Printer for a low-voltage, low-printing household
March 15, 2019 4:32 PM   Subscribe

Seeking advice, recommendations, and experiences regarding printers for situations where the printing demand is low but urgent, and grid power is not available.

Let's say you are off the grid on a 12-volt DC system. You do have an inverter to convert the available power to 120V AC current, but it can't handle heavy power requirements even momentarily. Laser printers, I'm looking at you.

Let's also say that you don't do that much printing, so prints can get quite expensive with an inkjet printer because you have to run out and buy new ink every few months when your barely used ink cartridges have dried up at the most inconvenient time, again.

One more stipulation: Generally when you have to print something, it contains sensitive info, such as a SSN, that you'd rather not float through the network at your local print shop, so a printer is, unfortunately, a necessity.

Is there a printer out there that would perform satisfactorily under those conditions? Stellar print quality not necessary. Super bonus points if it's rugged.
posted by bricoleur to Technology (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Would a dot matrix printer work? Definitely not stellar (or even decent) print quality, but it's basically the third of the three printer types after laser and inkjet. Looking online, prices are not great, which honestly I find surprising, but I guess they're mostly a niche item nowadays.
posted by General Malaise at 4:44 PM on March 15, 2019

Can you add a battery with more uumph dedicated to running the printer? I’m thinking one of those car jumpstarter batteries or an emergency backup battery.

Like this.

Since you won’t need it for months at a time, you can afford to wait for it to recharge off your system, or recharge via a car, or a solar panel.
posted by notyou at 5:11 PM on March 15, 2019

Maybe a thermal printer? Brother Pocketjet is one example. Don't know how long the thermal paper lasts, though.

If you're cartridges are drying out, maybe set an alarm to print a test page once a week.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:12 PM on March 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Dot matrix are indeed niche these days but they are rugged. No idea on how many amps they draw. I think you may have some confusion over power, but I can't quite understand how. At 120V AC you are not low voltage, that's the same voltage most printers are plugged into in the USA. You may be low on current supplied. Anyway, I think a better inverter or an additional transformer would help you use a normal printer that suits your needs, and that might be more generally useful than looking for some odd printer.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:16 PM on March 15, 2019

What do you need to print? i.e. what kind of graphical capability do you need?
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:18 PM on March 15, 2019

Yeah I was going to suggest a thermal printer, like old-timey fax machines, since they don't require ink. Actual fax machines were 200dpi or 200dpi×400dpi; if you could find a combination fax/printer using thermal paper and it was still working it would be very old and hence perhaps implicitly rugged.

Also, do you need full letter sized paper prints? If not, I wonder if photo printers might have better power consumption profiles.
posted by XMLicious at 5:18 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

XMLicious read my mind.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:19 PM on March 15, 2019

Here is the B&H listing for the current Brother mobile thermal printer. Can run off auto-style DC if you can rig a receptacle, not sure about direct wiring it. (You probably know.)

The paper is a little pricey but it won't dry up.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:24 PM on March 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also look into ink ribbons (er, "thermal transfer wax ribbons") for the thermal printers. If you just use the "thermal" to print, it will fade over time or in heat/sunlight. The ink ribbons help it last much longer.

Source: managed IT for a warehouse that did a lot of label printing
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 5:42 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Unless you have a crazy small battery, why not just get a bigger inverter? You only need to run a small laser printer for 10 min tops.
posted by Dr. Twist at 6:31 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I currently use a cheap little old ink jet printer. I rarely use this, I suppose I could pull out the cartridges and tape over the wells until I want to print. As it is it has been sitting here for three years, with way intermittent use, and it still prints, I bought cheapo ink cartridges more than three years ago. A big battery is the thing to get to run it when you need it. Or work out an invertor that comes off your car to print. I have a VW van with an extra battery and an invertor setup. When I worked at a hospital we had battery capable work stations for emergency outages. Think of rare printing as an emergency need.
posted by Oyéah at 6:45 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Looks like laser printers require very expensive inverters.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:59 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

There are travel printers like the HP OfficeJet 250, that can charge off of USB power.

The problem with most desktop laster printers is that they have a pretty heavy warmup to energize, my little Brother 2200-something says 8.8A @120V, so you would need an inverter that can handle near 800W for a brief period.
posted by nickggully at 7:34 PM on March 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

There are lots of old dot-matrix printers around if you look on the secondary market, salvage stores, Goodwill/SalvArmy, etc. I think they're probably the best solution for this problem—no ink to dry out, power consumption is manageable without any big surges (you're really just running a few stepper motors), and one that's working today is likely to keep going for a while.

If you can find an Apple Imagewriter II around (one of the most common dot matrix printers, and made until pretty late in the inkjet/laser era), you can still buy ribbons for it on Amazon. You can print to it from any Linux computer with Ghostscript, meaning you could set up a Raspberry Pi as a print server if you wanted to, and it would be a network printer. If you don't want to do that, you'll need a USB/serial adapter and appropriate drivers for your OS (not sure about that on Windows).
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:54 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I personally think you're going to have a hard time beating an inkjet with a supply of cheapo (or at least cheapish) 3rd party ink cartridges on hand for when they do dry up when it comes to price and power consumption. Also, you might just make sure to print something every few weeks; it's not lack of quantity that clogs the heads so much as plain disuse.
posted by Aleyn at 10:43 PM on March 15, 2019

I'd tear apart an old dot-matrix printer and see if it wasn't really 12v on the inside. It seems unlikely to me that those steppers and print head actually run off of 120v and not 12 and 5 on the inside / otherside of the power supply. Laser needs the power for using high voltage to get the toner onto the paper and heat to fuse it in place.

It's probably lost technology today, but you could get 300 DPI out of an Epson dot-matrix printer if you really tried...
posted by zengargoyle at 2:10 AM on March 16, 2019

I'd be worried about the moving and/or lubricated parts, seals, bushing and other wear items in something motorized of that age. I guess it's not as bad as a daisy wheel/typewriter carriage but still. Also, ImageWriters need tractor-feed paper. And dot matrix output is distinctive. I'd feel like I was doing some kind of performance art, giving someone dot-matrixed documents with fuzzy edges in 2019...

Although thermal paper is aka fax paper and has a distinctive feel that kinda evokes the past in its own way. So...?

If cost is an issue, here's a refurbed older model of that thermal printer from when the line was still being made by Pentax.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:06 AM on March 16, 2019

There seems to be a class of "portable printers" that run off a battery that can be recharged from a 12 volt source, i.e. car cigarette lighter for the "my car is my office" types. The specific one I found was an HP OfficeJet Portable Printer. I agree that the ink is expensive and doesn't last forever and I would at least look for a brand other than HP for that reason. Brother always had the niche of being the cheaper alternative, at least in the short term, but I don't know if that is still true, or if they have an entry in that market segment.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:57 AM on March 16, 2019

Looks like laser printers require very expensive inverters.

this is probably my particular bias showing itself because sine wave inverters, even name brand ones like samlex have come down so far in price that its astonishing. A mid range inverter capablee of 3000W constant output is below $500 and cheap, crappy ones are below $200. Even at those prices it's probably qualifies as expensive. The utility gained for a large inverter (power tools for short duration for instance) is pretty large.
posted by Dr. Twist at 9:58 AM on March 16, 2019

The thing I have with inverters is the output. Some can do pure sine wave and some do the stepped square approximation. Sometimes it doesn't matter. But some electronic power supply units are now smart enough to do their own line-quality tests and require the sine wave input. Your low-grade uninterruptable power supplies will fail to power your computer because they put out the wrong waveform. And the whole DC to inverter to AC to PSU to DC is just a power loss chain.

A good bit of telecom equipment runs off of 48v DC because the backup battery powered pathway is needed and it's sorta crazy to put inverters and de-inverters in line and waste the power.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:01 PM on March 16, 2019

Here's a parallel discussion on Cruisers Forum (liveaboard sailboaters) that have serious power constraints.
posted by sammyo at 5:54 PM on March 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, ImageWriters need tractor-feed paper.

They don't. At least, not the ImageWriter II. It's sorta annoying to use it without tractor paper, because you (IIRC) have to feed in each sheet and then press a button, but it's certainly doable. I think there's a lever or something towards the back of the unit that goes from sheet-fed to tractor-fed mode. (This was a fairly big deal when it was introduced, because it meant you could print on letterhead.)

Mine's in storage where I can't get to it easily, else I'd test it out and see how it's aged. The last time I used it (which was more than a decade ago, but still at least a decade after it had been made) it worked fine. I'd imagine the acoustic foam might have broken down; that's a problem with a lot of printers and typewriters.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:56 PM on March 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

They don't. At least, not the ImageWriter II. It's sorta annoying to use it without tractor paper, because you (IIRC) have to feed in each sheet and then press a button, but it's certainly doable.

Fascinating! I never knew.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:20 PM on March 18, 2019

Ha. I thought it was the inkjet ink itself drying up. If it's just the heads getting clogged from disuse, hell yes I can set a reminder to use it a couple of times a month, or weekly, or whatever.

That said, the thermal printer is an attractive alternative. I am in fact on a smallish sailboat, so a smaller form factor is better, and the thermal printer would be easier to stow snugly and safely than a bulky inkjet. Also easy to bring ashore in my backpack for those forays into the heart of bureaucracy.

I have a Brother HL1212W laser printer and a Xantrex Pro 600 inverter. Just plugging the Brother into the Xantrex causes the Xantrex to shut down with an overload error, even with the battery bank fully charged.
posted by bricoleur at 2:29 PM on March 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

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