How to Start Watercooling your PC : Part 1
PC watercooling has been around for over a decade now, with more and more PC enthusiasts beginning their liquid cooling journey every day. However, it can be a very daunting task for most beginners. From selecting every component for the system, to actually putting it all together is no easy feat for even the most experienced watercoolers. Which is why I hope this guide will help walk you through this journey and make you feel much more comfortable with building your first custom loop.
This will be the first part of a three part guide. Topics covered in this section will be:
- Chassis selection
- Radiator guidelines and what fans to put on them
- Blocks to fit your hardware
- Pumps and Reservoirs
- Picking the right fittings for your tubing
- Planning your loop
The best place to begin planning your first loop is with the actual PC hardware you want to use. So you should start by having a full list of the system components you will be using in the build, i.e. CPU, motherboard, GPU, RAM, etc. Once you know your system specifications, you should begin thinking about what kind of chassis you want to put your PC in. Keep in mind that watercooling components will take up even more space than your typical build. So the more hardware, and the more powerful the hardware is, the more room for watercooling gear you will need. In most liquid cooled builds, the smaller the chassis the more challenging the build will be. Beyond selecting a chassis based on being compatible with your PC components, a watercooler needs to consider where all the watercooling gear will fit as well. You will want to select a case that supports enough radiators for your cooling needs, as well as room for your pump, reservoir, and tubing. Your biggest concern will be radiator compatibility; for most watercooled systems, a chassis supporting 1 or more 240mm x 30mm radiator (Length x Thickness) is needed to provide enough cooling capacity. Don’t forget that there also needs to be room to install fans on the radiator! Also note that even if a case says it supports 2x120mm fans or 2x140mm fans, that does not mean it will support a 240 or 280mm radiator in those locations as well. At the end of the day, the best way to find the right case for your build is by doing your research. Try to find manufacturer specifications for your case and compare measurements with your components. Read or watch reviews from other people that have used the case. Once you select a chassis that can support all of your gear, you can begin parting out your custom loop.
- Always remember the additional thickness that fans add to radiators.
Radiator guidelines and what fans to put on them
The general rule of thumb has always been to have at least one 120mm x 30mm radiator for each component in your loop. So if you plan on watercooling your CPU and GPU, plan on fitting at least a 240mm x 30mm radiator (Or two 120mm radiators). However, for optimal cooling capacity, a 240mm x 30mm radiator for each component is a much better choice if you have the room. When it comes to watercooling, the more radiator volume you have in the system, the better. That’s not considering things like FPI and cross-flow radiators though. Radiators come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s important to know what you’re looking for. You need ask yourself what you want out of your watercooling loop, because the radiators have the largest impact on the performance of your loop. First and foremost the radiators you choose, need to fit in your case. 120mm and 140mm fan mounting locations are extremely common in modern cases, so you will most likely be looking for radiators that support 120/140mm fans. Always remember that your fans will add an additional 25mm of thickness to your radiator. Also consider the additional length added by the end caps, which means every radiator is longer than the length described by the fans it can support. The best way to ensure that your radiator and fans will fit in your case is to check the dimensions of the radiator that are specified by the manufacturer and measure how much space you have in your case. After you determine the size of the radiators that can fit in your case, you can begin looking at more aspects of the radiator. One noteworthy radiator specification, is the radiator’s FPI, or “Fins per Inch”. This is a measurement that indicates how densely packed your radiator is with fins. The fins of a radiator are the key contributor to the performance of your loop, or how well it transfers the heat from the liquid in your loop, to the air outside. Just keep in mind that the higher the FPI, the more fins, or cooling capacity your radiator. However, it should also be mentioned that the higher the FPI of the radiator, the more static pressure you will need from your fans. Which in most cases, results in louder and faster fans being required for the best performance on higher FPI radiators.
- A U.S. Quarter is nearly 1”, and as you can see by the red lines drawn on the radiator, there are 16 fins in 1”, or “16 FPI”.
This is a lot of technical information for a beginner, so what a newcomer should remember is that a lower fin density radiator offers less cooling performance, but also the ability to use quieter fans. Higher density radiators are the complete opposite. The last feature of a radiator that you should consider is the placement of ports on the radiator itself. There are many different variations that can greatly impact how smoothly your first watercooling experience goes. The main types of radiators you will see will be multiport radiators, which have multiple ports (more than the two required) on one of the ends of the radiator. This can be useful for any number of situations; it allows a drain to be added to the loop easily off of the radiator, or it can help with providing an easier tubing route. You will also see “X-flow” and “U-flow” radiators. X-flow, also known as crossflow, radiators will typically have one port on each end which allows the coolant to flow across the radiator channels. This is opposed to the more traditional U-flow, or dual pass, radiator, which as you guessed it, forces the coolant to flow to one end of the radiator and then all back to the same end, in a “U” pattern.There is very little, if any performance difference between the different styles of radiators. So it is best to pick a radiator design that helps make planning and designing your loop easier.
- Example U flow radiator fluid path.
- Example X flow radiator flue path
The other key component to loop performance is the fans you put on your radiators. Granted radiators provide a lot of passive cooling capacity, you will still want to install fans on them to provide active cooling. As stated earlier, you need to pick fans that suit your radiator.The most important thing to remember is to get the correct sized fans for your radiators, as well as the correct number of fans. For example, a 360mm radiator, will require 3 - 120mm fans, whereas a 420mm radiator would require 3 - 140mm fans. You will also want to choose fans that have a good static pressure rating. Static pressure is how a fan’s ability to move air with obstacles in front, or behind it. The obstacle we are concerned about overcoming is the radiator. For low FPI radiators, usually 1.25mmH20 or higher is plenty for good airflow through the radiator. For a higher FPI radiator, you may want to start looking at 2.0mmH20 or higher static pressure rated fans. The fans you choose also impact how loud your system is. For silent operation, fans with a 25db(a) or lower rating are typically quiet enough to be nearly silent during operation. Once again, you will want to do your research on the fans you want to use. An excellent source of fan reviews is thermalbench.com.
Blocks to fit your hardware
There are thousands, if not tens of thousands of different waterblocks available for PC hardware. So it is an understatement when someone says the process of finding blocks compatible with your hardware is confusing. Yet again, finding accurate manufacturer information about the blocks you are considering for your build, is the key to finding compatible waterblocks. EKWB.com has a configurator tool that allows you to input the hardware you have, and it will tell you what EK waterblocks are compatible with it. Sadly, every waterblock manufacturer doesn’t have a tool like EK’s, so it’s not always that easy.
The main aspects to look for in a CPU block is socket compatibility. Many CPU blocks will be compatible with a variety of sockets, typically from the same brand (Intel or AMD). For example, the EK Supremacy EVO CPU block is compatible with Intel sockets 115x or 1150, 1151, 1155, 1156, as well as 2011(v3) directly out of the box. Whereas the EK Supremacy EVO AMD block is compatible with several AMD CPU generations, from AM4 all the way back to some of their legacy sockets.
Graphics card blocks, on the other hand, aren’t quite as versatile as CPU blocks. They are typically made for a specific GPU and ,more often than not, for a specific GPU manufacturer brand. Which is why it is necessary to understand the difference between “reference cards” and “AIB cards”. A “reference card” is one that has a PCB design identical to the original design that nVidia or AMD initially released for that GPU. The new 10 series line of GPUs that were released directly by nVidia are called “Founder’s Edition” cards, but this terminology is synonymous with “reference cards”. An “AIB card”, or “Add-in-Board card”, is one that is manufactured by a company other than nVidia or AMD, such as Asus, MSI, and Gigabyte, to name a few. Some of these AIB cards still retain the same reference PCB design given by nVidia or AMD, however, these aftermarket manufacturers also have the option to redesign the PCB themselves. Thus creating a custom PCB, or AIB card. An AIB card can have any number of changes made to it. From improved power delivery, to a complete redesign of the PCB, AIB cards are almost always different from the original reference PCB. Which means, most reference card waterblocks will not fit on AIB cards, and vice-versa.
- Left - “Founders Edition” GPU, Right - AIB GPU
The first step to finding a compatible GPU waterblock is by finding the exact model number and name of your GPU. With the large variety of similarly named GPUs out on the market, it can be very easy to mistake your GPU with another. Once you know exactly what card you have, you can begin your search for a compatible block. Sadly, there aren’t too many easy ways to do this, apart from searching the stores you purchase your watercooling gear from, for a block that is explicitly said to be compatible with your card. You never want to assume that a waterblock is compatible with your hardware unless your hardware is specifically stated in the compatibility list. If you are unable to find a waterblock that is said to be compatible with your hardware, even after thorough searching, you should consider contacting either waterblock manufactuerer’s customer service references, or the store you wish to purchase from. Many customer service representatives in this business will be more than willing to help find you find the correct waterblock. Other resources such as forums and Facebook groups are also a good place to ask about waterblock compatibility.
Pumps and Reservoirs
One of the most important components of your loop is your pump; without the proper pump pushing liquid through your system, you can be in a world of trouble. Which is why you spend some time selecting the best pump, or pump/reservoir combo, for your system. The main types of watercooling pumps you will see on the market are the Liang D5, and the DDC, along with the many revisions each has had. You should be aware of the fact that all of these pumps are essentially just “rebrands” of the original pump model. Meaning, each watercooling branded pump you see (EK, Bitspower, Alphacool, etc) is nearly identical to the original Liang D5 or DDC pump. To keep things simple, this article will just cover the benefits and drawbacks of both the D5 and DDC pump, but will not refer to specific models of either pump.
- Left - Liang D5 PWM Pump, Right - DDC PWM Pump
The Liang D5 pump is usually the best choice for most liquid cooled builds. It offers quite a bit of head pressure, which means it is usually sufficient for larger loops. It is able to handle the resistance of most multiple radiator and multiple block loops. The Liang D5 is also known to be very quiet during operation, as long as you get a model that has a way to control the pump’s speed, such as PWM.
The DDC pump is the next in line. It offers great performance for it’s size. It is considerably smaller than the D5 which does mean that it doesn’t have as much head pressure, but it is still sufficient for most loops consisting of a couple blocks and couple smaller or low resistance radiators. Heat output from the DDC pump should also be kept in check, as the pump is known to get quite warm, but there are many different DDC heat sinks available to help combat this.
Both the D5 and DDC pumps will need a pump top in order to be compatible with your loop. There are three main types of pump tops that you will want to consider using. One offers the ability to use your pump as a standalone component in your loop, another will allow you to attach your reservoir to the top of the pump. The final type of pump top lets you install the pump into a 5.25” bay reservoir. You will want decide which pump to use by planning your loop and see what fits best, both aesthetically and physically.
- Left - Standalone D5 pump w/top, Center - D5 Pump/Reservoir Combo, Right - D5 5.25” Bay Reservoir
Using a pump top that lets you use the pump as a standalone component is useful if you want to hide the pump under your PSU shroud, or back compartment of your case. You will want to keep in mind that this will typically use more fittings as well. Both the 5.25” bay reservoir and pump top with an attached reservoir allow you to create a “pump/res” which can help simplify your loop. Consider each option, before you decide how you want to set up your pump and reservoir.
Picking the Right Fittings for your Tubing
One of the most commonly asked questions by newcomers to watercooling is, “How do I know which fittings will work with my tubing?”. Before you pick your fittings though, you will want to choose what kind of tubing you want to use. There are two main types of tubing that you should be concerned with, rigid and soft tubing. Soft tubing is typically made of PVC whereas rigid tubing is made of PETG or acrylic.
- Left - PETG Rigid Tubing, Right - PVC Soft tubing
Soft tubing will make it easier to make changes or upgrades to your system, as well as be a little easier to initially install. Rigid tubing is not as practical as soft tubing, but many watercoolers use it for its aesthetics. If you are planning your first watercooling build, many people recommend to use soft tubing, however rigid tubing is not as difficult as you might think. If you decide to go with soft tubing you will want to look at barb and compression fittings while rigid tubing will require rigid compression fittings. Compression fittings for soft tubing is usually prefered as they offer a much more secure hold on the tubing and do not require the use of zip ties or clamps. No matter what type of fitting you choose, you will want to make sure that the I.D. and O.D. of both the fitting and the tubing, match each other exactly. If the dimensions do not match the tubing will most likely not fit, or worse, it could leak. Another very common question involving fittings and tubing is, “Does size matter?”. Most of the time, the answer to that question is, no, however there are few aspects of tubing sizes that you need to consider. For soft tubing, thicker tube walls won’t kink as easily as thinner walls, but does not bend as sharply as thinner tubing. For rigid tubing, smaller tubing is typically easier to bend. However, the size of the tubing will not affect your flow rate or the overall resistance within your loop to any noticeable degree. For a small form factor build you may want to consider smaller diameter tubing, but if you have a build with some space to work with, larger tubing should work perfectly well.
Along with tubing and fittings, comes angled adapters. Angled adapters can be installed both off of components, as well as within a tubing run. They come in several different shapes, but most are based off of, 45°, and 90° angles. Some rigid tube builds even use angled adapters throughout the entire build, instead of bending the tubing itself. The best way to figure out where and what angled adapters to use, you will want to visual the layout of your loop and find where the toughest, and tightest bends will be, at those point you will want to consider using an angled adapter. Besides angled adapters, there are also extenders, T fittings, rotary adapters, and many more. Be sure to research all of your fitting options before you plan your loop.
- Various G1/4” angled fittings, adapters, extensions, etc.
Planning your Loop
Now that you have a general idea of the various components at your disposal, it’s time to start planning everything that you will use. If you already built your PC and just plan on installing a loop in your existing system, you can take a photo of your PC from the side then use image editing software like PhotoShop or Microsoft Paint to draw potential components or tube runs for your loop. If you have yet to build the system, you will want to assemble at least the main PC components in your case first, then begin visualizing where all of your watercooling components will go. Building a PC takes a lot of time to plan, and building a watercooled PC takes even more time. So carefully plan your build, use manufacturer’s specifications, build logs, and forums to help with your research.
Stay tuned for parts two and three of our watercooling guide!