A Beginner's Guide to Liquid Cooling

Where to Buy?

There isn’t a fantastic array of places where you can buy a lot of these components in the United States. But one of the largest water-cooling specialists in the country is Frozen CPU (www.frozencpu.com), which has a vast selection. Additionally, if you’re a little more patient and want to ensure you’re getting EKWB directly from the source, you can buy straight from EKWB’s site (www.ekwb.com). Also, here’s a special shout out for EKWB, without whom there simply wouldn’t have been any way to provide this first look into water-cooling for y’all.

Planning Your Loop

So, at this point, you should be well aware of all the hardware you’ll need to consider. Next, you want to research which case is best. There’s a huge variety out there. In fact, you’ll find there are 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 decisions 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—one in and one out.

PCF310 feat2 diagram

Even if it’s just a shoddy Photoshop design, planning your build visually will save you time when it comes to figuring out how many fittings you’re going to need and how best to run your cooling loops.

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 cards 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 blackand-grey-plated armor. On top of this, we managed to get hold of a mixture of black water blocks and fittings. We’d use white coolant to add a little contrast.

Choosing the Chassis

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 chassis 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 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.

Fittings and Loops

And so begins the building process. Of course, like with our regular builds, we advise that you build all your PCs outside of the case first, just to see if they work. We individually tested both our GPUs, the memory, and the CPU with traditional coolers, before throwing water blocks on any of it.

PCF310 feat2 caseshot2

Once you’ve installed your base components, you’ll have a better idea as to how to run your cooling loops.

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.

Cable Management

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.

PCF310 feat2 cables

We’ll admit this isn’t the tidiest cabling, but doing a good job at the start will save you time in the long run.

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).

Building and Priming the Loop

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 fi ttings, 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-nosed 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, physics!

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 adapter). Then use a funnel to carefully pour your coolant into the loop. In our case, we like to use a plastic ketchup bottle to fill our loop.

PCF310 feat2 filling

It will take time to get your loops right (it took us three attempts to master the bridge between our GPUs). But once it feels snug and secure, you can start filling your loop. Throw paper towels underneath everything—they’re a good indicator of a leak.

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.

Conclusion

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 percent speed throughout the system.

As 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 excellent—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 was the original 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 $600, 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.

PCF310 feat2 opener

Specifications
CPUIntel Core i7-5820K @ 4.4GHz
MotherboardAsus Sabertooth X99
Memory64GB Corsair Dominator Platinum (8x 8GB) @ 2,666MHz
Graphics2x EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti Superclocked ACX 2.0+
Storage2x Samsung 850 EVO 500GB SSD
CaseFractal Define S
Power SupplyBe Quiet Dark Power Pro 11 1,200W – Platinum
Fans
5x Noise Blocker NB-eloop B12-2 120mm fans

Dispelling the Myths

Many fictions cloud the world of water cooling, so we've sifted the reality from the rumor

Myth 1

If I use deionized water in my loop, then leaks won’t matter or cause any damage.

Answer: Unfortunately, no. As soon as the water is introduced to the system, it will begin making contact with the various metals inside of the water blocks. It will soon be picking up positive ions, meaning it’ll be conductive within a couple of hours, at the very least.

Myth 2

What If I blow it up when I switch it on? What if there’s an instant leak?

Answer: Honestly, you’re not going to damage anything. The best way to fill and test a loop is to make sure everything’s unpowered by using a PSU bridge. By using this bridge, you can switch on just the pump and that’s it. Leave this on for 24–48 hours to see if you have any leaks.

Myth 3

If I water cool my PC and add more fans, it’s going to cool down my room, right?

Answer: Definitely not. In fact, it’s more than likely that the opposite will occur. Your hardware may run cooler, but you’ll still be outputting the same amount of heat (or maybe even more if you’re ramping up that overclock), out of the same radiators. If anything, your room will become warmer as you’ll have more fans pushing more heat out of those radiators.