This question comes up a lot. The answer is not so simple.
Are your VHS tapes from the 1980’s disintegrating? No not really. However, they are just plastic, so environmental factors like heat and humidity can have a factor in actual physical decay. So what’s the problem and why is the answer not so simple?
VHS magnetic tape was manufactured in different qualities. If you bought cheap standard tapes vs high quality or ‘premium’ tapes, they may be quite different. I say ‘may’ because sometimes it was just a marketing name and had nothing to do with the actual quality. Magnetic tape is not really disintegrating either, but it is holding one to precious video in assembled magnetically written data. So the biggest concern becomes the integrity of the data being stored on the tape.
What are the factors?
- Other magnetic fields. You aren’t running around with a magnetron around the house, but some things, like actual magnets, appliances or other electronics could have a magnetic field that can impact the VHS tape. Not in 1 day of course, but if you consider some VHS tapes could be on a shelf for 20-30 years, magnetic fields and forces may have an effect.
- The number of times a tape has been played. Every time the tape is played, it is running the tape physically against the play head of the VCR. While a few times aren’t going to make a difference, many times will. The image will degrade. I find that the older the tape is, the more degradation occurs when the tape is played over and over.
- While I did say things aren’t disintegrating, the biggest long term issue does seem to be how the tapes were stored. Closets & normal living space are usually AOK, basements and attics are not. Extreme heat and extreme cold are not good. Moisture is worse. Some of the worst cases of ruined tapes (other than a fire) are moisture levels that have caused the magnetic tape inside to get damp to wet. Mildew and mold are killers. Sometimes it just stays on the top of the reel of magnetic tape and can be cleaned off. But other times, it spreads down into the reel and fuses the reel of tape onto itself and will no longer move.
Obviously our business is transferring these tapes to DVD or digital, but if you chose to hold onto them, you should consider the above issues with storage. We normally tell people 8-10 years is the best guess life expectancy before issues and degradation begin, but you can extend that with proper care and storage.