Water Cooling: Lessons Learned and Rules to Live By

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Water Cooling: Lessons Learned and Rules to Live By

Postby [FnG] Red Six » Wed Oct 31, 2007 8:40 pm

Well.

I've been sort of a guinea pig among my close friends in that I've been the first to build a water-cooled PC. That is my gaming rig, Quad Damage, which I am quite proud of. I started construction last year, and the system was built around a dual socket 940 motherboard. I styled the case to look like something out of Quake and put two dual core CPU's in there - hence the name. At the time I planned to put four of everything: 2 dual core CPU's (four cores); 2 7950GX2's (four GPUS); 4GB RAM; and so on.

Well, DIY Quad SLI with the 7950GX2 turned out to be not-such-a-great-investment, so I never bought that second card, but the system is basically the same otherwise. I water cooled the thing in order to have maximum OC potential, using a Koolance 1kw system.

This post is about water cooling, and what I learned by doing it, in case you are thinking about doing it. It's not intended to discourage, but to tell you what to expect if you've never done it before, and some things to think hard about from a guy who's been running water on all of his main components for a while.

These are my lessons learned.

1. Only water cool if you plan to OC like mad. The reason for this is obvious: quality air coolers will do just fine for the casual OC job, and the enhanced ability of water to pull heat from your stuff is only useful if you have heat to get rid of. If you're not going extreme - and I mean really extrme - on your hardware it's a waste of money and warranty to put water in your machine. Don't even think about it unless you plan to push the threshold hard.

2. Only water cool those components that need to be water cooled. The reason I say this is that I put water on all of my components that could be water-cooled: RAM, HDD's, chipset, CPU's, GPU's. The components that cool the RAM failed almost immediately after installation, and the HDD cooler somewhat later. The leaks caused severe stress to me, although I got lucky with those leaks and there was no resultant damage; but removing the water from these devices did not impede my machine's performance. I installed air cooling solutions on both and experienced no performance change. This leads to number 3.

3. If a water cooling device looks complicated or odd, don't use it. I used water coolers from a reputable company - Koolance - but I used some of their new, rather innovative looking products. I used their RAM coolers, and their dual HDD cooler. To Koolance's credit, these were innovative and creative products. Both use a material they call "hydrapack", which is some kind of bag that conforms to your chips/harddrive backs, and circulates water through the bag. The problem is - and I thought about this when I took the things out of the package - the flexible material can and does rip, and there are a surprising number of sharp corners and things inside a computer where you can get a snag or a puncture and not even know it until you power on, pressurize the system, and have a geyser. Stick to things that look solid, look simple, and have been out for a long time; if something has just been released or invented, and there are no user reviews of it, no matter how cool it looks, resist the temptation to try it out; let some other fool be the guinea pig. You have a lot of money worth of hardware at stake if you get a bad leak and short circuits. Don't go with untested stuff. This leads to 4.

4. Only use the highest-quality components in your water cooling rig. This goes for everything - not just the major parts like the radiator, pumps, and water blocks, but for little things, too: fittings, splitters, and hose. It is recommended that you buy everything from one manufacturer and don't "mix and match" components. Buy your hose and fittings from the same company and avoid the temptation to go to the hardware store and buy hose of the same dimensions that looks the same. I did this, and ended up having leaks because the hose was not made of the same material, and though it had the same dimensions, did not stretch and conform over the barbs on the fittings as readily as the manufacturer's hose did. It was harder to work with and more prone to leaks, and I eventually ended up replacing all of it with manufacturer's hose, which costs 1 doller per foot instead of 12 cents per foot, but is worth the extra few bucks. Only buy metal fittings and splitters, never plastic. Nickel and anodized aluminum are preferred. When it comes to water blocks, get blocks that are gold-plated copper; you will get maximum heat transfer, and the gold will protect the copper from oxidation. Buy blocks that are rated for more thermal energy absorbtion than you plan to need - overkill on the blocks is a good thing. There is also no such thing as overkill on the pump or radiator. Bigger just means it will run at a lower speed; the lower speed means it will last longer, the water will be under less pressure, and you will be less likely to get a component failure or a leak. If you're going to do it, do it right - spend the money and buy the good stuff.

5. Secure water blocks to components properly. Remember that the water block will be heavier when full of liquid than it is empty; and remember that with water flowing through the system, there will be some pressure on the hose, it will become more rigid, and may tend to pull blocks out of place. My first water-cooling catastrophe resulted from use of "frag tape", a thermal double-stick tape, to secure the water blocks to my chipset (a 2200/2050 Nvidia companion set). The stuff worked for a few months, but eventually failed due to the extreme heat; the tape actually melted, the block fell away, and the heat destroyed the chipset, which rendered my very expensive dual-socket mobo dead. I have since acquired a new mobo and put the blocks on using thermal epoxy, a permanent adhesive that will probably be there long after the rest of the machine decomposes in a landfill. Obviously, epoxy is only an option on things that never have to come out of the computer, because it is permanent - but don't be afraid to use things like this, remember you're voiding your warranty by pulling stock coolers anyway, so you better make it work. If a water block comes off of your component, you may get thermal damage, and that means repairs, which leads to 6.

6. Use extreme caution when you drain the system, and try to do this as little as possible. The goal is to create a sealed system that you won't ever have to open; but eventually, you'll need to, if you upgrade, add a component, or if something breaks. When my chipset burned, I had to replace the mobo, and there was no practical way to even get it out of my box (to say nothing of epoxying the blocks to the new one) without draining the system. You need to make a plan for this, and I recommend installing a purge valve somewhere near the bottom of your case. Run a length of hose just for this purpose, and put another purge valve somewhere near the top of your case. Make sure that the length in the bottom has a little play to it, so that you can pull it outside of the case - that way, you can have the opening of the system physically outside of your box, and have a container ready to catch the coolant. The coolant will want to flow down, which is why you put the purge valve in the bottom. The one in the top is for you to open and blow into - I've found that gently blowing into the system is far more effective than powering on the pump. Force air through the system, and force as much of the liquid out as possible. When I purged the system to replace the mobo, liquid leaked from a hose and ended up on my GX2 - that was a 600 dollar leak. Between that and the mobo, you're looking at 1000 dollars worth of components ruined. Be very, very careful with coolant, and make sure that you quickly, quickly, quickly clean up any spills. It is recommended that you do the draining under very bright lighting, and inspect the system thoroughly after the drain is done to make sure there is no liquid. Look everywhere - especially in power cables, MOLEX connectors, and other places where liquid can ooze and be hard to see. Shorts can be very damaging.

8. This goes for air cooling, too, but if you're spending the coin on water, it's doubly important to use quality thermal compounds. I recommend only Arctic Silver 5, or, if epoxy is needed, the Arctic Silver Epoxy or Aluminum Epoxy, the former of which is best, but the latter of which is a true electric insulator. Both are better than any tape out there. Use the AS5 grease on CPU's, GPU's, and stuff like that. If you aren't getting good thermal interface with your waterblocks, you're wasting money. AS5 is expensive but worth every penny.

9. Plan, plan, plan! Think about the route the water will take through the system. This is really important if you are cooling lots of components like I am; remember that the water will get hotter as it crosses each component, until it gets back to the radiator. You might think about a splittler or two, coming off the pump. I have a splitter right off of the pump, and two routes. Each route goes through 1CPU, 1GPU, 1mobo chip, back to a splittler, then to the radiator, back to the pump/reservoir, and back through the system. If I had only one loop, the water would have to go through 2 CPU's before it got to the firts GPU; imagine how warm it would be by the time it got to the 2nd GPU (which would be the 4th very hot component in the system), and then the second part of the chipset (the 6th). By sending water into two routes, the heavily OC'd CPU's both get cool water fresh from the reservoir, and both GPU's are only 2nd in line, chipsets only 3rd.

10. Get a variable speed pump and variable speed radiator fan. The utility is obvious; if your water gets too hot, you speed up the radiator fan; if the components get too hot, you speed up the pump. If you have fixed speeds, you have less flexibility. I normally run my pump at 40% and fans at 25%, and have stable temps; but if I get a spike, I can turn the speed up quickly and easily on both, and it will very quickly bring the temperature of everything down.

11. Don't fart around with your coolant. I mean, don't add stuff to it, and only use what the manufacturer recommends for your pump. Period.

Summary

Water cooling can be worth the trouble if you're running an extreme rig; however, for most people, water cooling is going to be more hassle than it is worth. To get a reliable system, you have to spend a lot of money on high quality parts - that money might be better spent on other things.

However, as stated, it can be worth it if you're going to go crazy, and in some situations, it can even be necessary. I don't think there is an air cooler that could handle the thermal load on my chipset right now and fit in the tiny space that it needs to fit in; a pro to water cooling is that water blocks can sometimes go in small places where a huge fan and heatsink cannot go.

In water cooling a system, I recommend water cooling the components that you intend to overclock, as well as the chipset (which, if you overclock at all, will get hotter under load). Don't mess with HDD's; you can't really OC them and they are designed to work on air. Water is overkill and adds a lot of complicated plumbing, giving the system one more place to fail. OC RAM only if air cooling is not working; I'd try simple heat spreaders and a fan (which are not expensive at all) before resorting to water.
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Postby [FnG] Lert » Wed Oct 31, 2007 9:02 pm

It's a very, very good writeup, H6. Thank you. :) An excellent reference for anyone out there. I just have one question for you:

Where's #7 ?
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Postby [FnG] magnolia » Wed Oct 31, 2007 9:28 pm

That's the most interesting thing I've read all day, work-stuff included!

I would have neither the patience nor ability to install water cooling but then I don't thrash the nuts off my PC, I just give it a mild tickle :)

Good, informative post; I think I went and done some learning there ;-)
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Hmmmmm.

Postby [FnG] Red Six » Wed Oct 31, 2007 10:49 pm

[FnG] Lert wrote:It's a very, very good writeup, H6. Thank you. :) An excellent reference for anyone out there. I just have one question for you:

Where's #7 ?


Um. . . .

Ooops. :oops:
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Postby [FnG] Lert » Wed Oct 31, 2007 10:55 pm

Ate it, did you ? :D
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Postby [FnG] Squirrel » Thu Nov 01, 2007 12:11 pm

Hehe Lert =P

I'm not going to go to water cooling until it becomes a standard thing (ie air coolers). Even though i'm not using this information ... thanks for posting it. Very interesting read.

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Postby [FnG] Red Six » Thu Nov 01, 2007 2:57 pm

[FnG] Squirrel wrote:I'm not going to go to water cooling until it becomes a standard thing (ie air coolers). .


I really don't think water will every completely replace air coolers, for a lot of reasons, but mainly the vast majority of computers are not going to need it - your typical office workstation unit, or home PC used for general multimedia, basic office tasks, and web browsing is the bulk of the PC market. Nuts like us who build extreme gaming rigs represent a fairly small part of the total picture of computer useage, compared to things like government agencies and school systems that buy them by the truckload in standard configurations and need them to be as simple as possible.

The hardware for water cooling that is out there right now is probably as reliable as it will ever get. We're not talking about new technology here; it's plumbing. It's been around for hundreds of years. It's pumps, tubes, and fittings. I can't see it changing very much in shape, form, or function, or even price; unlike PC components, which become obsolete when the new thing comes out, a pump is a pump, and a block is a block. None of the basic components I bought for my system have changed in price at all over the 1.5 years that I've been buying them; I certainly can't say the same thing about any other parts of my machine.

And, water is always going to be tricky, difficult, and not for the feint-of-heart. That's why I don't see it ever becoming as common as air cooling, especially with the newer generations of air cooling products yielding the kind of performance that they do.

For the forseeable future, I see water remaining a niche product that you shouldn't mess with unless you plan to go ape on your hardware. It's just not worth it otherwise.
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Postby [FnG] ZZ0nt0p » Thu Nov 01, 2007 3:14 pm

might be good material for a sticky?!
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Postby [FnG] LcNessie » Thu Nov 01, 2007 4:58 pm

[FnG] ZZ0nt0p wrote:might be good material for a sticky?!


Apparently... :Mrgreen1: Congratz, H6!
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Postby [FnG] Silke » Thu Nov 01, 2007 5:13 pm

This was the best ever reading about water cooling i have read in along time.

The only thing you ever hear about water cooling is how great it is and how low the sound is, never the downside about it.

:) :)

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Thanks for the compliments. . .

Postby [FnG] Red Six » Fri Nov 02, 2007 6:09 am

There are actually other things I've learned about water cooling during this process. I appreciate the positive feedback. I left the post because I know a lot of you are building new rigs right now, or upgrading, or OC'ing in preparation for some of the new games (raise your hand if you bought new hardware for UT3 :wink: ). My first sticky! I now know something useful! Yeah me! Too bad I had to ruin about a thousand bucks worth of stuff to learn it. . . :cry: Oh well. Main thing is, the system is running again.

Right now I have 6 components cooled with my water rig (2 graphic cards, 2 CPU's, and 2 chips on the mobo). I've had that plus 2 RAM coolers and 1 HDD cooler, for a total of 9 cooling elements - so I guess you could say that my first try at water cooling was to jump into the deep end, and I was hoping that my 1000 dollar+ learning mistakes could help someone else not make those same mistakes.

I think most of the time when you hear positive feedback about water cooling it's from people who have an interest in selling water cooling hardware, and for what I paid for mine, I darn near could have bought another rig. That's another downside to it. Yeah, you can OC like mad, but for the same price you can buy a faster CPU. As for the noise, it's true that it's quite quiet. My radiator is huge - it has three 120mm fans, but they are usually spinning at 25% or less, and the noise of the pump is almost inaudible; those three big fans at low speed are less noisy than one small fan at high speed. BUT - how annoying is computer noise, really? Just turn your speaker volume up and save 500 bucks.

I guess bottom line for me is - if I had it to do again, I would, but mainly because my quirky mobo has an inadequate air cooler on the chipset, and there isn't room for a large air cooler in there if you have a PCIx16 card installed (which, of course, I do). I needed a slim little water block that could suck heat out and literally pipe it off to someplace else; the vertical clearance is less than 1cm, and the horizontal dimensions are also pretty small; just not room to dissipate the heat on location, and that's what water can do - it can literally carry the heat to some other location to be dissipated there. That is a good application of water cooling; I just went about it poorly on the first go. My mobo (Supermicro H8DCE) is prone to instability and system restarts because the chipset gets hot, even with the stock coolers. In all fairness to the designers, it is a server board, probably not meant to have extreme GPU's and OC'd components; however, I've heard of people having the dreaded Hypertransport Sync Error without OC at all on this board. If I did it again I would keep the system as minimal as possible - again, only the chipset and the parts that I planned to overclock. I wasted 150 dollars on the coolers for the RAM and HDD's. They were unnecessary, made me get gray hair, and I was lucky, lucky, lucky they didn't ruin any components. For 50 bucks more than what I spent on those coolers, I could have upgraded to a faster pair of CPU's (100 bucks more per). You always have to ask yourself with the water cooling, "is the juice worth the squeeze?" In the case of my chipset, yes; in the case of RAM? Egad, no. I fell for good marketing, a product that looked cool and sexy and innovative, and the temptation to be the first on the block to have it and say that I have an "all water system". Dumb.

I forgot to mention in my original post the most important reason why you need to put TWO bleed valves in your system, one in the top of the case somewhere, and one in the bottom, and purge it by blowing through the system instead of running the pump. The reason is that for the pump to run, it has to receive power. For it to receive power, something has to be plugged in. If something is plugged in, things are energized, and I think that's how my video card was destroyed. Usually if something gets wet but is not energized, it's not a problem, as long as you clean it up quickly and make sure it's totally dry before you power on again. If you've got power in your box to run your pump, and you spring a leak somewhere, or get clumsy with your drain hose, or anything happens at all, you could ruin something pretty fast. I could even see it being dangerous if you got a lot of water down in a 1000 watt power supply; that could not be good.

That's why I say, if you open the system up, there needs to be NO power in the box at all. Physically unplug the thing from the wall, shut everything down - no power, none. I followed the instructions in my pump manual, which had me power it on and use the pump to force the liquid out the bleed valve; it was not the best way to do it, and cost me a small fortune. It made a mess and it left a lot more liquid in the system than my blowing technique.

Thanks for the positive feedback and I hope the information is useful.
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Re: Thanks for the compliments. . .

Postby [FnG] LcNessie » Fri Nov 02, 2007 11:16 am

[FnG] RedSix wrote:I forgot to mention in my original post the most important reason why you need to put TWO bleed valves in your system, one in the top of the case somewhere, and one in the bottom, and purge it by blowing through the system instead of running the pump. The reason is that for the pump to run, it has to receive power. For it to receive power, something has to be plugged in. If something is plugged in, things are energized, and I think that's how my video card was destroyed. Usually if something gets wet but is not energized, it's not a problem, as long as you clean it up quickly and make sure it's totally dry before you power on again. If you've got power in your box to run your pump, and you spring a leak somewhere, or get clumsy with your drain hose, or anything happens at all, you could ruin something pretty fast. I could even see it being dangerous if you got a lot of water down in a 1000 watt power supply; that could not be good.


:shock: I actually never thought of that one... There are actually a couple of reasons to not turn on the pump (AND the rest of the computer with it) to drain the coolant.

1: As Red Six said, if a leak occurs, you fry components
2: If your cooler is run by the same PSU as the rest of your machine, your computer is ON, producing heat, even as the coolant is bleeding out! Less and less cooling, Overheat, crash, melt, bye bye components...
3: (in a lesser degree) The pump relies on the coolant for lubrication and resistance. It will wear out much faster if it runs without something to pump around due to friction caused by overrevving.
4: I will probably come up with some more reasons later... :Mrgreen1:

Actually, I think it would be a rather good idea to use a pump that is fed from a different power source, preferably mains. Just stick both the plugs of the pump and the computer PSU in one of those powerstrips with a main on/of switch...
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Postby [FnG] Greyguy » Sat Nov 03, 2007 8:37 pm

Well I learned something today. Very informative read. You are now my go to guy for water cooling advice... :worship: Well done... :D :D :D :D
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Postby [FnG] pyxie.T32 » Sat Nov 17, 2007 4:45 pm

I leant something, I think if cooling ever becomes an issue Im just going to buy a small fridge and keep the PC in there instead or take the side of the case off and have a desk fan pointing at it. seems like a safer less stressful option. My PC is kept on a metal grill shelf that sticks out of the side of my desk so it is completly surrounded by free air which helps it stay cool and avoid dreaded carpet static.
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Postby [FnG] inside_out » Thu Dec 13, 2007 6:41 am

Good read man H6, I might consider thorough check up if i want to get a water cooling. One question though, why don't you put the pc near a air-conditioner/fan? :P
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