Even though we’ve been seeing liquid cooling PCs since the late 1990s, this form of cooling only became a big thing over the last couple of years. If you are thinking about crossing that line you might want to read this post. First thing first, when it comes to liquid cooling, you need to make a decision; go with a custom loop or AIO (All-in-One)? In my opinion today’s AIO’s are “good enough” and as EKWB proved, you can even add a GPU to your loop later. Personally, I think that if you want a silent gaming PC with great overclock potential – go for the custom loop. If you still want to take AIO then you want to read about radiators and blocks below.
Planning a Custom Loop Design
The parts you need to build your own custom loop is blocks, tubes, fittings, coolant, pump and radiators, but also you can add things like a reservoir or reservoir/pump combos, as well as draining ports.
Blocks are very simple, you need one for your GPU and one for CPU. They can come in different designs and materials (nickle, acetal, nickel + acetal, and combinations with acrylic cover), and you must select the one that features appropriate mounting plate for your processor or a GPU. For CPU block things are rather simple, nickle and acetal have about the same performances, so it all comes down to esthetics or cleaning. Acrylic looks better, but is difficult to clean. Good trend on the market are the arrival of custom CPU/MBO combos such as recent examples of a market leader such as EKWB joining forces with leading motherboard makers such as ASUS, Gigabyte or MSI.
Next are GPU blocks – materials are the same, but the main difference is a decision to go either for a universal solution, or a full cover block. Universal blocks are a bit tricky as they typically don’t cool the memory and more importantly, power distribution. In a case of universal GPU block, you must add heatsinks and have good airflow in your case, but you can use it on every GPU you decide to install. Full cover blocks however, are designed for the specific graphics card. They cover all the critical components as well as the GPU silicon, and it can’t be reused on a different design. Going further you can also add backplate for your GPU and blocks for RAM if you want to overclock it. Something worth considering is also the ability to sell the liquid-cooled graphics card for a better / higher price later, but only if the buyer is interested in liquid cooling. Also, always keep the original package with the stock heatsink somewhere.
Meet the Heart
Next on our liquid cooling list is the pump, or a pump + reservoir combo. The only pump I would recommend is a D5 pump from Laing. They’re manufactured in Hungary and you can buy these pumps from Alphacool, EKWB and other liquid cooling solution providers. They are silent, and get the job done. Next up is the reservoir – you can add it to your loop connected via tube, or combined with the pump. They vary in sizes and go by the rule “the bigger the better.” Just watch out for space in your case and don’t interfere with the airflow.
When we talk about radiators you need to know three major specifications. First is length; measured in number of fans you can mount. The numbers are 120, 240, 360 etc. or for larger sized radiators, you’ll see 140, 280, 420 etc. Secondly, there are slim radiators (30mm) and normal (60mm). As always, you can find even bigger ones like the Monster Radiator from Alphacool. Last but not least is FPI, which confuses most of the people. FPI means “fins per inch” – the more fins there are, the more liquid can a radiator take. If you have more FPI you will have to put your ventilators to higher speed, and we’d recommend to set your fans to push air out of the case. Also look for your selected case specifications to know which radiator is compatible one. The most important thing is how much radiators you need. The answer is – 120 per component for a regular 60mm radiator. CPU and GPU should be cooled by a single 240 or 280mm radiator, and for multi-hundred watt experiences, you should err on the side of caution and add one more. A Core i7-6700K and a Nvidia Titan X (Pascal) can easily be cooled by a standard 360 radiator, or a 360 plus 120 for the slim radiator(s).
There are three major types of tubes you can chose from. First, choose between hard or the soft tubes. If you choose the soft ones, you only have to choose size and you are good to go. If hard tubing is something you want to do, choose between acrylic and PETG. For bending the tubes, you will need a heat-gun and DIY kit with inner rubber tubes and a saw – sadly, scalpel won’t help you. Acrylic is easier to bend and it looks good, and PETG looks great, but is harder to bend. On the plus side PETG is much more resistible then acrylic.
Fittings are real fun to talk about, the only thing you need to do is match the numbers. Size of the tube and size of the fitting. If you use soft tubing and buy hard compression fittings for hard tubes, or regular compression fittings with barbed like bottom for soft tubes. You can even use angled ones depending on how you design your loop. And also if you want you can add draining ports to drain your loop more easily.
Coolant is really what it’s all about, you can mix it with regular or distilled water and put it in your loop, you can add it, or you can only put distilled water, but then you would need to add anti-fungal substance. There are some manufacturers which recommend that you should only use the coolant liquid as well, or a mix between their coloring/antifungal substance and regular water. Some also say to consider using automotive-grade liquids for cooling the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine). Our call is to go with a colored coolant which contains anti-fungal additive, and distilled water.
And now… for the Fun Part
When you have all the components delivered, you will need to connect it and form a liquid cooling loop. Put the blocks on your GPU and CPU and always follow the instructions on how to install them, recommended amount of cooling paste etc. Do not use electrically conductive pastes, and be generous when it comes to the amount used. After you’re done with this, put the radiators and a pump/res combo. After that you are good to go, and now you can bend your tubes, or not (soft tube build).
First you need to place the soft rubber tube into an acrylic one, (it is easier if dipped in warm soaped water beforehand). Turn on the heat-gun, put the tube 5-10 cm from it and rotate on the place you want to bend. When the tube heats up enough it will start to slightly bend. Bend it to desired angle, cool it, remove rubber, and then cut it and/or use sandpaper to soften the edges, and put it in the loop. Word of caution – bringing the tube too close to a heat-gun will create bubbles on the tube… also, if you move it too far away, it will start to crack. Caution and Patience is the name of the game here. When connecting all components is done, just add coolant and turn the pump on to push water into the loop and radiators. While testing your loop be sure to put some paper towels beneath fittings to be sure loop is not leaking.
Once this is done you are good to go, and you can start finding the good balance between overclocking and long term stability. Welcome to the world of liquid cooled computers, where performance meets silence. Good luck and have fun.