If you have a collection of old VHS tapes you are still hanging on to, it is important to realize that the memories they hold will not last forever. Signal loss, shedding, and tape wear are common issues that arise as video tapes age. Deterioration of tapes can eventually become so severe that it becomes impossible to view the content stored on them.
It’s hard to hear, but those VHS memories recorded years ago have a limited lifespan. Once you understand the components used to construct these tapes, you will soon see why they were never meant to last, and why it is so important to preserve your video tapes before the memories they hold are lost forever to time.
How Long Do VHS Tapes Last?
Video tapes typically lose up to 20% of their upper-end video signal within 10 to 25 years. That means, all those family vacations and trips you recorded in the 1990s have more than likely already been compromised to some extent. This is true even for tapes that have been stored in optimal conditions.
What are optimal conditions? Cool, dry, climate-controlled environments; better to have tapes stored in the house at room temperature than in a wet basement, garage, or hot attic. Heat and humidity are the leading causes of VHS deterioration. If your tapes have been stored near a magnetic field--such as a stereo speaker--the signal loss can be more significant.
How & Why Do VHS Tapes Degrade?
Video tape is a form of magnetic tape used for storing video and sound. To be more specific, a video tape consists of magnetic particles, namely metal oxide (i.e. rust), glued to a ribbon of mylar, along with a protective layer of lubricant which helps to protect the tape from the stresses of repeated playback and rewindings.
Over time, the VHS lifespan decreases as these different layers begin to break down. Other factors, such as tapes being kept in a humid environment, can cause the tape to delaminate; the glue fails and the metal oxide no longer remains attached to the substrate.
When the metal oxide fails to remain attached to the substrate, the tape will begin to shed, causing dropout. When viewed, dropout is seen as white streaks moving across the video.
A video tape that’s been viewed fifty times will show substantial wear, dropout, and damage. The tape will begin to stretch with multiple viewings until the lubricant eventually wears away or turns into a sticky mess.
A word of caution: be careful when previewing tapes with an old VCR.
We do not recommend previewing your aging VHS tapes on an old VCR you may have laying around. As the tape lubricant ages, it can become sticky and clog the playback heads, damaging your tape and VCR in the process. Also, an old VCR will often have issues with alignment, warped gears, rotted belts, and cracked rollers that can result in wrinkling and crease damage to tapes.
VHS Lifespan Varies
The lifespan between tape formats differs. High-grade tapes tend to be more durable and have greater metal particle density which means a longer shelf life. Cheap tapes that flooded the market in the 1990s were cheap for a reason; flimsy cassette shells, low-density metal oxide, and inferior substrate which translates to shorter shelf lives.
How To Preserve VHS Tapes
Having your tapes stored in a cool and dry place over the years will have helped to slow your tapes' deterioration speed. Even then, some amount of degradation is likely to have taken place, despite your best efforts.
The safest way to ensure your memories live on is to convert your VHS tapes to DVDs and digital files that will stand the test of time. Converting your tapes to a digital format will allow you to easily view and share your tapes with friends and family on all of your modern digital devices.
Another factor to consider; VCRs are no longer manufactured. The last VHS recorder rolled off of the assembly line in 2016 and electronics companies no longer support old hardware. At Nostalgic Media, we anticipated a shortage of VCRs and transfer systems. That’s why we stockpiled equipment and replacement parts for the future.
We are always maintaining and repairing our VCRs and conversion systems to deliver consistently high-quality transfers. Despite our efforts, components will eventually wear out and there won't be any spare parts to keep the equipment working. The best time to preserve your tapes is today before it’s too late.