How To: Maintain Your Water-Cooling Setup

Nathan Edwards

Water-cooling your PC is an exercise in trade-offs. What you gain in performance and overall geek cred by attaching tubes and water blocks to your pricey parts, you lose in time devoted to maintenance. Unlike an air cooler, which needs only a good blast of compressed air every now and then, a water-cooling rig demands a bit of attention over the course of a year. We’re not talking about new-puppy-level time commitments, but be prepared to spend a few days a year performing some basic maintenance tasks.

What happens if you just sit back and ignore your computer’s cooling? Get ready for gunked-up water blocks, murky tubes, and decreased performance. But taking care of your water-cooling system isn’t as difficult as you might think. For your cleaning convenience, here’s what you need to do to maintain your setup.

What You Need
  • Paper Towels
  • Vinegar
  • Toothbrush
  • Distilled Water
  • Rifle-Cleaning Rod

1. Draining the Fluid Without Staining Your Floor

This one should be obvious: You’ll never be able to get any maintenance done on your water-cooled rig unless you get the fluid out of the rig’s tubes. But thanks to the wonders of air pressure, draining a water-cooling setup isn’t too complicated.
You want to hold one of the tubes nice and high in the air, with a tube at the other end of your setup as low to the ground as possible and preferably going into a bottle, jug, or bucket of some sort. Obviously, liquid is going to start coming out of the tube the moment you tilt it downward, and once you get the opposing tube into the air, your rig will magically drain itself—sort of.

If your water-cooling setup is entirely closed (that is, it uses only a T-line, or for the truly bold, nothing), then draining it is even easier. Air pressure should take care of most of the liquid, but if you’re impatient, you can just wrap your hand around the free tube and blow, blow, blow. Try not to get any coolant in your mouth.

Reservoir setups are a bit more finicky since the liquid in them will drain from your kit only until it falls below the output hole of the reservoir. Blowing will do you little good at that point, so you’ll need to physically tilt your case in order to get the liquid out of the reservoir. Of course, you could always just remove the reservoir, but be sure to watch out for drips while removing the tubes!

If you can't drain your rig using the air-pressure method, you'll have to start by dumping the reservoir.

2. Cleaning Your Kit

If you just want to spot-clean your rig, first get a container of hot water. You’ll be turning it into a reservoir of sorts by dipping the tubes into the container so that the hot water is sucked through your rig and then spit back into the same container. If you want to get really fancy, use a separate container for the gunky output portion of the cleaning; using this method, you’ll still want to run the hot water through your system for a good amount of time—30 minutes to an hour.

For truly filthy rigs, or truly dedicated water-cooling aficionados, a complete kit disassembly is in order. Once you’ve got your parts laid out, you can start scrubbing. Depending on the condition of your tubing (and potential coolant-staining issues), you might just want to start over with brand-new plastic pipes (street price: $4). But if you insist on keeping your current gear, head down to your local gun shop and pick up a rifle-cleaning rod. A little warm, soapy water or vinegar and some brisk scrubbing will clean your pipes but good. Rinse and then run some distilled water through your tubes.

For the deepest clean possible, take apart your water blocks. Be advised that doing this will likely void their warranty, but it’s a small price to pay for shiny, residue-free cooling accessories. Grab a toothbrush and some vinegar and apply a thorough helping of elbow grease. Don’t forget to give the parts a good rinse in hot water when you’re done. Next, rinse them with distilled water or you’ll completely invalidate the wonderful cleaning job you just did. Reassemble your blocks, and you will have successfully completed your cleaning duties for the day; provided your blocks don’t leak, that is….

Don't forget to rinse everything with distilled water as the last step in your cleaning process!

3. Towel Testing

There’s nothing more annoying than spending hours getting the perfect water-cooling system installed in your machine only to see the fateful drip, drip of a leaky connection after you’ve started adding coolant. Sure, you can make some last-minute adjustments to a water-cooling rig once it’s in your case, but it’s cumbersome. And depending on the severity of your leak, it could be a race against the clock.

You can avoid drippy disasters entirely by assembling your water-cooling rig outside of your case to begin with. Admittedly, this will do nothing to prevent user error in the installation process, but it will help you quickly diagnose problems with connections, tubing, and anything else that could possibly go wrong with your setup.

Spread out a couple paper towels and set your entire water-cooling rig on your makeshift leak-testing station. Jump a power supply by jamming one end of a paper clip in the 20- or 24-pin green connector and the other end in a black connector, but make sure the power supply is unplugged. Before you plug the power supply into the wall, rig up your pump and a few fans—you need to draw a bit of juice or your power supply will burn out.
That’s it! But don’t consider yourself finished just because your kit didn’t start shooting water. Let it run for a bit—a full day, if you’re patient. Trust us, it’s a lot better to find leaks before they have a chance to drip all over your expensive computer parts.

If you spring a leak, it might be in your best interest to unplug the power supply before you get to tinkering.

4. Fill It Up

You’ve cleaned your kit, checked it for leaks, and are now ready to take the final plunge and stick your water-cooling gear back into your system for good. Filling a water-cooling system is simple, but there are still a few ways to ensure that it’s a smooth, spill-free process.

If you’re using a reservoir, just pour your liquid of choice into the bay, sit back, and let the magic happen. As soon as you see some water coming through the output of your pump, it should be safe to turn on the system and let your pump do the work for you. Just be sure to keep the reservoir filled.

For those who are cooling sans reservoir, it’s a similar process, but pour the coolant slowly into your T-line; we’ve often found ourselves daydreaming during a steady pour, only to end up with coolant all over the place after misjudging the overall flow rate of the water-cooling setup. However, one benefit of using a T-line is that you can take a little more time to fill the machine before turning it on. Just use the same trick as before, in which you hold the T-line as high as you can when filling it, letting air pressure push the fluid through your system for you.

There's little more embarrassing than surviving the entire maintenance process only to spill a ton of liquid because you weren't paying attention when filling.

5. Bursting Your Bubbles

Wait! What’s that? Your fluid isn’t chugging around as fast as you think it should, and you’re seeing a lot of air bubbles churn through your tubes? Well, these problems are related. The air traveling through your pipes impedes the performance of your water-cooling setup, but fear not. It happens every time you install a water-cooling unit, and it’s easy to fix.

f you have a reservoir, just pop off the cap and let your machine run. The bubbles will make their way back into your reservoir and happily escape into the atmosphere. Let your rig run for a few hours (or overnight), and all the trapped air will be gone. T-line users will find the process a bit more tedious, but you can always tape the line to the side of your case. Just be sure it’s up high to discourage any fluid from making an appearance on your floor.

Bubbles impede your pump's ability to . . . pump. Nix the bubbles to increase performance.


Sprung a leak? Totally stuck with your installation? Need a quick read while your kit debubbles? Here are some tips to help you achieve maximum water-cooling awesomeness.

1. Don't Hulk Up

Tightening the fittings for your water blocks or radiators doesn't require a Herculean effort. Resist the twisting temptation and you'll be rewarded with a leak-free setup. The bolts should be hand-tightened; torquing them more than that only damages the block and rubber fitngs.

2. Hot! Hot! Hot!

Putting 1/2-inch tubing on a 1/2-inch fitting is tough enough. Jamming 3/8-inch tubing on a 1/2-inch fiting is nigh impossible without the help of some hot water. Boil up some water and stick your tubing into the steaming mi for a few seconds. You'll find the fitting process much easier.

3. Check Your Levels

You know what fluids do? They evaporate. Check your levels once a month and fill up your rig as need be. There's no point in water cooling if you don't have enough liquid running through your pipes.

4. Don't Get Kinky

The best water-cooling setups maintain as short a distance as possible between cooling points—such as the CPU and the videocard, for example. But give yourself enough wiggle room so that you don't create any kinks in the tube. Crimping and pinching only hurts your overall water flow, which reduces the cooling potential of your rig.

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