Air Beds - They Offer The Ultimate In Adjustability, But Not All Air Beds Are Created Equal

all the different components that go into an air bed
You Can See All The Different Components That Go Into An Air Bed -- And The Quality Of These Components Makes All The Difference In The Comfort Of The Bed

In today's marketplace, air beds come in many forms and price ranges. From the simplistically designed, quickly inflatable Aero Bed type products, where you are lying pretty much directly on the air bladder or “chamber”, itself, to more sophisticated systems where the air bladders are a component of the bed, and separate sides have the ability to remotely adjust the air pressure from softer to firmer.

Certainly, the real asset with an adjustable air bed is that two people with completely different comfort needs can sleep on the same bed. Because larger sized air beds, such as queens and kings, typically have dual air chambers on either side of the bed, each user can "tweak" their side, to make it slightly firmer or softer.

Many air bed models are embellished with other layers of "comfort" material (foam or fiber material) which have added comfort or therapeutic value. These comfort layers are typically situated above the air chambers and directly beneath the sleeper. These layers are typically synthetic foam material like high density foam (the same used in couch and chair cushions), memory foam, and even on rare occasions, more exotic materials like natural latex, natural wool, bamboo fibers, etc., though these layers are often built into the pillow top section of the air bed.

The marketplace today attempts to make an air bed look much like every other mattress out there, with a beautiful exterior covering, perhaps a built-in pillow top, all stacked above the air chambers which allow you adjust the feel of the mattress.

The Reality Is, Most Adjustable Air Beds Don't Make The Grade…In Fact, They’re Often A Complete Waste Of Money

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. The reason for this is that while the underlying principle behind these beds is intriguing, with all of the gimmicky pumps and high tech remote controls which allow a full range of adjustability from soft to firm provided by controlling the amount of pressure in the air bladders, most manufacturers seem to skimp on the quality and value of the supportive layers above the air bladders.

These enhancement layers are required to embellish the bed to make it comfortable. Without these layers, the user would tend to sink and experience a “swimming” sensation on the air bed, much like an old style water bed. After all, an air bed is a variation of a flotation style bed to begin with.

It would seem that in today’s discerning marketplace where customers are quite knowledgeable and spend a lot of time studying mattresses before buying them, a manufacturer working with such a sophisticated underlying support structure like adjustable air chambers would be very picky about the quality of the comfort layers used inside the mattress. Unfortunately, this is just not the case. It is safe to say that even larger, well established air bed manufacturers seem to focus more on the technicalities and gimmicks surrounding their product rather than the comfort and aesthetic qualities that really matter.

The most amazing thing I’ve experienced when studying the guts of various adjustable air beds is the quality of the pumps used in many of the models on the market. Without naming names, I’ve actually seen the inside of a pump from a leading brand of air bed (the operational part of the pump is hidden in the pretty outer housing, which looks like a futuristic, sleek, ergonomically pleasing, almost science fiction like device-amazingly cool) and I was astonished at the size of the mechanism. The pump mechanism was smaller than a typical aquarium pump, and was about the size of an Ipad. I couldn’t imagine how such a device could move air through an entire mattress with any degree of efficiency. I also notice how difficult it was to open the pretty outer casing to get to the actual mechanism-the manufacturer clearly did not want this to be accessible to the consumer.

The pump was a flap valve type pump, prone to wearing out quickly, unlike piston style pumps, used in institutional air bed systems, such as hospital intensive care units and long term care facilities, for bed bound folks. I would definitively say that a piston pump is something that would be a “must have” in any air bed investment.

The Important Things To Look For When Shopping For An Air Bed - To Make Sure You Get A Truly Comfortable And Durable Air Bed, Not A Bed You’ll Be Replacing

A decent air bed can vary widely in price, from around $1000 for a basic, entry level model, to over $4,000 for a more well known 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.

One good piece of advice - don't get too caught up in the technical jargon involving the air chambers and pump gimmicks. Generally, the more baffles and zones in the air chambers, the more problems you may have down the road, since each seam and edge has to be adhered to another, allowing potential leakage to be a big problem. Because air bladder construction technology is fairly sophisticated though, leaks and flaws are rarely, if ever, a problem. But when they happen, it may be frustrating and hard to locate the leak.

Stay with more simplistically designed air chambers, mainly because it is difficult to feel the difference between a very complex air bladder and a simpler one since there are usually layers of material on top of them, and when a salesperson starts touting the advantages of having these high-tech air chambers to make the bed more comfortable, it’s probably because there isn’t anything else to talk about.

Look for vulcanized fabric backed rubber air bladders, NOT nylon, PVC, or urethane, since I have heard that these materials get rock hard at higher settings, and do not breathe as well. Also, at lower settings, vulcanized rubber bladders will not feel mushy or bottom out. I’ve seen PVC and nylon air chambers when they are pumped up to higher settings up close, and they don’t breathe, and you can literally tap on them with your knuckles at higher settings, much like a granite counter top.

The pump and digital remote system should be simplistic and easy to use, and I recommend hard wired remote controls, not wireless, otherwise you will lose them, and have to change batteries, etc. You definitely want a UL rated pump, and always use a surge protector with it, since the pumps are fairly sophisticated electronic devices, much like a computer.

Again, ask if the pump is a flap valve type pump, or a piston pump, preferably sealed, so it requires no user lubrication over time. A piston pump works much like a car engine, with a piston device that moves in a sealed chamber and “rams” air like a little turbine into the air chamber. Fewer moving parts, much more efficient. Never buy an air bed with a flap valve pump, which is the aquarium style pump I spoke of earlier. The valves, usually made of rubber, will fail or begin to leak way before a sealed piston type pump will. Most leading brands, to save money because of extremely high overhead, typically use flap valve pumps, unfortunately.

Make sure the pump has a built in fuse that is replaceable, so in the event of a power surge, you don’t fry a $600 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.

Also, a decent air bed should offer a nice quilted top, with a fill material that resists packing down, 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. I like to see Bamboo fabric used in an outer covering, and a good quilted top to add some “nestle” factor, and to help with breathability.

Don’t get caught up in gel foams, either. They tend to sleep hot, and a lot of people complain that they feel mushy or “strange”. Natural latex is a good component in any air bed, offering support and an uplifting buoyancy quality that compliments the flotation principles behind an adjustable air bed. Other layers that are a must have are a good high resiliency foam that provide good back support, memory foam (at least 4 lb. density, no less, and no more than 5lb. otherwise it gets too firm), and perhaps wool layers.

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.

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. You don’t need to spend $5,000 on an air bed and pay the company’s brick and mortar overhead, while sacrificing quality ingredients and longevity.

One company we found, called Habitat Furnishings, who helps sponsor our web site, 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 two 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 two air beds they offer, they spent a great deal of time putting together two 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 two models, made using a piston pump and hand picked 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 experience and an in-depth knowledge of all natural latex mattresses, and they can help you see if latex may be a solution for your particular sleep needs. I have found that not all companies selling latex mattresses even offer phone service!

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