What Is Computer Water Cooling?

Water cooling inside of PCs and other types of computers is definitely not new. It’s been around for decades. Much older room sized computers sometimes used water cooling. However, having room sized plumbing for those massive machines was understandably a huge pain to deal with. Once processing chips began to shrink, fan cooling became a much more convenient option as the size of the computers themselves were more manageable. Only more recently has water cooling resurfaced as a system enthusiast option for cooling their rigs.

So what is computer water cooling? Water cooling is a method of cooling your components using water that is pumped through a loop of tubes between a radiator and heat sources. These high heat sources are the CPU and graphics card. Typically, this circulation of water is achieved through a pump and reservoir that ensure the water flows constantly and always transferring heat away from your system.


A Closer Look at Water Cooling

Water cooling over the last decade or so has become a sign of extreme computer building enthusiasm. Regardless of the benefits or hazards of water cooling, there’s absolutely no denying that it makes a system look cleaner and more aesthetically appealing. It allows for the builder of the rig to flex their creativity and show off their technical know how by building a computer with a method of cooling that is arguably more effective and efficient.

So how exactly does water cooling work inside of a PC? The concept of it is actually simple and is applied to cooling many machines other than just computers themselves. There are five fundamental pieces that make up a water cooling system.

  • Water block – The component that is attached to the CPU, graphics card, or both. It allows for water to transfer heat away from the system
  • Pump – The component that pushes water through the water cooling loop. Without it, there’s no circulation
  • Resevoire – A tank that holds most of the water in reserve as the circulation happens. The reservoir holds extra water to ensure the loop never goes dry
  • Radiator – Once the water is pushed through a water block, it will end up in the radiator. This is where water is pushed through internal fins that absorb the heat from the liquid that will be expelled away from the system
  • Tubes – The simplest and most crucial part of the cooling system. Without the tubes, the water would splash all over the computer

It’s important to note that one water cooling system is not always going to be adequate enough to cool both your CPU and GPU (graphics card). Higher end processors and cards, especially if overclocked, are each going to require their own closed loop. This means two entirely separate water cooling systems!

A complete system can use several different types of liquid. Distilled water, boutique fluid, or premixed water. All of these are mostly personal preference, however there are some things to keep in mind when making your selection.

  • Distilled water works perfectly fine and is cheap but requires some sort of anti-corrosive additive or natural kill coil (like silver) to prevent gunk and algae to build up in your system
  • Boutique fluid is the most aesthetically pleasing option and is purchased from a liquid cooling company. There are risks of residual build up with these fluids, so always use at your own risk
  • Premixed water or concentrated water is a great option if you’re looking to buy liquid with the necessary additives already included, just be sure to check the label to ensure it has the right ones you’re looking for

Regular distilled water and premixed water will almost always come clear, but if you’d like, you can always add dye to color it however you’d like. Just understand that anything you add to the water is adding risk. With careful planning and building, that risk can be minimized, so it mostly comes down to whether you think it’s worth it.

Is Water Cooling Better Than Air Cooling?

This is a debate that rages constantly between system building enthusiasts, but likely not for the reason you may think. There is a definitive answer about whether water cooling or air cooling is better. Scientifically, water cooling is straight up better. Why is that? Let me give you a quick science lesson!

When we’re speaking about heating and cooling, we’re talking about the law of conservation of energy. This law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed but that can only converted from one form into another. One form of this is called the transfer of heat. Heat will normally transfer from a high temperature source to low temperature source and continue to do this until both objects have equalized in temperature.

This is usually referred to as thermal transfer and both water and air will attempt to carry out this simple law of conservation. How we measure their efficiency in this process is called thermal conductivity, which is a measure of watts per minute per Kelvin (W/m K). A small graph below will show the comparison between water and air in terms of their thermal conductivity.

Thermal Conductivity (W/m K)
Water 0.600
Air 0.024

As you can see, water is vastly more thermally conductive than air. In short, this means that water scientifically transfers more heat at a faster rate than air.

So why the debate? Well, despite the fact that water is irrefutably the better heat dissipation technique for cooling a computer system, it’s also comes with a lot of caveats of upkeep, maintenance, and electrical hazards. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, and you’d rather stick with air cooling, I have an article explaining more about case fans here.


The Main Concerns of Water Cooling

Now that we’ve established what water cooling is and why it’s technically the more effective cooling system for your PC, what are the drawbacks. Liquid cooling isn’t perfect and has some major concerns associated with it that absolutely need to be taken into account when you plan to build your own system.

The biggest concern is the construction of the cooling system itself. You’re dealing with water here and water doesn’t always like to play nice. It will flow through the path of the least resistance and when you’re connecting the tubes between each of your components there’s always a risk of not making the seal water tight. Always test your cooling system before powering your computer itself. You can do this by disconnecting the motherboard from the 24 pin connector on your PSU and using a jump pin (most high end cooling kits will supply this) on the 24 pin connector to power on the cooling system while leaving your main system unpowered. This will allow you to test for leaks in the safest environment possible.

Another concern is the maintenance or upkeep of a liquid based cooling system. Once you’re finished assembling it and everything works perfectly, that doesn’t mean you’re set. Every 5-7 months you’re going to need to clean out the entire system and put in fresh water. This ensures the maximum longevity of the cooling system itself by avoiding any possible gunk or residue build up.

Lastly, there is the unfortunate fact that nothing lasts forever. Eventually, your liquid cooling system will have a failure in one of the components. Once that happens, you have to take the system apart, replace any broken components, and then reassemble the entire thing again. Essentially you’ll be building the loop as if it was from scratch.

Do it Yourself or Buy a Premade Kit?

If you’re wanting to go with a water cooling system for your personal computer, you might be wondering if you want to assemble everything yourself, or buy a premade system that you simply have to install in your rig. It’s a valid question, and it will ultimately come down to personal choice. However, my personal opinion is to build it yourself.

If you intend to make the leap into water cooling, you’re already aware of the risks involved and I feel it’s worth the effort to go ahead with building it yourself. This way you’ll be more familiar with how the system works and if anything goes wrong you can identify the issue much quicker. Besides, when one of the components fail, and they will eventually fail, you’ll have to replace it yourself anyway. You might as well put in the time to learn how to do it the first time so replacing it is a much less aggravating experience!


Springing a Leak! (Conclusion)

So now you’ve learned a bit more about what water cooling actually is. You’ve read about the risks and benefits and can make a much more informed decision on whether you think liquid cooling is an option you’d go with on your personal rig. Putting one together can be a time-consuming process and offer new challenges for you, but if you’re a system enthusiast who absolutely loves customizing your computer to the fullest extent, I think you’ll find water cooling is a great choice!

If you have any questions or comments about water cooling, feel free to leave them below and I will do my best to respond to you directly!

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