January 29, 2010 2:30 PM   Subscribe

Are my frozen VHS videotapes ruined?

I have all the VHS videos in an unheated storage location. Outdoors, during a frozen Minnesota winter. Well, that is better than melting them --- melting and heat would surely ruin them. Are they also runied by the cold end of the temperature spectrum? Or, if I let them thaw out to room temperature again, will they be OK?
posted by shipbreaker to Technology (7 answers total)
They'll probably be at least somewhat ok. I dealt with videotape a lot in the late 80s in a very cold place, and I have dealt with frozen tapes that thawed to room temperature and worked just fine. In fact, I've dealt with videotapes that were not only frozen, but that were frozen and covered with snow, and they worked just fine once thawed and dry.
posted by The World Famous at 2:37 PM on January 29, 2010

A friend of mine once found a bag of VHS porn tapes in a plastic grocery bag. They had been presumably scooped up by a plow and he found them partially uncovered by the spring thaw, meaning they had been buried in a snow bank for at least a few weeks. I watched them (strictly in the interest of the science of the effect of snowbanks on pornographic videotapes) and they were just fine.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:47 PM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Just make sure they don't build up condensation as they warm up. Try moving them to a slightly-heated garage first to bring them up to merely "chilly" temperature, then move them inside.
posted by unixrat at 2:48 PM on January 29, 2010

What's harmful to a tape is condensation, regardless of the temperature it occurs at. Condensation in a storage unit is unlikely unless the structure has roof leaks or a flood. I'd be more concerned with whether the storage location stays clean and dry. I've had VHS tapes in a storage unit for years; it's not ideal but they play fine.

The only other thing I'd be worried about is rodents, which sometimes happens when mice migrate from fields into buildings looking for shelter and stored food. The risk of that problem is pretty low, but if they nest anywhere around or above your tapes, the outcome is not going to be good.
posted by crapmatic at 2:53 PM on January 29, 2010

As stated above, be careful thawing them. It is drastic swings in temperature that do the most harm to the tape.

I have the IPI (Image Permanence Institute) Media Storage Quick Reference sheet here in a book, and here's what it says about VHS:

68° F (Room temperature) - May cause significant damage
54° F (Cool) - Acatate: may be ok; Polyester: meets ISO recommendations (ISO is the International Standards Office)
40° (Cold) - Acatate: meets ISO recommendations; Polyester: May be OK
32° (Frozen) - May cause significant damage

Your humidity would ideally be between 30% and 50%, anything above or below again could cause significant damage. If the humidity is held between 30 and 50 percent at any temperature, the risk of damage is minimized.

Your videotapes are most likely polyester. Acetate tapes are rare as far as I know.

The most likely damage will be to the sound track, because it is magnetic.

Note that it says "May cause significant damage" and not "Will cause significant damage". Be careful thawing (I would suggest putting in a fridge set at 40° to thaw, if possible) and for the future, keep them ab

I got this information from a 2004 book published by the National Film Preservation Foundation (San Fransisco, CA) called The Film Preservation Guide: The Basics for Archives, Libraries, and Museums.

This guide may also be useful to you.
posted by k8lin at 3:04 PM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't know why this cut off in my comment, but I was trying to say in the third to last paragraph:

Note that it says "May cause significant damage" and not "Will cause significant damage". Be careful thawing (I would suggest putting in a fridge set at 40° to thaw, if possible) and for the future, keep them at about 40° if you can for preservation purposes. Room temperature will cause them to degrade faster. You may also want to consider migrating them to a more sustainable format, such as DVD.
posted by k8lin at 3:06 PM on January 29, 2010

When I was younger, in the eighties and early nineties, my mom worked at or managed video rental stores, so while I'm no video tape expert, I'm familiar with the instructions regarding North Dakota videotapes -- there were even stickers on the cases on how to handle cold tapes. Thousands upon thousands of people have rented a video tape and left it in their car while at work or overnight, and even an hour or two at -40 is enough to bring the tape down to sub-zero temperatures (longer won't make it colder), and as far as I can recall, videotapes never returned shattered or destroyed by the cold.

The stickers warned that the user should let the tape come up to room temperature before playing it to avoid condensation -- I believe that's as much for the VCR's as the tape's safety. Again, with all the time I hung out at the video store, I never saw a condensation-destroyed video tape, either. My experience would say that letting them warm up to room temperature is going to be fine, and simply being cold is far less damaging than wet, heat, being eaten by the player, and tape rot due to age.
posted by AzraelBrown at 3:33 PM on January 29, 2010

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