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The Definitive Guide to Adjustable Air Beds

If you’ve ever wished you could get your mattress to be, say, a little firmer when you sleep on your back and a little softer when you lie on your side—or if you prefer a very different comfort level than your bed partner—an adjustable air bed might be the answer to your dreams.

Here’s a brief overview of the adjustable air mattress category and the most important things you need to know.

What is an adjustable air mattress?

While other types of mattresses have support cores consisting of foam or springs, air beds contain individual air chambers that can be inflated or deflated to achieve a precise level of comfort. Hence the air mattress’s distinguishing characteristic: an unprecedented level of adjustability.

That adjustability comes wrapped in a mattress with all the features of a traditional—or even luxury—bed, like layers of comfort foam, pillow tops, and fancy covers. Adjustable air mattresses are worlds away from the blow-up air mattresses that you haul out and inflate for sleepovers or camping trips. Unlike those temporary sleep surfaces, adjustable air beds are designed for permanent, long-term use.

How does an adjustable air mattress work?

Air beds contain internal chambers that the user adjusts by adding or removing air with an electric pump, resulting in a customized degree of firmness and support. Depending on the specific model, the mattress may include layers of polyurethane foam, latex, or memory foam on top of the air chambers for additional comfort and support.

The number of chambers varies from two to 10 or more, with anywhere from 20 to 100 possible settings. Firmness can be easily adjusted with a remote control or via an app; typically the higher the setting, the firmer the mattress. Finding the most comfortable settings can take some experimentation, but it’s easy to adjust and re-adjust at any time.

Air beds with fewer chambers allow you to customize the overall firmness of the mattress; those with six or more usually feature a zoned system, letting you adjust the pressure level in different areas. Most queen size and larger air beds feature dual firmness settings that let couples customize each side of the bed to their own preferences. (Here’s how to find the best mattress for couples.)

For Rachel Sjostrom, who lives in Tampa, Fla., the ability to customize the firmness of her adjustable air mattress has been a godsend. “I’m a nurse and a new mother, and I often feel sore in my neck or back from holding my daughter or spending a lot of time on my feet at work,” she says. “Also, my husband prefers a firmer surface, so neither of us has to compromise on comfort.”

Learn More About Saatva’s Adjustable Air Bed


Why choose an adjustable air mattress?

Maintaining domestic harmony is one big reason why people choose an adjustable air bed (not for nothing are they sometimes called “marriage savers”). But it’s not the only reason. Here are some other advantages:

  • The ability to adjust firmness makes air beds suitable for any sleeping position: side, back, stomach, or some combination.
  • Air beds are generally temperature neutral, meaning they don’t sleep hot. The composition of the comfort layer can make a difference—for example, memory foam tends to be at the warmer end of the spectrum.
  • Air beds effectively absorb and isolate motion transfer—an advantage for couples, since one person’s sleep is less likely to be disrupted when the other one shifts positions or gets out of bed.

On the flip side, because air beds contain an electric motor, they can be noisy, especially those that self-adjust during the night. (Sjostrom says she and her husband have not noticed any noise.) Also, owing to their sophisticated technology, adjustable air mattresses are at the higher end of the mattress price scale. Depending on the bells and whistles—such as the number of air chambers and firmness settings, and how the bed is controlled—air beds can run from $1,000 to $3,000 or higher.

What kind of base does an adjustable air mattress need?

Just like any other type of mattress, an adjustable air bed needs to sit on a foundation or platform base for support. Air beds are often sold with their own bases, which may or may not be adjustable. An adjustable base lets you raise or lower the head and/or the foot of the bed, adding another level of personalized comfort. (Learn more about adjustable bases here.)

Because of the unique construction of adjustable air mattresses, it’s important to pay attention to the compatibility of the base. “A lot of platform bases will work just fine, but I definitely suggest going with exactly what the manufacturer recommends,” says Keith Cushner, co-founder and general manager of the sleep website tuck.com.

Learn More About Saatva’s Adjustable Base


How long do adjustable air mattreses last?

Unlike conventional mattresses, air beds have mechanical components, which means parts can wear out or even break. Most air bed warranties last for 10 to 30 years, but usually only the first two to three years are fully covered; after that period, owners are often required to pay 16% (or more) of replacement part costs.

The upside of a bed with parts that can be replaced is that the life of the mattress can be extended, making air beds among the more durable choices. That’s one reason why they tend to earn above-average customer satisfaction ratings, says Cushner.

The bottom line: “If you have the money and need the adjustability these mattresses offer, buying an air bed is definitely a good route to go,” he says.

A note on mattress fine print

Before you buy an adjustable air bed (or any bed for that matter), there’s one more important set of criteria to review: policies around delivery, home trials, and returns. Look for a mattress with a generous home trial, especially if you’re switching to an adjustable air bed for the first time. For more pre-purchase advice, check out our Guide to Mattress Fine Print.

Learn about other mattress types: