Let’s Talk: Closed-Loop Liquid Cooling

Cool looking, but worth the effort?

Cool looking, but worth the effort?

 

As PC gamers, I’m betting most of us have ran into an overheating issue, at least once. I’m also pretty sure a lot of us have seen pictures of some pretty impressive looking liquid cooling setups and thought: “I need that…” Liquid Cooling can work wonders for your PC’s temperature, the problem is, they can be relatively difficult to set up correctly, and if you screw something up in the process, you could possibly fry your computer. I say “possibly” because there are non-conductive cooling fluids out there, and you should be using them in a Liquid Cooling set up. I have a few acquaintances who have, like me, been building gaming PC’s for years, but despite their experience, they won’t venture into the Liquid Cooling arena. I can’t really blame them. In a few years, it will have been 20 years ago that I built my first PC, and it wasn’t until about 6 years ago that I first dabbled with Liquid Cooling.

Thermal Radiation and You

Thermal Radiation (aka heat) is literally created by simply turning on and running your computer. A computer that runs too hot will, over time, degrade and, possibly, start developing problems. If you’ve ever been using your PC and it inexplicitly shut down with no warning, there’s a good chance it overheated and turned off to keep from frying something. Don’t worry too much if this has happened, it could have just as easily been one of countless other issues, but random shutdowns with no explanation are definitely an overheating symptom.

“So,” you might be asking, “how hot is too hot?” That’s one of those questions which is often answered differently, depending on the person asked. However, it’s pretty commonly accepted that your CPU shouldn’t get over 70c and your GPU shouldn’t get over 90c. Now, if your CPU is running at 69c, I’d say that’s cause for concern, and I’d recommend investigating the issue. Likewise, for your GPU, just because I say 90c that doesn’t mean you actually want to be running at 90c – that’s pretty hot (194f). If you’d like a real-world comparison, my i7 CPU (overclocked to 4.1ghz) runs around 47c while gaming (it’s closed-loop liquid cooled), and my GPU runs at about 78-79c under a full load using only the stock fan.

For simplicity sake, there are two types of heat you have to worry about in your PC: component heat and ambient heat. Component heat is straight forward – if something stays too hot for too long, that’s bad. However, ambient heat is a more devilish problem, and one that I’ve found a lot of PC gamers don’t think about or don’t quite grasp.

Quick story about ambient heat:

Death of a CPU

Death of a CPU

I had a friend whose CPU always ran hot, and he routinely would ask me to take a look at his computer to see if I could “fix it.” Naturally, once I discovered that his CPU was overheating, I told him he’d need to invest in a better heatsink. I even offered to come back and put it on for him after explaining thermal paste. He ignored my advice. A few months later, his graphics card died and he accused me of not “fixing” the problem (this fella was computer illiterate). I re-explained ambient heat to him, focusing on the fact that some components can handle the heat better than others, depending on build quality. He was mad and said, in an accusatory tone, “I’ll just take it to the shop,” clearly hinting that he didn’t trust my knowledge. Guess what the “shop guy” told him? “Your PC is running way too hot and the heat eventually became too much for your [crappy] GPU (“crappy” is my addition to the exchange, of course).

Component overheating is bad, in and of itself, but it leads to an excess of ambient heat which puts stress on other components which will cause them to run hotter, which further increases the ambient heat of your machine. Basically: overheating is always bad.

The two hottest components in your rig are, probably, always going to be your CPU (processor) and GPU (Graphics Card). These two pieces of hardware do a lot of heavy lifting and are usually the focus of liquid cooled systems. Hard Drives can also get quite hot during some actions, and yes, traditional set ups do allow for HDD cooling (as well as RAM and Motherboard options).

In traditional liquid cooled systems, the builder strives to create an efficient loop which will cool each connected component. In a nutshell, traditional liquid cooling involves:

  • Choosing a proper Radiator and Fans
  • Finding all the right Water Blocks you need
  • Getting the right pump
  • Buying a reservoir (understanding air bleed / liquid storage)
  • Making sure you have the proper sized hoses, and if necessary, learning how to alter them
  • Picking out the right Fittings for the hoses (barb / compression fittings)

The steps above are just the basics for what you’ll need to buy and what you’ll need to learn to properly utilize the components. If you’re unfamiliar with the process of building a computer, I’m sure you mentally gulped and decided liquid cooling is not something you’re ready for. Don’t worry, like I said, even people who know a thing or two about PC’s find the prospect of building liquid loops intimidating.

However, there is good news for everyone wanting to use liquid cooling, but too afraid to take the plunge. In recent years, closed-loop liquid cooling has been gaining in popularity, and naturally, new closed-loop products keep springing up for consumers to grab.

Corsair H105 Extreme

Corsair H105 Extreme

Closed-Loop Cooling

As the name sounds, Closed-Loop coolers are built to maintain a single loop and cool a single piece of hardware. Better yet, the coolers require you to put together almost nothing. You don’t need to worry about -any- of the traditional know-how in the above bullets. Closed-Loop coolers are pre-built and most come with a radiator, fans, block, fittings, and hoses pre-assembled. If you’ve ever opened up a computer case, depending on the computer in question, you may have noticed one or two fans at the top of the case pointing down? Well, all you do, for most Closed-Loop CPU coolers, is unscrew those fans, pop the radiator/fans up there, then snap the CPU block onto your CPU. Presto – you now have a liquid cooled CPU. Oh, and also, these kinds of Closed-Loop systems require no maintenance. No fuss.

The down side? As you’d expect, Closed-Loops are less powerful, and, for the most part, only cool one component. Now, for the average PC gamer, or even the enthusiasts who doesn’t necessarily like to get bogged down in hardware concerns, Closed-Loops work just fine.

If the idea of building your own traditional loop interests you, I highly recommend you learn how to do it and go for it one day. It’s one of those experiences, kind of like driving, that can be fun for the first little while, but eventually, the boredom and upkeep becomes an annoyance. My computer is my work and my play, and in some cases, even some of my social interaction (Skyping family back home, etc). So, naturally, I put a lot of love and care into my machines. That said, I haven’t bothered with a full on liquid cooling system in a few years. For me, it’s just not worth the effort. In fact, my current machine is only using a CPU liquid cooler – my GPU is still using its stock fan.

Kraken x61

Kraken x61

Now, remember my story about ambient heat earlier? By having one of the two hottest components in my PC liquid cooled (CPU), it keeps my ambient temperatures down which puts less stress on my GPU (and other components). Using a standard heatsink on my CPU increases my CPU’s temperature by 10 to 20 degrees depending on the temperature of my room and actions taking place on my PC. That increase in temperature makes my GPU run 10-20 degrees hotter, again, depending on what I’m doing. By utilizing a closed-loop CPU cooler, I’m not only preserving my CPU’s lifespan, but the reduction in ambient heat helps every other component perform better and last longer.

Finally, here are some of my recommended Closed-Loop coolers, if you’re interested in picking one up. However, you will need to know what socket type your CPU uses and what kind of GPU you have to figure out which of these to buy. You’ll also want to look at the size of these and make sure they fit into your current case – mid tower owners beware. If you’re running older hardware, there’s a good chance you won’t find a Closed-Loop solution out there. Time to upgrade!

CPU

My current CPU cooler: Corsair H105 Extreme Performance 240mm Liquid Cooler.

Corsair has another good cooler, the H100i which is a bit older but still a really good option.

A nice CPU cooler from Lepa that isn’t too pricey.

The Kraken x61 is a pretty popular cooler that uses two 140x25mm fans.

The Zalman LQ320 is another older cooler that is still widely used today.

EVGA GTX 980ti Hybrid Card

EVGA GTX 980ti Hybrid Card

GPU (less widely available)

The Kraken G10

The Arctic Hybrid II-120 utilizes both liquid and fan solutions, but the fans might not be of the best quality. I’d suggest buying a custom fan if you find it lacking.

You could also buy a new card, such as the EVGA GTX 980ti Hybrid which comes with a cooler. I believe this particular card actually utilizes a cooler based on the Arctic Hybrid II-120.

The EK XCL Predator 360 Cooler is a bit different from the other coolers above, as it actually has the option to include additional blocks without having to drain the unit. So, if you’re looking for a Closed-Loop solution that will cool both your CPU and GPU, I’d highly suggest you check it out.

My last bit of advice: Read the manual. Follow the instructions. Don’t argue. Just do it.

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