Is your thermal printer underperforming? There’s a good chance that those print inaccuracies are the direct result of dirty printheads.
Thermal printers use electronic heating elements to transfer pigment onto special paper. These devices are typically used to print receipts, shipping labels, and barcode tags. There are two types of thermal printers, including direct thermal printers and thermal transfer printers.
Most manufacturers recommended that you clean a thermal printer’s printhead after every use or, at the very least, every time media (ribbon or paper) is changed. Regular and effective cleanings will prevent the cleaning head from getting clogged. While thermal printheads are considered consumables, cleaning will certainly extend their lives. In fact, a well-maintained thermal printhead can last as many as 10 years.
The most common thermal printhead contaminants include:
- Paper Chaff
- Oil (often from users’ hands)
What You Need:
- Your thermal printer user’s manual
- Microfiber or lint-free cloth
- Thermal printing cleaning pen
- Thermal printing cleaning card
- High-purity (99.9%) isopropyl alcohol
- High-purity alcohol prep pads
Terms That You Should Know Before Tackling Any Thermal Printer Maintenance
Direct Thermal (Thermal Impact) Printer: Direct thermal printers use chemically treated, heat-sensitive papers and thermal printheads to produce darkened images. They do not require ink, toner, or ribbons.
Thermal impact printers are typically found in electronic calculators, fax machines, and receipt printers.
Thermal Transfer Printer: This type of printer uses a wax or resin ribbon and a thermal printhead to transfer images onto traditional media.
Thermal transfer printers are typically used to produce barcodes, labels, and photo printers.
Thermal Printhead: Thermal printheads generate heat that is used in conjunction with either heat-sensitive paper (direct thermal printer) or thermal transfer ribbon (thermal transfer printer).
Signs That Your Printhead is Dirty or Clogged
Faint or streaky print jobs are clear indicators of clogged or contaminated printheads. Fortunately, there are plenty of quick and easy steps you can take to remedy these kinds of printing issues.
Printhead contamination may be caused by the accumulation of one or more contaminants. The most common type of printhead damage is caused by abrasive wear. This may be caused by the buildup of paper dust or poorly adjusted toggles. Contaminated printheads may become permanently damaged when corrosive material is allowed to pass through the protective coating on the outside of a printhead. Damage may also occur when printheads are exposed to caustic ingredients or unapproved media. In fact, one of the most common mistakes that people make is to introduce an improper cleaning chemical. Chemical residues that are left on printheads may heat up, leaving irreparable damage behind.
Visit MIDCOM Data Technologies Inc’s page on Zebra Thermal Barcode Printer maintenance to see the difference between a well-maintained thermal printhead and one that has been neglected.
Thermal Printing Cleaning Pen Method
Thermal printing cleaning pens are designed to remove ink, dirt, and other contaminants from thermal printheads.
Step 1: Clean Thermal Printheads:
Take your pen and swipe it across the printhead surface. Do not be afraid to apply a little pressure. This will enable you to remove any burnt-on particles.
Step 2: Repeat
Repeat this process until every last bit of debris has been removed from the printhead. As you can see in this video, the printhead should be noticeably cleaner once your done swiping it with your thermal printer cleaning pen:
Step 3: Clean the Pen:
Now, wipe the pen tip across a clean piece of paper to remove any stuck-on debris.
Here are some reliable thermal printer cleaning pens:
Printhead Cleaning Pen Three-Pack: This thermal printhead cleaning pen three-pack retails for just under $12. It is designed to safely remove oil, dust, and other contaminants.
Zetek Printhead Cleaning Pens If your managing a large number of thermal printers, then a bulk option might be more appropriate. The Zetek Printhead Cleaning Pen set comes with 12 pieces. It contains 99.7% IPA.
Why Use Cleaning Pens?
Cleaning pens make printhead cleaning quick and easy. The pen serves as an extension between a cleaner’s hand and the applicator. The narrow tips make it easy for you to get into tight spaces, such as the areas between the paper rollers and the printhead crevices. According to the experts over at Online Labels, most thermal printhead cleaning pens are good for at least 10 uses.
Thermal Printing Cleaning Card Method
Another option for removing build-up from a thermal printhead is to use a thermal printing card. In this video, they use an Iconex thermal printing card to remove contaminants:
Step 1: Prepare the Printer:
Turn the printer off. Remove any AC cables or paper from the printer.
Step 2: Insert the Cleaning Card:
Place the cleaning card into the printer’s paper path. You will need to open the printer just as you would if you were inserting a new roll of thermal printing paper. Leave approximately 1/3 of the card sticking out in the front.
Step 3: Close and Remove:
Close the printer with the cleaning card in it. Then, pull the cleaning card up and out of the paper path.
Step 4: Test it Out:
Turn the printer on. Reinstall the paper roll and AC cable. Print a test page to see if the cleaning card was effective. If there are missing characters or streaks on your print sample, repeat steps one through four. This time, be sure to the reverse side of the cleaning card.
Here are some reliable thermal printhead cleaning cards:
When to Use Cleaning Cards
Cleaning cards should be used sparingly, as they have the potential to scratch thermal printheads. Many manufacturers recommend that you use a lint-free, alcohol-soaked swab or cloth on the printheads while reversing cleaning cards for the rollers.
Isopropyl (Rubbing) Alcohol (IPA) Cleaning Method
What You Need
- Clean lint-free cloth or applicator
- 99.9% purity IPA
Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) is a common ingredient in thermal printer cleaning pens and thermal printer cleaning cards. You can apply it directly to your printheads using a lint-free cloth or with rubbing alcohol swabs or pads.
We strongly recommend that you use a solution with a high alcohol percentage (ideally 99.9%). You can purchase 99.9% isopropyl alcohol online. Keep in mind that isopropyl alcohol and water are the only liquids that can be applied directly to printheads.
Isopropyl alcohol dissolves the residue left on thermal printheads. Unlike other cleaners, it does not leave any trace chemicals behind. It also evaporates quickly. As such, it causes little to no interruption.
Step 1: Apply Isopropyl Alcohol to an Applicator
You may wipe or swab isopropyl alcohol onto your printheads. These Eurow Microfiber Cleaning Clothes work well.
You can also purchase lint-free foam cleaning swabs, such as these rectangular ones by Wellgler’s.
Another option is to use 99.9% isopropyl alcohol-soaked technical prep pads. You can purchase a box of 40 for no more than $20 (check price here) on Amazon.
Soak the applicator of your choice in high-purity rubbing alcohol.
Step 2: Swipe Your Printheads
Open your printer to reveal the printhead and paper rollers.
Using a small amount of pressure, apply your applicator to your printheads. Move the applicator back and forth until you’ve thoroughly cleaned the entire surface of the printhead.
Step 3: Allow the Printhead to Dry
Allow the printhead to dry before you resume printing. It usually only takes rubbing alcohol one to two minutes to fully evaporate.
Step 4: Check to Make Sure Your Cleaning Was Successful
Turn on your printer. Check to make sure any previous printing issues have been resolved. If this is not the case, you should repeat steps one through four.
Use Canned Air to Clear Paper Dust From the Printhead
You may be able to remove paper dust, lint, and dirt with the help of canned air. You can purchase a six-pack of Office Depot Cleaning Air on Amazon (check price here). This product should distribute a blast of compressed gas. The included plastic extension tube will help you perfect your aim.
Here are a few tips and tricks that will keep your thermal printhead up and running for even longer.
Adjust the Amount of Time Between Printhead Cleanings
If you’re noticing an exceptional amount of build-up on your rag, pen, or card after cleaning, it might be time to adjust the amount of time you go between cleanings. Remember, you should be cleaning your printhead every time that you replace the ribbon or once every two months.
Adjust Your Printer’s Heat and Darkness Settings
You may be able to extend the life of your printer by simply dialing down the intensity of the settings. Check your printer’s user’s manual to determine the recommended heat and darkness settings. You may also be able to adjust the printing density (burn time setting) to improve the quality of your prints.
Adjust the Printhead Pressure Check out this video for step-by-step instructions on how to adjust the printhead pressure on a Zebra thermal printer:
Consider Using Thermal Ribbons with Built-In Cleaners
Some thermal transfer printer ribbons are equipped with built-in cleaning strips. Clean Start is one example of this type of technology.
Remove Your Jewelry Before Maintenancing a Thermal Printer
Thermal printheads are highly susceptible to abrasion. As such, you should always remove your watches, rings, and bracelets before you attempt to clean one.
Don’t Forget The Rollers
Don’t forget to pass over the rollers when you’re cleaning off your printheads. Dust and oil on the rollers are transferred over the printheads whenever paper passes through.
Bundle Your Cleaning Products
You’re less likely to skip a scheduled cleaning if you have all the supplies you need on hand. Consider bundling your thermal printer cleaning supplies. A good example of a bundled cleaning kit is the Fargo 86177 Complete Printer Cleaning Kit. It comes with four printhead cleaning swabs and 10 printhead cleaning cards.
Important: Always check to make sure the cleaning supplies you purchase are compatible with your thermal printer.
Use High-Quality Media
One of the easiest ways to guarantee the life of your thermal printer is to invest in high-quality printer media.
Check out Anixter’s “Guide to Thermal Paper” to learn more about the difference between standard and premium varieties. Premium thermal paper usually has a top coating that makes it more durable and resistant.
Visit Online Labels to see if you are using the right kind of thermal transfer ribbon.
Always Keep Your Printer Covered
As the experts at Great Lakes Computers point out, thermal printers should always be covered when they are not in use. Printers should also be kept out of high-traffic areas whenever possible. These small steps will help to prevent dust and debris from building up inside the printer.
Never Work on a Thermal Printer When It’s Powered On
Always turn off your printer and remove the AC power cord before attempting to clean the thermal printhead or perform any other maintenance tasks.
Respect Your Thermal Printhead’s Protective Coating
Thermal printheads are equipped with special protective coatings. Once these coatings are worn, the printheads are no longer serviceable. You can extend the life of a thermal printhead’s protective coating by using high-quality media and balancing the printhead’s pressure and darkness.
How Often Should I Clean My Printheads?
Printhead cleaning takes just a minute or two. Still, many people neglect to make it a part of their printer maintenance routines. The printheads and rollers on thermal transfer printers should be cleaned every time media is replaced. That includes every time a thermal transfer ribbon, paper roll, or thermal transfer roll is installed.
Are Your Printheads Dying?
If you’ve neglected to clean your printheads for some time, it’s possible that they are beyond the point of repair. Signs of a dying printhead include:
- Poor image quality directly following ink cartridge replacement
- Poor image quality even after making proper adjustments to settings and media
- Incomplete or missing lines
- White stripes and “super bubbles” across the page
Experts agree that there are just five factors that could lead to the premature failure of a printhead. These include:
- Electrostatic discharge
- Residue buildup
If you’re cleaning efforts aren’t successful, it might be time for you to replace your thermal printheads. Keep in mind that the printhead is usually the most expensive element on a thermal printer. You can save thousands of dollars by simply staying on top of your printer’s maintenance schedule. Check the following before replacing your printhead:
- Check to make sure that you are using the appropriate kind of paper. There are several varieties of thermal printer paper, including various combinations of paper and core sizes. You can check your user’s manual or reach out to the manufacturer to get the suggested credentials.
- Make sure that the paper is loaded properly and facing the correct direction. If you’re using thermal paper, you can perform a quick scratch text to ensure that the heat-sensitive side is facing upward.
- Thermal paper is heat- and light-sensitive. Make sure that you are storing yours in an environment that won’t leave it susceptible to damage.
As you can see, thermal printheads are super easy to clean. There are plenty of cleaning methods to choose from, including ones that can be executed with ingredients you probably already have on hand. A properly maintained thermal printhead can last as many as 10 years. In most cases, it’s neglect (not age or quality) that leads to the degradation of a thermal printhead.
Do you use a thermal label printer regularly? Have you observed issues in the quality of your prints? If so, we hope you found these cleaning tips and tricks helpful. If you have any remaining questions, feel free to drop them in the section below!