Water Cooling 101
How and why to become a water-cooling master?
For much of recent history, water cooling has been shunned. Only a select few could afford to merrily dance with computing death, taking their chances with water-cooling hardware and components that weren’t even designed to work in the silicon environment. They’d ghetto-graft G1/4-inch plumbing fittings onto hardware and hand-mill various water blocks, all in the hope of creating a leak-proof, watertight system. A system that could efficiently and effectively transfer heat away from their component parts, to a far greater degree than traditional air coolers ever could. It was back in the noughties, a time when the average PC enthusiast was less concerned about how a PC looked. More important was how many frames per second they could squeeze from their beige box of dominance in Unreal Tournament. It was a terrifying time. But over the last five years, the situation has changed dramatically.
Water-cooling manufacturers and modding companies – such as EKWB, XSPC, Primochill, Bitspower and E22 – have come to the forefront in far greater numbers. This is when and why water cooling really began to take centre stage. Indeed, today you’d be hardpressed to find a high-end system that’s not running some form of all-in-one CPU cooler or a custom loop.
So, what is it that attracts people to water cooling? Why is it so much better than traditional air cooling? Essentially, all forms of cooling work on the same basic principles. You might have heard of them, they’re part of the laws of thermal and fluid dynamics. No matter whether you have an air cooler or a full custom-loop setup, you’re transferring heat using water from one point to the other. It then cools and circulates back around again to transfer that heat out of the system and to the outside environment again and again.
All very fancy, right? Air cooling technically isn’t an accurate description of that cooling method, and neither is water cooling – they both essentially require a fan and a radiator to exhaust that heat. So, is water cooling for you? Should you dive into the murky depths of H2O nirvana? Maybe you’ll discover something about yourself along the way…
Read on to find out.
Let’s cut straight to it. Primarily, water cooling is done to enhance the aesthetic beauty of a build. Don’t get us wrong, the heat-reducing properties of multiple radiators and fans cooling your internal components is fantastic and highly efficient. But if you’re looking for the most effective price-to-performance ratios, a good AIO cooler for your CPU and a triple fan-designed GPU would be more than enough to ensure you never hit any of the thermal limits dictated to us by our silicon-inducing overlords. And in today’s technological climate, you’re far more likely to encounter hardware-based limits, rather than temperature-based ones, in your overclock attempts.
One of the biggest benefits of water cooling, besides looking better than Gabe Newell’s monthly bank statements, is the noise reduction. Simply put, noise control is all about effective fan control. It’s not necessarily how many fans you have, but how fast they’re spinning. Ultimately, the lower the RPM, the lower the noise output. For instance, if you take five 120mm fans and run them at 1,200rpm, and then take two separate 120mm fans and run them at 3,000rpm, we can guarantee the two fans will be creating more audible noise than the five.
Water cooling is primarily about enhancing the look of your build, ensuring your silicon shrapnel stands out from the crowd and looks as good as it possibly can. There are multiple ways of doing this with water cooling. By all means, we’re not saying that air-cooled builds can’t look good – there are some seriously stunning rigs out there that run on simple old air coolers. But water cooling sits at the centre of the modding community. It’s responsible for most of the innovations we’ve seen in this area of the market. Whether that’s braided cables, windowedside panels or LED lighting, you can assume that the vast majority of these ideas originated from some modder out there ghettoing an idea onto one of their builds, and then showing it off to the masses.
So, you have four options in total when it comes to liquefying your machine. First, you could simply just use an AIO cooler. This way, you avoid the hassle of setting up any kind of crazy system, you’re covered by a warranty and still gain the benefits of having a water-cooled CPU. Your second option is to go with a soft tubing loop, utilising flexible colored or clear tubing. This is one of the most adaptable water-cooling methods as the tubing is flexible and easy to use.
The third and currently most popular option is to use acrylic tubing, most notably PETG tubing. This non-fragile, highly robust hard piping creates an entirely different look for a build, utilising straight lines and angles to really make your rig pop. And then, finally, there’s copper tubing. It’s identical in almost every way to acrylic tubing, except it’s far easier to bend and a lot cheaper, too. Copper provides a good base to either nickel or chrome plate or even powder coat as well, though it’s opaque. Whichever way you choose, you’ll still benefit from the reduced noise and the farsuperior cooling capacity that water cooling provides.
If you thought that building a custom PC was tricky enough, then we’ve got some bad news for you. Here’s a quick rundown of what you’ll have to consider purchasing on top of your standard build. You’ll need: A case, tubing, radiator(s), a CPU block, GPU block(s), GPU backplate(s), memory block(s), reservoir(s), pump(s), compression fittings, angled fittings, bulkhead fittings, stop valves, coolant and fans. Once you’ve decided how you want to cool your rig and what chassis you want to cool your build in, then it’s a simple matter of pricing the lot up, throwing it all in the basket and breaking your wallet in two as you fork out for an expensive exercise in PC modding.
By far the most obvious component to cool your rig. You’ll need to make sure you buy a CPU block that’s compatible with the chip you’re trying to cool. More often than not, this is just a simple difference between Intel and AMD, as the processors don’t tend to vary greatly in size.
Predictably, GPUs experience the greatest deal of variance. Both in the design of the PCB and in which graphics processor you choose as well. You’ll need to make sure you buy a compatible block for your card. Some manufacturers, such as EKWB, will often include specific water blocks designed to work with aftermarket cards such as Gigabyte’s Windforce, MSI’s Lightning or the Asus STRIX series of cards. This may extend as far as the backplate as well, so always double check.
Whether or not you decide to cool the RAM with your custom loop is entirely up to you. They certainly do output heat. But really, it just looks more awesome than anything else. Besides, nobody will penalise you if all you’re looking for is to cool your CPU and GPU. You’ll also need compatible RAM modules that match up with your water blocks.
The most important parts of your build are the fittings you choose to use. Depending on what tubing you decide upon, you’ll need either compression fittings or acrylic fittings. Although acrylic fittings are still technically compression fittings, they’re designed to work around hard tubing by not crushing the acrylic as much, unlike traditional compression fittings, which tend to have a greater pinch to them. If you’re looking for a basic build, you can usually get away with just the standard fittings.
However, if you’re looking at designing a build with cleaner lines and a little more flare, you may want to invest in some angled fittings as well, usually stipulated at 45 or 90 degrees. Additionally, a stop valve might come in handy for loop maintenance.
Technically, you don’t need to buy a reservoir to successfully run a water-cooled loop. However, they do look rather impressive, and make it a lot easier to fill a water-cooled system than using other methods. You will, however, always need a pump to ensure that the fluid within your system is flowing, and pulling heat away from your core components and out to the radiators. Additionally, you should always have your pump gravity fed (meaning fluid should always be flowing down into it).
At this point, you need to be looking at how you’re going to output that heat. The only option you have is to use radiators. You can do this however you like, either by utilising separate loops for your GPUs and CPUs or by combining the two together into one single loop. But you’ll still need radiators to get rid of all of that heat, and accompanying fans to reduce this per loop.
Once you’ve decided what space your case has for radiators and how many you’re going to use, you need to take a closer look at the FPI and thickness of the radiators you’ll be using. FPI stands for fins per inch. Essentially, the higher the FPI, the higher the static pressure you’re going to need to effectively move cool air through that radiator.
For instance, if you have a radiator with an FPI of 38, you’ll probably want static pressure-optimised fans. However, if you have deeper radiators with a lower FPI of 16, you won’t see any comparable difference between static pressure fans or airflow fans. In fact, in these cases, you’re often better off equipping them with airflow fans instead.
There isn’t a fantastic array of places where you can buy a lot of these components in old Blighty. But one of the largest water-cooling specialists in the country is Overclockers UK (www.overclockers.co.uk), which has a vast selection to choose from. Additionally, if you’re a little more patient and want to ensure you’re getting EKWB directly from the source, you can buy them straight from EKWB’s site (www.ekwb.com). Both of these companies were instrumental in providing us with the hardware to bring this first look to you all.
So, at this point, you should be well aware of all the hardware you’ll need to be looking at. Next, you want to research which case is best. There’s a huge variety out there. In fact, you’ll find there’ll be watercooling cases from Mini-ITX chassis all the way up to full E-ATX super towers. Once you’ve found your case, check what radiators it can support for water cooling. Then you need to think about your tubing and how you’re going to cool it – a single loop or dual loops. Once you have all these facts nailed down, your best bet is to sketch out how you want to run your loop, and how many fittings you’ll need for all your hardware. Usually, you’ll need two fittings per water cooling item – an in and an out.
For us, the choice was pretty simple. We’d use the Fractal Define S, a case designed from the ground up for easy water-cooling installation. A dual radiator at the top and a triple rad at the front. On top of this, we’d be using a single closed loop to cool both of the EVGA Superclocked GTX 980 Ti’s and the Intel Core i7-5820K. Then it was a matter of tallying up how many fittings we needed, taking into account we’d be using soft tubing and a pump/res combo, as well as planning how our build would look. We’d be using an Asus X99 Sabertooth TUF mobo – stunningly gorgeous and covered in black and grey-plated armour. On top of this, we managed to get a hold of a mixture of black water blocks and fittings. We’d use white coolant to add a little contrast.
Picking the right case can be a tricky business, especially when you’re looking to do a water-cooled mod such as this.
The best way to do this is to look out for cases designed particularly for water cooling, or by companies who revolve around it. Parvum, Phanteks, Corsair, Caselabs and Fractal are all fantastic case firms that provide some excellent rigs to work and build in, making it easy to create a stunning work of art.
Selecting the right case is undoubtedly the biggest consideration you have to make. It will dictate where your reservoir goes, how many radiators fit and what thickness they are, plus how your tubing runs will work. For instance, we tried to build this particular setup inside of the Phanteks Enthoo Evolv, but we’d already pre-ordered the water-cooling components for a different chassis and they ended up being incompatible with the Phanteks, even though that’s a huge case to work in.
And so begins the building process. Of course, like with our regular builds, we generally advise that you build all your PCs outside of the case first, just to see if they work at stock. We individually tested both our GPUs, the memory and the CPU with traditional coolers, before throwing water blocks on any of it.
Then we began the internal build process, stripping the chassis of any unwanted components, such as hard drive bays and cages, and continued to install the motherboard, the memory and the GPUs, securing them firmly to ensure that nothing would fall out or become damaged over the course of our build. We also took this opportunity to install the radiators and plug in the fans where they were necessary. It’s also time to attach the reservoir, and install all of the fittings.
In a build like this, cable management needs to be flawless. The last thing you want is excess, untidy cables cluttering up your rig. Not only will they get in the way of the tubing, they’ll also restrict airflow and generally make your tubing routes that little bit more difficult. Cablemod (www.cablemod.com) provides custom-sleeved cables for Be Quiet!, Cooler Master, Corsair, EVGA and Seasonic power supplies. These should spruce up your build quite nicely.
Alternatively, it’s not impossible to sleeve the cables yourself. This takes a lot more time and patience, but you can include cable combs to keep the cables tidy, plus vary your color schemes.
Additionally, we used the Phanteks PWM Fan Hub. Threading all five Noiseblocker fans through one fan controller means we can control how much power they receive directly from the CPU fan header, meaning the system will ramp up or down, dependent on CPU temperature (which admittedly will be quite low for this build).
At this point, it’s time to start your tubing runs. Line up a stretch of tubing between the two points you wish to connect, then cut a little more off than you think you’ll need. It’s better to have too much than too little – you can always shorten the runs later. Next, unscrew one of the fittings, wiggle your tubing onto the fitting and thread the other end of the compression fitting onto the unattached end. Then screw it down, compressing the tubing in place.
If you’re struggling to fit the tubing on, use a pair of needle-nose pliers. Gently insert them into the end of the tubing and carefully stretch the tubing slightly, so it’s easier to work. Then you’ll need to take the sleeve off the other fitting, pre-attach that to your new tube and do the same with the other end. It’s then simply a case of running all of the tubes to their correct lines. It doesn’t matter which tube goes where, as long as it creates a loop. Once the system is sealed off and pressurised, the temperature of the water will be consistent around the entirety of the loop, regardless of which component goes to which first. Thanks science!You’re now at the scary part – priming your loop. Ensuring that the reservoir is gravity feeding the pump (in other words, it’s above), attach one last fitting with a length of tubing onto the top of the reservoir (depending on how you have your reservoir set up, it might be advisable to get a multi-port top adaptor). Then use a funnel to carefully pour your coolant into the loop. In our case, we like to just use a squirty plastic sauce bottle to fill our loop.
Before doing any of this, you want to make sure that everything on your motherboard is unpowered. Ensure that your CPU power, your motherboard ATX power and any power cables heading to your graphics card are all unplugged, either at the power supply end or the hardware’s end. Then you’ll want to either bridge the two power points on the ATX power with a paper clip, or use a specially designed bridge connector. Then it’s simply a case of switching the power on every time you fill the reservoir, until the entire loop is filled. Just remember not to do this until after your reservoir/pump has fluid inside of it.
As you’ve probably already spotted, the build looks great. Matching the black EK water blocks with the Asus X99 TUF Sabertooth worked out really well, and the white provides a brilliant contrast to the overall style and look.
The temperatures are where we expected them to be. We clocked the Core i7-5820K up to 4.4GHz and recorded temperatures at 55 degrees Celsius under load. The GPUs remained at around 60 degrees under full load and we maintained the fans at a constant 20 per cent speed throughout the system. For performance, we couldn’t really get much more out of either the GPUs or the CPU as they were already at their hardware limits. But either way, the performance was still outstanding, and the fact that it remained so quiet even while under high load is really something else.
A worthy mention here is definitely the coolant. We used EK White Pastel coolant to fill our loop and it looks fantastic, even with a soft tubing loop. Our leak test went without a hitch. Although we could only test it for around 45 minutes during the shoot, there was absolutely no spillage. The EK compression fittings ensured an incredibly tight seal around all of the components. That is, as long as you haven’t damaged the tubing in the process (especially if you’re lazy like us and use scissors). Generally speaking, you should always run a leak test for 24 hours minimum before powering any of the components on, but in our case, we simply didn’t have time.
In hindsight, we’d have loved to have gone with hard tubing. It’s all the rage at the moment, and rightly so – it’s some of the nicest-looking water-cooled work you can do. A larger case would have also been good. One of Caselabs’s Magnum SM8s or Parvum’s ATX chassis would’ve been fab – going up to two 360mm radiators instead of just the one and a dual radiator would have been great for additional cooling.
A different chip would have also been nice, just to see if we could push beyond the silicon limits on ours. Thermally, there’s no issue with our 5820K, it just won’t clock beyond 4.4GHz, but that could have been a different story if we’d gone beyond the 4.7GHz boundary. Additionally, running two loops would’ve looked stunning. One in black and one in white, separating the GPU and the CPU.
Should you be water cooling, though? That w as t he o riginal question. It depends on your budget. As with any build, hard cash is ultimately what it always comes down to. If you’re looking for the best bang for your buck, water cooling with a custom loop just isn’t for you. Even if you do it on the relative cheap, you’ll still be looking at somewhere around the region of £400, minimum, on top of everything else.
Water cooling is for those looking to build a beautiful and quiet workstation capable of destroying benchmarks and running any task you can throw at it with absolute silent ease. It’s not for the faint hearted, and although water cooling has come a long way since the first attempts way back yonder, it’s still filled with danger and possible hardware failure. But then, we don’t know of any aspect of the PC enthusiast’s arsenal that isn’t.