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KAI RYSSDAL: OK, so true story. My 11-year-old had a school project due the other day. Eleven-year-olds being 11-year-olds that means he didn't get around to printing it until the night before. Which explains why I was running out to the office supply store at 8 o'clock that night to buy a new ink cartridge. Ours, of course, had run dry with no notice -- $35 later we were all set.
But wouldn't it be great if you could actually tell when one of those things was getting set to expire? As it happens, the National Conference on Weights and Measures meets this weekend and it will take up the case of the humble ink cartridge.
Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.
Ashley Milne-Tyte: So I have a small Dell home printer and looking at the cartridge that's in there now, it doesn't say anything about either how many pages it could print or how much ink it contains.
The packaging doesn't say anything either. The National Conference on Weights and Measures would like to change that. It sets standards for weighing and measuring everything from mulch to hydrogen to pasta.
Max Gray heads Florida's Bureau of Weights and Measures. He says when it comes to ink cartridges, the labeling rules are fuzzy. Manufacturers can say as much or as little as they want about how much ink is in the cartridge, or how it performs.
Max Gray: All of this lack of clarity into what should be required to be labeled on a printer ink cartridge or a toner cartridge used in copiers led me to feel that maybe this should be addressed.
So consumers know what they're getting for their money and can start to compare cartridges side by side like products in, say, the supermarket.
Charles LeCompte of Lyra Research says manufacturers will not be keen to clarify on packaging how far their ink goes.
Charles LeCompte: They realize it's gonna set in motion a dynamic that will drive down cartridge prices over time. Which is what they fear the most -- they like their business model.
Ink brings in a lot of money. It has to be replenished all the time. LeCompte says ink is a big reason why HP's printer division is three times as profitable as its PC division.
Dean Gallea heads computer testing at Consumer Reports. He says he's never calculated how much consumers pay per ounce of ink, but...
Dean Gallea: It's way, way up there. It's probably one of the most expensive liquids that you can buy.
If you dig around on manufacturer Web sites you can get an idea of a cartridge's lifespan. An HP 96 cartridge, for instance, churns out a maximum of 860 plain black pages, according to HP's Web site. The cartridge costs about $34. Another cartridge from a different manufacturer might cost $20 and print 285 pages.
Gallea says manufacturers should focus on the number of pages you can print rather than how much ink each cartridge contains, because that doesn't tell people how long the cartridge will last.
Gallea: The number of pages that you get per unit volume of ink can vary between the different ink formulations and the different manufacturers, so it's not a clear indication of what the page count would be.
All this and other weighty matters, like pelletized ice cream and moisture loss in dried pasta, will be considered when the National Conference on Weights and Measures meets this weekend. Printer manufacturers and ink producers will also be there to consider the labeling issue. But it could be a while before consumers can compare cartridges based on their labels. The National Conference won't vote on the matter 'til July at the earliest.
I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.