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In the pantheon of nerd achievement, water cooling ranks near the top—somewhere between installing Linux and becoming fluent in Klingon. And there’s a reason the hardest of the hardcore prefer water cooling: It’s incredibly effective at lowering the temperatures of core system components. With higher thermal conductivity and specific heat capacity than air coolers, water cooling can mean double-digit drops in CPU and GPU temperatures.
However, water cooling isn’t exactly a walk in the park. You’ve got two challenges ahead of yourself: Designing the water-cooling system that’s right for your PC, and actually putting it together. Both tasks will take some time and effort, but neither has to be daunting. Every first-time water-cooling build is a learn-as-you go experience, but we’ll walk you through the details and help you avoid the mistakes that would take the biggest toll on your system and your wallet.
The advantage of a custom water-cooling system is that it’s just that—custom. By picking out exactly which parts you want, you’re able to create a system that matches your cooling needs and your aesthetic sensibilities. To get you started building your system, we’ll go through every major component of a water-cooling system, describing what each one does, and what your options are.
Even though there’s no fluid touching your case, it’s one of the most important parts of a good water-cooling setup. For water cooling, you’ll need a case with plenty of room on the inside and a large fan grate, ideally on the top or bottom of the case. Although it can be a little hard on the wallet, getting a case that’s been designed with water cooling in mind will ensure that your install goes as smoothly as possible. In our build, we used the Corsair Obsidian 800D full-tower case.
A block is the piece of hardware responsible for drawing heat out of your computer hardware (your CPU and GPU, for instance) and into the liquid coolant in a water-cooling system. A block of heat-conducting metal makes contact with your CPU or GPU (aided by thermal paste) on one side, while water is forced across the other, literally flushing away excess heat.
You need a separate block for each component you want to cool. The obvious component to water cool is your CPU, which will see some of the greatest benefit in the form of increased overclocking potential. The GPU on your videocard is another good candidate for water cooling, as is your chipset. For this build we’ve chosen to focus on CPU and GPU cooling.
As for actually picking which water block to use, it’s generally a matter of brand and the right block for your part. For instance, if you’re using a socket 1156 CPU, a quick Internet search for “socket 1156 water block” will turn up a handful of compatible water blocks, as well as some performance comparisons. We’ve chosen CPU and GPU blocks made by DangerDen (www.dangerden.com).
In a water-cooling setup, the radiator is the water block’s complement, releasing heat absorbed from the block into the air. It accomplishes this by forcing the liquid coolant through an array of thin tubes attached to metal fins. Traditional case fans pull air through the capillary-like radiator, absorbing heat from the liquid and forcing it out of the case.
There are radiators big enough to support one, two, or three fans. Of course, bigger radiators and more fans amount to better cooling, so we generally recommend going with the biggest radiator that fits your case and your budget.
The fanciest water-cooling equipment in the world won’t do a thing unless the water’s moving through it, and that’s accomplished with a pump. There are quite a few pumps on the market, and although it’s on the pricier side, we recommend the Laing DDC 3.25 for its reliability and small formfactor. If you go with a different pump, make sure to read user reviews before you buy—a shoddy pump will wear out or break down over time.
In water cooling, a reservoir is a pretty simple thing—it’s a tank of water, with an inlet and an outlet. You might wonder why, exactly, you need a big tank of water in your system, since it doesn’t have an immediate function, like absorbing or dispelling heat. However, the reservoir performs a number of important duties:
As for which reservoir to use—well, it’s really just a tank; pick one that fits in your case and looks nice. For this build, we used a double optical-drive bay acrylic reservoir from Danger Den, which comes with a pair of Molex-powered LEDs to light up the front of your case.
Finally, you need tubing to combine all the other parts. The most common sizes of tubing used are 1/2-inch and 3/8-inch diameter. The demonstrable performance difference between the two sizes of tubing is slim, and 3/8-inch tubing can bend more without kinking, so we used that for our system. Whichever you pick, just make sure that all the rest of your water-cooling hardware has fittings of the same size. Most all hardware is available with either 1/2-inch or 3/8-inch fittings; if you get a size that doesn’t match your tubing, you’re hosed.
Beyond the diameter of the tubing, you just need to pick a color. Most sites that deal in water cooling sell pretty much the same PVC-based tubing. It works well, it’s fairly cheap, and it’s available in a bunch of UV-reactive colors. Some sites offer slightly more expensive Tygon tubing, which is more flexible and durable. Fittings come in barbed or compression styles. Both will work just fine, though compression fittings look nicer and are a bit more expensive.
You’ll also need coolant to put into your system. Although it’s commonly referred to as “water cooling,” most modern cooling systems use some sort of coolant with anti-corrosive and anti-conductive properties. This fluid is available from any distributor of liquid-cooling products, and comes in various UV-reactive colors.