Videotapes and fading with age

Week 7, 2003

Q)   I have been wondering for some time about the impact of time on my recorded VHS tapes and have been unable to receive a reliable answer.  Some sources say the tapes decay with time, and some are more equivocal.  There are several aspects to this problem; such as, do the tapes themselves decay, or is it the content recorded upon them that degrades?  And if only the latter is the case, could the aged tapes be re-recorded with new material and maintain the new material as originally?  In either case, how long would the process take, if they are always stored at room temperatures, in their casing protected from dust, and in a vertical rather than horizontal position?  And would there be a difference if a tape had only been played one or two times, or multiple times? Also, if there is deterioration of the tape, would it harm the tape player/recorder to play them after they have aged, such as depositing debris on the tape-heads?  In that case, how long would they be safe to keep, then play?  

-Richard R. Everson

A) You have quite a few questions, many more than I can answer in detail in my 600-word column, if definitive answers to your questions were even available.   As in many other parts of life, there are no absolute answers for videotape life as each situation is going to be different from the next in regards to videotape manufacturer, how the videotapes are stored, etc.     That is probably why you have received different answers from different sources.   The best way to help you may to be provide a few generalities which you can apply to your own situation.

VHS tapes are made of chemical materials that do break down over time, and this affects their ability to hold a magnetic signal.   How they break down depends on how there are stored.   According to Sony, tapes stored in ideal, constant temperature and humidity-controlled environments tapes can last up to fifteen years with no degradation.   Most home users do not have these ideal conditions, and degradation can be expected in less time.
Usage will also wear out your tapes.   The tape head of a VCR spins and causes physical wear, as does the movement of the tape through the transport.   These factors, as well as the tape transport’s possible magnetization (metal parts becoming slightly magnetic from exposure to electrical and magnetic fields) can also have a detrimental effect on your video tapes.   This is why many heavily rented tapes suffer from picture dropouts and other undesirable flaws during playback.  
Magnetic tape erasers are available if complete and full erasure is important to you.   You can fine them at

Your videotapes seem very important to you.   Rather than concentrate on all the bad things that can happen to them, you may want to think “outside the box” and consider transferring them to optical media that will not degrade as magnetic tape does.   DVD recorders are now priced at under $600 and will make dubbing your recorded (not purchased) VHS tapes to DVD a snap.   As is the case with VHS tapes, opinions vary widely over how long optical media will last in controlled conditions, but the non-mechanical and non-magnetic nature of optical disks suggests they are likely to outlast magnetic media such as videotapes.   For example, TDK Certified Plus DVD-R discs have a rated lifespan of more than 100 years when stored at room temperature. This is more the enough for most users, even if the lifespan would only be one-half of the rated one hundred years in actual use.  

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