Updated – What You Should Know About Continuous Ink-Supply Systems

epson L series refillable carts

Epson CISS L Series Refillable Ink Cartridges

Note: This post has been updated due to the results of our extensive Project CISS Hands-On Test. There have also been new factory-equipped CISS printers introduced by Brother, Canon and Epson.

CISS (Continuous Ink Supply System) is an inking system for inkjet printers that consists of a large external refillable ink supply. It’s attraction to the many users who just plain hate buying ink for the sake of it (but will pay hundreds of dollars for a single toner cartridge) is because the ink supply is huge and the ink is cheap — CISS vendors routinely claim that users can save up to 95 percent  (20-30 times less) of printing costs when compared to the use of OEM ink cartridges.

In this day of “give them the desktop printer, then sell them the ink cartridges,” inkjet printer vendors rightfully loathe CISS with the exception of Epson, which manufactures and markets an entire line of CISS-equipped desktop printers. There is also an array of CISS add-on kits available from a variety of vendors that you can attach to your printer in DYI fashion. Moreover, several of them sell printers with pre-installed CISS kits. Nevertheless, there are a number of pros and cons that you should consider before you take the plunge in the quest to save a few bucks on ink.

Epson CISS L555

Epson CISS L555 AiO

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The first continuous ink supply system was marketed in 1993-94 with the introduction of the EnCad NovaJet plotter that featured 500 ml ink reservoirs connected to the print heads via rigid tubes, while the  CISS systems of today commonly employ a multi-channel and flexible silicon tube to supply ink to the print heads. The original NovaJet plotter utilized a third-party CISS system, but in 1996, EnCad introduced the NovaJet Pro line of plotters which utilized a CISS system of its own design. One year later, EnCad introduced two lines of CISS plotters, the NovaJetPROe and the NovaCut. In 1997, other vendors such as CalComp and Hewlett-Packard announced plans to market CISS production printers but it took until 2003 for the first “modern”  CISS inkjet production printer to materialize. By 2005, there were about 50 CISS production inkjet printers on the market, and on April 21, 2011, Epson introduced the L100, the first OEM desktop CISS inkjet printer. As stated, Epson now has an entire line of desktop inkjet printers and All-in-Ones.

How Does CISS Work?

Edme Marriotte (1630-1682)

CISS has a number of external tanks that supply ink to the OEM ink cartridges, the number of which depends on how many cartridges a particular printer uses in standard form. At first CISS utilized ink bottles with a supply tube and an air filter. However, this design proved unable to provide a steady flow of ink and the bottles were replaced by vessels utilizing Mariotte’s Bottle principle, which provided the ability to provide a steady flow of ink to the print head regardless of the quantity of ink remaining in the vessel.

Each CISS has the following components:

  1. Multichannel cable or tube that transfers ink from the ink vessels to the OEM print heads.
  2. Ink vessels or tanks (one for each ink color).
  3. Modified OEM ink cartridges.
  4. IC chips that defeat the OEM cartridge detection system (dependent on the make and model of the printer).

The “Loop”

In some cases, air bubbles appear in the system due to sloppy ink refilling or simply bad ink. With modern CISS, small quantities of air bubbles are automatically removed by returning the ink back to the vessels — thus, “The Loop.”

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36 Responses

  1. heather taylor says:

    I bought an Epson L555 it only lasted 16 months just after the warranty expired. The printer got stuck in paper jam [this turns out to be a very common complaint with this model] and there was no jam, eventually got it going again twice, perfectly.Then returned to paper jam, so frustrating and expensive and Epson web site didn’t help either just said to seek out a repairer, that’s a nightmare in itself and then when I did find one 8 miles away, he was only going to look to see if there was a paper jam and not fix anything else. Well the rest is history and am in pursuit of another printer…..Oh crikey where does one go to find something that works and wont let you down. I Just want a printer and scanner CISS that’s all….

    • Terry Wirth says:

      Try the HP DeskJet GT 5580 or the Brother DCP-T300 this time and hope for the best. You can find info about these models in our latest CISS Hands-On Competitive Test here.

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