Printer TCO – Cost per Page and more
For most people buying a printer, whether for business or personal use, cost is a factor. Unlike buying a new car, where the cost of the car is typically a much bigger factor in total cost of ownership than gas mileage, with a printer the consumables cost (ink or toner and other items) is often a much bigger factor than the initial purchase price of the printer.
Total cost of ownership (TCO) includes:
- Initial printer cost, including setup cost
- Cost of ink or toner
- Cost of drums, fusers, rollers and any other consumable items
Determining TCO is important before buying your next printer. Sometimes a very small increase in initial printer cost will allow you to use larger toner cartridges or a different type of toner cartridge, resulting in much lower TCO.
One of the keys to estimating TCO is estimating usage. The best choice for someone who prints 100 pages per month will be different from the best choice for someone who prints 1,000 pages per month, which will be different from the best choice for someone who prints 10,000 pages per month.
Another key factor is determining how long you will keep a printer. Unfortunately, this is very hard to guess, as many out-of-warranty repairs on all but the most expensive printers will simply not be cost-effective. That being said, I typically recommend estimating a lifetime of 3 to 5 years for most printers.
Initial Printer Cost
This is the easiest part. Go to Amazon, your favorite retailer or the manufacturer’s web site to find out the current cost. If you will require professional installation of your printer then include that cost as well.
Looking up printer prices is easy enough. For purposes of looking at TCO, let’s use the Brother MFC-L3710CW as an example:
List price: $349.99
Cost of Ink or Toner
The cost will depend on the type of page (color vs. monochrome) and the type and capacity of ink or toner cartridges.
- For monochrome (black) pages, there is normally just one type of ink or toner cartridge and a published number of pages per cartridge. The pages are typically based on 5% coverage, which is reasonable for normal printing. There are often 2 or 3 different size cartridges with the larger cartridges providing a lower cost per page.
- For color pages, there can be 1 cartridge (Cyan + Magenta + Yellow all in one), 3 cartridges (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow separately) or sometimes even more cartridges to provide a better color gamut (i.e., to print better quality color images). I normally factor in the cost of black ink/toner for color pages as well. If you print a lot of large color images – e.g., photographic prints – then your coverage will be much higher than the typical 5% and your color cost per page will go up because you will print fewer pages per cartridge. As with black cartridges, there will often be 2 or 3 different capacity color cartridges available.
- Some laser printer manufacturers (e.g., HP) use toner cartridges that include drums. Others (e.g., Brother and Okidata) use separate toner cartridges (which are really not much more than plastic tubes full of toner) and drums, with the toner cartridges replaced more frequently than the drums.
- Typically the total cost of toner for a laser printer will be lower than the cost of ink for an inkjet printer. But there are exceptions and a lot of variability between printer models.
Here are the calculations for one printer, the Brother MFC-L3710CW, with an estimated average print volume of 800 pages monochrome and 200 pages color (which includes black as well) per month, for a total of 1,000 pages per month. The calculation will be for 4 years = 48,000 pages black, 9,600 pages color, using the high-yield color toner cartridges (there is only “standard” for black for this printer).
The printer comes with 1,000 page cartridges (color & black) and a drum set.
Black – TN227BK – 3,000 pages/cartridge
48,000 – 1,000 = 47,000/3,000 = 16 cartridges
Color – TN227C, TN227M, TN227Y – 2,300 pages/cartridge
9,600 – 1,000 = 8,600/2,300 = 4 cartridges of each color
Drum – DR223CL (includes all 4) – 18,000 pages per drum
48,000 – 18,000 = 30,000/15,000 = 2 drums
But how much do the cartridges cost? A lot depends on whether you buy Brother branded cartridges or alternatives, which will be the topic of another article. Sticking with the Brother cartridges from Amazon, and assuming you buy sets of 4 (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) when you need color and Black cartridges separately the rest of the time, the total based on current Amazon prices is:
Black: $72.99 x 16 = $1,167.84
Color: $93.49 x 3 colors x 4 sets = $1,121,88
Drums: $121.99 x 2 = $243.98
Total cost: $2,533.70
Cost per page (monochrome & color averaged): $0.053
Cost of Other Consumable Items
There are items inside every printer that eventually fill up (waste toner containers), wear out (drums, fusers, belts) or just simply stop working after a certain amount of use. Some of these are designed to be easily replaceable by anyone (e.g., drums on Brother and Okidata printers), some can be replaced by someone with a little mechanical aptitude (e.g., many HP fusers) and some require a bit more work to install/replace.
Printer manufacturers usually provide this information somewhere but it is not always easy to find. However, this is very important information because with some printers this provides information about built-in obsolescence when these parts need to be replaced.
For example, take a look at the Brother MFC-L3710CW.
In addition to the usual toner cartridges & drums, which are replaced based on normal usage and are comparable to other color laser printers, this particular machine also has a replaceable Belt Unit, Waste Toner Box, Fuser Unit and Paper Feeding Kit. All of these items are nominally rated for 50,000 pages, though your mileage may vary.
Prices listed are from Amazon, typically a little below Brother’s direct/list price:
Belt Unit BU223CL: $121.99
Waste Toner Box WT223CL: $39.28
Fuser Unit: $129.22 (estimated based on previous model – not available yet)
PF Kit: $24.99 (estimated based on previous model – not available yet)
Total: $315.48 $34.51 more than a brand new printer
After 50,000 pages it is almost as cheap to buy a brand-new Brother MFC-L3710CW than to replace all the parts that are scheduled to wear out. Plus that brand-new printer will come with a fresh one-year warranty, a new drum and a (starter) set of toner cartridges.
Not all printers are designed that way, but this can have a major impact in deciding which printer to buy. If you print 1,000 pages per month then you can reasonably expect to replace a printer like this one in about 4 years, simply based on the parts that will need to be replaced to keep it running properly. If you print 5,000 pages per month then you will, effectively, buy a new printer every year (directly or via parts replacement), though I suspect after doing that once you will find out which printers are designed to last longer. In fact, if you look at the Recommended Monthly Print Volume for this printer, it is 1,500 pages. That makes sense when considered with the overall expected lifetime of the printer, even though the Maximum Monthly Duty Cycle is 30,000 pages and the printer could easily print 1,500 pages in a little more than an hour at the rated speed of 19 pages per minute.
Repairs are always an unknown. With typical printers costing less than $1,000, repairs under warranty are fine and repairs after the warranty has expired are often just not worth doing. There are some exceptions – e.g., fuser replacement earlier than expected (though if it is early enough it will be covered by warranty) is often a reasonable repair, and rollers often need replacement depending on the type of paper used. However, if a circuit board, scanner head or other item not designed for routine replacement breaks outside the warranty period it is often cheaper and easier to simply replace the entire printer.
Depending on the part and the age of the printer, picking up a used identical printer on eBay can be a great way to get replacement parts at a lower price than buying replacement parts separately, but there is always the risk that the parts in the used printer will be nearly worn out themselves.
Total Cost of Ownership
Using the example from above, the Brother MFC-L3710CW, 800 monochrome and 200 color pages per month, 4-year lifetime (and as you now know, the price really jumps up after 50,000 pages), the total cost is:
Imagine if gas for a new car cost 7 times as much as the initial purchase price of the car. That’s the state of printers today. However, some printers are much more cost-effective than others, and that’s where we can help you determine the best printer for your needs.