Picture, if you will, your most important shoot yet: your first big job as a wedding videomaker, the birth of
your first child, or possibly a long lost relative coming to meet your mother at the airport. Whatever it is,
you want to capture the golden moment forever.
But to your horror, you discover something’s wrong: the viewfinder fails to give you a picture; you think
you hear the tape running, but the record light won’t come on; you’re sure you charged the batteries, but
now they aren’t putting out any power at all.
Do you remember reading something in the owner’s manual about routine service? Up until this point,
you pointed your camcorder, pushed the button and it worked; you’ve never done anything like contact the
service center before.
These may be nightmare scenarios, the kinds of things that only happen to "other people," but they
could happen to you. Is there something you can do to prevent such an occurrence? And if it does happen,
For answers to these and other service-related questions, read on.
Two Sides: Maintenance and Repair
In general, you can divide "service" into two categories: major repairs and routine maintenance.
Major repairs are probably closest to the scenarios described above: something’s broken and it needs
fixing. More than likely, major repairs are one-time operations best left to the trained professionals found
at either a local factory-authorized service center or through the manufacturer itself.
Routine maintenance, on the other hand, is preventative, the kind of thing you try to do before your
equipment fails. Often, you can easily and quickly do routine maintenance yourself, without a trip to the
service center. Think of it like an oil change or tune-up for your car, the kind of thing you need to do every
few thousand miles. Making sure you do these things properly and in a timely fashion can prevent the need
for many major repair situations.
But first, what about major repairs?
Major Repairs: Where To Go
Just like taking a trip to a mechanic you’ve never been to, getting service for your video gear can be
somewhat disconcerting. The biggest issue seems to be one of trust. What if it’s only a small problem, but
they say you need all kinds of work? Or what if the reverse occurs–you have something small fixed, but
the technician goofs it up, creating even bigger problems? The good news is that, according to several top
service professionals, that kind of worry isn’t often justified.
Thanks to recent attempts to improve their customer service, most major manufacturers now employ a
set of strict controls governing every phase of service performance.
For JVC, the process begins with making a careful choice of every technician they authorize. Next, they
make sure all personnel working in the center receive careful training. This process continues with follow-
up measures designed to ensure that their technicians service all equipment properly.
Controls are so strict and so carefully followed that, if given a choice between using a local factory-
authorized service center and sending the equipment to the factory itself, Kevin Gordon, National Products
Specialist with JVC, would choose an authorized service center. "And why not?" says Kevin. "It’s closer
and it’s guaranteed to be just as good."
A spokesperson for Adolph Gasser, Inc., the largest video equipment rental agency in San Francisco,
echoes this sentiment. "I wouldn’t send our equipment anywhere but the authorized service center."
Other major manufacturers employ similar sets of controls. According to Bob Kozlarek, a Technical
Support Supervisor with Panasonic, "Our authorized service centers get the opportunity to receive the same
training that techs within our factory service centers receive. And in the event an authorized center
encounters a problem they can’t solve, our field engineers are available to assist them. What’s more,
Panasonic now offers a toll-free assist line (800-524-1448) so that customers can locate the factory-
authorized service center closest to them."
Yet in spite of these controls and their promise of better service, might it just be so much PR fluff, the
equivalent of claiming to be the best in order to secure repeat business when you’re in need of service? Not
so. Aside from those already mentioned above, there are other reasons to go to an authorized center.
The first is their familiarity with the equipment. If you own a Brand X camcorder, having techs trained
by Brand X (who only work on Brand X) means you’re getting someone who knows what they’re
The second is because of something called a "service bulletin." Most major manufacturers periodically
issue these announcements to all service personnel. They not only deal with new issues in servicing,
offering updates to previous editions of service manuals, but may address specific service questions or
problems as well. A non-authorized facility simply won’t have access to these service bulletins. Without
them, the tech may require more benchtime to service the equipment–which, in the end, means more
And finally, information garnered from these service centers is put back to work, not only in creating
new and updated service bulletins, but in making better, more efficient designs for future equipment. Now
How Much and How Long?
We’ve all been there before. Something you thought could never cost more than a few dollars turns
out costing ten or a hundred times as much. Worse yet, you need the equipment repaired and back by the
end of the week, and when you call to find out if it’s ready, you’re told it’s going to be another week, then
another. Yes, we’re dealing with expensive micro-electronics, but why does everything seem to be so
darned expensive and to take so darned long?
According to one source, the biggest reason for high prices is the expensive tools required to service
today’s video equipment. A prime example is surface-mount technology.
If you’ve ever opened a VCR, computer, or any other piece of equipment using microprocessors, you’ve
seen surface-mounted devices (SMDs). These components look something like a many-legged insect, and
may have 64 or more pins, each of which is soldered to the board at a separate terminal.
More often than not, servicing these SMDs means removing and replacing them; this requires special
tools. According to Kozlarek, "The soldering iron has been replaced by elaborate desoldering stations,
usually costing $1500 to $2000." Other advances in equipment have jacked the cost up as well. Service
centers have replaced simple test equipment with computerized test fixtures, some of which are even
But these developments have not always lifted the price. According to Kozlarek, "No one disputes the
fact that the hourly rates have increased proportionally with technology, but the average repair time has
A secondary issue in pricing is rate type: flat or hourly. Both have benefits as well as drawbacks.
Under the flat-rate system, you’ll be charged a certain amount to fix a broken head, whether it takes a
technician one hour or two.
Under the hourly rate, of course, the repair facility charges you for whatever amount of time it takes for
the tech to properly repair what needs fixing.
Panasonic’s service centers charge an hourly rate plus the cost of any required parts. The danger of the
flat-rate system is that a customer can receive a large bill for a minor adjustment.
On the other hand, the intricacy and complexity of present equipment may require several hours of
bench time. With either case, someone gets short-changed under the flat rate system. Says Kozlarek:
"Charging for the service one receives seems to be the best approach."
Customers who have shopped well, however, may never have to worry about whether the service
centers are charging a flat or an hourly rate, thanks to the warranty on their gear. As an example,
Panasonic’s industrial/professional models come with a one-year warranty. During this time, the warranty
would cover most problems at no charge.
One source, however, suggested that the customer beware of purchasing an extended warranty from a
consumer electronics outlet. Why? Because then their service techs–who are not necessarily authorized to
repair your specific brand–have to work on the equipment.
And what about time? Because the work load at the service facility varies from week to week,
committing to a time may be difficult. It’s best to call ahead and communicate your deadline and find out
whether they can meet it. They might not commit to it, but they can let you know if they’re swamped.
Kozlarek says that Panasonic encourages people to do exactly that. "Coordinating our work load with
their schedule will often shorten the down time. And, in a crisis situation, we can often recommend a local
authorized service center that can address the problem much quicker. In short, we make every effort to
accommodate the customer."
Change the Oil?
We asked a number of service professionals what was the most common problem they encountered in
equipment. The response was, surprisingly, almost unanimous: lack of routine maintenance.
Most people have heard the old "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" philosophy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t
hold well when it comes to video equipment.
Service professionals say that while today’s camcorders and other gear are not as labor-intensive as they
used to be, consumers should never forget that they should change parts such as belts and pressure rollers
from time to time. Consumers should also see to it that someone cleans, lubricates and makes certain
mechanical adjustments per the manufacturer’s suggested periodic maintenance schedule. Letting these
things go may not result in a sudden failure, but may create a gradual loss of performance that will
eventually contribute to a bigger problem.
Unfortunately, few other owners manuals offer schedules for periodic maintenance, except perhaps for
simple outside cleaning. And most consumers don’t realize that belts or pressure rollers, or other parts that
may need maintenance, are even inside of their camcorders. It’s likely that many manufacturers don’t
want consumers opening the cases for that very reason, and so they seldom print maintenance
Interestingly, Kozlarek says that convincing customers of the need for routine maintenance is one
of the most difficult issues. He suggests reading the manual carefully in order to find the periodic
maintenance recommendations, if listed. Thankfully, some manufacturers, such as JVC, actually offer
service warranty options to their consumers. With this, trained technicians perform all required service.
Because VCRs and camcorders are essentially similar in operation, most of the routine service items
are going to be the same. Please keep in mind that if you’re ever in doubt about your ability to perform a
service operation, don’t. Due to the delicate nature of many of the components inside your VCR or
camcorder, chances are you’ll do more harm than good.
If you do have a lot of gear and want to do the work yourself, but haven’t really done much of it before,
practice. Call service facilities or go to garage sales where you can purchase old inoperable VCRs. Often,
you can pick such units up for as little as $25. They might not be exactly like yours, but then that’s part of
the benefit–you’ll learn how the various brands and models differ. Once you have an old unit to play with,
open it up and do whatever you want to it–you can’t break what’s already broken.
Finally, while you should always refer more serious problems to a specialist, the careful equipment
owner can undertake some operations such as cleaning, checking and degaussing the heads and tape
Clean Your Heads
You’ve seen it before: a layer of dust on the top of your television set and VCR. Even under normal
conditions, such dust and other particles can build up inside the machine around heads, rollers, and tape
transport parts; this can cause problems in playback. Camcorders may have it worse, especially if you take
yours outside frequently. Keeping all equipment in a carrying case that you can shut tightly solves some
problems. But even that won’t eliminate them all.
Aside from dust and other airborne particles, tape oxide and oxide binder also cause problems. When in
record and playback mode, video heads actually contact the tape oxide. This means that a barely detectable
amount of tape oxide continuously sheds from the tape onto both the heads and guides. Any build-up on
the tape heads creates poor performance because the build-up actually pushes the tape away from the
The average spacing between the tape and the face of the head is 0.000020 inch–compare this to the
thickness of a human hair, only 0.004 inch. Anything that widens that spacing will cause picture and sound
problems. This will show up as streaks, noise or no picture at all if there’s enough build-up.
Regular cleaning of the heads and head drum can prevent this from happening. To a lesser extent, the
same problems happen with the stationary heads in your VCR or camcorder. Be sure to clean them as
But what’s "regular?" Some sources say as often as every 100 hours; others say only every 1000 hours.
Most of those interviewed for this article suggested cleaning the heads only when they need it (you’ll know
when you have playback problems).
There are several methods you can use to clean the heads. The first, and perhaps most common, is the
head-cleaning tape. Many of these are abrasive and actually clean the heads by actually grinding off a
small portion of the head’s surface, much like sandpaper. So while convenient and easy to use, physically
cleaning the heads with a head-cleaning solution is better if only for the simple reason that this cleans the
heads instead of sanding them.
Someone may have told you to use alcohol and cotton swabs for this procedure. Don’t. There are two
reasons for this.
First, alcohol has oil (and water) in it, and while the alcohol itself dries quickly, it can actually leave
behind the oil residue. When, after cleaning, you put a tape in for playback, this oil is ground into the oxide
and will always be there as a smudge or a spot on the tape, potentially causing it to slip. The oil can also act
like a magnet for more dirt and dust, defeating the purpose of cleaning the heads in the first place.
Second, cotton swabs are the wrong tool for the job. They’re made of swirled cotton fibers; bits of these
fibers can actually come loose from the swab and get stuck in the playback head, giving you a bigger
"head-ache" than just dirty heads. These fibers may even snag on the video heads and remove them! You
can use cotton or foam-tipped swabs for cleaning of stationary heads and other parts; just be sure not to use
them on the video heads.
Smooth, chamois-wrapped plastic sticks and a VCR head cleaning fluid are the best and most widely
accepted tools for video head cleaning.
Where the Tape Runs
Another important place to clean is the tape transport path. Many times, tapes themselves may have
dust or dirt on them (especially rented movies), and this dirt not only rubs off on the heads, but can clog
other parts of the transport path as well.
In order to see where the tape runs, carefully remove the cover from your VCR, set it on a well-lit table,
plug it in, turn it on and insert a tape. You will see the cassette drop into position. Push the "play" button
and watch the tape come out of the cassette and wind around the head, as well as through a series of rollers
and other tape guides.
Each of these areas is a potential magnet for dirt. Remember, you can use cotton or foam swabs and the
cleaning fluid in these areas. Also take this opportunity to check the drive belts and drive wheels for signs
of wear. Clean them as well, using a rubber belt cleaner designed for this purpose.
If you do see belts or wheels that need replacing, please keep in mind that much of the mechanical
alignment and parts replacement requires special jigs and/or gauges. You should leave these operations to
Because videotape uses tiny magnetic particles to record a signal, every metal part that the tape
touches will become magnetized over time.
This is especially true of the heads. Magnetic residue on the heads will not only partially erase some of
the higher video frequencies, causing a loss of detail in the image; it may also cause a rumbling
background noise, as well as loss of high frequencies in the audio as well.
In order to demagnetize the heads–what’s called "degaussing" in tech-speak–you need a special tool.
Only use a demagnetizing tool approved for use with VCRs, because the kind made for audio equipment
can actually harm the video heads.
Demagnetizing your heads is a simple operation. Remove the VCR cover, plug in the tool, hold it
several feet away from the part and turn it on. Then slowly bring the tool near the part you want to
demagnetize (usually the tape heads or transport path). Move it up and down slowly a few times, then
move it at least three feet away before turning it off. If you turn it off near the part, it will have the reverse
effect: magnetizing instead of demagnetizing.
Remember not to touch the heads. Only bring the tool as close as possible to the heads without actually
In the End
Think of service as a feature. You spend a lot of time deciding what kind of camera to buy, checking
out all the available features. Color viewfinder? Image stabilizer? Why not include a service agreement or
warranty? Ask if a factory-authorized service center exists near you. Can they do everything you need?
If you perform routine maintenance on your video gear, you should be able to avoid most major repairs.
But if you do find yourself needing a service center–hey, at least now you know what to expect when you
get there. As the adage says, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Mark Steensland is a Videomaker editorial assistant.
Dealing With a Service Center
Whether or not you’re going to a factory-authorized repair center, there are always a number of things
to keep in mind when you need to have repairs done.
First, what if you can’t find a factory-authorized center? Start by asking around for recommendations.
The best place to start is with those you trust. Ask your friends or family who have had their gear serviced
recently where they had the work done. Were they satisfied? Did they feel they got what they paid for? Did
they have more trouble as a result of the repairs?
Don’t forget your local better business bureau (BBB). They’re a terrific resource and are there to help
you, the customer. Even before doing business with a specific repair company, call the bureau in your area
and ask them if anyone has filed complaints against that company.
The BBB is also a great place to get some help should you feel a company has treated you unfairly. File
a complaint with them by sending a letter with your name, address and telephone number as well as the
name, address and telephone number of the company and a brief description of your problem and what
recourse you are seeking.
Keep these other tips in mind when it’s time to have service done on your video gear.
First, remember that you’re the one hiring the service facility; they’re working for you. As the
employer, you have the right to find the best person for the job. Any good service facility will know and
understand this and will be willing to demonstrate this to you. Anyone who shies away from giving
warranties on repairs or estimates is probably not someone you want to deal with. Confidence speaks
where words don’t. With this attitude, you can let the service facility know you won’t do business with
them if you don’t trust them. Chances are, if they’re a reputable company, they’ll work to gain your
Interview the prospective service facility over the telephone. Ask how long they’ve been in business.
People who do good work usually stay in business longer than those who don’t.
Look for a facility that offers free estimates of repairs needed. Make sure you get the estimate in
writing. Then take the equipment to a second service facility and play dumb. See if what the second place
says matches the first. This technique helps especially if you have an idea about what’s wrong.
Ask about warranty policy. Do they offer one on repairs? How long is it? Under what conditions?
It’s a lot like getting a second opinion from a doctor. Knowledge is power; the more you have of one,
the more you have of the other.