Question: When I recently was shopping for a VCR, the salesperson informed me that I would need to "have the head cleaned" once a year and that the cost of this necessary maintenance would be about $80. If this is true, then it is a fact that does not seem to be made well-known to potential VCR buyers. Can you tell me if annual cleaning of the VCR is, in fact, necessary?--A.G.
Answer: The prevalent suspicion is that you fell into the clutches of a videocassette recorder (VCR) salesperson who not only sells VCRs, but sells service contracts on them as well. I am told that an annual cleaning of the head in your VCR is about as "necessary" as periodically changing the air in your car's tires.
"With just a little bit of care," according to Roy Rose, a technical specialist with Instant Replay Communications Co., with offices in Los Angeles, Anaheim and Chatsworth, "the average VCR owner will never need to have his head cleaned."
None of which is to say, however, that, in time, a buildup of gunk on the VCR's magnetic head is impossible. But here, according to Rose, are the three key reasons why this condition might develop:
(1) A poor quality tape was used.
(2) The "pause" control was used extensively.
(3) The environment was unclean (dusty, primarily).
"One thing that every VCR owner should do every time he puts on a new tape," Rose adds, "is to fast-forward the tape and then rewind it. This causes the loose oxide that you have on every new tape to drop off before it can build up on the head."
Keeping a protective jacket on the VCR when not in use solves most of the dust problem (although, in Los Angeles, not all of it), and buying quality tapes is also a fairly obvious preventive measure, he continues.
"Most VCR owners," Rose adds, "don't really understand what happens when they use the 'pause' control a lot. They think that everything just stops. Actually, only the tape stops. The head keeps spinning in one place on the tape so you have all of this wear in one spot, and an abrasion develops that can build up oxide on the head."
How do you know when--despite all of your care--gunk has built up on your VCR's head?
"You'll develop lines and streaks on the picture . . . snow," Rose continues, "that can't be corrected with the usual control adjustments. Actually, though, most people don't use their VCRs enough to have any trouble like this. We've got customers with four and five VCRs who use them for hours every day without developing any head problems."
Even if you do experience an occasional dirt problem on the VCR head, however, laying out $80 a year to have it cleaned professionally is rampant overkill, Rose feels.
"Any good video store has kits selling for anywhere from $15 to $50 that are good almost indefinitely." These are cassettes with chemically treated, felt cleaning pads that automatically clean the head with a simple run-through.
Or, with even a modest amount of mechanical ability (Oh! Oh!), anyone can clean the head of his VCR manually with a few cotton swabs and a bottle of alcohol.
Your suspicion was correct, though: Paying $80 a year for a professional cleaning makes about as much sense as sending your dentures in for a weekly buffing by your dentist.
Q: I thought you might be interested in the enclosed copies of my American Express Card "flimsy" (or "Cardmember Copy") for a recent charge, and the corresponding "Amexco Copy" (on stiffer paper) that came with my monthly bill. I am wondering how prevalent this sort of petty rip-off is.
As you can see from the flimsy, I bought a friend a drink at a prominent Los Angeles hotel and the bill came to $7.25. I added a $1.50 tip--20%, which isn't too chintzy even by fancy hotel standards. That brought the total to $8.75. As is customary with me, I ran an "X" through the right side of the bill where the establishment adds any "delayed" charges.
You'll note that on the Amexco copy that came with my bill, someone--the waitress, I presume--boosted the total to $9.75 to give herself a $2.50 tip. Which makes me a slightly over-25% tipper.
As I say, it's a petty rip-off that I intend to call to the attention of both American Express and the hotel, but I thought it might also give you a chance to recommend to people that they hang onto those flimsy copies until they've checked them against the copy on which the monthly bill is based.
It seems like a lot of duplicative paper work, but if this is as commonplace as I am beginning to think it is, it might be well worthwhile.--D.P.
A: Well, you're right--it's not one of those burning issues on which the fate of the world rides--but, as a petty annoyance, your pique is understandable.
And, frankly, a public affairs spokeswoman for American Express in New York is so intrigued with the whole procedure that, if you'll agree to it, she would like to take a look at both your "Cardmember" flimsy copy and the computerized Amexco copy because someone, somewhere along the way, went to quite a bit of trouble for a lousy dollar.