Water Cooling for PC – The Basics

The wide wonders of the PC world offer a motley of add-ons to optimise both PC and personal performance. These advancements can stretch far into the future in a never-ending quest for the next best thing. For example, a mouse bungee will make your wired mouse feel wireless for the reasonable price of £26.77.  Water cooling, an efficient, quiet and visually-appealing method of cooling your PC, can cost anywhere from £70 to upwards of £300 for a custom job. It all depends on what you choose to invest in.

Traditional air-cooled CPU’s operate based on principles of thermodynamics; heat will disperse to different components to reach equilibrium. If something warm is next to something cool, the heat will transfer from the warm object to the cool object until both reach the same temperature. This is assuming that the cool object is able to absorb the heat and that there is an avenue over which heat can transfer.
Img source: intel.com

For air-cooled rigs, a heatsink with heat pipes is attached to the CPU’s heat spreader by a layer of thermally-conductive paste. This paste is the avenue, enabling heat transfer by filling in any gaps between the heatsink and CPU. Once the heat has reached equilibrium across the CPU and heatsink, the heat pipes are responsible for ridding the system of heat. Pipes are “filled with a fluid that vaporises as it heats up and rises to the end of the heat pipes, which are usually festooned with thin aluminium or copper heat fins.” The fins are then cooled by a fan, transferring the heat to the air and cooling the fins. This is a basic explanation for how air cooling works.

Opting for traditional air cooling won’t be doing your computer a disservice since the difference in CPU temperature is negligible regardless of the cooling method chosen. However, water cooling is the superior method, because it allows computer fans to run at a lower speed for less overall noise.
Img source: hardwarelogic.com
Water Cooling
Img source: pocketnow.com

For the truly dedicated, overclocking your CPU will increase the performance of your PC (a plus), but will draw more energy, generating excessive heat in the process (a negative). Water cooling is the recommended method for computer enthusiasts who pride themselves on high speeds and multiple cores/cards/etc. since it can prolong the life and function if done correctly. For most people, the computer alone costs enough without fancy add-ons, but water cooling does tend to keep CPUs colder. Since water absorbs more heat per second, less heat lingers in important components.  In fact, water moves more heat than air in the same amount of time. Unlike traditional air cooling, water cooling allows everything to be cooled on the same loop.

Parts and Process
Img source: thgtr.com

 Water cooling does use different parts than air cooling, but operates pretty similarly on principles of thermodynamics; it just has a more efficient avenue over which heat can transfer: liquid. Using water blocks, a pump, radiator, fan, reservoir, and, of course, hosing to facilitate movement, liquid cooling is a complex game designed for the rich man.

  • Heat energy is transferred from the component of your choice to liquid using a water block which, like a heat sink, benefits from a large surface area. Blocks measure up against one another based on surface area and capacity. These blocks can add unnecessarily to your investment, depending on how many components you want to cool (CPU, GPU, RAM, HDD). Each will require a designated block and potentially cost more depending on your pump/routing. 
  • The pump you choose will depend on how many blocks you’ve chosen and your configuration plans. Comparatively, pumps differ in a variety of ways, but we’ll focus on the important things: flow rate and head pressure. Flow rate tells you how much liquid can be pumped without restriction (0). Conversely, head pressure is how hard a pump can push liquid with full restriction (100). The tricky bit is figuring out which pump offers the best flow rate. Move too quickly and the water doesn’t have time to absorb heat, too slowly and heat can build up, all of which is affected by the complexity of the path liquid will travel on. 
  • The radiator or heat exchanger is next on the list, used to transfer heat from the water to the air. Having a quality radiator will increase the efficiency of your water cooling system since the quicker your water is cooled, the more heat it will dispel. The radiator you choose will need to correspond in size to a fan, if you choose to have one. The heated radiator will be cooled by it, heating the air in turn. 
  • Reservoirs, not included in every system, are where you’ll have a store of liquid connected to the pump. Weird, shouldn’t the amount of liquid stay consistent? Air bubbles are going to pop up, but with a reservoir fitted, these bubbles can be replaced as the water loops through the system. 
  • Tubing and fittings are best left to a leisurely Saturday morning of research, what with different materials, sizing, and accessories.

If that’s been explained poorly, just think of it like the liquid-cooling system used in your car. The parts are almost identical, save for the water blocks. Car engines can handle direct contact with liquid whereas electronic components cannot. That’s where the water blocks factor in.
System Types:
All-In-One Coolers
For simplicity, opt for all-in-one or self-contained coolers, a closed system meaning that the liquid is not changeable. In fact, many sealed liquid-cooling kits come pre-filled and require no additional steps from the purchaser outside of installation. The liquid used, propylene glycol, is a compound commonly found in edible goods and e-cigarette liquid as a type of preservation. Easy to install with almost no maintenance, this is the lower end of the water cooling spectrum, although prices do vary. These systems operate using a contained radiator, pump, water block, and reservoir to cool the CPU. If a bit more is invested in the system, you can find ones that will cool the CPU and GPU. 
Custom Coolers
For those who have hundreds of pounds (or dollars) burning a hole in their pocket, a custom cooling loop could be the way to go. Multiple components can be liquid-cooled by incorporating water blocks and connecting them to the cooling loop. There are two ways to go about this: invest hardcore in a full-on custom set up or opt for a partially-customised system. Going for a partial system will read the same as an all-in-one cooling loop, but with customisable aspects. For example, the Swiftech H220 is an innovative liquid cooling system that offers high-quality parts over other cooling kits. With this system, a person can pair this system with after-market parts to create a “custom” loop.
The tubing used in water cooled systems can be routed almost anywhere, saving valuable space that would otherwise have been occupied by fans and a heatsink. Plus, you just can’t argue with looks. Water cooling has endless possibilities from LED additions to crazy tubing.
Custom loops can be a great way to guarantee good performance and take your PC to the next level; however, unlike all-in-one systems, the liquid in these does need to be changed every couple years. Depending on the liquid used (water or coolant), this time can vary. 
Having a fully-customized water cooling loop is a big investment, one that most people won’t benefit from unless you’re regularly running editing programs and drawing applications. Computers with stock/low-end parts do fine with air cooling.  The most notable downside to this approach is that, if installed incorrectly, water cooling takes a toll on the system, shortening the component lifespan. 
Let’s say you do decide to take the plunge, be prepared to do tons of research. Not only will you have to find parts that fit your PC, you’ll have to find parts that match each other in sizing and plan out the parts needed to cool additional components.
It’s important to remember that, while water cooling is all flash, you get what you buy. So, while the cheaper options are more appealing, consider the longevity of products before committing. This article has been a very brief overview for those interested in water cooling their PC, but if you want a more in depth guide, check out Gmac’s Water Cooling 101. It’s a congregation of forum posts which go into the science of water cooling, explains each component and includes videos showing how water cooling systems work. 
Jacqui Litvan
Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor’s degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).