How Long Do Video Tapes Last And What Causes Them To Degrade Faster


If you are wondering how long do video tapes last, or will you be able to play back that wedding video tape – you should be! All video tapes deteriorate over time.

I’ve shot hundreds and hundreds of video tapes over the past 30 years and I’ve personally seen how they can degrade over time, from playing back with minor glitches to barely being recognizable.

Video tapes like VHS, Video8, 8mm and MiviDV when properly stored should last between 10 and 20 years, possibly 30 years. Factors that determine the lifespan of a tape are quality of the tape, how many times it was played, and where the tapes are stored and exposed to factors like heat, cold, and humidity.

I personally have tapes close to 30 years old that when I played to transfer was shocked at how good they looked, but others the audio and some video were definitely starting to look worse then when they were originally shot.

If you are concerned over your tapes degrading we will explain how they degrade, how to store them properly, and why you need to transfer them as soon as possible to a digital format.

Why Time Affects How Long Your Video Tapes Last

FACT: Your video tapes are degrading as you read this article.

WHY? All video tapes, including VHS, 8mm, Hi8, MiniDV and other formats store their information on magnetic particles on the video tapes.

The problem is the over time the magnetic particles on the tapes that are storing your weddings, birthdays parties, and other fond memories are constantly losing their magnetic properties.

Those magnetic particles that are lost essentially mean there is lost information on the tape. This means the next time you play them back there will be less “information” on the tape for the VCR to read from, kind of like pages missing from a book.

For analog video tapes that record luminance (brightness) and chrominance (color) onto the video tape, and digital tapes that record 1’s and 0’s – some of that information is essentially “evaporating” off the tape every day.

The result is a poorer picture and audio quality then when you originally recorded it, if there is even enough information to play the tape back.

Since your video tapes haven’t been used by most people in quite some is there cause for concern that your memories are “fading away”?

Definitely!

Other Factors That Affect How Fast A Video Tape Will Degrade

There are several other factors that affect how fast a video tape will degrade and if it will still be playable.

Quality

Just like cars, wine, and cigars there are varying qualities to video tapes. A higher quality car will generally last longer than a cheaply made car. Same thing goes for video tapes.

Back in the glory days of video tapes there were several good brands like Maxell and Memorex that produced VHS and all other tape formats. Within each brand there were levels of quality of video tape. The higher quality and better magnetic material on the tape the more expensive it was, but chances are it produced a better video quality and will last longer.

If you bought a cheap no-name brand at the local supermarket there’s a more of a chance that this tape was not high quality.

Usage

Have a favorite movie or family tape you’ve watched over and over? The more times you’ve watched a tape the more it will get worn out, just like your favorite album when you were a kid (if you’re my age).

Each time you watch a tape its re-wound, played and slightly stretched through the VCR, and the magnetic properties of the tape can degrade slightly as well.

So a highly used tape will generally be in poorer shape than one that was just watched once or twice.

Storage

There are several factors that can greatly increase or decrease the lifespan of a video tape based on how it is stored.

Position (Vertical or Horizontal)?

Did you know what position a tape is in when stored affects how it wears?

Storing video tapes in the proper position. Similar to how you never see car tires stored in an upright position as they may develop a flat spot under their own weight, a video tape can be damaged by how you store it.

Horizontal: the wrong way to store a video tape

Wrong way to store a video tape

If you store the tape flat or horizontally the tape can eventually “squish” itself under its own weight, which will greatly affect the playback.

How to store a video tape correctly?

The Right Way To Store Video Tapes
The Right Way To Store Video Tapes

Remember way back to the days of going to a video store to rent a movie? All of the tapes were upright and vertical.

This wasn’t just so you could see the names on the side of the tape, in fact the tape won’t stretch or collapse under its own weight when store in this position.

So store your tapes like you would in a video store, upright and vertical.

This way the tape will not have gravity trying to squish the tape down and affect the playback of the tape.

Temperature (Too Hot or Too Cold)

Video tapes do not like heat or extreme cold.

Heat or direct sunshine will damage the tapes if not melt them. Do not store them anywhere near windows, or in an attic as an attic can experience both extreme heat and cold.

Extreme cold can make the tapes brittle and crack, so again an attic is the worst place to store tapes, same with a storage unit that is not climate controlled.

Humidity / Moisture

Water of any sort is no friend of your video tapes.

Extremely humid environments can also damage your tapes and possibly lead to mold building up on them.

If you live in a humid climate, or have your tapes stored in a musty basement then be sure to keep a de-humidifier running 24×7, or re-locate your tapes to a better room in the house.

There are plastic cases made specifically for VHS tapes that will reduce the amount of moisture that will affect your tapes. This is a good idea if you have some tapes that you just cannot afford to get damaged.

You also want to keep your tapes away from any plumbing that may leak or spray on the tapes if a pipe burst, so again careful of where you place them in your basement.

Plastic tote storage bins can help protect from any water in-case you had a minor flood or sprung a leak, just make sure to store your tapes vertically and using padding or packing material to ensure they stay upright and vertical.

Magnets / Speakers

Since the magnetic material on the tapes is what stores the video for you, its important to not store the tapes near anything magnenic.

The most likely culprit of something magnetic that could damage your tapes is shelf speakers for your TV or stereo system.

Inside those speakers are magnets which is what helps create the sound for the speakers, but will also ruin your video tapes.

How Long Will Your Video Tapes Last?

Based on everything I’ve mentioned, and depending on how well you stored your tapes they should be playable for 10-25 years, but quality of playback is definitely getting worse every day.

You could ruin a perfect good video tape in under a year if you stored it poorly.

And no video or audio tape is excluded from decay, even digital formats like MiniDV or Digital8 are all stored on magnetic material that will degrade over time.

This is why is SO incredibly important for you to transfer your home video tapes to a digital format. The reason I say “home” video tapes is because of that copyright warning at the beginning of any “movie” or professional tape that you bought that says its illegal to make a copy. But that’s your choice.

How to Transfer Your Video Tapes?

If you still have a working VCR (in the case of VHS tapes) or camcorder (in the case of camcorder tapes like Hi8, Video8, etc) then chances are you need a simple USB video capture device like this one from Amazon to transfer your own tapes.

If you are not a do-it-yourself kind of person then you can pay someone to transfer them for you. I suggest going local if you can find a service so there’s no chance of your precious memories getting lost during shipping or wind up with Tom Hanks on an island like in the movie “Castaway”.

There are plenty of online options too like Legacybox where they will send you a box to put your video tapes in, you label everything and mail it to Legacybox and they will take care of the video conversion for you.

Action Items: Do This Now!

  • Store your tapes properly: upright , vertical, away from heat, sunlight, extreme cold, and moistue.
  • Start transferring your video tapes – now! Even if you tapes are degrading at a slower pace than you expected, finding a good clean working VCR or camcorder to transfer them with is getting harder for sure!

If you don’t have a working VCR to play your tapes back with check out our article on Can You Still Buy A VCR Player?

Hint: yes you can they are easy to find, same thing with legacy camcorders as well.

Bob Hennessey

Bob Hennessey has been an avid videographer for several decades. Having shot video in just about every tape-based format from Video 8 , Hi 8, Digital 8 and Mini DV I am more than familiar with how to transfer video tapes to digital formats.

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