Air bladders used in airbeds are another common subject of both inaccurate and misleading information in the mattress industry. Because of heavy advertising (similar to memory foam in its earlier years) it has become far more popular than its basic qualities would otherwise have allowed and there are many people who are unknowingly paying the price for this. Lets take a look as some of the facts behind airbeds.
First of all, anything denser than air will go right through it and it is only the bladder surrounding it, not the air itself of course, which keeps you from sinking all the way through the core. This also means that air bladders are an all or nothing material. They are either very soft for the fractions of a second while they are compressing or very firm when you bottom out either onto a firm material underneath it or onto the firm, fully stretched bladder surrounding the now compressed air. If you jump on an air mattress you will go through the "softness" very quickly and it will feel like you are jumping on a layer of sand. Even turning quickly can be uncomfortable. Because of the complete absence of any progressive resistance, your heavier parts will always sink down rapidly until they bottom out (or the boundary of the firm bladder itself stops further compression) and the spinal alignment you end up with at this point is rarely aligned. This is a serious weakness of all air bladders unlike foam, innersprings, or waterbeds which all have progressive resistance in every area of the mattress and compress more gradually.
In an attempt to "compensate" for this, the industry has introduced air bladders with multiple chambers which through adjustments in air pressure in each chamber can create different macrozones which will each bottom out in a higher or lower position so your heavier parts don't sink down quite as much. Besides the fact that this will diminish the ability of the air core to help the comfort layers create a cradle, at most they offer several different "zones" of all or nothing firmness. This is being heavily promoted as a benefit by misusing terms such as support or comfort when in reality air bladders are competing with material such as innersprings, foam, and even waterbeds which because of progressive resistance have hundreds (in the case of innersprings) or millions (in the case of foam, or waterbeds) of different microzones built into the mattress material itself in addition to macrozones which can be and often is built into any mattress core.
While these macro zones (perhaps up to a dozen or so in some models) with careful adjustment may sometimes do a reasonable job of aligning your spine in a single position, as soon as you move or change positions you will likely be out of alignment once again and require a manual adjustment to your zones unless the comfort layers can "compensate" for these movements. This type of compensation is not a quality of the air bladder core itself (which has already bottomed out) but of comfort layers that can be added to any type of mattress core. Innersprings, foam, and water bladders will all to differing degrees adjust naturally to changes in position because of their progressive resistance (they get progressively firmer with deeper compression) and their many microzones.
It is somewhat ironic that the airbed manufacturers have taken the greatest weakness of air bladders and turned it into the perception of a strength through inaccurate advertising and a lack of transparency about the actual qualities of an air bladder. Another marketing tactic is the heavy promotion of separate side to side zoning which is also available in other types of mattress cores without the weaknesses or discomfort of foam ridges and with more gradual transitions between sides than are commonly found in air bladders with this feature. They are also very inexpensive to manufacture (although the manufacturers and retail outlets that sell them will also be very careful to give the impression of expense) and represent a very high profit mattress at the exorbitant prices they are being sold.
Airbeds are also completely unsuitable for use as a comfort layer (as you will know if you have slept on one for any extended period of time) except for emergency or temporary use and because of this they are completely dependent on the layers above the bladder for comfort and to "make up" for some of their deficiencies. This leads to support and comfort layers that are more "working against each other" than they are enhancing each other. Descriptions of airbeds being "comfortable" are usually due to a lack of understanding that while a support core can "help", it is the comfort layers which are mainly responsible for pressure relief and the comfort that goes with it and the same layers which produce it in an airbed can be layered over any other mattress core. It is unfortunate that in many retail outlets, when a good quality comfort layer is added to an air bladder, the belief that what a potential purchaser is feeling is coming from the air bladder core itself is often "encouraged" despite the fact that it is not. What they are feeling is almost always possible to an even greater degree with any other suitable mattress core using the same comfort layers and without the disadvantages of the airbed.
The necessity in many cases of "manual intervention" with the changing of positions as well as the additional risks of an air bladder of mechanical breakdown, leakage, and other issues connected with moisture and in some cases deficiencies of construction, make an air bladder a purchase that will often lead to buyers remorse. Purchases of an air mattress that are made in the absence of accurate comparative information about other materials and options often leads to a consumer that for a while is happy with their mattress and does not realize that its comfort is from the materials above the bladder and that its support could have been accomplished far more effectively and less expensively through other types of mattress cores.
The truth is that by using a good zoning design or side to side construction, and by using other materials that have progressive resistance and microzones, all the promoted benefits of an airbed can be provided to an even greater degree using other options and provide them "automatically" without the need for manual intervention. They can also do this at a lower cost and without the other weaknesses of more complex mechanical air bladder designs.
There is also a very large discrepancy between prices charged for very similar quality airbeds between the many manufacturers who make them. If in spite of this article you choose to go in this direction, it may be wise to ignore the advertising stories that justify inflated pricing and buy a lower priced and comparable (and in many cases superior) airbed from a higher value and lower priced manufacturer.