunately there is no good way to figure out which port goes with which adapter.
As described above, start by trying the highest-numbered one; that will be the last one installed. But if that one doesn’t work, try the others one at a time.
Alternatively, unplug the adapter, delete all the “USBnnn” ports, and start over. Hopefully you’ll end up with just one.
Printer Goes Offline Sometimes
If you get the adapter to work the way you want, you may still find that once in a while it will stop working and the printer won’t print. If this happens enough to be a problem, try a different adapter.
If you’re willing to live with this, try unplugging the USB connector from the computer, waiting a couple of seconds, and plugging it back in, to the same USB port. After doing this the printer is likely to start to print, although there may be a delay of a minute or two for the spooler to retry the operation. Be patient.
Using These Adapters for Things Other Than Printing
If you are trying to get something like a scanner, Zip drive, dongle, or tape drive to work, or you’re trying to use a data-transfer application like InterLink, you may have to try several of these adapters to get one that will work, or you may find that none of them will. The adapters are emulating a parallel port, not reproducing one perfectly, and devices that depend on characteristics of hardware ports that are undocumented or are side effects will not always work.
The Adapter Has the Wrong Connector
Please read the section early in this post about the two kinds of USB-to-printer adapters.
The most common problem of this type is when you’re trying to plug the adapter into your printer and the adapter has a DB25F connector and the back of the printer has a CN36 connector. With this type of adapter you also need a standard parallel printer cable.
There are a wide variety of other connector combinations you might encounter, especially if you’re trying to do something besides just hooking up a printer. Go to a cable supplier like Monoprice and find a cable with the ends you need.
Generally, you should try a different adapter if you have problems that you can’t solve. They’re cheap, and it’s no big deal if you end up with two or three of them to try.
Please let me know by commenting on this post if you find it useful, or if you have suggestions for improving it. I’m particularly interested in anything I haven’t covered that will help others get these adapters to work.
These are a bit of a luxury but well worth the expense if you ship more than one or two packages or flats a week. You just click “Print” and out comes a professional-looking label ready to use.
Types of Thermal Label Printers
A bit of terminology clarification is needed: there are two kinds of thermal label printers: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Direct thermal is what you want — the labels fade, but that’s not a problem for short-lived shipping labels, and importantly, direct thermal printers don’t require a ribbon. Thermal transfer printers are more versatile and produce longer-lasting labels, but require a ribbon, and are not needed for our purposes.
There are many sizes of labels that label printers can print. You’ll want to stick with standard 4″ x 6″ labels. These are 4″ wide, and you need to make sure you get a label printer that will handle these labels. Most of the cheaper ones won’t print on labels that wide, and you’ll be asking for trouble if you try to get by with one.
Buying a Thermal Printer
The standard for these printers is the line of Zebra/Eltron printers. They are expensive but you can get deals on used ones on eBay. I bought three of them a couple of years ago for $40 and two of them were good. There are a bunch of models that all function pretty much the same — I go by the appearance of the printer. If it looks like what I want it probably will do.
There are people (including me — see below) who are selling these printers on eBay. Most are junk, often sold in lots. A few are tested and include the necessary adapter cables, power supply, and blank labels, and are ready to plug in and use. Expect to spend $75 – $150.
Many of the used ones only have a parallel (printer) port interface. You probably don’t have one of these on your computer. But you can buy a USB-to-parallel adapter on Amazon or eBay for a few bucks. I’ve written an article about these adapters to help you understand them, select the right kind, and get it working. You can find it here: USB Parallel Port Adapters.
If you don’t want to turn this into a science project but are willing to pay a few hundred dollars for a new printer, here are some options:
Prices of course are constantly changing. If I had to choose one I think I’d try the $110 one, but mostly because I’m cheap, and have a high tolerance for having to fuss with things. If you want one that is likely to be trouble-free, go with one of the Zebra ones, or with a reputable seller on eBay.
The above links, and others scattered around, go to Amazon and earn me a small commission. There are also many other suppliers; Google the printer you’re interested in (or “Zebra LP2844”, the standard workhorse). But be careful; many label printers will work with Stamps.com but many won’t.
Sometimes I have label printers for sale on eBay. If so they will be shown at the bottom of this post.
Buying Thermal Printer Labels
You’ll need a roll of labels. Unless you’re doing a lot of printing, just buy one or two rolls at a time. They typically hold 250 labels which will last you pretty much forever. The labels go bad if they sit around too long, more than a few months.
Here are links to labels on Amazon, both single rolls and multiple rolls (which are a bit cheaper per roll):
Note that there are several sizes of 4″ x 6″ roll labels. You want the rolls of 250 with a 1″ core. Bigger rolls might fit your printer, but I haven’t tried them, and anyways 250 labels is a lot.
Note the price per label: you have to figure it out, but using today’s prices, the most expensive labels cost 2.6 cents each, and in reasonable quantities they get close to a penny a label. Compare that with sheet labels (or Stamps.com labels), and you’ll pay for your label printer from just the savings, before too long.
Drivers for Thermal Printers
You’ll also need a driver. There are a bunch of them floating around, and some work better than others. There are drivers by UPS, Zebra, Seagull Scientific, and others. Google “Zebra Eltron 2844 driver” and pick one. I keep switching from one to another to try to solve minor problems, and there isn’t really much difference.
There are a lot of different printer models, and you may not be able to match your exact printer to an available driver. Don’t worry too much about this. If your printer isn’t listed, start with “LP2844”, and then try others if that one doesn’t work. For me it always does.
Look through the driver properties and set ones that seem like they might be useful, like “Intensity” and “Speed”. Check submenus too — these drivers have a lot of settings.
If labels are printing but aren’t positioned right, go into the driver properties and fuss with the label’s size, orientation, and margins. With some drivers these settings are located on submenus accessed from buttons on the main properties menu.
There are very often ways to define sizes for the various labels you use and give them names. Even if you only use one size of label (like 4″ x 6″) it sometimes helps to define that as a named label size.
If you’re getting the feeling that it may not be super easy to find settings that work, you’re right. But the good news is that once you get it set right it will stay that way. And sometimes you get lucky and it just works the first time.
If all else fails and you can’t find settings that work, try a different driver. There are several of them out there, and while they’re all similar, each differs in some ways.
Zebra/Eltron Test Print
If you have an Eltron (Zebra) label printer, you can get it to print a test page by powering it on while holding down the paper feed button. It will start blinking red; when that happens release the button. A test print cycle will begin.
The test print cycle skips a few labels at first, so don’t think it is running away and stop the test. Eventually it will print a label with some details about the printer firmware. When that completes the printer will be in dump mode. In that mode it will print the raw data it is sent. Press the paper feed button to end dump mode.
The most useful thing on the test print, aside from verifying that the printer isn’t dead, is the gray bar near the top of the test label. It prints every dot over the width of the printer, in a stair-step pattern. If it is a nice even gray with very few gaps, the printer is working well. If there are visible gaps, the printhead is dirty or worn.
You can clean the printhead with an alcohol wipe. Spend a minute or two on it; some deposits don’t come off right away.
Other Uses for Thermal Printers
By the way, these label printers are good for other things as well. You can print to them just like to any printer, and if you create a 4″ x 6″ page it will come out the way you want. I use this method to print labels for file boxes, for instance.
Also, if you are trying to print labels from a website or program other than Stamps.com you may get labels formatted for printing on regular letter-sized sheets. First see if there is a setting for printing to label printers, and if not use the following technique.
Print the label sheet to a pdf file (or scan a printed page), use a pdf-to-jpg converter to make a jpg file (Google it), and finally use an image-editing program like paint.net to make the part you want to print be 4″ x 6″. You can then simply print the image on your label printer. It sounds complicated but it’s faster than cutting out a plain paper label and taping it to the box.
Label Printers I Have for Sale
Here are any label printers I’m selling on eBay. They come with everything you need: the printer, a roll of labels, a USB interface, a power supply, all cables, an installation manual, and drivers. This article can also help you get it working.
I have a separate post describing common problems with these printers and what to do about them. You can find it here .