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Air Mattress Leak

Testing for an air mattress leak

Air mattresses have to hold air under pressure from the weight of sleeping campers. There is a lot of fabric area and seam length that needs to be airtight.

Patching an air mattress leak is usually a simple procedure, but finding the leak can be a nuisance.

At the beginning of each camping season, test how airtight the air mattress is. Inflate it at home and lie on it, or place some weight on it overnight.

If you later notice that it has lost air, inspect it for a leak.

First the valve

It's best to start by inspecting the valve. Make sure that the valve plug is completely inserted into the valve stem.

For double-locking valves, make sure that the valve stem has been pressed against the stop behind it.

The valve stem

If the valve stem leaks or won't seal, it may not be possible to repair the mattress.

The valve is the only part of a camping air mattress that is made from a different material. Because of the shape of the valve and the fact that it needs to travel in and out of the mattress, it is unlikely that it can be patched.

If the valve plug won't seal against the plug stem, you can try lining the plug with a piece of thin plastic to effect an emergency repair.

If the valve plug is fully seated into the valve stem, and the valve stem (double-locking valve) is fully seated against the stop behind it, you are ready to look for a leak...

Quick methods for finding a leak

Although these methods are not as thorough as using water or soap, if you can determine the source of an air mattress leak without getting it wet, you can immediately patch the mattress.

Inflate the mattress and apply pressure to it. Listen around the seams and fabric for the sound of escaping air. This method works best for a serious leak, not a tiny one.

Other quick methods for finding an air mattress leak is to wet the back of your hand or forearm and pass it slowly over the mattress. Escaping air will increase the evaporation rate from your skin and make it feel cool.

Another quick method involves a thin sheet of plastic, toilet tissue, etc. This needs to be done in a still area (inside a tent). Slowly draw the sheet over the mattress. When the sheet passes over a leak, it should be affected by the escaping air.

Once you have found the source of the leak, circle it with a felt pen or mark it with a piece of tape.

Bubble soap leak finder

If an air mattress leak is too small to find with the above methods, take a sponge and wipe bubble-blowing solution or soapy water on the surface of the air mattress to see if bubbles form.

Using soapy water to find a leak is a thorough method, which should be able to find any leak in the fabric

As above, try wiping around the valve first, then the fabric and seams.

If you find a hole in the mattress, you will need to thoroughly rinse and wipe the bubble soap off, mark the leak, and dry the area.

It's not easy to mark a spot that's still damp, but an indelible marker, or a felt pen, a crayon, or possibly duct tape will do the trick.

Before applying a patch, the spot should thoroughly dry, since adhesives tend not to adhere well to damp surfaces—and even less well to a film of soap.

Set the mattress in direct sunlight and/or some wind for an hour or two. The seams will take the longest to dry.

Submerging a leaky mattress

If you have no luck with the bubble soap, you have little choice but to submerge the mattress in a bathtub or large sink.

Begin with the valve. Partially fill the mattress with air, close the valve, and submerge the valve stem and apply pressure. See if you can force any air out of the valve.

If the valve is airtight, submerge sections of the partially-inflated, air-bed fabric. With the valve plugged, apply pressure to force the air out of any leak.

Look for air bubbles coming from the fabric.

Since it is in the most contact with water for the longest period of time, a submerged air mattress will take the longest to dry before patching. You may need to wait overnight.

Please note that some manufacturers of quality air mattresses ask that you do not submerge their products. Submerging an air mattress puts it in a lot of contact with water. Mattress fabric is coated or laminated synthetic fabric, and if the fabric gets saturated, the coating or lamination may deteriorate and separate from the mattress fabric.

There is, however, a difference between getting a fabric wet and saturating the fabric. It mostly depends on the amount and length of contact between the fabric and water.

If you find it necessary to submerge, once you find the air mattress leak, thoroughly air dry the mattress fabric.

Field repair of an air mattress

If you need to make an repair to an air mattress leak at a campground, try using diluted shampoo or soapy water to find the leak.

Apply a thin film of soapy water over the mattress with a sponge or cloth and watch for bubbles.

If it's necessary to rinse a lot of soap film from the air mattress, try using the shower in the toilet block or one of the faucet hydrants for the campsite loop.

Air mattresses and lakes

Submerging an air mattress in a lake is generally considered a questionable practice. Unlike tap water, lakes contain silt and algae, both of which feed mildew spores. An air mattress will have crevices in the seams and tufted areas, which may not get completely clean when the mattress is rinsed.

Flocked surfaces may also be difficult to completely rinse clean.

If you have an inexpensive air mattress, and are more concerned about a good night's sleep than the life of the mattress, go ahead and submerge it in a lake. If the mattress does get contaminated with silt, it will still last awhile and get you through the camping trip. Keep the valve closed to prevent lake water from getting inside the air chamber.

After the camping trip, consider disposing of the mattress, so that it doesn't damage other camping equipment while being stored.

Air mattresses and swimming pools

Swimming pools contain chlorine, which is a strong reactant. After contact with chlorinated water, air mattress fabric, which is coated, may deteriorate over time.

Patching an air mattress leak

There are various patch kits available at camping stores for patching an air mattress leak. They contain a fabric patch and an adhesive. It's a good idea to have one of these in your camping kit.

If you are at camp without a repair kit, SeamGrip, which is used to seal tent seams, serves as a satisfactory adhesive. You will need a piece of fabric to cover and support the fabric around the leak, so that the leak cannot again develop or spread. You may find some excess synthetic fabric in a pocket in your tent.

If you have a choice, repair-kit adhesive should set up substantially faster than Seam-Grip.

If the leak is on the flocked top fabric of an air mattress, it may be difficult to patch. A fabric patch may not seal over the flocked top fabric because, due to the velvety fabric, the patch cannot make full contact with the mattress fabric below the flocking.

Intex recommends gently sanding away the flocking with fine sandpaper to create an even surface that can be patched.

Seam leaks

If the leak is in a seam, where a patch cannot make full contact with the fabric below, a dab of tent sealer or repair-kit adhesive may plug the leak.

If the seam has opened up (big leak), you may need to do a two-step repair:

  1. deflate the mattress
  2. close the opened seam with adhesive from an air-mattress repair kit
  3. let the adhesive set up
  4. apply a patch across the repaired seam to support it and keep it from opening up again

While the adhesive is setting up, use pressure to make sure that both pieces of fabric are making good contact with each other.

If the mattress is new, consider returning it. A seam that opens up may be an isolated defect, but it may also indicate poor seam bonding at the factory.

Air bed leak vs temperature drop

Many campers report that their air mattresses lose pressure on cool nights. This is usually not due to a leak in the mattress, but to a substantial drop in air temperature during the night.

If it's 30 degrees colder than it was when the mattress was inflated, you've most likely found the reason for the pressure drop in the air mattress.

Top it off with the inflator, manual pump, or a few puffs of air and go back to sleep. A few puffs of air shouldn't introduce much moisture into the mattress chamber.

If there has only been a small temperature drop, then make sure the valve is tightly sealed. If it is, then you may well have an air mattress leak.

There are still a few options:

  • top off the air mattress and get by until morning
  • deploy a backup air mattress or other sleeping cushion and check for leaks in the morning

In conclusion

Air mattresses are made from several pieces of coated synthetic fabric, which are bonded together to form an airtight chamber.

Any imperfections in the fabric or seams may be a source for a leak. It may take time for the imperfection to develop into a leak.

The coating should make the fabric airtight, and quality mattress seams are usually bonded by electronic welding, either RF (radio frequency) or ultrasonic.

It's not a good idea to just throw a folded air mattress (that has been stored for who knows how long) into the trunk of the van and head on over to the campground. Test it first at home, where it will be easier to repair or replace, or at least have a backup air mattress handy for emergencies.

These tips should allow you to always enjoy a comfortable night's sleep at the campground.