Sleeping on a cushion of (not very much) air.

After hearing about sleep numbers and air chambers and miracle back pain cures in years of commercials, I was — at first — thrilled to get a Select Comfort mattress.

The heavily advertised bed is essentially an air mattress with a remote control and an air pump, allowing the user to adjust the firmness while still lying in bed. Plus, each side of the double bed can be adjusted independently, allowing for a completely customizable sleeping experience!

In theory, anyway. Though I’m grateful to have it (the bed was a generous gift from my mom-in-law and dad-in-law from when they moved out of their house and into an RV), the contraption has ended up reminding me that, no matter how fancy it is, an air mattress is an air mattress is an air mattress.

My parents bought our family’s first air mattress when I was probably about seven or eight. It was strictly for camping — a giant vinyl bed that worked pretty much like a life raft, and which had to be inflated using a bellows-style foot pedal that sounded like an asthmatic harmonica player.

It was my parents’ bed, but sometimes my brother and I would pile on there, too — which is probably how it developed its slow leak. Within a few years, my dad took to keeping the pump set up in the tent overnight, near his head, so that he could attempt to squeeze some air back into it in the middle of the night.

I went on to have many relatively positive experiences with camping air mattresses, mostly of the individually-sized, self-inflating variety. Though it’s worth noting here that, as a Boy Scout and frequent camper, I once asked for and received my own air mattress for Christmas. Which was great, except that it was also the year that my brother asked for and received a Nintendo game or something cool like that.

And that’s pretty much my pattern with air mattresses: Excitement based on impossible-to-realize promises, followed by disappointment and, eventually, leaks.

The Select Comfort bed my wife, Stacey, and I share hadn’t really worked correctly for years before we received it. Stacey had used it for a long time while living at her folks’ place during college, and it never seemed to stay fully inflated. I blamed this on a kink in the air hose connecting one side of the mattress to the pump on the floor underneath. I figured I could fix that easily enough.

Unfortunately, eliminating the kink didn’t do all that much to improve the bed. One side or the other or both usually seemed to soften every few days. My wife became certain that our bed was on an angle, because she always seemed to roll downhill during the night and end up in the gentle valley between the bed’s two air chambers.

Using my limited air-mattress-repair know how, I took apart the bed and tried to find the problem. The pump seemed to be working fine; the air chambers themselves didn’t seem to be leaking; I concluded the problem was the seal between the air hose and the mattress.

My repair efforts so far haven’t been all that successful. We’ve tried switching the hoses from one side of the bed to the other, and also replacing the hose and redoing the seal. It’s still not quite right.

As with most items around our house that periodically refuse to work correctly, we’ve reached an uneasy truce. The air hose that works better is attached to my wife’s side of the mattress, while my side is plugged up and detached from the pump. This leaves my bed squishier than I’d like, but it seems to have stopped the leaking. Plus, it’s turned the bed into a low-tech, sleep-on barometer — the mattress seems to get noticeably softer as atmospheric pressure falls, so I can try to predict when storms are coming.

For all my grousing, the problem is most likely that our mattress has stuck around for nearly 10 years and is starting to wear out. We’ll replace it one of these days, probably with another Select Comfort.

In the meantime, Stacey and my two young sons have started camping. Naturally, Stacey wanted a new air mattress for our new tent, so we’re now the proud owners of a 2-foot-tall, queen-sized bed that inflates not with a harmonica pump but with a hairdryer-like contraption that runs off our car battery.

Stacey reminds me that it’s a whole lot more comfortable than sleeping on the ground, and she’s right. For now, anyway.

Article © 2008 by Michael Duck