Pummeling Mattresses for Science

Welcome to Cleveland, and the research-and-development labs of the Sealy mattress company, where I have joined Bruce Barman, Sealy's vice president for R&D, in the rollicking Product Abuse Room.

We are watching attentively as a massive mechanical piston relentlessly pounds a defenseless mattress, like a mob goon working over a snitch. On the business end of the piston is a big shiny fist of wood carved to resemble a life- size human keister.

"It simulates a person sitting on the bed," says Barman. "We'll do 70,000 or 80,000 repetitions, then we'll tear down the mattress and check it for wear and tear."

We cross the room to the opposite wall, where another mattress is being cartoonishly bullied by a unlikely contraption called the "Rollator." (Just imagine a giant rolling pin trying to flatten out your bed.)

"The roller weights 250 pounds," says Barman, as the mattress behind him heaves and shudders beneath the strain. "This test simulates 10 years of use by a fairly heavy person."

Mattress Abuse for Research

Mostly, Barman uses the machine to test new Sealy designs, but from time to time he flops a competitor's mattress into place, and lets it feel the Rollator's hefty wrath.

"We've had some mattresses that just can't take the punishment for very long," he says. "The springs become detached from each other, the mattress becomes unstable and deforms, and it ends up looking like a big beach ball."

In the world of quality bedding, beach balls are very, very bad. Conformance is good. Conformance is the Grail after which Barman and his fellow mattro-philes quest.

To the practitioners of mattress science, "conformance" refers to a mattress's ability to conform to the irregular contours of your body — your shoulders, hips, elbows, knees — while maintaining the proper alignment of your spine. That's essential to a good night's rest, because if your spine gets improperly twisted, the muscles of your back will toil all night in a vain attempt to pull it into line.

"That's the reason you wake with a backache in the morning," says Barman, "your muscles are fatigued from working all night."

Which means you need a firmer mattress, right? Not always. Barman says it's a mistake to think that firm mattresses are always more supportive than soft ones. A good mattress, he says, must balance soft comfort with the right amount of support.

Pummeling Mattresses for Science: Mattress Facts

"If a bed is too soft, it will sag, and your spine will curve improperly," he says, "but sleeping on a concrete slab will not give you very good spine support either. You need a good, supportive surface that will conform comfortably to your body so that whatever your sleep position, your spine will be aligned. Firm or soft, that's a subjective decision," he says. "But you can have a supportive mattress that is also very plush and soft."

The Quest for a Perfect Mattress

In his quest for the perfect mattress, Barman wields an arsenal of computerized weaponry worthy of NASA techies or Hollywood animation wizards. The snazziest is a system called Motion Capture Analysis, in which an animated computer Image — drawn from sensors placed at key points on a reclining subject's body — allow Sealy researchers to check spinal alignment from any angle and precisely test the conformance of new products and materials.

According to Barman, this kind of cutting-edge technology has made Sealy the industry leader in product innovation, and has added to a dramatic overall advance in mattress technology. New spring designs, he says, have made mattresses quieter and more stable; new high-tech foams and fabrics have made them tougher and more comfortable.

Most importantly, he says, even moderately priced mattresses are now engineered to provide more consistent, more comfortably conformant support for the spine.

"Support for the spine comes from the innersprings," he says. "All our mattresses, from entry level to top of the line, have the same spring system inside. What you pay for, as the price increases, is not better spinal support but more plushness, more upholstery, more longevity and more comfort."

So if you're buying a bed, Barman says your first priority is a mattress with quality springs. He also suggests you pay special attention to your bed set's "foundation," the thing we used to call the box springs, but don't anymore since there's nary a spring in most of them.

"Many foundations today have a rigid construction," he says. "They're less expensive, but they have no give. I'd recommend a better-quality 'sprung' foundation. A good foundation with articulating springs gives you stability, but it also acts as a shock absorber for the bed, and that can double or triple the life of the mattress."

How can you be sure you're getting a quality bed? The simplest way, says Barman, is to realize that you get what you pay for, and you'll get a top-quality queen-size mattress, he says, for as little as $800.

"For that money, you'll get a pretty good product," he says. "Just buy the bed which feels right to you, and buy the best bed you can afford."

The worst thing you can do, says Barman, is to sacrifice quality to save a few bucks. "When you think that you'll be spending a third of your life in bed," he continues, "and that a good mattress should last a minimum of 10 years, it's a pretty cheap investment."