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A Quick Tutorial On How To Buy A Digital Air Bed That Is Comfortable, Supportive, And Reasonably Priced- With No Buyer’s Remorse!

all the different components that go into an air bed

The Reality Is, Most Digital Air Beds Don't Make The Grade…In Fact, They’re Often A Complete Waste Of Money, Way Overpriced And Loaded With Cheap Ingredients That Simply Don’t Last

The simple fact of the matter is that most Air Beds, even pricier leading brand models, are notorious for not being comfortable and for being way overpriced, brilliantly marketed with lots of bells, whistles, and gimmicks, but also with a very high return rate. We’re all pre-programmed to buy the big leading brands because we see ads everywhere, but- did you ever stop to think, who pays for those ads?

The answer is the buyer- The cost of marketing is built into every mattress out there, regardless of what kind it is, innerspring, memory foam bed, or air bed. With that in mind, the manufacturer has to build in a lot of room for their incredible overhead, and that boils down to one fact- the ingredients in these mattresses are often inferior, cheap filler material with seemingly high tech and luxurious names that are meant to confuse the buyer.

I’m Eben Goresko, and I’m a piano tuner by day, but a mattress reviewer and blogger in my spare time. I got involved with reviewing mattresses after I had a bad shopping experience with my own mattress, and began to discover the tactics that mattress manufacturers use to market their beds. Mattresses are notoriously marked up more than what would be considered reasonable, and I believe an educated buyer armed with the right information can make a logical decision about a mattress purchase.

When I began to really look under the hood of the modern day adjustable air bed, I was astonished at what I found. Like almost every other kind of mattress, they might look great on the outside, but what’s built into them are very often cheap materials designed to fail within a few years- often just beyond when you can return the bed.

Leaving you, the owner, stuck holding the bag and buying replacement parts, shipping back defective parts at your own expense, even being forced to buy pieces and parts from sites like Ebay or Amazon.

I looked at about a dozen or so manufacturers, and found that most air beds are built using the same basic design. There’s the outer covering, a foam edge that goes around the entire mattress, one, or likely two, air chambers with hoses that connect to a pump, and a couple of remote controls.

Above the air chambers, you will typically find various foam layers that can be either of extremely good quality, or merely inexpensive “high density” foam that makes the bed feel cushy and comfortable-at least at first.

Outdated Technology Still Used by Some Leading Brands

The first thing I knew to look at was the pump. I figured, since it was a fairly complex piece of equipment, and likely to fail before anything else might, and if it did, it would cost the customer a fortune to replace it- I’d look at that first.

What I found was amazing. I used to keep aquariums as a kid, so I know how a basic flap valve pump works, using a solenoid that vibrates a rubber flap to either move air in or out, a technology that is probably 80 years old.

Surprisingly this is the technology that is used in many of the leading brand air beds that are out there. I also noticed that many of the pump casings were thin and flimsy, and made the pump sound raspy and annoyingly loud. Who wants that when you are getting ready to doze off.

I did find a few companies using what they call a piston pump. Meaning it is built kind of like your car, using a piston to push air into the hose lines and air chambers. It is typically permanently sealed, so it does not need to be serviced, lubricated, or maintained.

This system seemed much more robust and durable, and when I went to a few sites where customers had complained or written about why they returned their air bed, or why it failed, sure enough the flap vale style pump just didn’t hold up as well.

I also noticed that there were several manufacturers who made thicker, more durable pump casings, with thicker nozzles. I only thought about this being important when I read a post someone wrote mentioning that vacuuming under their bed was the reason why their pump was damaged, and it was attributed to thin hose connection nozzles at the pump, a seemingly insignificant thing that could cost a consumer hundreds of dollars.

The thicker walled pumps with heavier nozzle connections also made more of a dampened humming sound rather than a raspy sound, so that when you are operating your pump to adjust your bed, you’re not jarred out of sleep mode.

Make sure the pump has a built in fuse that is replaceable, so in the event of a power surge, you don’t fry an $800 pump and the sales person has to tell you “oh well, that is not covered under the warranty”.

And incidentally, if the sales person you are speaking with in a retail store or on the phone does not know the difference between a flap valve pump and a piston pump, exit the building or hang up the phone. Just my best advice. Sales people should know the technical side of their product as well as the frilly details about the comfort and the curb appeal.

It’s little details that mattress designers build into the product that ultimately give it lifespan and durability. For example, a woman who wrote a review about why her air bed failed, mentioned that the hoses which ran from the air chambers to the pump were thin, clear silicone hoses, like something you would see running from an aquarium tank pump to the little bubbler in the tank. The hoses were so thin, that while moving her bed around to clean, she accidentally parked a leg from her bed frame on top of one of the hoses, completely mashing it. This ultimately caused the pump to simply burn out.

When looking for a well designed air bed, I recommend buying a system that uses a wire reinforced hose line, which is built using a hard wire coiled inside the hose, preventing any mashing or permanent damage to the pump system.

Remote Controls That Look Like They Could Operate A Starship Plagues Many Air Bed Systems- Why Simple Is Better.

With any digital air bed, along with the pump itself, you’ll get a set of either hardwired or wireless remote controls. I recommend hard wired remotes, as the response time is instantaneous when you make an adjustment, and you don’t lose or mix up your remote controls in your nightstand, digging around for them.

The leading brands deliver an amazingly high tech looking remote control with LED readouts, including zoned control for different areas of the body. Since most mattresses will accommodate parts of your body differently anyway by virtue of your weight, I don’t put a lot of merit in zoned air beds.

The primary reason for this is that zoned air bed chambers have multiple connection points, multiple hoses, and require more sophisticated pumps, lending themselves to failure. I say, simplicity in design will get you durability and lifespan over the long haul.

Also, regarding the leading brands high tech, complicated remote controls, the marketing hype driving this is simply a matter of justifying a higher price. Essentially, the remote control should tell the pump to do a few things:

  • Allow the user to make bed softer or firmer
  • Allow the user to create a favorite pressure setting with memory button
  • Allow the user to fill the bed from zero when initially setting it up

Pretty much any other feature is simply a total waste of money. Also, I found that many, if not all but a few remotes, used a simple display for pressure reading, not a miniature TV screen. So, point is, don’t get caught up in the overhyped remote controls, which often add hundreds if not thousands to the price.

The Air Chambers- The Key Ingredient To An Air Bed That Will Provide The Best Comfort And Support

Another way a manufacturer can take advantage of you is to use an inferior material for the air chambers. Remember, the air chambers are under constant stress, always under pressure, constantly moving and being flexed with people moving and tossing and turning, and over time, these components can break down or completely fail under stress.

I found a variety of materials used in the construction of these air chambers and began to hunt down the pros and cons of each of them. Here’s a list of materials used to build the air chambers and why they don’t work, and what to look for. The best material seems to be vulcanized rubber, which is highly flexible, but it needs a supportive “exo-skeleton” to keep it in proper proportion.

The outer fabric that is bonded to the rubber is typically cotton or a blend of cotton and poly materials that flex with the air chamber. Always ask the salesperson or review the spec to make sure you get only fabric backed vulcanized rubber.

  • PVC, a plastic material- too stiff, does not flex, easily punctured- don't use
  • Nylon, too stiff, extremely hard at firmer settings, swimming like feel at lower settings- don't use
  • Urethane, synthetic plastic like material-stretches too easily, fails- don't use

Inside The Air Bed: Support Foam Layers- Stick With Simpler, Higher Quality Materials And Arm Yourself With Knowledge Before You Shop

The pump connects to the remotes and the pump has hoses that connect to the air chambers inside of the mattress. Push on the remote control, and you inflate or deflate the air chambers, making the bed softer or firmer. But what is it that supposedly makes a digital air bed more comfortable, more supportive, more luxurious, than all other mattresses out there?

It is the right recipe of the outer covering, ticking, or encasement (the material you see on the mattress without sheets or bedspreads on it) and the layers of foam or other materials directly above the air chambers, but below the outer cover. It’s kind of like baking the perfect cake. I quickly discovered though, that much of what is used is often cheap filler material, as I mentioned earlier, designed to consume space rather than add to the comfort or support of your bed.

And, because there are so many kinds of foam layers and materials you can stuff inside of an air bed, trying to pick one to buy will likely give you the migraine of a lifetime. With dozens of models to choose from, how do you narrow it down?

Here’s a list of materials often used inside an air bed that you’ll see online or in retail stores- I’ve also added a spec with each ingredient describing to you the minimum acceptable density or characteristic of that ingredient so you can keep these bits and pieces handy (like a checklist) when shopping - to make sure you are getting a quality component.

  • Memory Foam- minimum 4 lb density, 2” thick is optimal thickness
  • Gel Foam-currently not recommended as they sleep way too hot.
  • Latex Foam Rubber- use only pure natural, 18-24 ILD*, 2” thickness
  • Layers Of Foam With Questionable Names Like “Ultra Foam”, “Dreamfoam”, or “Plushfoam”, are “code” for High Density Foam- choose 20-22 ILD* HD Foam, anything less is too soft, higher generally too firm.
  • Wool Layers- ask for Jomma Wool, at least 4 layers, or 1.5-2” thick
  • Avoid using corrugated, carved, or sculpted more dense so called “zoned layers” as the pump and air chambers are too sophisticated, often have multiple hoses which can leak and fail-and zoning an air bed is complete overkill and hype.
  • Make sure outer cover is a breathable fabric like Tencel, Bamboo, or Organic Cotton, and has breathable fabric on both sides and bottom of mattress
  • Make sure the air bed you choose has a supportive layer of high density foam underneath the air chambers as well, to minimize motion transfer and protect air chambers.

I would say that the ideal air bed contains no more than 2-3 of these kinds of layers. The reason: if you keep piling on the filler material, or “comfort layers” as the industry likes to call them, you begin to lose the subtle sensation of pressure changes between softer or firmer settings, and then it becomes a simple case of what’s the point? You might as well buy a conventional mattress that has no adjustability!

*ILD refers to Indentation Load Deflection, a quantifiable measurement of how dense the material is. Generally 22-28 ILD refers to a medium kind of feel, not too rigid or firm, but not so soft as to cause you to bottom into it, for people of typical height and weight.

Pricepoints: What You Should Pay For A Decent Air Bed System

A decent air bed can vary widely in price, from around $1000 for a basic, entry level model, to over $6,000 for a leading brands top of the line model. The top of the line model might feature a layer of memory foam, and some other support foam layers that are designed to add some cushion and aesthetic qualities to the bed.

Also, a decent air bed should offer a moderately quilted top, otherwise you’re again separating yourself too far from the functional abilities of the air chambers beneath you. Too much piling on of material above the air chambers, and you begin to lose the ability to detect subtle changes in softness and firmness.

I recommend a thin layer of spun wool, or products, such as Hollofil® or Fiberfil®, two proprietary synthetic materials that are made from a coil shaped fiber that springs back and will offer a long lifespan. And again I seem to prefer Bamboo fabric used in the outer covering because of its extreme breathability, and reputation for not sleeping hot.

Also, ideally, you want to purchase an air bed that allows you to swap positions of the various support layers, so that you can “customize” your sleep surface. Be wary of any air bed that is sewn shut so that you can’t get inside of it. A zippered, removable outer covering allows you to remove and replace internal parts, or the outer covering itself, should you ever need to do so. The more “modular” you can make your air bed, the better off you will be during the long haul.

I’d say, after reviewing many different air bed companies, that a reasonably priced air bed system will run anywhere from $1400-$3000, depending upon the ingredients. If you want two premium layers such as memory foam and natural latex, expect to pay around $2800-$3000. If you’re paying $4,000-$5,000, you’re simply paying for rent, commissions, advertising, and middleman fees for no reason.

Recommendations- Who I Like As A Manufacturer/Retailer

Air beds are pretty complex, I admit, and with all the different components and options to choose from, it can get pretty confusing. So if you are interested in an adjustable air bed, it is really important to educate yourself first so you get the comfort and quality you are looking for, but much more importantly, air beds are notoriously often WAY overpriced.

One company we found, called Habitat Furnishings*, really provides a lot of in-depth information on air beds -- the most detailed information I have ever run across on the internet. The guy who owns the company is a nut case about researching all of the materials used in his beds, and seeks each ingredient out separately. I’ve seen him take two years to develop a new mattress for his web site, and that is not an exaggeration. He breaks apart every pump he gets to evaluate them, and is a bit of an obsessive tinkerer.

Their team (they work with a Water Bed company, that’s been in business for 30 years and he hired them to help design his three models) have put together a couple of really nice videos that go into detail on the components of an air bed, and why they chose certain materials vs. others.

As far as the three air beds they offer, they spent a great deal of time putting together three unique designs that offer the same or better quality of components found in higher end air beds, including memory foam and latex, at about the price of a middle of the line air bed offered by the bigger name brands that are out there.

It really is amazing to compare Habitat’s prices of their three models, made using a piston pump and hand selected ingredients, against the stratospheric prices of the big time leading brands. I noticed that their prices are only slightly more than many of the leading brands lower and middle of the road model air beds.

If you are really interested in a quality air bed, I hope you will check them out --Habitat Furnishings Air Beds. They also offer a great warranty and a full year, that’s 365 days- no questions asked trial period, something I have not seen before. And, if you want to return it within the full year trial, you can do so for whatever reason, and they use a removal service to come and pick up the bed, so I would say the risk factor is pretty low.

Or, if you prefer talking with someone, they do offer live phone customer service 9AM to 5PM Eastern Time, Monday - Friday, at 800-313-2591. All their staff apparently have years of industry experience and an in-depth knowledge of digital air beds, and they can help you see if an air bed may be a solution for your particular sleep needs. I have found that not all companies selling digital air beds even offer phone support!

Thanks for taking the time to read my article. I hope that if you buy an air bed, you do your research, and don’t be afraid to ask, “What’s inside this thing?!” – Eben

*Although I do not get a commission or have any financial interest in sales from products I recommend, once I make a decision on a vendor I like, I approach them and ask them to contribute to maintenance of my web site, which includes minimal costs such as hosting, etc.