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The truth about whether you really neeed to clean VCR heads

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

The truth about whether you really neeed to clean VCR heads

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

A reader from Michigan asks whether VCR manufacturers are trying a new scam.

"The owner's manual that came with my recorder says that I am not supposed to clean the VCR with a head-cleaning tape or anything else when it gets dirty. It says I have to bring the VCR to a technician to have it cleaned.

"I'm not a dum-dum, and I certainly know how to run a head-cleaning tape through a VCR. Why would the manufacturer make such a stupid statement? To make sure the stores make money on maintenance?"

There's no scam here, but the advice in the owner's manual—which I've seen many times myself when testing various VCRs—is needlessly misleading.

Manufacturers of videocassette recorders are trying to protect themselves against liability when they tell you to let a service technician handle the cleaning. Just as your car's owner's manual tells you to have the old Chevy serviced at a dealer, the one that came with your VCR tells you to have all work done by a factory-qualified repair shop.

That's fine, except for a small problem of definitions: Is head cleaning really the same as a tune-up? Or is it the VCR equivalent of a car wash?

I come down on the side of the wash-and-wipe brigade on this issue. But I also know how easy it can be to ruin the heads in a VCR. Head cleaning should be done carefully—and it should only be done when it's needed.

Many readers have asked over the years how often their VCR's heads should be cleaned, and I have never been able to come up with a simple answer. That's because the heads in some VCRs never seem to get dirty, while the heads in others seem to cake up with dirt and dust every few weeks.

So the answer depends on how often you use your VCR and what kind of tapes you put in it. Another concern is the environmental conditions your VCR is used in—in other words, whether it is used near cigarette smoke, kitchen fumes or construction dust.

Here's how those factors affect your VCR:

Frequency of use: VCRs that are used only a few times a month will not get very dirty, as long as the factors listed below are taken into account. But if you use your recorder for a couple of hours a day, you should consider cleaning the heads once a month. (But read on before you make up your mind.)

The type of tape: Rental tapes are notoriously dirty, and besides, you never know where they've been. I have two VCRs, and I play rental tapes on one of them but not the other. I would not dare take a chance on ruining the more expensive of my two machines.

If you play a lot of rental tapes, you may need to clean the heads every few weeks.

Dirty environment: Smoke gets into more than your eyes. It seeps into all the vent holes in your VCR's case and gets into any tapes that are lying around outside their protective plastic or cardboard slipcases. Cigarette smoke is the worst offender, but kitchen grease is almost as bad; fry up enough flounder to feed a family of six and you add a tacky film to all the objects near the kitchen. If your VCR is near the kitchen, and you do any amount of frying, you may need to clean the heads once a week.

You see how hard it is to make a snap judgment? But don't despair yet. It's also possible that your VCR may not need a head cleaning at all in the first two or three years you own it.

The best modern videotapes are designed to wipe the surface of the tape heads gently with each pass, and this can keep them clean. Manufacturers sometimes recommend playing a good, blank videotape as the safest way to clean a VCR's heads.

This means that if you do not play rental tapes, do not smoke near your VCR and do not have it placed near other sources of smoke and dirt, you may be able to keep the heads spotless just by using good tapes each time you record.

I've tried this approach with my own VCRs, and it has worked fine.

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