AIR MATTRESS DURABILITY AND REPAIR


TOC
TYPES
PUMPS
LEAK SOURCES
REPAIR
SPECIFIC BRANDS
CONSTRUCTION
SUMMARY

TYPES
The thick air bed type with vertical restraints inside are generally much better than old horizontal tubular-cell mattresses.
However compared to regular beds they are not as durable and do not provide as much support for the body.

I suggest an air bed with a raised pillow end, as air mattresses tend to not support a pillow well even against a headboard or wall (their edge rounds off). Also note the Intex two-piece configuration described under BRANDS later in this article.
As well, a shallow foam wedge under the foot of the mattress may help keep it against the headboard (often spelled "wall" ;-) - the mattress bottom material is slippery.
(Thus you want a "flocked" top on the mattress so sheets don't slip as much.)
And I recommend ensuring size is adequate - because the edge is not firm you may want a queen rather than double size for example. (I have not seen real King size, but note the Intex two-piece has a better edge as the bottom piece surrounds the top piece thus provides width and it projects above the surface of the top piece. Some designs, like one Roots model and some medium-priced Intex models, have a raised edge integral with the bed.)

They vary in height - some are "double height', easier to get up from though it is not like sitting on the edge of a regular bed. See especially the deluxe version of the Intex brand which has two pieces, and the Simmons Beautyrest Extraordinaire which is reasonably good though I recommend two pieces if you can keep them together (one on top of the other, gives redundancy for when one leaks). Air beds vary in height, roughly 9-12 inches for the single layer ones.

These beds are relatively soft, best if pumped fully up. (Unfortunately the new Coleman valve design does not lend itself to that, whereas the original poppet valve could be closed with less loss of air - trying pushing the valve closed with the pump before shutting it off.) The Simmons Beautyrest Extraordinaire comes with a pump that is a bit stronger, especially when new, the Aero line's pump seems better than Coleman pumps as well, and Intex' separate and integral pumps seem adequate at least when new. But more pressure may reduce the time until the mattress develops a leak. And leak it will. (Some Intex beds have a foot pump built in, to help increase pressure beyond what the main pump can do.)

They'll be more suited to lighter people, as heavy people will stress the bed more and will roll together more if sharing (all I've seen have a single air chamber, though some high ones have a separate chamber in each of their two layers).
Realistically these air beds do not have long-term durability. They develop leaks, including from the valves, and are hard to patch if the leak occurs at a seam or internal weld (typically at the side of the depression in the surface where the vertical pieces are welded to the surface material, typically on the top surface which gets more stress from body motion. There are dozens and dozens of opportunties for manufacturing to not get it quite right).
I recommend keeping the pump handy for very slow leaks, and a spare mattress in the dwelling in case a large leak develops (consider putting an inflated spare under the mattress you sleep on, though they may tend to slide apart (best used in a corner), so when it leaks you'll still have reasonable comfort until morning).
Their strength is portability - relatively light, and compact when deflated. While purchase price is much lower than a good conventional bed, over time the cost of ownership will be higher.

PUMPS
They can be a bother, and an extra cost when buying a replacement air bed (as you will, since mattress life is limited) if a pump is included (worst is integral pump - separate pumps may be useable on other air beds, ensure the air bed with integral pump you buy can be inflated by external pump in case integral pump fails or its type of power is not available).

Keep the pump handy, some mattresses seep air so you'll need to pump them up every few days. (As well I suspect that a new air bed will appear to lose pressure initally as the folds are fully stretched by pressure in the bed. And perhaps used but folded beds do so to a lesser degree.)

Some models have a built-in primary pump, convenient but I am wary of pressure capability and durability, or the other way around - you are paying for a pump that may be useless when the mattress wears out.

Keep ear muffs with electric pumps - they are noisy.
The Aero pump runs off AC, 12vdc, or internal rechargeable battery. However its power socket is fragile.
Some air beds have a small hand-pump built in to add a bit of pressure to firm the mattress up, that's handy.
Adapting can be a problem. It appears that the bayonet fitting on the Aero line and the Simmons Beautyrest Extraordinaire line can take the old Coleman bayonet pump. While they can thus use the plain-hole adapter that came attached to the valve of the old Coleman mattresses with bayonet fitting, you'll have to ensure the valve is open - the Coleman valve could be twisted with finger to stay open but that led to loss of firmness due loss of air during the time between removal of the pump and twisting closed with your finger. All other brands I've seen with bayonet fitting need a projection from the pump to open the valve - you'll have to improvise that somehow - though some are small diameter so slow to pump up. The newer Coleman valve is awkward since you have to push on the tube to close it, but it is of soft material so seals against the pump nozzle better than most other brands. (See SPECIFIC BRANDS section re fittings on Intex mattress.)

In some cases you may need a gasket of some kind to seal the pump nozzle to the inlet (perhaps a small rubber donut).

Hand pumps are quite useable. I've tried two types:
- classic accordion type. While intended to be foot-operated, you can squeeze it with your hands. Hand pumps are handy when the power fails or you are out camping.

LEAK SOURCES
It doesn't take much leaking to substantially soften the mattress, and since there is no compartmentalization inside it will behave a bit like a water bed.
Finding leaks is a challenge, you'll need some water, a heavy body, a means of marking or recording the location, and a good pump of course.
The original Coleman air beds developed a slow leak from the poppet valve, perhaps due to dust contamination, perhaps due to hardening of the material. The valve unscrews, replacement p/n is TBD (which will come with as a complete assembly including the part that is sealed into the bed fabric - unscrew the replacement valve from it).
I'd be suspicious that other poppet valve designs will also be subject to loss of seal effectiveness - though some like the Simmons Beautyrest Extraordinaire have a strong spring, and I have not had difficulty with Intex ones.
The later Coleman valve design - an awkward one with a plug into a hole then push that part into the mattress - attempts to improve but is suspect in that plug and hole. Later production of that design has a ridge on the plug, which makes it more awkward to push in place but should seal better. And even later production has a clear housing with yellow valve poppet for visibility of poppet position. (I've taken to wetting the plug in hopes that will improve seal.)
The Intex air port with a large screw cap is prone to leaking from that cap, it needs to be squarely on the threads and tightly fastened (especially as the flapper valve may leak), also watch that the air dump cap does not unscrew partly when you unscrew the filling cap. With the snap-into-place Intex air dump cap ensure it is fully latched in place.

It is very difficult to find a slow leak, especially if it is at a joint that flexes when load is placed on the mattress (which I've seen on various mattresses, perhaps due to either or both of over-pressure of the sealing machine or a flaw in the material opened by the greater stretch forces on the top surface at that location due to local pressure from the body), especially as the material has some resiliency that will tend to stop a small leak.

I suggest slow observant running of hand - or more sensitive arm skin - closely over the surface including into the depressions while lying or kneeling on the mattress to increase pressure (heavy people are handy for that :-), pushing your hand into the mattress at the depressions on a second pass (to deform the areas likely to leak). A leak that will seriously deflate the mattress overnight will produce enough blowing air that your hand or arm should feel it, though you may have to run back over it and press the area (keep in mind the likely suspect joint area described later herein).
If you find the general area with the dry method, you may have to use a spritz bottle to spray water on the area then run your finger over suspected areas (soapy water should work better, plain water may not make bubbles though it helps to run your finger over the joint groove).

To save time I suggest beginning with depressions in the second row in from the top and side edges (as defined by where your upper body lay and you entered from, as you'll have spent more time on that part of the bed).
Water will tend to pool at the long edges of oval depression where the depression is deeper, but it the leak may be at the end of the oval.

Having the bed in hot sun may help as material will be softer so may stretch more at leak.
A more extreme method is to over-pressure the air bed, carefully.... I use a tire pump with a tapered adapter made for use with it - needs to be small and short so the large end or tire pump clamp flange sits against the material surrounding the inlet hole. Hold it firmly in place with one hand and monitor air bed firmness with your other. I've used that successfully without having to massage the air bed, but both could be done I suppose - carefully..... (What you are doing is stretching the material somewhat so the leak hole is opened a bit, otherwise the leak is too small to detect yet will be greater when you sleep on it. An open question is how much pressure will damage the material.)

Be prepared to record the location somehow, such as with a crayon of contrasting colour.
If you can't find a leak at the depressions you'll have to widen your search. For slow leaks you'll probably have to submerge the mattress in a wading pool, kneel on it, and watch closely for bubbles.
(The Coleman mattress has 5 inch wide vertical webbing inside, heat-sealed to the surface material in an oval pattern, oddly with a crease in the webbing running across the oval lengthwise.)

After the first occurrence, you should be prepared to repair again in the next few months as more such leaks will probably occur, perhaps depending on quality of plastic - some beds smell of plasticizer when new, thus will more likely lose elasticity with time. Those additional leaks will most often be near early leaks, due to stresses from body bumps or manufacturing variations. (At some point of aging the cost of the patching glue will become significant.)

Keep the floor clean, and preferably with anti-static covering on it so the mattress does not get damaged by a spark or a stray sharp object (I suggest a blanket or foam mattress under the bed both to protect it and as support when the air bed leaks (I say when not if :-).

Frequency of leaks will increase with age and use.

REPAIR
You'll of course need patch material, a good supply of glue, and something to weight the patch down plus something to keep the patch and weight from sticking together.

Most makers supply a small patch kit with discs of material and a small tube of glue. (Typically containing some of MEK (a common industrial solvent), acetone, ethyl acetate, toluene, and polyurethane resin.).
Coleman suggested fingernail polish remover applied with a cotton ball, but that simply does not work as acetone expands Coleman material which returns to normal size but harder when dry. (Some removers are pure acetone (which is liquid whereas gel is better suited to patching, some have other ingredients, some are acetone-free.)
But you'll need ample glue to fully wet the patch and bed surface, whereas the tube supplied with the mattress is small and may have dried out.

I use a "Seam Sealer" product from from McNett in Bellingham WA, which has a much larger tube - complete with applicator brush cap and/or small brush depending on the package vintage and product - and may have self-adhesive patches (their kit version, but if you have an old mattress you've given up on cut patch material out of it, note too that self-adhesive patches are only suitable for smooth areas). The product is for broad use including sealing tent seams and gluing boot pieces together. It is of good thickness for spreading yet staying in place. It is expensive, so I try to keep it from drying out or the cap being unremovable (clean the threads and put it in a plastic zip bag or two), but I rarely am able to use all the tube before it becomes unuseable.
My expectation from talking to McNett and Coleman is that it is not essential to have glue matching the material. However, I found Coghlan's 860BP "Plastic or Rubber Repair Kit" to be useless on an Intext flocked surface - the patch was not attached when the glue dried!

AeroBed includes a self-adhesive patch in addition to glue-on patches, Intex typically self-adhesive patches easily mistaken for a piece of paper, Hilary only self-adhesive patches plus some tubing apparatus they don't explain - might be useable to create a vacuum on the patch using food wrap over it. However those patches will not seal the most common location of leaks - in the depressions.

I suggest the tricks I use for all glues and sealants to reduce drying out, as they can be pricey:
- do not use the tube end to spread glue, as that will get more of it on the threads
- clear any nozzles and valves of the material, otherwise you'll have dried material plugging them
- clean cap threads (use a fingernail and thin cloth or tissue on the tube ones) - put a piece of food wrap or food bag over the top of the tube, so the cap or nozzle-valve seal to it better
- place the tube into a zip food bag from which you've squeezed or sucked as much air out as practical (a drinking straw may help create suction).
- and McNett recommend putting the tube in a freezer as the air is dryer there. To open the cap for subsequent uses, perhaps soaking the cap area in hot water helps, i suggest pushing glue toward the cap to improve grip with one hand and using standard pliers with the other (as the curved jaw grips more of the cap than your teeth would :-).

For patches I use either the oval patches supplied by some manufacturers (disguised as the colour patch visible from outside an Intex box) or a piece cut out of a discarded bed (about an inch and a half each side of the but longer along a groove of a depression if that is where the leak is). Make sure you smear the glue around so their are no air passages.

The self-adhesive patches sometimes supplied, perhaps disguised as a thick piece of paper instructions, are only suitable for leaks on smooth surfaces - but most leaks occur in depressions.

Of course you have to put pressure on the glued patch while it dries. You might suck air out of the bed after affixing the patch then weight the patch with a bottle of liquid or weighted can, having a flat bottom (with a piece of foam or stack of fabric under the weight to adapt to any variation in surface of the weight or the mattress, and food wrap over the patch so the pad does not get glued to it). (Patches tend to curl when wetted by the glue so you have to weight them down to get good edge adhesion and maximize glued area to minimize chance of a void path through the glue. Don't be shy using glue, apply it in a circular pattern with extra in the groove of the edge of the depression if the leak is there, smear it around, then put the patch in place and wiggle it around to get full coverage else you'll have an air channel from the hole to outside.)

The trouble with patching these air mattresses is that the patch is on the accessible outside so air pressure tends to push it away. I haven't gone as far as squeezing a bit of glue into the hole, letting it dry, then patching as normal (don't want to press the two sides together while that bit of glue is wet), though the usual hole is very small. Patches with ample glue loaded with weight as covered earlier herein seem to be adequate.

Do ensure the surface is clean for glue adhesion - scrubbing with alcohol should work, in addition with a dish scrubbing pad or an abrasive brush especially if bedding fluff is stuck on the "flocked" top surface most air beds have.

CAUTION: don't breath the fumes from patching glue (there isn't much of it so it is not a big risk, but the constituents are not good for your health). Keep the air in the room clear, and do not use or cure the blue near a source of ignition such as air pump motor, cigarette, or appliance that has a pilot light. Do not mix chemicals that you do not understand.

SPECIFIC BRANDS
The Simmons Beautyrest Extraordinaire product is attractive, higher than most at 12 inches with different construction than the normal vertical-cells design - it seems to be made in two layers, with the top formed of air cells running cross-wise (claimed to have less sway with better lumbar support), but is all one air volume. The Queen has a raised edge all around, but smaller sizes do not, and there is a single-layer version of the cross-ways air cells.
Best I've seen for features next to the double Intex bed which is not as durable. Many users get a year of continual use during which the bed may become detached internally but still not leaking, but for some users leaks occurred much sooner - see above re preventing leaks. Check for it in Target stores.
Simmons also have a "Sensation" model of air bed, 18" high, two level cross-ways air cells on top, but the side edges are not raised.

The Deluxe version of the Intex brand, model # 66971, has very good features. It is two inflatables, having a reasonable mattress atop a base that gives it height and edges - especially at the head. The edges allow tucking the bottom sheet under the mattress (a problem with normal air beds as they are so compressible they don't hold the sheet well), The base provides redundancy wen one inflatable leaks, as the mattress will. This is not your average air bed in size or features or price. :-) However, the high top end is not as good a barrier to pillow migration as a headboard or wall and the sides do not improve edge support.
Some medium price Intex beds have raised edges integral with the bed.
Construction is typical vertical-cell like the Coleman design.

The mattress and base of the deluxe Intex have different air fittings, awkwardly at the head of the base. The one at the head uses the full diameter of the AP619 pump outlet to push on little tabs to open the valve air pressure, once you've removed the knob-like cap by twisting then pulling it.
The matress one uses the larger of the two probe-size adapters to push the poppet open plus the large adapter (the knob-like part that unscrews is only for quick deflation, be careful that it is possible to have it seem tight but leaking). Why don't they print instructions on the mattress like Coleman now does? You should practice with space around the bed parts before trying to do it in confined spaces or in a rush situation.
The Intex product looks better than the package might infer (the first box I saw was rather plain with minimal information on the outside, perhaps branded Venture, a later box was more informative), but the mattress leaked after a month of use. (Fortunately I had a repaired Coleman queen size as spare - it even fits well in place of the Intex Deluxe mattress, though it is thicker. Do ensure the poppet has returned to closed and the knob-like part is screwed tightly in place. I do wet the sealing surface of the secondary cap before putting it in place).
The AP619 pump included with the Deluxe bed is AC with adapters, supporting use for deflation as well. (The set of pieces on the mattress port and adapters for the pump is complex and messy - and do not lock together well. You might try a rubber band twisted around the large adapter and looped around the body of the pump clear of the on-off switch.)
This pump is the noisiest I've tried.
Beware that lower-priced Intex models are of simpler construction.
Inlet port and valving vary, perhaps with price. As with many brands, inclusion of a pump varies - some are integral but if you are hard on an air bed that is a waste of money as pumps wil and may be thinnerl outlast many beds.

Model # 67792 is a regular queen air bed, with a different dimple pattern claimed to be firmer (ovals oriented lengthwise which gives more noticeable longitudinal ridges between them). The built-in AC pump is reversible, a nice package but does not pump the mattress as firm as the AP619 pump, lacks a secondary cap, and has a power cord too thick to easily stuff inside the well intended for it thus making it difficult to close the door over the well. The bed can be also be inflated from an external pump through a hole in the middle of the valve.
The Intex boxes included a small patching package, plus an additional patch disk taped to the inside of one box, in some cases a slef-adhesive patch.
Intex quality is probably as good as Coleman's, neither as good as Simmons.

For me, Coleman air beds have not had much longer life than cheaper brands, and not as good as Simmonds. And design features are not well thought out - valves for example, and the "twin-king" design which does not work as a King because the too-short joining zipper is on the bottom (non-flocked) edge thus there is a notch in the middle of the surface your body is on (and the mattress is too short - length is of a twin not a king). Too bad, they seem to have pioneered the modern air bed product but have not done well at finishing designs and ensuring manufacturing quality.

Canadian Tire sell a "queen" bed that splits to form two singles and can be used as a couch (tip one of the two units up). The design has a tubular frame below the air mattresses. Great idea, but I have not seen it so do not know if the two air mattresses attach together to avoid falling between them (it is critical that they do, and the bases should lock together as well).

The Bestway Comfort Quest Queen is a nicely featured product for its low-to-middle price. It is flocked, with a a raised design at the head. It has a built-in foot pump, which might be handy for topping it up - or getting your excercise before bed time. ;-) The little package containing the screw-in valve had a small leaflet for a patch kit but only no patch was included - that was taped to the inside of the box to show colour through a hole - no glue.

One Ozark Trail air bed had very low price considering it was flocked and included a battery pump, but was shallow, somewhat undersize laterally, had different size air fittings than most air beds, and the first seal of its small fill inlet (flapper seal) did not seal properly leaving only the plug to hold the air in (plugs have to directly resist the air pressure in the bed, held in only by friction).

Other cheaper air beds have not been satisfactory either because of cheapness or slipperiness (you really want the "flocked" surface on at least one side).

A Hillary brand queen air bed was not satisfactory as it lacked flocking thus was too slippery. It is a low priced brand sold by Sears.

A high queen model of the Woods brand sold by Canadian Tire has dual layer air chambers which should help stability especially with two people sharing, longitudinal ridges on top with claims similar to Intex, and higher head area.

The Obus Forme air bed, with tubular support framework underneath and special foam on top, sounds intriguing at a much higher price. I'd be wary of the framework for heavy people, but have not seen one outside of the box. One review praises the foam topping for smoothing the bumps in the usual air bed construction and insulating, and says it is sturdy and easy to erect and stow. Apparently it is rated at 300 pounds, which to me is low for a queen bed that might be used by two people.

And sizes vary - a Coleman Queen is smaller than an Intex Queen so is a loose fit in the bottom of the two-piece Intex Queen assembly, thus tucked under sheet and blanket are not held as well (air beds are light compared to normal mattresses and there is little body weight at the foot of the bed). A pillow stuffed between mattress and surround may be useful.

CONSTRUCTION
The typical air bed has vertical strips of plastic inside to hold the faces together against air pressure, perhaps 4" wide. Obviously they must be joined to the faces well to keep working but not lead to leaks. (I've had that happen with a Coleman, I and others have had a Simmons lose attachment in a local area of the upper surface thus start to bulge which probably hastens further detachment.)
Typically they are joined by heat-welding in a thick line of oval shape, with one vertical strip each side of the oval. The resulting surface might be described as "waffled" - a regular pattern of shallow depressions where the strip join ovals are. However one with simple longitudinal weld lines seems adequate, it is thick compared to the old air mattresses.
Intex (deluxe models) and Woods run the ovals lengthwise on the bed, resulting in more pronounced ridges (material puffed up between the ovals). (Woods' box illustration suggests their vertical strips are continuous but I am skeptical.)
Some cheaper models, including some Intex models, have simple chambers running lengthwise like an old air mattress.
Some dual-height mattresses seem to have chambers in each part going different directions which should help stability (the Simmons deluxe queen is fairly well done, other brands don't explain adequately on the box).
Some designs have a somewhat higher edge by virtue of which way the strips run and how close to the edge they go.
However, what is really needed is at least two separate air chambers, with the internal strips going in different directions, so when one chamber leaks you have some comfort until morning. The Intex two-piece in effect does that as its surrounding piece has depth under the main mattress and keeps it in place, some of the deluxe Simmons may be good. Otherwise you could buy two mattresses and stack them, but they will tend to slide apart unless you build a frame.
A key factor in quality thus durability is the joining of the vertical strips inside to the top and bottom surfaces. It appears to be a heat-melt process under pressure. Too much pressure and the surface material is weakend and will leak, too little and it will detach thus bulge which puts even more stress on nearby joints thus increases probability of leaks as well as further detachement. Detachment has been seen on Simmons and Coleman to my knowledge.

So, a SUMMARY:
- Air mattresses/beds have improved much recently.
- They remain leak prone, with quality of construction an issue. You need to be prepared to cope with leaks, such as have a spare bed handy.
- Herein I provide some tips on finding and repairing leaks, which is not easy and takes time to cure.
- They do not last as long as regular mattresses, even with repairs.
- So ongoing cost adds up.
- Buy wider than a normal mattress, because edges are rounded and soft (e.g. queen instead of double).
- Look for designs that have raised edges at sides and head, or the Intex two-piece "surround" model.
For camping you might consider a "self-inflating" mattress. I have not used them so I don't know how difficult deflating them is (presumeably requires either strong compression while rolling them up, or a vacuum pump (many inflating pumps can work in reverse to create vacuum). I don't know how prone they are to leaks - I presume once allowed to expand thus suck air in then must be closed so that your body weight does not push air out.


© Keith Sketchley Page version 2012.07.27

Please advise Keith if any links don't work or have become inappropriate - the Internet changes.

Back to Keith's Caravan maintenance page.

Back to Keith's Technical Advice list page.

Keith's personal page