If you’re old enough to have been around in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you may remember an explosion in the popularity of the water-filled mattress on the mainstream market. In fact, during the height of the waterbed craze, around 20 percent of American households owned one of these beds.
Waterbeds’ popularity was due to their perceived health benefits and comfort. However, their quick decline in the mid-1990s was primarily due to the hassle of maintaining them. Still, waterbeds have their place in the modern mattress market.
Below, we discuss:
- How manufacturers construct waterbeds
- What their maintenance looks like
- Some pros and cons of owning one
Of course, anyone could guess that waterbeds contain water. That’s not all there is to a waterbed, however. Many higher-end waterbeds have more components than just liquid.
The outside of a waterbed is made of vinyl, which is filled with water. Modern waterbeds use tubes or “bladders” rather than just filling up the whole mattress. This makes the process of filling the bed easier. Multiple tubes and bladders also help cut down on leak potential and waves.
In addition to the water portion of the bed, waterbeds may also come with:
- A foam comfort layer
- Heating mechanisms to warm the water
- Internal support structures to eliminate the need for an extra bed frame or mattress foundation
There are two basic kinds of waterbed mattresses: softside and hardside. Softside waterbeds use foam to maintain their shape. Foam bolsters on all sides of the waterbed help the mattress stay rectangular, and this foam padding is covered with a fabric casing.
Hardside waterbeds, meanwhile, rely on wood rather than foam to maintain their shape. Hardwood or softwood is used to create a frame around the waterbed, eliminating the need for an additional bed base and necessitating specially sized sheets. Hardside waterbeds may come with built-in headboards, footboards, or even storage space.
A Brief History of Waterbeds
Waterbeds can trace their origins back several thousand years. The first evidence of waterbed existence was found in ancient Persia, where goat-skin mattresses were filled with water to create a comfortable surface.
Fast forward from the Persians all the way to the early 1800s. Here, a form of waterbed known as the hydrostatic bed was used to prevent bedsores in patients.
This waterbed was simply a warm bath filled to the brim and covered with a rubber canvas to create the perfect hospital bed. Waterbeds were used therapeutically for bedridden patients throughout the 19th century as a precursor to modern mattresses for bed sores.
Finally, in 1968, the waterbed as we now know it was invented. The mattress was created by a design student named Charles Hall for his master’s thesis project.
Originally, this bed contained only one chamber for water, though modern waterbeds have many chambers. It also had no wave reduction, making it a free flow bed. It quickly gained popularity partly due to its ability to relieve pain and partly due to its newness and difference from the traditional innerspring mattress.
After a decade or two of taking up a large share of the mattress market, the waterbed fell out of fashion in favor of newer sleep technologies like memory foam and hybrid mattresses. Nowadays, it’s more of a novelty you run across occasionally rather than a standard feature in many homes.
Pros and Cons of Waterbed Ownership
As with all types of mattresses, waterbeds come with their own unique advantages and drawbacks.
Some people swear by the comfort of water beds, saying they relieve pain and pressure in a way that no other bed really can. This might be due to water’s ability to conform to each person’s unique shape. The amount of press relief a waterbed is capable of offering can make it a great mattress for side sleepers.
A waterbed’s pressure-relieving capabilities could also be attributed to the fact that many waterbeds come with a heater. Heating the water inside the waterbed can have a fantastic impact on back and leg pain. People suffering from aches and pains are basically sleeping on a giant hot water bottle. Warm water might also be great for you if you live in a place with harsh winters or if you’re a cold sleeper.
Another great thing about waterbeds is they’re hypoallergenic and resistant to stains. Because the actual bed is made of vinyl, it won’t absorb anything you spill on it. Nor will a waterbed retain dirt, dust, pollen, or other common allergens. A waterbed can be a good choice if you’re looking for a mattress for allergies.
Cost is a big problem with a lot of waterbeds. It’s possible to get a cheap waterbed, that only costs a couple of hundred dollars. However, if you want a waterbed you’ll be sleeping on long-term, you can expect to spend between $500 and $2000, depending on the size and brand.
Probably the biggest complaint about waterbeds is their setup and maintenance. Waterbeds have to be filled after delivery, and dragging the garden hose up to the bedroom can be a real hassle. You also have to condition your waterbed at least once a year to keep the vinyl from becoming brittle, and that’s not to mention the hassle of patching leaks with a vinyl repair kit.
Speaking of leaks, this issue is another big con of waterbeds. While modern waterbeds with multiple chambers probably won’t just explode all over your home, you might still come in to find your bedroom rug soaked because one of the bladders sprung a slow leak you didn’t catch. Air mattresses can also leak, but escaping air just isn’t the mess that escaping water is.
Another complaint about waterbeds is their lack of body support. While water can conform to the body’s natural contours, it won’t offer the same resistance as sturdy foams or springs. This can be a real problem for stomach and back sleepers vulnerable to pain from sinking into the bed. As a sidenote, a mattress for back sleeping should have a medium-firm to firm feel, while stomach sleepers require a firm surface.
Another problem may arise for combo sleepers (sleepers who change positions during the night). While modern-day waterbeds don’t have as many issues with “waves” as they once did due to newer wave reduction technologies, if you move around a lot, you may experience some ripple effect.
How much should I pay for a waterbed?
Waterbed costs can vary pretty widely. Are you seeking a cheap waterbed you’re only going to use as a novelty or for the occasional short-term guest? You might be able to get away with paying as little as $50 to $100.
However, for a waterbed you’re planning to use long-term, and especially a waterbed that’s going to be your main sleeping surface, you’re going to need to spend significantly more. The most expensive luxury waterbeds can easily run into thousands of dollars.
Can a waterbed pop?
Just like any bladder full of liquid, waterbeds do have the potential to pop. However, popping them is not as easy as putting a pin to a water balloon. The bladders in a waterbed are constructed of thick vinyl. Most of the time, it would take some purposeful action to make a waterbed fully explode (think piercing it with a knife or other sharp object).
However, that’s not to say waterbeds can’t leak. Most of the time, rather than popping, a leaky waterbed will experience a slow drip from a stress crack or other small puncture. Don’t let the words “slow drip” fool you. Leaks like this can still do severe damage to your house, especially if you don’t notice them for a long time.
Do I have to change the water in my waterbed?
You don’t have to change the water in your waterbed unless you plan to move it. If you need to relocate your bed, you will have to drain it and refill it. Why? All those gallons of water inside a waterbed can weigh up to 2000 pounds. Even the world’s strongest moving team would have a tough time getting that down a flight of stairs.
Though you don’t have to change your waterbed’s water, you do need to add a waterbed conditioner to your water at least once a year to keep the vinyl supple. When exposed to water, vinyl can eventually start to become brittle. If that happens, it may crack and leak. Conditioner prevents this from happening, and it also has the added benefit of preventing your mattress water from stagnating and developing a foul odor.
Is a waterbed supportive enough for nightly use?
That’s more dependent on your personal preferences and sleep style. Some people swear by waterbeds while others hate them. If you suffer pain in your pressure points (such as if you have arthritis or are a side sleeper), a water bed might help alleviate pressure and reduce pain in problem areas like the hips and shoulders.
On the other hand, water is not as supportive as other materials, meaning a waterbed can more easily allow the spine to fall out of alignment. This is especially the case for back and stomach sleepers, so if one of these is your sleep style, beware of the decreased lumbar support.
How long will a waterbed last?
The answer to this question depends on the quality of the particular waterbed you’re considering. Cheap waterbeds made for light use probably won’t last more than a few years. On the flip side, properly maintained, high-quality waterbeds can last up to twenty years because their vinyl will not break down as quickly as foams and coils as long as it is conditioned and kept from extreme temperatures.
Waterbeds can be fun to bounce around on when you’re a kid, and they can also be a boon to some adult pain sufferers. However, their lack of support may cause pain for other sleepers, and their high maintenance can put many people off.
If you’re considering a waterbed, it’s essential to know:
- Your sleep style
- Your preferences
- Your tolerance for the risk of leaks
The last is especially important, as there aren’t many other beds with quite the same potential for property damage. Once you take all this into account, you’ll be equipped to make an informed purchase.