I've always wanted to move to water cooling in my main rig as long as I've had a computer. And with the nagging engineer in the back of my head telling me never to mix water and electronics, I took the plunge anyway.
In this article I will cover an easy way of essentially "buying" your way into water cooling without the worry of matching up hose diameters and connectors etc.
The first thing to do is to get a suitable motherboard and there are a lot out there. But if you are going to water cool then you will want an enthusiast / high-end board that can support some decent overclocks while running your water cooling setup.
I have chosen GIGABYTE's EP45-EXTREME motherboard; this because I have RAM that can be seriously overclocked as well as a new 45nm Wolfdale CPU. But the main attraction of this board is the pre-built water block for the Northbridge.
The Northbridge is an essential item to cool and is just as important as the CPU and GPU if you plan to overclock. You don't have to buy one with a pre-fitted Northbridge block; you can buy a block separate and fit it yourself.
However, if you don't want to overclock and are merely going for a silent system, then look at a motherboard where you can fit a silent fan to blow some air over the heatsink of the Northbridge. This is essential as normally your CPU fan would provide airflow across the Northbridge.
The EP45-EXTREME features all the latest technologies from GIGABYTE which includes the Ultra Durable 2 series of components on board, Dolby Home Theatre chipset, DDR2 speeds up to 1200 MHz and an FSB of up to 1600 MHz.
The Baby Maker
Opening up the package, we find a huge amount of copper heat dissipation on the board showing that GIGABYTE is serious about this being their top of the line overclocking board.
Alongside the Northbridge waterblock is a section allowing you to screw down a heat-pipe add-on that sits in the first PCI bracket. This gives you the heat dissipation support if you are not using water-cooling, or if you want some extra heat dissipation to help your water-cooling setup.
There are some conveniently labelled headers and buttons on board to power up and reset if you are running it on a test bench. Also, there is a diagnostics display so you can find out why your system won't boot if there is a problem.
The best part about this board, however, is the Dual BIOS setup, which will fix any corruptions in the main BIOS or help rollback to the original settings, should you accidentally go too far and can't get back into the BIOS to fix it.
Looking at the backplane, we can see this board has a nice set of ports whilst still clinging to the PS/2 mouse and keyboard for the diehard legacy people. There is a full complement of USB 2.0 and Gigabit Ethernet ports.
There's analogue and digital sound outputs for full surround sound as well as a nifty clear-CMOS button to save you opening the case to do a BIOS reset. It looks like they really have thought of everything here.
Flipping the board over, we can see that all this copper is securely bolted to the board itself, so there's no chance it will fall off.
NOT Mountain Dew
Moving on to the water cooling rig now; Thermaltake has kindly supplied us with their massive new up and coming Bigwater 780 which is a pre-built setup that will cool some of the most heat crazy rigs.
In the box we find that we get a 3x5.12" bay reservoir/pump/radiator arrangement which forms the first half of the system.
Alongside that is a separate 120mm radiator and fan assembly that can be mounted pretty much anywhere in your case where there are screw holes.
Also included is neon green tubing and UV reactive fluorescent dyed water with special additives to help heat transfer and prevent corrosion of the copper.
Thermaltake were also kind enough to supply a VGA water-block for the review so that all aspects of the system could be cooled.
The 3-bay water-cooling assembly has quick connect style adapters on it so that the unit can easily be migrated to and from different cases/systems.
The CPU water block provided is an all-copper affair with a polished copper bottom. The fittings for the pipe are brazed into the head of the block, so if you want to switch the diameter of tubing you will need to buy a new block. But to be honest, you won't ever need to do that.
There are mounting abilities for every type of socket on the market at the moment. So there is no worry about compatibility.
Likewise with the VGA block, it's an all-copper brazed fittings affair, universally mountable to fit almost every NVIDIA and ATI card out there. It comes with two types of hose adapter fittings so it supports the tubing supplied with the Bigwater 780 and smaller diameter tubes.
Now, the crux of a good water-cooling setup is having a case to put it in. I have my trusty GIGABYTE Aurora case which has plenty of bays as well as mounts on the rear for 2x120mm fans. But most importantly, it has a side window so I can show off the water-cooled beauty when it's complete.
Now it's time to start connecting it all up.
Mount the CPU in the motherboard and apply thermal gunk. I recommend a decent silver based compound as opposed to ceramic white gunk for better performance.
Then assemble the rear bracket according to instructions. Make sure you have the foam sandwich in between the metal bracket and the isolation layer; we wouldn't want any nasty shorts on the board!
Mount through the motherboard holes and seat your CPU water block on top. If you have the luxury of orientation that socket 775 allows for, then try to ensure that the block doesn't interfere with any surrounding components.
Slip on the plastic rings and then tighten each side down with equal force so that the CPU block is seated firmly, but not over tightened. Each screw should protrude the same amount from the top of each nut.
Fit, damn you! FIT!
The graphics card block is a little trickier to fit, so I recommend a thorough read of the instructions before doing anything.
Unscrew any bolts holding on your current GPU cooling block and put them away in a plastic bag so you don't lose them. Once all screws, bolts and retaining mechanisms are off, you can gently try pulling the block off the card.
If it doesn't come off easily, then you are unlucky like me and the thermal gunk applied by the manufacturer is either an epoxy or has just set rock hard so that your block is stuck down.
If this is the case, do some looking online and find an article on removing GPU blocks, they usually involve freezing or heating the block to make the gunk more brittle or pliable respectively.
With the block off, gently scrape the remaining gunk off the core with your thumbnail or a soft plastic edge. And for the love of god, don't use anything too sharp or too hard! You will damage your GPU block.
With the gunk adequately cleaned off, you can apply new gunk to the core. A nice even coating should do the trick.
Following the instructions, placing the retaining bracket on the back and fitting the screws through the holes, flip it over and place the new GPU block on top of the core. I recommend letting it face towards the top edge of the card so that fitting the water cooling tubes is easier.
Loosen the collars off and position them over the screws coming through from the back side. Then tighten up all the screws with equal tightness; the block does not need to be super tight on the card, as the retaining bracket behind is only aluminium and will bend.
At this point it is worth mentioning that if your original cooler block cooled the RAM blocks, then you will want to buy some cheap copper or aluminium RAMsinks to stick on them as a replacement.
Also a slight concern on my 9600GT card is that there are some surface mounted components right behind the core and when the retaining bracket is fitted, the rubber rests on top of these components. For this reason, it's critical you do not over tighten the bracket or you risk damaging the card.
When you have successfully mounted the block, you can pick the correct size hose adapters and fit them to the ends of the GPU block hoses. Make sure you tighten then down real good so that the o-rings sit beneath the thread.
A series of tubes... literally
With the graphics card done, it's time to slice up the tubing supplied. The best thing to cut tubing with is a big razor sharp knife; a freshly sharpened Leatherman is perfect. Or alternatively, a freshly sharpened kitchen knife.
The reason you want the knife so sharp is because you want to be able to slice the tubing and leave a fairly clean cut. Raggedy cuts can often lead to leaks and they just look so horrible as well.
First thing is first, mount the motherboard in the case. That way, you know where everything is going to be in relation to the fittings on the board.
Mount your secondary radiator/fan assembly as well. Don't be limited to having it near the CPU either; there is enough tubing to put it anywhere in the case that works best.
The fan can be taken off and refitted in a different orientation, so if you wanted to have the radiator outside the case, that is possible as well
Next, slot your drive bay assembly into the bays you want. Remember that you have to get at the screw cap on top of the unit to fill it up, so leave some room up top unless you have very small hands!
When you look inside the case you should now be thinking of the flow direction; which block leads to which unit.
Bring it all together now
Slam your graphics card in place and start measuring out tubing to go from block to block. It is crucial that you do not let the hose kink at any point, so be generous with the length!
Cut off allowing more than you intend to use with every section, because you can always trim it down again.
When attaching the tubes to the graphics block, slip the collars onto the tubes then push the tubes onto the clips and firmly screw the locking collars onto it firmly.
When routing the tubing from the initial radiator around your system, be sure to include the secondary radiator in the loop to break up the flow between the two greatest heat generators; the CPU and the GPU.
Now go and get yourself a power supply tester; this little device will allow you to switch your PSU on without having to wire up your motherboard and will save your ass in the long run, should the system leak and get onto your components. So long as no power is flowing through the motherboard or any other components, if they get wet then you should be able to dry them off thoroughly and all will be fine.
Fill up your little fill bottle so you can get the nozzle into the fill port and start filling up the reservoir to the max line. Then turn on the power supply tester to turn on the water-cooling system and watch all the green liquid drain away into the pipes.
Once your reservoir is empty, turn the power supply tester off and fill up the reservoir again to the max point. Repeat the process until the reservoir never completely drains and then at this point, top up to the max fill line.
As you can see in the pictures, I have wrapped tissues around each join of the tubes to ensure there is no leaking; it's a sensible move to do this and run your system for 10 mins to test and make sure that the tubes are properly connected.
If you have a flow meter on the system, like the one mounted in the front of the 3-bay system here, you can sit and watch its hypnotic swirling.
After the testing period, you can remove and inspect all the tissues for leakage. If all is good then you can install all the other components and hook up the system.
Congratulations, you have a fully water-cooled system!
Monitoring and Final Words
If you want to see a difference in your setups cooling abilities, then you will want to have three programs. These include the following :-
CPUID - http://www.cpuid.com/cpuz.php
HWMonitor - http://www.cpuid.com/hwmonitor.php
Prime95 - http://www.mersenne.org/freesoft.htm
When you get into Windows and download the programs, you can run CPUID and HWMonitor to see your system performance in real-time.
Now, if you have a new Intel or AMD chipset on a relatively new motherboard, there will be speed stepping in place which will help your CPU to run really nice and cool.
Run Prime95 and perform some stress testing for a while and watch your processor heat start to ramp up.
With my water-cooling setup detailed in this article, I had a drop of almost 10 degrees Celsius which shows how much better the thermal capacity of the system is over standard copper and aluminium air cooled solutions.
Where to go from here is up to you. With lots of online enthusiast stores stocking components from major water-cooling equipment manufacturers, you can upgrade your blocks on the CPU and GPU as well as buy new tubing, new cooling fluid, reservoirs, radiators and just about every aspect of accessorising you could wish for.
I hope this persuades more people to go the water-cooling route with their rigs at home as the benefits really are tangible in terms of temperature drops and noise reduction.
Not only that, it looks pretty damn sweet, too!
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