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by Becky Miller

The State of the Futon Mattress Industry

Remember when your only thoughts about mattresses concerned how you could get away with jumping on the bed? Now our heads swim with mattress thoughts, and none is so simple as testing a bed’s launching power the old fashioned way.

Flammability, foam vs. innerspring vs. cotton, appealing to high-end consumers, the impact of the World Market Center…despite these changes and challenges facing the futon mattress industry, in speaking with industry leaders, I found an overall positive opinion of the business and its future.

Only YOU can prevent bedding fires

The first response to the question, “What are people talking about in the futon mattress industry?” was almost always a firm, “Flammability!”

“Sleep safety is literally one of the hottest topics in the art of futon mattress manufacturing,” quipped Karen Day of Otis.

With California Technical Bulletin 603 (TB 603, the open flame test for flame retardance) recently made law, futon mattress-manufacturing companies that want to compete in California have had to alter their production processes. Even companies that do not sell in California are working toward compliance with TB 603 in anticipation that the state standard will probably become a national standard.

“I’m over 50 percent sure that it will become a nationwide standard sometime between Jan. 2006 and Jan. 2007,” said Steve Byer at King Koil.

“TB 603 will go national in the first half of ‘06,” said Tony Wolf at Wolf Corp. “The federal regulation will look different–perhaps it will be even more strict. Wolf is largely ready now and will be fully ready this summer. We’ve been in the labs over a year now.”
Bob Naboicheck at Gold Bond doesn’t think that the federal government will impose a national flammability standard until 2007.

And what about flammability tests/regulations already in place? “If 603 goes nationwide, then traditional mattresses and futons will be a lot more similar than they have been for the last 20 years,” said John Widly at Elite Products. “Futons have always had to pass 116 and 117. Mattresses only had to pass the cigarette test [the current federal cigarette smolder standard, 16 CFR 1632]. Futon manufacturers may fall off
in complying with 117 in California because it won't mean anything–603 will supersede it.”

“With 117, all the materials separately had to pass the burn test,” Naboicheck said. “603 is more realistic. It simulates what is actually happening in the homes when a fire happens.”

Some questions remain about the feasibility of TB 603 becoming a national standard. “TB 603 is too much–it’s a two-day test for one futon mattress,” Widly said. “There aren’t enough labs in the country to test all the mattress styles.”

Tony Wolf thinks that there will be enough labs, “if people don't beat a path to the door in the last 10 minutes.”

While the regulation changes have caused work, stress and expense for manufacturers, they do support the long-term goal of protecting consumers. In fact, this concern for consumer safety has actually caused some manufacturers to question the new standards.
One fear is that the new regulations could increase prices so much that many people won’t be able to afford these new, safer mattresses. “TB 603 will increase the price of the product, no question about it,” Widly said. “What the government will achieve by increasing the cost at retail is putting out of reach the very technology that will prevent fires.”

Another concern is that in pushing for fire-safe mattresses, the government may be exposing citizens to toxins. “Unfortunately, [TB 603] is not combined with the equally important issue of toxicity,” said Theodore Casparian of White Lotus. “We are investigating ways to achieve lighter, more resilient mattresses, one of the primary motives for the shift away from cotton, that also comply with pending legislation, without resorting to toxic choices.”

Because cotton, the original futon material, works as a natural fire retardant, mattress manufacturers are shifting back toward using cotton in the wake of the new regs. “[The new regulations are] making traditional mattress people use more cotton in their product,” Widly said.

“A conventionally made [cotton] futon will pass 603 much easier than conventional bedding,” Naboicheck said. “Cotton futons very easily meet 603 requirements. Conventional mattresses, filled with untreated polyester and rayon, will turn into a huge burn. Futons are made of boric acid-treated cotton batting wrapped around foam. The cotton becomes a barrier around the foam so that the foam won’t burn. There are fewer chemicals [needed] in the materials for the 603 test than the 117 test standards.”

Some manufacturers see the regulation change as a very good thing. “Since we’re in California, the new regulations have actually been advantageous to us,” said Jim Gutierrez of Big Tree Big Sleep. “This helped us go out and reinvent ourselves–find new constructions and materials for our different products. Our whole line is available in TB 603 compliance. We have been able to offer it without much of an added cost. We’ve had over a year’s worth of research and development with suppliers. We have not had to sacrifice comfort for compliance.”

What’s in your recipe?

“The futon mattress business is like the restaurant business,” said Mitch Gelbard of United Sleep. “The key difference [between companies] is, what’s in your recipe?”

Foam: Foam is one of the most-discussed filling materials. “The biggest single story has been the visco-elastic foam story, driven, of course, by Tempur-Pedic,” Wolf said. “Anybody who aspires to be anybody has that story up front. The consumer is certainly interested, so everybody and his brother is going to have something going on with this.”

“Tempur-Pedic created a great perceived value in the mind of the consumer for visco,” Widly said. “Futons are able to deliver that feel for a lower cost than a conventional mattress.”

Other types of foam, such as latex and Pluralux, are used as well. “The bottom layer of our mattresses is Pluralux foam, which was originally created by Barnhardt and NCFI to replace spring units in chairs and sofas,” said Pat Dortch of Carriage House. “We thought it would make a great base for a mattress.” The Pluralux base in the six-inch mattress on their studio sofas is topped with a layer of visco.

Natural fibers: “The biggest change that we have noticed in the last five to ten years is the decreasing use of cotton in the mattress,” Casparian said. “While visco and synthetic latex have grown in popularity in just the last five years, clearly over the last ten years, most manufacturers have shifted toward all alternatives to natural cotton.”

Some manufacturers do continue to use natural fibers in futon production, often in conjunction with other materials. “Our Aerolife product gets a foam-like response from cotton,” Wolf said. “It uses a minimal amount of polyester to bond the cotton, which is not traditional carded cotton, but rather the cotton is allowed to curl and ball itself up in a mass rather than be formed in a web.”

A few companies have chosen to produce natural-fiber-only futons. “When White Lotus began crafting natural fiber mattresses by hand 24 years ago, we were one of many companies doing this,” Casparian said. “We haven't changed a thing. Converting couches are certainly an important business for us, but the majority of our mattress sales are for sleeping, not for couches. That says a lot about our futon mattresses. People want to sleep on them, rather than, ‘yeah, sure, you can open it and sleep on it also.’”

Coils: “As the Simmons face in the futon world, we have access to their testing facilities and technologies,” Gelbard said. “The Simmons Beauty Rest is famous; now United Sleep has developed a six-inch-high pocketed coil like the Beauty Rest has, whereas coils in futons used to be only three inches.”

“Otis’ new Coil in Coil™ Support Technology will have 2,112 coils acting with total independence,” Day said. “It will be offered with a uniform coil pattern or with targeted zones in four different firmnesses.”

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