Question: Because VCR repair prices are so high, many owners would like to know what kind of preventive maintenance is needed. By that I mean cleaning, oiling and similar chores that, presumably, must be done by a videocassette recorder technician. In other words, what should be done, how often and what are the approximate costs?--H.D.
Answer: The whole video field--from the television set to the early videocassette recorders to today's sophisticated high-resolution S-VHS machines (yes, the S stands for super )--has exploded in the past few years.
And, in the process, according to John Power, executive director of the American Video Assn., a funny thing has happened: Not only have VCR purchase prices dropped dramatically, but reliability has increased.
Power's organization has about 2,500 members nationally and is composed of independent retailers of consumer video products--many of whom maintain their own repair facilities.
In Consumer Reports' latest survey of VCR owner-readers this spring, only one in eight VCRs purchased in the last five years had required a trip to the repair shop. Those brands needing the fewest repairs, Consumer Reports found, were Magnavox, Sylvania and Panasonic. Those needing the most repairs: Mitsubishi, Sharp and Sony. Nationally, Power said, the average repair labor cost is about $35. And the average repair bill is about $75.
Some owners feel it's simpler just to replace a broken VCR, but, today's lower prices notwithstanding, it's not necessarily cheaper. "Actually," Power said, "there's not really too much that can go wrong with a modern VCR, and as far as preventive maintenance by the owner is concerned, well, there's just not a whole lot one can do."
Periodic cleaning by a professional is recommended by some dealers, Power added, "but most people have already figured out how to keep the heads clean, although some shops have a once-a-year cleaning contract, which is very profitable for them--again, it will average about $35. Personally, I take the position that, sooner or later, the VCR is going to need servicing of some kind anyway, and so I don't see much point in taking it in until it's needed."
The most common VCR breakdown is also the most visible and, as Power noted, is also the one thing that the average consumer is best prepared to fix: The head gets clogged and the picture and the sound go to pot. Buying a head-cleaning tape--which looks like a blank VCR tape--and running it through will sometimes clear up the problem, but Consumer Reports adds the caveat that the use of such a tape should be resorted to "only if there's a sudden change in noise level on all tapes you play." (In discussing VCRs, the term noise usually refers to the appearance of unwanted elements in the picture.)
If the cleaning tape does not remedy the problem, and it frequently doesn't, then you're back to taking it into the shop.
"But prevention is the key to the whole thing, and it doesn't require any know-how or mechanical skill," Power said. "Keep the VCR in a well-ventilated location and keep a dust cover on it when it's not actually in use."
Here are some further tips that Consumer Reports compiled from its survey of VCR owners earlier this year: Buy a reliable VCR in the first place; shun "bargain" tapes; buy brand-name tapes that feature the VHS logo on the box (meaning it's been licensed by JVC Corp. and meets minimum technical standards), and never force a tape into the machine with the power off unless it has the automatic-on feature. Besides crossing your fingers, in other words, there's just so much that you can do.