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The Care and Feeding of Your VCR

September 17, 1987|THOMAS S. KAUFMAN | Kaufman, a post-doctoral scholar at UCLA, is writing a book about VCRs

Today's videocassette recorders contain hundreds of delicate electrical and mechanical components and are among the most sophisticated devices in our homes. Adequately caring for these capricious machines requires some specialized operator knowledge and consistent routine maintenance.

A few simple steps and precautions will help you avoid unnecessary, and sometimes expensive, visits to the service center. The three major sources of trouble that a VCR is most likely to encounter are heat, moisture and dirt.

Heat Is Enemy

Excess heat is an enemy of all electronic components. Many VCRs do not receive sufficient ventilation, and repeated high-temperature excursions will shorten the life of any machine. The small vent holes in the cabinet are there for a reason, and something as innocuous as a piece of paper on top of the VCR can lead to a major repair bill. And some video recorder cabinets have critical vent holes in the sides and bottom, which should also remain unobstructed.

It is best if you locate your VCR on a smooth, flat, level and vibration-free surface, away from other sources of heat, such as furnace ducts, direct sunlight or even the top of the family television set.

Moisture and high humidity can result in the videotape sticking to the rapidly spinning video-head-drum assembly (which turns at 1,800 rpm) or to some other part of the tape path. Although rare, this condition will almost certainly damage the tape and possibly the VCR as well.

Moisture can form inside your VCR when it is moved from a cold environment into a warm one or when the machine warms rapidly inside your home under humid conditions. To avoid this problem, most modern VCRs are equipped with heaters to maintain proper conditions on the drum surface. They also contain dew sensors, which detect unsafe humidity and temporarily discontinue operation.

Take Care With Liquids

Remember not to load a cassette with wet hands, and never put any liquid where it can accidentally spill into the machine.

Because videocassette recorders operate with very precise mechanical tolerance, small amounts of dust from the air or dirt inside the cabinet can result in a serious malfunction. Smoking near your machine can damage it and your videotape collection as well.

One of the most common problems caused by dirt and debris is clogging of the video heads. There are also stationary audio/control and erase heads that can become contaminated. Dirty heads will produce effects ranging from a few "noisy" horizontal streaks across your screen to complete loss of picture. (It is important not to confuse this condition with a misadjusted tracking control.)

How long your VCR's heads can go before getting dirty varies and depends on the condition of your machine, how you use it and the cleanliness of the tapes you play.

If the heads become clogged, first try playing a new, clean videotape through the machine. Sometimes this will clear up the problem. If this fails, your cleaning options include a dry or wet commercial head-cleaning cassette tape or having the VCR cleaned professionally by a service technician.

Dry head-cleaning cassettes contain a mildly abrasive fabric, paper or magnetic tape. These gently scrape the heads clean when played through the VCR. Wet head-cleaning cassettes contain a soft, chamois-like fabric or paper tape, which is moistened with a cleaning solution and then played.

This method is reported to clean all of the VCR's heads and the rest of the tape path as well. Avoid overzealous use of any cleaning method, as a mistake can lead to a repair bill approaching the cost of some new VCRs.

Job for Professionals

Unless you have some specialized training, cleaning video heads by hand is best left to the professionals. Be aware that the entire subject of head-cleaning is somewhat controversial, so consult your owner's manual and warranty before using any cleaning method.

While on the subject of care, there are two ancillary items that may help improve the reliability of your video recorder. The first of these is a power-line filter and surge protector, which is placed between the VCR's power plug and the AC wall outlet. This filter will help protect the videocassette recorder's sensitive electronic components from power-line noise and voltage surges. The second item is a good-quality VHF video cable with gold-plated connectors to replace the cable that came with the VCR. This will provide a more reliable connection between the VCR's VHF output and the TV set's VHF input.

The kind of videotape you feed into your VCR will greatly influence the quality and durability of your recordings. It can also affect the mechanical well-being of your machine, because poor-quality or defective tape can shed oxide particles and other debris onto the delicate video heads.

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