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White-knuckle ride

Few tech problems are as frustrating as printer errors. If the printer is an older model, it’s even worse. But, as our columnist discovers, life with a broken printer doesn’t have to be bleak.

LaserJets. Don’t talk to me about LaserJets. I’ve heard quite enough about them over the past six months. Not new LaserJets, of course, but ones that have been working just fine for five or six years, faithfully churning out hundreds of crisply printed pages. But now, these ageing LaserJet 6Ls and 5Ls have all hit the same problem at the same time, and the users I’m supporting are vocally objecting to it.

Here’s the problem: With every print job, the paper rollers grab five or more sheets of paper at a time and jam up the works. The poor users are reduced to sticking one sheet at a time into the paper feeder to prevent jamming. At first, I thought it was a problem with moist paper. During the sticky days of late summer, that’s the usual suspect. But as central heating reduced the relative humidity in the air to almost nothing, the problem persisted. So the culprit was clear: Worn-out paper rollers.

My options: Toss the printer and get a new one, lug the beast over to a Computer Renaissance or similar shop for a highly expensive repair job, or do it myself. The tightwad and environmentalist in me won over, and I ordered a service kit from Fixyourownprinter.com.

This site hosts a printer service forum that impressed me–as the site’s domain name suggests, it caters to semiprofessional and outright amateurs who want to service their own printers. They also sell video instructions and all the parts you need to fix a bunch of printing problems with printers from HP, Lexmark, Apple, and all the usual suspects. At their secure site, I ordered the $35 LaserJet 6L paper jam kit, and a few days later, I had the printer on the blocks, screwdrivers at the ready.

Service with a rictus

It wasn’t Fixyourownprinter.com’s fault, but I spent the next couple of hours in a state of low-level panic. The steps on the CD-ROM video were presented in a down-home way by a patient and obviously experienced mechanic–and the production was refreshingly unsophisticated, all done in one take with an unscripted set of instructions. But I felt a creeping despair at the sheer number of clips, springs, rollers, and disassembly steps in the process. Every step could have been subtitled “You’ll never get out of this alive, sucker!” But then again, I’m not a practical person. Some accuse me of being a klutz–a charge I’m hard pressed to deny. My hands are crisscrossed with scars from past attempts to change oil filters, mend fences, and open cans of cat food.

But I was determined to make this $35 investment work. So I replayed the video, and followed the steps, pausing frequently as I went. Step after harrowing step, I unscrewed screws, slid out spring-loaded pads, installed new rubber rollers and clips. Then I put it all back together again. If you were to ask me how I did it, I wouldn’t be able to answer. I think I must have blocked out all the details in a post-traumatic attempt to retain my sanity. But the overall impression is exactly the same as the time I drove a scout troop through 60 miles of back roads during a blizzard. On both occasions, my knuckles were white, face drawn into a rictus that I tried to pass off as a confident grin, and my grim determination doing battle with a rising sense of impending doom.

The good news is that I survived both experiences intact. The scout troop is safe, well, and planning another winter trip, and the printer now works as well as it did five years ago. Kudos to Fixyourownprinter.com. You turned me for one brief shining moment into a self-service printer guy.

The problem is that I’ve now got five more printers to service, and I’m still shell-shocked from the last time. So if any professional printer service folks are out there fretting about job security because of Fixyourownprinter.com, put your fears to rest. I’ve done it once, and I’m in no hurry to do it again. If you’re interested in putting in a bid for servicing six LaserJets, I’m interested in hearing it.

I’ve made a useful discovery. I’m simply not cut out for this kind of work, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.

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