|Water Cooling the Perfect Computer, Part 1

This blog post is part of a series on my experience building the perfect computer.  As part of my job at Member.buzz, I needed a high-performance computer for programming, graphic design, and video rendering. I also wanted it to look the part; looking as beautiful on the outside as it is in the inside. 

This article covers the paths available for water cooling your computer. For information on the other components required once you figure out what you want to do, see Water Cooling the Perfect Computer, Part 2.

Why Water Cool?

Traditionally, components inside of a computer are cooled using fans which are designed to pull cool air into your computer and push hot air out.

⁠Back in the 1990's, some people began to experiment with water cooling their PCs, mostly using re-purposed aquarium equipment.  While there are some obvious dangerous to purposefully using liquid cooling in your computer, water can absorb about 400% more heat energy than water.  This allows you to cool your computer more efficiently and with less noise.

⁠This is very good in terms of performance - if you keep your components cooler they will run faster and last longer.

⁠As you can see, as the temperature of a CPU increases, its performance decreases (I talk more about this in my article on Overclocking).  Traditionally, the big trade-off with water cooling vs. air cooling was that it was difficult to get it right, and if you had a leak it could completely destroy your computer.  However, there are now a wide range of choices available that can make water cooling very safe and easy to do.

⁠Paths

If you have decided to go down the path of water cooling your PC (which I would highly recommend), you must first decide what type of water-cooling system you want to create. With many articles about this choice and the options available to you, I focused on the information that I found difficult when making decisions about which path to follow.

Here is an overview of how your available choices are related:

•   All-in-One Cooler: Contains all components in a single device.

•   Custom Loop: You choose each component separately. This is more efficient at cooling and expandable but introduces the possibility of leaking and is much more expensive.

o Soft Tubing: The easiest and cheapest option available for custom loops, but it can get cloudy over time.

o Hard Tubing: It requires additional tools to bend properly but looks cool. All materials of tubing use the same fittings.

- Plastic: You can easily bend plastic tubes with a heat gun. While it gets less cloudy than soft tubing, it will still cloud slightly over time. Bending PETG and Acrylic is pretty similar.

- PETG: An extremely durable and incredible material.

- Acrylic: This is the clearest plastic material, which will reduce the amount of cloudiness accumulating over time. However, it is very brittle and more difficult to work with than PETG.

o Glass: This is, by far, the most challenging material to work with, requiring specialized tools and lots of practice. However, it is extremely clear and will not react with your coolant whatsoever, allowing your loop to look fabulous for as long as you use it.

o Other Materials: There are various other, generally opaque materials available for rigid tubing, which I did not work with, including copper, chrome-plated copper, electroplated brass, and carbon fiber. 


All-in-One (AIO) Coolers

All-in-One (AIO) coolers contain all of the components you need: a radiator, pump, coolant, fittings, and tubing in a single product. By far, the least expensive, safest option, there are a ton of high-quality choices available, including NZXT’s Kraken and Corsair’s RGB Pro. While this option all but guarantees to protect you against leaks, it is not expandable and can't be customized as much as your other options.

If you plan on a top-end processor like my AMD 3950x, or if you want to cool your GPU along with your CPU, you will likely need to go with a custom loop. 

Pros Cons

Cheapest option

Not as efficient at cooling as the other options.

Safest option

 


Soft Tubing

If you choose soft tubing or any other options, you will also need to buy a radiator, a pump, coolant, and fittings; specifically, you will need fittings for soft tubes.

Soft tubing is a very forgiving medium to work with. Simply cut it to approximately the correct length and use the fittings to secure it in place.

Unlike an AIO cooler, if you choose a custom loop (either soft tubing or hard tubing), you will be able to see the coolant run through your system, which gives a lot of really excellent design possibilities.

Cutting soft tubing is pretty straight-forward; you can use scissors or a soft tube cutter to ensure it is cut evenly. 


Pros Cons
Avoids the difficulties associated with bending hard tubes Will get cloudy over time

Uses fewer fittings, making it a cheaper option

 

Extremely safe

 

Let’s you see your coolant running through your system

 

Allows you to expand to cool multiple components.

 


Hard Tubing

Hard Tubing uses a series of hard tubes to route your coolant, which you can either bend to your needs or use fittings to connect straight lengths. Hard tubing is much less forgiving. You will need to cut the lengths to within about 1-3mm of where it needs to be to get it to fit. Furthermore, hard tube fittings are far more varied in how they work, and I have had some drastically different results with different brands. On the flip side, hard tubing looks by far the best, and it is worth the undertaking, assuming you can stomach the cost and take the time to learn how to work with the different materials involved.

Something to note, bending PETG, involves heating it with a heat gun.

Plastic Tubing

Bending plastic tubing involves inserting a silicone bending insert into your tube, heating it with a heat gun (I would suggest getting one with a temperature setting and set it to around 200°C), and bending it to the desired angle.

Use a mandrel for consistent angles or a custom-made bending tool (e.g., XSPC, or Barrow). I liked Barrow's tool. When I was initially trying to do complex bends, it was beneficial but even for my simple 90° bends using its edges, let me create consistent right angles. Bykski also makes a cool spiral bending mold, which I didn't try.

Once you have the tube bent, you can either dig it in water or set it aside to cool. To cut it to the right length, you will need a pipe cutter, such as RIGID’s cutter or the one included in Thermaltake’s kit. You will need sand-paper blocks, a pipe reamer, and a deburring tool for the final touches to smooth out the edges. PrimoChill also makes a finishing bit that is supposed to make it easier, but I couldn't get it to work well.

PETG

This is the easiest, most durable plastic material available. While it is not as clear as acrylic, it is much less brittle.

PETG becomes malleable at 62°C, melts at 260°C, and retains its temperature for a long time. After you have heated the PETG to an appropriate temperature, you have plenty of time to get it situated in a mold to ensure that it is shaped perfectly (unlike glass, which drops out of the optimal temperature quickly).

Acrylic

Handling acrylic is similar to PETG, except that it is much more fragile.

Glass

Glass tubing, which I used for my loop, leverages borosilicate glass, which is the same glass used in laboratories for beakers. Compared with other glass, borosilicate is extremely durable and resistant to reacting to its environment. While it is still glass, it is much more durable than you might think; if you hit it with a hammer, it will not break. I have dropped glass tubes onto my hardwood floor without them breaking.

In terms of looks, glass is by far the winner. It is crystal clear and will not change over time. However, there are some definite downsides; for example, bending glass requires a blowtorch. It is also more of an art-form than a science and can be very difficult to get genuinely consistent angles, requiring a lot of practice to get consistently good results. While there are some videos online, I thought I would provide some notes on my experience.

Mention that you can get pre-bent glass.

Lampworking

First of all, you will need the following equipment:

•  Torch

You need a blow torch with a button to stay on even when you aren't holding it. I would suggest the Benzomatic TS8000, which lets you burn either Propane or MAP-PRO. I have seen others use their stove or a butane torch. I tried both of those options, but I couldn't get it hot enough to bend the glass. You can also try to set up a Bunsen burner (which generally uses methane), but I couldn't figure out how to do that easily at home. There are also torches made explicitly for glass blowing, but that was beyond what I wanted to spend.

•  Fuel

Choosing fuel is a confusing process. There is not a lot of easily-accessible information on which one is the best for this type of job. I made the decision based on what was available for my torch and the temperature rating. I started with MAP-PRO since it came with my torch, but it seemed to get too hot too quickly as it burns at 2,054°C. I did the rest of my glass blowing with Propane, which burns at 1,982°C.

If you use a different type of burner, you also have the option of butane, which burns at 1,970°C, and methane, which burns at 1,957°C. The actual temperature you will see is heavily influenced by the type of torch you use – since different torches let different amounts of oxygen into the burning process. It can be tricky (and expensive) to get fuel shipped to you – you are much better off buying it from your local hardware store.

•  Gloves

You will need gloves capable of withstanding the high temperatures you will be working with, look for welding or forge gloves.

•  Ceramic Surface

You will need a special surface to put your glass on to cool after bending it. I would suggest buying several ceramic tiles with a high enough temperature rating. Borosilicate starts to soften at around 820°C and melts at 1,648°C. While this seems like a big range, I have found that the time between when the glass starts to bend and when it is too hot comes pretty quickly once you get it up in that range.

While you could theoretically use many of the same mandrels and bending aids for glass as plastic, I found that the glass didn't stay hot enough for long enough to use them. Instead, it seems like you just need to bend glass by hand.d

One benefit of using borosilicate glass is that they are pretty inexpensive, as you can get your tubes anywhere from a borosilicate tube provider to laboratories. I got mine from Thomas Scientific, but other options include Mountain Glass or McMaster-Carr


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