How to Extend the Life of Your Printhead

Thermal bar code printerPrintheads are the most common repair on a thermal printer, and can run as much as 30% of the cost of a new printer, depending on the printhead resolution.

Wouldn’t it be great to increase the printhead life to as much as two or three times the life the manufacturer expects?

Here are some tips to help extend the life of your printhead.

Your print head life expectancy is affected by five factors:

      • Ribbon Residue
      • Paper dust from the label
      • Print speed and temperature settings
      • Physical environment of the printer
      • User damage

Thermal printer ribbons

Let's first talk about ribbon residue. If you use thermal transfer labels (labels that require a ribbon), you will use a thermal or roll ribbon. Thermal ribbons leave a residue.

After each ribbon, it's recommended you clean the printhead with an alcohol pad containing 95% isopropyl alcohol. This will remove the residue from the head.

Paper dust

Your labels, like any paper product, contain paper dust that is abrasive to the printhead. This dust needs to be removed so that the head is not scratched over time. Once again, cleaning the printhead with an alcohol pad containing 95%  isopropyl alcohol will remove the paper dust along with the ribbon residue.

If you use direct thermal labels (labels that do not require a ribbon), it is even more important to clean the heads. Since you are not using a ribbon, which has a smoother coating than the face of a paper label, the label is more abrasive to the printhead surface. Keeping the surface clean will more than double the life of the head.

Print speed

The speed you select to run your labels changes the printhead temperature. The faster you print, the higher the temperature required to maintain resolution.

In your label creation software, you can select the print speed of the printer and the heat setting of the printhead. All thermal printers like Zebra, Sato or Datamax have print speeds of up to 12 inches per second, depending on your model.

The question you should ask is, “Do I need all that speed for my application?” If you are printing a few labels at a time or even large batches, try running at half the printer speed. That may be 5 or 6 inches per second, which is still very fast!

Printhead Temperature

Just as speed controls printhead temperature, the printhead temperature controls print quality.

Here are some things you need to know:

•        Direct thermal labels require higher printhead temperatures. That will shorten printhead life.

•        Wax ribbons require lower printhead temperatures than resin ribbons.

•        Higher printhead temperatures will give you better resolution, but too high will greatly shorten printhead life.

•        The higher the temperature - the more strain you will put on the printhead.

So when you create a new label format, make sure you test the print quality and set the temperature at the lowest temp where you see the level of acceptable quality.

Straight white lines or print head voids

If there is a straight white line on your labels, you have a VOID in your printhead. That means one or more of the diodes or dots on the head are no longer functioning. That could mean time to get a new print head, especially if it is altering a line on your bar code.

User Damage

Don’t ever use any object like a razor blade to remove a bar code label or any residue that is sticking to the head. You could damage or destroy the electric diodes that bring heat to the label or ribbon surface. Again, use an alcohol pad with a high concentration of isopropyl alcohol to remove adhesive residue, or call a trained professional.

These simple tips for extending the life of your printhead will reduce printer down time, increase productivity, and save money, making both you and your boss happy.

(Image: StarTSP100ECO thermal printer)

About the author

Robert Hess is the President of Paragon Print System, Inc. and his company offers a complete line of bar code thermal printers, thermal labels and tags, ID card printers, ribbons, RFID labels and tags, and bar code scanners. Call (888) 237-8525 or email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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