The True Cost of Waterbeds

February 2006 – A good mattress isn’t cheap, most cheap mattresses aren’t very good, and waterbeds remain a popular choice for people who loathe spring mattresses or can’t afford a good conventional mattress.

traditional waterbed

I’ve been sleeping on waterbeds since July 1981. A California king waterbed was probably the first furniture we purchased, and this 6′ male just loved being able to stretch out and not have his feet at the end of the bed.

I still love my waterbed, and many nights I crawl into bed, stretch out, and think to myself, “I love this bed!” It’s long, provides good support, and is relatively waveless.

Pound Wise, Penny Foolish?

It’s also expensive. We replaced the whole waterbed once, about 12 years ago when we bought a house. And several times we’ve purchased new mattresses – usually because it’s almost impossible to drain a baffled waterbed mattress so that it’s light enough to move.

But it’s not just to cost of the frame, mattresses, patch kits, fill and drain kits (they always seem to have vanished when you need them), and water conditioner that makes owning a waterbed expensive – they can use a lot of electricity.

In the last issue, I discussed my frugal electrical usage when I lived in my one bedroom apartment. I kept my electric bill below $10 each and every month, but that would have been impossible if I’d taken the waterbed with me. A typical waterbed uses $6 to $22 worth of electricity per month!

A conventional mattress? None. A thermal foam mattress? None. An adjustable air bed? Hardly any.

It’s the Delta

You don’t want to sleep on a cold waterbed. Anyone who has tried to spend a night on one that hasn’t been heated yet will tell you that a waterbed mattress below about 80°F just sucks the heat from your body. You need to use several layers to stay warm on a cold waterbed – or sleep on the couch until the bed warms up.

Over the years, I think we usually had the waterbed set between 80° and 85° – a lot higher than room temperature, except in the summer. And that delta, the difference between room temperature and waterbed temperature, is a big factor in the cost of owing a waterbed. The bigger the difference in air and water temperature, the more energy required to maintain the heat.

Also, the bigger the bed – like my California king – the more electricity you’ll need to heat it.

Historically the best ways to keep your waterbed costs down has been to use the lowest comfortable temperature and be sure to keep to a comforter on the bed to help retain heat.

Really Slashing Costs

In 1994, Midwest Power of Des Moines, Iowa, identified waterbed heaters as a significant factor in the energy cost of low-income households. Waterbeds tend to have a low initial cost, but the monthly heating costs add up over time.

Midwest Power began installing foam mattress pads to waterbed owners with incomes under $20,000. At a cost of $30, these paid for themselves in as little as 5 months.

When I read that, I figured it was worth a try. I did some research and ended up ordering a thermal foam California king mattress pad from for about $45 shipped. After placing on the waterbed, I turned the temperature down a bit each day until it was uncomfortably cool to climb into bed.

I ended up with the heater set to 71°, which is practically room temperature, so the delta had dropped from 10-15° to almost nothing. It’s a bit cool climbing into bed at night, but the thermal foam provides good insulation and reflects my body heat, so I quickly become comfortable.

Not only has the foam pad virtually eliminated the cost of heating the waterbed, but it’s more comfortable, so I’m sleeping better while conserving energy and saving money.

The next time I move, I’m definitely going to look into the air beds and thermal foam mattresses.

Update, October 2016: I eventually reached the point of turning off the heater completely. When I bought a house in early 2006, I continued to use the waterbed until the summer of 2007, when my fiance and I bought a conventional bed – comfortable but costly. At this point, I think we’d choose a thermal foam mattress with gel if we were to replace that bed – some friends have one in their guest room, and spending one night on that bed made us want one.

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Keywords: #waterbed #energymizer #thermalfoam

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