Liquid cooling is a more effective way to cool PC components. It is a superior alternative to air cooling systems which feature only heatsinks combined with fans. You might be totally fine using the stock heatsinks and fans that your system comes with but if you want optimal performance you will want to go with liquid cooling.
The basic idea is that a water block ( like a heat sink ) will be attached to the component. Coolant will pass through the water block and transfer heat into the liquid. It will then be pumped away through tubes to a large radiator which will have multiple fans blowing across it. This dissipates heat extremely effectively. The CPU and GPU are commonly cooled with these systems but you can also cool other components including RAM, hard drives, and even the system board.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Liquid Cooling
- Quieter than air cooling
- More effective for transferring heat
- Allows for overclocking with minimal risk
- Increases the lifespan of components
- Looks nice / keeps the inside of the PC neat
- Easier to clean
- More expensive
- More work to set up
- Potential leaks
There are advantages and disadvantages to liquid cooling. It is, of course, going to be quieter than air cooling. The fans on a powerful gaming system can be pretty noisy and switching to a silent, liquid cooled system can be a lifesaver. Ultimately, it is also much more effective at transferring heat which is probably the most important thing to consider. This leads to cooler components that perform better so you can play games on higher settings with more frames per second. This also opens up the possibility of overclocking with very little risk. Traditionally, overclocking was considered relatively risky and could lead to components being damaged. Now, with liquid cooling, it is much safer. Components that are liquid cooled will tend to last longer. This is always a big plus as you want to take care of your investment. The tubes generally tend to look nice and are a whole lot nicer than attaching large fans directly over your CPU and GPU. CPU fans always get dusty/dirty and are such a pain to clean. With a liquid cooling system, this becomes a non-issue.
Liquid cooling systems aren’t for everyone. They do have disadvantages. First of all, they will cost more, even for the cheaper pre-built systems. The custom loops will cost even more than that. The sky ‘s the limit. They also take a lot more work to set up. Exactly how much work does depend on what type of system you decide to build. Pre-built systems are actually relatively easy to set up but custom loops can be a big project. Also, don’t forget that there is a risk of having your system leak. If this happens the result could be a huge mess inside your case. If you overlook something, or if one of the fittings comes loose, you could be looking at a disaster.
Types of Liquid Cooling Systems
There are generally two types of liquid cooling systems. First you have the prebuilt, all-in-one systems. There is also the option of much more elaborate, custom built loops.
Pre-built - AIO (all-in-one) Solutions
- More compact, good if you don’t have much space
- Easy to setup and work with
- Less efficient
- Don’t tend to be as effective
- Much less expensive
- Not customizable
- Fewer options for GPUs and other components
Prebuilt, all-in-one systems basically consist pre-assembled system that just needs to be installed in your case. First and foremost, these are going to be a whole lot easier to install and setup. You won’t have to worry about measuring tubes and tightening fittings. They make the entire process really easy. These systems also tend to take up less space than custom loops. This may be important if you don’t have a huge amount of space in your case. They are also going to be much less expensive. If you are on a budget and want most of the benefits of liquid cooling, this might be the solution for you. It is a great alternative to a standard CPU fan. All that said, AIO systems are less efficient. If you want optimal cooling, this not really the way to go. AIO systems also tend not to be customizable. They are very common for CPUs and there are even some options for GPUs these days. If you want to liquid cool other components like your RAM, SSD, or motherboard, you are probably going to want a custom loop.
- More work, harder to setup
- More efficient and effective
- Will probably need more space
- Requires more planning
- More customizable
Custom loops are much more elaborate and take much more planning than the AIO systems. They will take more effort to set up. They generally require a fair amount of planning. Even with planning, you will probably want to opt for a larger case if possible. All that said, these systems are what you will want to go with if you really want the most effective cooling solution. Custom loops are, as the name would imply, more customizable. They can be built to fit your needs. If you want to cool other components, such as RAM or SSD, you can add these to your loop. You have the option to build your system any way you want. This opens up the possibility of larger radiators, better pumps, and even cosmetic improvements like colored fluids.
Custom Loop Parts
- Water Block - This is the piece of metal that connects directly to the component that is to be cooled. It includes a plate that directly touches the hot component and transfers the heat away to a heat spreader within the block. It can be connected to the CPU, GPU, RAM, and other components.
- Reservoir - Liquid is stored here and then fed into the pump. This is also where you would refill the system when the liquid is running low.
- Pump - This pulls the liquid from the reservoir and pushes it through the loop.
- Radiator - This is the component that actually cools the liquid down. It consists of narrow pipes with heat dissipating fins that allow the transfer of heat away from the loop as air is blown across them. Larger radiators will allow for more effective heat dissipation.
- Fans - Yes, the system does have fans but not directly connected to the components. They are connected to the radiator which is much more effective at transferring heat.
- Fittings - These are used to connect tubes to other components in the loop. They ensure that all connections are sealed.
- Tubing - This is what the liquid flows through. The tubes connect all of the other components in the loop. These may be either rigid or flexible.
- Coolant - This is the actual fluid that flows through the loop.
- Pump/Reservoir combos - These can be found combined as a single unit. This can simplify things.
- Drain Valve - This allows the fluid to be drained from the case without making a mess. It is probably a good idea to have one of these.
- Fill Port - This is less critical than the drain valve but still nice to have. It allows you to easily add fluid without having to use one of the spare reservoir ports.
- Pass-through Ports - These are connectors with threading on both sides. They are used when you need to route your tubes through an obstruction.
- Flow Indicator - This is used to show how fast the liquid is moving through the loop. It is basically a transparent compartment with a valve that rotates based on the flow of fluid. It will show you how fast the fluid is moving or if it has stopped.
- Pump Tops - Third party, aftermarket pump tops can be purchased instead of using the top that comes with the pump. Pumps can also be acquired with different third party pump tops.
- Never run your pump dry. This has the potential to kill the pump. They generally need the liquid to keep cool themselves and for lubrication.
- Be careful, always check for leaks and make sure everything is tight .
This is probably the easiest component to setup a liquid cooling system for. It is easy to find prebuilt cooling loops that are ready to install. This is one of the first components that people think of cooling even though the GPU should really be a higher priority.
GPUs tend to reach higher temperatures than CPUs. They also tend to have more of an impact on your PCs performance when running games. For this reason, it makes even more sense to use liquid cooling for a GPU than a CPU. If you want to learn more about GPU liquid cooling systems, look here:
Other Components ( RAM/SSD/MOBO)
While the GPU and CPU will probably be your first targets when setting up a liquid cooling system, it doesn’t hurt to consider other components as well. If you are looking for a pre-built cooling system and want to cool your RAM or SSD, you will probably be out of luck. If you are looking to build a custom loop, this will be a whole lot more feasible. If you are building a custom loop anyway, you are already halfway there. Going beyond the CPU and GPU to cool additional components will increase your budget. It will also make your setup a bit more complex.