January 23, 2014 - Marshall Coyle
MATTRESS FICTIONS AND FACTS
A shopper journeying through the internet will reveal countless websites claiming that they will share the revealed truth about the comfort, quality , and value of brand name mattresses. Google finds about 634,000 websites if you type in “Mattress Reviews”. Most of them appearing in the top listings seem to be owned by retailers or manufacturers seeking to drive business their way.
The only truth is that virtually everyone who publicly judges mattresses on the web has some kind of agenda that pre-determines the outcome. Claims of comfort or durability are always subjective and since they are unprovable can not be called true. Claims of value can only be slightly more objective, and then, only if they could compare two identical mattresses offered at different prices. Consumer Reports, the only consumer oriented and supported magazine, has made legitimate efforts from time to time. The quality of their advice varies, but you often can get very good guidance. Where they, in my opinion, are completely wrong is in their advice to always haggle. This is rarely possible or necessary when buying from internet merchants. I have tried to comprehend why they do so and have come to a conclusion that it is geography. They are physically located just north of NYC and tend to buy all of their test products locally from stores. The NYC area is inundated with Sleepys sleep shops. They are the poster child for stores that put extreme markups on their price tags and give almost every shopper ” a deal for them”. After the deal, the price may be twice as high as some of their competitors, but by having exclusive names and labels, comparison shopping is well nigh impossible. Consumer Reports members rate Sleepys at or near the bottom in all categories except delivery. Despite the difficulty in identifying similar products, Consumers as of late has been getting results that mostly meet with my experienced boots-on-the-ground opinions. Reading their reports carefully can save you money and aggravation.
Where you buy your mattress is as or more important than what you buy. It is so difficult to know what you are getting into even with brief trials in a store. If you need a replacement, you don’t want to be ripped off and abused, you want a comfortable mattress at an affordable price. Factory direct stores tend to be the best for value and service and large chain sleezy sleep shops the worst. Ikea, Sams, Costco, and other big box stores can often have bargains, but sometimes with questionable after delivery service. Department stores are in the middle. Internet mattress sellers are all over the place ranging from ultimate integrity for one 157 year old NYC factory direct with a mattress that CR highly recommends,Charles P. Rogers, to fly by nights that bring in a container of Chinese foam mattresses and then disappear.
Most Americans sleep on three basic types of mattresses; innerspring , and synthetic foam, and pneumatic, or some combination of all or any of them. 90% of North Americans still sleep on innerspring mattresses and usually pay much less than for “magic” alternate sleep. ( I will explain “magic further down in this essay}. Various synthetic or latex foams without innersprings are a distant second but gaining, and air mattresses are insignificant but do have one strong maker that CR recommends, Sleep Number. For many years the air bladder mattresses were not much more than thick campers blow-ups. However Sleep Number figured out how to use very small air bladders with thick foams padding and a small percentage of buyers swear by them instead of, as they once did, at them. Adjustable beds are appealing to a lot of aging boomers. Chinese imports have forced prices down and competition is keeping them down for careful shoppers. A few major mattress makers buy adjustable metal foundations wholesale from Leggett and Platt and package them with their mattresses. Cost is much higher than a plain lay-flat foundation, but if you can sleep on your back, you may like the versatility for reading and watching TV. You aging boomers have to be careful about your sleeping position. Sleep Apnea, although not contagious, can be very serious and if you have it, your doctor may prescribe side sleeping and often wearing a pressure mask to keep breathing regular.
There have always been a small minority of counter-culture shoppers who choose alternate sleep-systems such as air, or water. They tend to be first-time buyers out to prove that their mother’s judgement is faulty. Many of the same people own gadgets that make their cars run further on a gallon of gas. Synthetic foams such as Tempur-Pedic have won over a large and increasing market share thanks to brilliant merchandising. They have done well enough to have the cash and credit to take over Sealy and Stearns & Foster in 2013. These smart promotors have been fighting shrinking sales, and acquiring a competitor short-term is good for your stock. Problem for them is that apparently, despite their advertising otherwise, not enough owners would recommend their product or buy it again. You can sleep on it and it is durable. However it is much warmer to sleep on than an innerspring and when first delivered many new owners are very unhappy with chemical odor. The purchase is often regretted but the process of changing seems to be worse than just getting use to it. They once had just one model maybe twenty years ago, but they have continuously expanded to newer, thicker, and more costly models. When they get thick, you sleep in it and not on it. This is a reason, in my opinion, of the heat causing sales slump. Now that they are combined with a major innerspring maker, we should start to see their name on innerspring mattresses and lots of Sealy full of foam from their parent.
Serta has been marketing the Perfect Day, a gel-infused foam that has been winning praise including from Consumer Reports. The gel allegedly helps dissipate body heat and it is highly likely that it does do some good. Juries are still out. Many, many other brands now use similar gel-infused foam and, like everything else, comes in range of quality. Current tests that the St.Regis 1000 pocket coil innerspring from Charles P. Rogers, a recommended choice, is as cool as you can get and cooler than most. This is because of controlled airflow starting with the cover. Leggett and Platt, the firm that makes most of the components for most American manufacturers paid for a university laboratory to run tests on various mattress to determine heat retention. The findings were that mattresses with an innerspring core are 28% cooler than solid foams.
Hotel mattresses deserve special mention. A few that are made with time-honored pre-war designs but making use of modern materials are extremely good. However, fat and soft disposable mattresses sold by major hotel chains are fun for a few months and then, absence of both durability and usable warranties, makes for a “never-again” scenario. This is a real buyer beware from me. Department stores and especially Sleep Shop chain stores that peddle super fat medium price mattresses with hotel labels glued on just reflect the fact that they are chasing short term profits, not of satisfied customers. Even if Simmons, Serta, or Sealy, has made the mattress to meet the store’s prices, it is made of poorer ingredients which have short lives. I doubt, if if anyone has ever bought a second luxury chain mattress. The hotels that use them expect to recycle every two or three years, you don’t. I am sorry to sound all doom and gloom, but if you have the patience to read through this article, you will learn that you can find high quality mattress at affordable prices. The power of knowledge can free you up from “let the buyer beware”
Coiled wire innerspring units are the heart and core of most the mattresses sold in the United States. 93% of all innerspring mattresses have springs supplied by the Leggett and Platt company. There are a few smaller spring makers and even smaller importers. Leggett and Platt are a very successful component manufacturer of the springs, foams and textiles used by the furniture and automotive industry. Over many decades they have bought and absorbed most of their competition. This is the major reasons why most brand name mattresses have virtually identical specifications insides and outside. Machinery to manufacture quality bonnell and pocketed wire coils is very expensive and requires highly skilled labor.
A handful of long-established European mattress makers such as Hastens, Duxiana, VI-Spring, Carpe Diem, and Americans Charles P. Rogers established 1855, in the East,, and McCroskey Mattress in the West, established 1899, still prefer make their own wire coils and maintain control over quality and innovation. Charles P. Rogers, using recently developed computer guided machinery in their New Jersey workrooms has been able to get very close the holy grail, a mattress that feels luxurious but still provides healthful support and according to Consumers testing, shows no wear in eight simulated years of machine torture. These two characteristics used to be mutually exclusive and have eluded the industry since its beginning. McCroskey with over a century of experience, has refined the original wire tied coil on their trusty old machines to as good as the design can get. Not flexible like the Rogers “PowerCore” but so much better than anything you may likely find in a name brand mattress at any price. The European luxury imports rely on exotic materials such as hair from butchered horses, more than innovative innersprings, with one outstanding exception. Scandinavian maker, Duxiana makes a very good sleep set that relies more on higher and more flexible coils than American name brands. Their beds tend to be very comfortable on the soft side with average durability.
The construction of the innerspring unit, the thickness and metallurgy of the coil wire, the manner of tempering the wire, the number and height of the coils, the method of fastening them to each other, and the support built into the edges, can be tailored to provide a far wider range of comforts to mattresses when you make your own. Each mattress maker whether buy assembled components from L&P or they assembles from scratch all seek to make a desired “feel” and comfort life. The feel can be manipulated for a desired firmness with little or no cost difference but with major quality differences. The number of years, or sometimes months, that a mattress will provide comfort and support can not be faked using inexpensive materials.
Ultimately, the highest quality mattresses will have more coils with more wire in each coil than a pretend-good mattress. These long-life electrically tempered and indurated coils will be wrapped in soft textile pockets and fastened each to the other in a flexible mat that makes the core of the mattress. This mode of construction permits the mattress to have varying firmnesses in zones that can provide ideal support for any body. Opinions vary but the consensus believes that proper healthful support requires springs that are soft enough to yield under pressure points and firm enough to support the weight of the occupants without sagging in the middle. The “PowerCore” mentioned above is the pinnacle of this design. The average Charles P Rogers queen mattress weighs around 120 pounds. The average top Sealy or Simmons is in the mid nineties. The difference is simply more steel and denser, more durable padding. When you buy a $1200 mattress direct from a mattress maker with no middlemen, you are getting $1200 dollars worth of mattress. When you buy the same price mattress at a retailer, you are buying a mattress that the store might have bought from the maker for $600, and sometimes less. That is why the factory direct is so much more mattress for the money.
The exterior of the mattress is made of woven or knitted fibers that form a sack to contain the springs, filling and insulation. Most one-sided mattresses use cheap non-woven material which may wear out for the underside prematurely. Charles P. Rogers is the only exception I am aware of with woven or knitted material on all sides. Some knitted covers offer more flexibility than woven covers and can feel demonstrably superior on mattresses with soft surfaces. All woven or knitted covers permit free passage to air helping keep the interior of the mattress dry. Many mattresses have pillow tops which add a layer of soft padding. This padding can be any of many kinds of foams and/or fibers. Some mattresses have metal or plastic air vents on the sides to further enhance ventilation and lower the temperature of the sleep surface. These vents are mostly eye candy serving as selling points with little or no basis in fact.
Between the sleeper and the steel springs are multiple layers of textile, foams and fibers, each with a purpose. Directly under the mattress cover material is a layer of textile that may or may not have chemical treatment and will stop an open flame from causing the mattress to break into flame as certified by the US CPSC. Some better mattresses use special flame retardant textiles treated only with natural boric acid that is considered perfectly safe.
Between the top of the springs and the flame retardant is a layer or layers of resilient padding known as the upholstery, and one layer of an insulating barrier to keep the padding and the springs separate. The padding can be virtually anything that will provide the cushioning and durability that the mattress designer is trying to achieve. The goal is to make a mattress that will provide years of healthful comfort with only insignificant permanent compression of the upholstery materials. High quality foams both synthetic and natural can often meet these needs better than traditional vegetable fibers. The perforated and gel infused foams can also permit more airflow to enhance the desired coolness of the sleep experience.
Many mattresses at all price ranges are padded with cotton fibers that have been compressed and felted. Historically, long before innersprings were invented there were two choices for an affluent mattress shopper. Cotton felt or animal hair. Hog and cattle hair being short was usually glued or sewn together into pads that were firm but relatively short lived. Horse mane and tail hair, a byproduct of the South American and Asian meat industry, were then and still are used in top end hand, faux-antique,luxury European mattresses. See above.
You don’t have to kill a horse to harvest the hair, but in reality, virtually all upholstery quality horse hair comes from Mongolian and Argentinian horses that were slaughtered for their meat and hair. When you pay thousands or tens of thousands for an ultra-luxury English or European mattress it has the hair of many dead horses as a main ingredient. Whether the horse is slaughtered on an Argentine estancia or the steppes of Mongolia, the hair destined for Europe makes its way to Switzerland where the animal waste is removed, especially from the tail, and the hair is steamed and hand braided which makes it springy and curly with little or no odor. There is no such commerce in the United States but it is legal to use imported horsehair in upholstery and mattresses if it has been sterilized and some makers still do.
Europeans who desire green products often choose to use a foam from natural latex from the sap of the rubber tree to cushion their mattresses. Some progressive old line American manufacturers now feature natural latex products. There are several ways to convert liquid tree sap to a durable clean spongy material and each has its backers, but it is difficult to get poor quality latex. Gel Latex and Gel Synthetic foams have recently made it into many mattresses. Some of it is actually cooler than ordinary foams, especially when it is blended in and not in pellet form The gel does not make the foam more resilient, but it can make it you more comfortable if you fault ordinary mattresses for holding heat.
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