Insiders' Guide to Picking an Air Bed

Beware All The "Bells And Whistles" You Commonly Find On A Lot Of Air Beds -- Instead, Quality Components Are The Key To A Comfortable and Long Lasting Air Bed

The range of air beds out there is a bit overwhelming - from the most simple (a simple one chamber mattress like the Aero Bed) to those offering multiple layers of foam, multiple chambers, pillow top options, etc., with all kinds of options like digital remotes and sophisticated matching box springs and foundations.

After researching, physically testing, and inspecting a variety of air beds, we came back to a basic principle - the simpler, the better. We were astonished at how many unnecessary "bells and whistles" are built into the leading brand of air beds, and we suspect that many of these features are added merely to increase the "perceived value" of the air bed, to cover the cost of hugely expensive advertising budgets. As we all know, the consumer is paying for this overhead since it has to be built into the price of an air bed.

As for the air beds themselves, consumers unfortunately end up paying too much money for what we believe are "fluff" features on many air beds - digital remote controls which have unnecessary features, overpriced and inadequate pump systems, and layer upon layer of foam or other "filler materials" that really don't necessarily enhance the feel of the mattress, but dramatically increase their cost. As an example, the leading manufacturer of air beds touts the use of a fairly stiff rail of foam placed head to foot in the center of their split mattress models (such as King size, where two separate air bladders are placed side by side) that is referred to as an "I-Beam", as being an added feature to add structural integrity and support to their bed.

Many manufacturers and industry veterans suggested that this "added feature" is in fact a design flaw, built in to prevent the user from sinking into the center of the bed, covering up a fundamental defect in the engineering of the air bed. In fact, many consumers complain about the "hump" in the middle of their air bed, after purchasing this model. This usually appears when the bed is set at softer settings, and the air chambers sink lower than the perimeter foam rails and the center "I-Beam".

Other air beds, have seemingly technically advanced features, like the so-called "self-adjusting" models, which offers no pump system or adjustability control at all, offer the user essentially only one setting, while the manufacturer claims that the air bed offers a full range of "automatic" settings from soft to firm. What's even worse, air beds with multiple air chambers also have multiple ports for pumps and valves, which means more potential air leakage problems if the valves and fittings are not of extremely high quality, or if they are not positioned or installed properly so that they don't eventually become loose or disconnected.

Also, poor quality foam layers, which, while looking "poofy" and adding loftiness and a desirable appearance, especially in the retail showroom, in fact may be comfortable for the first few months of use, but quickly deteriorate and compress, developing ruts, dips, and body impressions.

Without question, the single biggest complaint about air beds is that they quickly lose their "poofiness", becoming flat, lifeless, and sometimes rock hard, very fast. This is confirmed by the fact that inside sources have told us that some leading brands of air beds have return rates as high as 23%. That means roughly one out of 4 customers is dissatisfied enough with their purchase that they are willing to go through the trouble of disassembling, repackaging, and shipping back their mattress!

So are air beds just inherently uncomfortable? I've spent a lot of time researching this and testing different air beds at trade shows, and my experience was that while many air beds weren't too comfortable, a few really were. The difference? To be honest, most air beds use fairly low grade components, and these just don't feel that comfortable after a short time. But those few that used higher quality components (vulcanized rubber bladders rather than less expensive pvc or nylon bladders, higher grade foams rather then fairly inexpensive low density foams, etc) were really much more comfortable than the standard air bed you find -- including most of those from from the "leading brand". Rather than becoming hypnotized by all the available "extras" that can really jack up the cost of an air bed, we came to focus on the essentials that make or break the comfort of the air bed: the air chambers, the quality and configuration of the foam layers used on top of the air bladders, the quality and ease of use of the pump system and the remote controls, the integrity of the side rail system, the type of materials used in the top outer covering or quilting, etc.

We believe that the best air bed is one that offers a fairly simplistic mattress design, made with quality components that are known to last. So, rather then getting sidetracked by the hype with things like a "sleep number", or thinking that a presentation from a celebrity on TV makes one air bed better than another, consider our 10 point checklist before you start doing your research. Also, the most expensive model out there is not necessarily the best, by any means!

  1. Stay Basic With Air Chambers

    In our year long look into air beds, we researched a variety of air bladder options, first by studying air beds currently in the marketplace. We were astonished at how complicated retailers could make it for the typical consumer. We figured the best way to learn about the best material to use for an air bladder in an air bed was to speak with veteran industry retailers and manufacturers, who have been in the trenches working with various materials and methods for producing air chambers both for institutional beds (medical, etc.) and for residential or home use. Should the air bladders be fabricated from rubber, PVC, Urethane, or Nylon, or perhaps other materials? Is it really necessary to have multiple chambers, zones, and baffles? How complex should the air chambers be before you reach a point where you are paying for unnecessary materials and options?

    The answers were surprisingly simplistic, boiling down to a function of using fewer moving parts and therefore reducing the amount of adhesives used in air chamber construction, minimizing the likelihood that there would be for trouble over the lifespan of an air bed. Materials chosen as components in premium air beds were evaluated in an effort to reduce or eliminate puncture problems, leaks, and to increase the lifespan and durability of the materials since they were subject to constant use on a daily basis, with vast pressure differentials under the relatively large load of two human beings on a typical bed. Over the last few years, air beds have became hugely popular primarily because of the adjustability factor, and the industry seems to be constantly reinventing themselves as they improve upon their technology and use of materials, to make the product a lot more "high tech" than the old blow-up mattress and foot pump concept of an air bed of days gone by.

    There are many formidable materials with which to make high quality air chambers for today's sophisticated air beds. There is PVC, (polyvinyl chloride, a plastic), NylonŽ, Urethane (which is synthetic rubber), and vulcanized natural rubber just to name a few. PVC and Urethane are considered highly desirable, because the materials are largely inert and don't deteriorate, are reasonably elastic, and can be backed with specialized polymer fabrics to make it essentially as strong as steel.

    The tradeoff is often comfort though, however, when dealing with synthetic materials. PVC, NylonŽ, and urethane, tend to feel a lot stiffer, and don't seem to offer the flexibility and elasticity found in natural vulcanized rubber air bladders. They just don't seem to have as broad a range of flexibility, especially when inflated to higher pressures. They tend to be not as responsive, are less yielding, and not as desirable as natural rubber for the essential layer of an air bed, the layer that should provide the highest level of comfort possible. We found that fabric backed vulcanized rubber air bladders make the best choice, allowing for good flexibility within a full range of motion from soft, to firm, without either bottoming out, or getting as hard as a slab of concrete. Advances in safer, less toxic adhesives, and such techniques as solvent welding (gluing two pieces of material together at the molecular level) have made vulcanized rubber air bladders the best choice.

    Fabric backed vulcanized rubber air chambers will last for decades, and since pump systems that are used with air beds have pressure limiting features, it is impossible to "pop" an air bed bladder. Obviously, with any material used in air bladder construction, sharp objects should be kept away. Bottom line, avoid high tech materials when looking closely at the guts of an air bed. Natural rubber just can't be beat when it comes to overall considerations.

    We also concluded that excessive baffling and interior walls which supposedly offered motion dampening qualities to the air bed, was a lot of marketing hype, and although some baffles and gussets to maintain the shape of an air bladder is desirable, it's important to remember that our experts told us that building air bladders for air beds is labor intensive, and a lot of the price you pay includes these expense factors. We'll discuss more of the chamber issues below. Too many gussets, baffles, and chambers really don't offer any additional benefit, especially since you can't really feel the difference with other comfort layers on top of the bladders. Also, we determined that ideal thickness of an air bladder should be 5-7" thick, meaty enough to accommodate larger folks without bottoming out, especially at softer settings, yet thin enough so that your mattress doesn't end up being way too tall.

    A relatively recent addition to the high end air bed scene has been multiple chambered air beds, most commonly so-called tri-zone air beds. All basic air beds these days offer independent chambers for each sleeper (for example, two chambers in a queen air bed so that each sleeper has their own independently controllable air chamber).

    But in the last few years some air beds have come onto the scene offering three chambers instead of offering just a single, independent chamber for each user. These tri-zone beds offer three chambers - one each for the head and shoulders, midsection, and lower legs and feet. These chambers are somewhat independently adjustable - the head and feet portion adjust as one unit, and the midsection adjusts independently. The concept is that this allows people to get more localized lower back support by making the middle section independently adjustable.

    We've looked into these multiple chamber mattresses, and while we like the idea, we just haven't found that they really were more comfortable in practice. This is typically because the multiple chamber feel is often minimized by the multiple layers of foam that are between the sleeper and the tri-zone chambers. Stay with more basically designed air bladders that don't have excessive baffling offering multiple zoned areas..we just did not notice a perceptible difference, and it's more important to rely on the comfort and support layers above the air chambers to provide therapeutic value, in our opinion.

    A strong consideration for purchasing an air bed, too, is that couples, who have may have different needs as far as firmness or softness goes, can share the same bed comfortably, if each side has its own independent adjustability control. If you're buying a brand name air bed with a layer of memory foam material, or latex, or high density foam, for example, make sure it's near the top, so you can experience the qualities of the foam layers, and the added benefit of the range of adjustability offered by the pump system between softer and firmer settings. Don't buy an air bed with all of the comfort layers buried below the air bladders.

  2. Let's Talk More About Those Layers On Top Of The Air Bladder: Foam - Get the Best You Can, and Make Sure Such Materials As Memory Foam And Latex Are Near the Top.

    High density foam gives an air bed a lush, comfortable feel. And it serves an important function in keeping the air bed safe from punctures as well. Typically air beds for home use have anywhere from 3 - 6quot; of high density foam layered on top of the air chambers, and pillow tops may have even more. These foams used range from standard high density urethane foams to visco-elastic "memory foams" in the more expensive beds. Recently, latex foams have exploded onto the bedding scene, and offer a real level of comfort and responsiveness, previously unavailable in air beds as well as other types of mattresses. We've found that these foam layers are perhaps the key factor which separates a good quality air bed from a cheap air bed - the better the quality of the materials used (density and thickness), with the right combination of materials working in concert together, the more comfortable the mattress is going to be.

    While researching many different air beds, we were shocked at the quality of the foam materials used in many air beds (including many of the expensive name brands) as well as the way many companies bury these embellishment layers so deep within the bed, that they are essentially not discernible, and therefore useless. We believe that all across the board, high density foam material used in an air bed should be of at least a 1.8 lb/cu foot density. Even better would be 2.2lb foam if it is available. Anything less will deteriorate fairly quickly, bottom out easily, and won't give you the type of support and resiliency you need over time.

    As we have discussed, one of the popular types of foam to be offered in air beds is visco-elastic "memory foam", and more recently, latex foam. We've been involved with memory foam for almost 10 years now, longer than many retailers have even been in existence, and we have seen from first hand experience that a good 2" layer of high density memory foam (at least 3.5 lb/cu foot density memory foam) can really enhance the feel of an air bed. Often people will inflate an air bed to firmer settings, so that it provides good back and lumbar support. The memory foam layer really helps in this situation to give the mattress a softer, more comfortable feel and is very effective at reducing possible pressure points. We've had dozens of customers add a 2" memory foam pad to their previously purchased "Brand X" existing air bed and they find that the memory foam layer made all the difference.

    We believe you should look for memory foam that is at least 3.5 lb/cu foot density. Anything less just doesn't give you the real feel and benefits of memory foam, and you will tend to bottom out on lesser dense foams. And remember, to really get a benefit from the memory foam it should also be near the top layer or two of the air bed. To our surprise, we found that instead many air bed manufacturers bury their memory foam layers under 4-6quot; inches, or more, of various padding. We actually found manufacturers who put foam layers under the air bladder, which was quite perplexing to us. Bottom line, absolutely buy an air bed with a memory foam layer, preferably a 2" thick piece of at least 3.2 lb/cu foot density.

    When a manufacturer offers latex as an option in the support layers of an air bed, natural latex is the best option. Even though it's been around for a long time, latex has undergone a rennaissance in the last few years, and there is renewed interest in using this material in bedding.

    We like to see natural vs. synthetic used, since the natural material, which has been out there for almost 50 years, will not break down over time, like some synthetic foam materials. More and more major bedding manufacturers understand the unique responsiveness and elasticity that latex provides, and incorporate it into many mattress designs. It works especially well with an air bed system, so if you can get it, it is worth the investment.

    Look for natural latex that is 2" thick, anything thicker than that adds too much weight and really doesn't offer any more benefit, and anything thinner generally bottoms out with larger framed folks.

  3. Pump - Quality rather than Hype

    Many air bed manufacturers skimp on probably the single most important element of an air bed system, and that is the pump used to fill the air bladders. The pump should be fairly quiet when in operation, or operate with a slight hum, but it should be not be clicking and clacking loud enough to send you flying out of bed. Most manufacturers today have mastered sound dampening technology, so quieter pumps are pretty much expected. High capacity pumps are critical.

    The pump should be rated effectively with the size of your bed, so ask questions about the power of the pump. We've looked at a lot of different types of pumps, and again simplicity seems to work best. Look for a pump system which has few moving parts, is UL listed and is comfortably audible when in use. These types of pumps also move more air at a higher volume and can fill a bed in less than 2 minutes, from dead empty.

    The pump should be accessible, not buried inside the air bed itself, otherwise as it is pumping, it could be pulling on a vacuum if it does not have clear access around itself, and may tend to overheat if not given good ventilation. You want to be able to get to it, too, should you need to replace it or have it repaired. The pump warranty should be all inclusive for at least 3 years. Even with regular use, air bed pumps, just like aquarium pumps, generally have a long lifespan and will function well, especially if given proper ventilation. Periodically check the pump unit and make sure its intake areas are kept clean and free of dust, debris, and animal hair, etc. , and obstructions.

  4. Controls and Remotes - Simple Is Still Better

    Somehow the controller or remote has become a focal part of advertising for some air bed companies. It's as if the air bed remote control has to operate like your TV remote, requiring you to enter some mystical digits to verify that it works properly. This whole "Sleep Number" idea is a bit of a mystery to us, as well as the manufacturers we've talked with. The basic function of the controller or remote is simply to allow you to push a button and fill or empty the air bed until it is comfortable. Assigning a number to this process isn't really relevant - what is important is to be able to easily adjust the bed till it is comfortable.

    As long as the controller does this well, then it should work fine. Avoid remote controls that are too complex...our research suggest firm, soft, and maybe some memory settings as an option.

    On a deeper level, some of the manufacturers we've talked with question the whole idea of a "Sleep Number". They note that the number at which you are comfortable on your back may be very different than the number you would use if you were instead sleeping on your side. So the number you would find comfortable may well change during the night as you toss and turn and move to different positions. Again, they believe the point should be that you want to adjust the mattress to be comfortable, and that tying this to a specific number really serves no beneficial purposes.

    As for the controller itself, we tend to like the basic corded models as opposed to the cordless models. The cordless models just are too easy to lose and offer no particular advantage - it isn't as though you would need to be able to adjust the air bed from farther away than just lying on the bed. And this can save you money - so stick with a hardwired digital remote control with simple fill or empty control options. Another advantage to a hard wired controller is that it operates in real time, and there is not delay as with wireless remotes.

  5. Look for Sturdy Side Rails

    It is nice to be able to sit on your bed, to put on your shoes, and not slide off the side. So we've found that it really helps to have good, rigid foam side rails as part of the air bed design. Stay away from air beds that have their chambers all the way to the edge, or have a foam rail that is somewhat thin and not typically very sturdy. Instead look for air beds that use good, thick perimeter foam for sturdy edges. Even better, there are a few companies that offer contoured or graduated edges, which we think is ideal. This means that you will feel little or no transition from air bladder to foam edge with this innovation. Also, contoured edges with concave indentations contain the air bladders more effectively, and prevent bowing out of the air bladders. We recommend comfortably firm siderails that allow you to sit at the edge of your air bed, but yet are soft enough so you don't feel them digging into the back of your legs at the edge of the bed.

  6. Beware the Overbuilt Pillow Top

    In the mattress industry today, pillow top features are the "fluff" where manufacturers make money. Pillow top mattresses often are a manufacturer's best sellers, and the quality of the materials used in a pillow top can vary dramatically. Sad to say, many pillow tops have a good initial feel but break down pretty quickly because they use layers of fairly inexpensive, low density foams and other fiber material.

    And we really don't find these basic, lush types of pillow tops offer more comfort over time. Instead we often hear from customers that their pillow top felt good at the beginning, but over time (sometimes just a few months) it compacted and just doesn't offer the same nice feel. Look for a simplistically designed quilted top for your air bed. Also, look for synthetic materials that breathe, as they tend to be cooler and resist packing down, unlike wool or cotton.

    A 2" quilted top will do the job, and you will feel the effects of all the layers underneath the quilted exterior and enjoy the full range of adjustability offered by the air bladders, as well. A good blend of synthetic fibers will also last much longer. Today's synthetic fill materials are extraordinarily comfortable and durable. If you like cotton, put your money into a high thread count sheet, not the quilted covering on your mattress that is essentially a support layer in your bed.

  7. Assembled vs. Put it Together Air Beds

    Air beds come in two variations - those that are delivered fully assembled vs. those that come in a few boxes that you put together yourself. There are pros and cons of each option, but a fair amount of the difference is simply one of price. We've looked at a few different assembled air bed options, but we've always ended up rejecting this route because delivery costs are just so incredibly high.

    Even if delivery is "free", retailers generally add this cost into the product's base price. And if the air bed has a decent return policy (which we believe is a vital part of any online air bed offer), most retailers will only refund you the purchase price less this original shipping plus any return shipping charges. These charges can easily add up to over a third of the cost or more of the air bed, which makes returning an assembled air bed a very pricey proposition.

    In contrast, the air beds that you can buy that you assemble yourself are modular in design in case you need to replace or switch out parts, and the shipping and return costs are much more reasonable. In addition, the shipping time is also much quicker than an assembled air bed (a few days versus a few weeks) and you can track this shipment as well. These types of shipments are less likely to get damaged on the long way to you as well, slowing down the delivery time.

    So, from a shipping and delivery point of view, assemble- it- yourself air beds are a quantum leap beyond the pre-assembled air bed option. Also, we have found that industry trends are showing that manufacturers have become much better at packaging ready to assemble bedding that is easily put together in minutes. Besides, you will learn what makes your air bed tick if you assemble it, making it easier to go after particular parts or components if the need should arise.

    The key is to know up front if the air bed you are looking at is one you would need to assemble, so you won't be surprised by this. But remember, there are typically only about 6-10 pieces involved in the entire assembly process, so it's not like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and most instructions are clear and easy to understand, usually taking no more than about 30 minutes, even if you are not mechanically inclined.

  8. Look Closely at the Return Policy

    No matter how much research you do, you can never know what kind mattress will work for you until you sleep on it. So we feel that a good, no-strings attached return policy is a vital part of any air bed purchase. Unfortunately, air bed manufacturers don't typically support retailers with a good return policy, so it is up to the individual retailer to assume this risk themselves. So return policies can vary dramatically from retailer to retailer even on the same model of air bed.

    So, one of the most important points in deciding where to buy an air bed it to make sure that the retailer you are considering offers a fair return policy. Since return policies can vary so dramatically, you need to compare different retailers trial period as well as the amount of money you will end up paying for a return.

    Expect to at least pay a reasonable charge for shipping one way on a return, and be advised that many retailers will charge you for shipping both ways. Also, make sure that any air bed you buy from a retailer offering a return policy is brand new. Some companies offer as "new" returned air beds that have been "refurbished" - fitted out with a new cover, but the foam and other padding materials, as well as the chambers, are all unchanged from an air bed that was returned.

    This is an unfortunate business practice of some retailers, so make sure you ask what the retailer does with their returned air beds so know you will end up with a completely new and unused air bed. We like to see a return policy that offers full refunds for at least 90 days. Again, it's fair to expect a return shipping charge, but the fee should be reasonable, let's say around $75-100.

  9. Solid Warranty Essential

    A good warranty is essential - even with the best quality control things are defective or break from time to time. The best way to avoid problems is first to go with an air bed with the best quality components, and one made by a manufacturer that has a good track record over a number of years.

    Like all "hot" products, the explosion of interest in air beds has spawned a huge growth in the number of manufacturers - of varying quality and substance. When we looked at manufacturers, we focused on those with a good number of years in the business and good track records in terms of their quality and attention to detail. We further cut our list to those offering a good warranty that wasn't severely pro-rated.

    As an example of what we consider a good warranty, the manufacturer that our recommended site for air beds, Habitat Furnishings, has chosen offers a 20 year pro-rated warranty, with a full 3 year replacement coverage on any defective part or component. In contrast, other manufacturers offer lesser year warranties or ones with a more standard pro-rating so that the value of the warranty dwindles to nothing near the end of the warranty period.


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