What Water Cooling Is & Should You Use It? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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water cooling pcWater is a great coolant. It’s plentiful, cheap and can be easily moved via pumps. The need for specialized hardware has often made this solution too expensive and too complex for mainstream users, however.

That has finally changed. Several companies now offer retail water cooling options that are no more difficult to install than any PC air cooler. These products can be bought online and are even sold at many brick-and-mortar retailers. Let’s see if these new mainstream water coolers are better than air cooling and custom water cooling choices previously available.

The Nuts & Bolts Of Water Cooling

water cooling pc

Using water to cool something hot isn’t restricted to computers. The same idea is used in everything from combustion engines to power plants. Cool water is excellent for absorbing heat and is also easy to move, making it possible to cycle hot water out of the system and cool water back in.

Most PC water coolers use a simple loop. Cool water is pumped in via tube and flows over the water block, a chunk of sold metal that transfers heat from the processor. That water, now hot, is extracted from the block via a second tube and pumped to the radiator, which gets rid of excess heat. The now cool water then heads back towards processor, completing the loop.

Water cooling is often thought of as fanless. That’s often not the case. Most commercial water cooling kits use an active radiator cooled by at least one fan. Passive radiators exist, but they’re huge and often expensive. Only the most hardcore enthusiasts are likely to use them.

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Water Cooling Sells Out

water cooling system

The use of water cooling has traditionally been the domain of hardcore computer hardware enthusiasts. It was difficult to use because a number of different components were required and users usually had to find out for themselves how they fit together. The price of water cooling was high, as well. A radiator could cost over $100 by itself and a full system could run as high as $200 or $300.

Corsair was the first company to realize that a lot of money could be made if water cooling could be simplified and distributed to the masses at an affordable price. Since then several other companies have followed suite including Antec, Thermaltake and Zalman. It’s now possible to purchase a CPU water cooler for as little as $50.

Better Than Air?

water cooling system

Almost every person who decides to turn to water cooling for their computer does so with the desire of achieving lower temperatures, reducing noise or both. Does water cooling really accomplish these goals?

Yes – if you’re willing to pay enough. The commercial kits made available by manufacturers have proven quieter than air coolers but they don’t stomp the cooling performance of air coolers with similar prices.

The performance ceiling is higher for water coolers, however. No air cooler can match water cooling capability of retail kits with large radiators like the Corsair H100 and Antec Kuhler H20 920. Customized solutions can offer even better performance.

Another advantage of water cooling is space. The best air coolers tower over the motherboard they’re mounted to, making the installation of other components more difficult. Some won’t even fit in a typical mid-tower ATX case because they’re so large. The water block – the part attached to the processor – is much smaller. Radiators are large but can usually be mounted away from other components.

Is Water Cooling Risky?

Some users will no doubt feel a bit skeptical about putting water near their computer components. Water is a great way to short out electronics. What happens if the cooler leaks?

It would indeed be bad if the cooler leaked, but that is not likely with a retail kit. Everything comes pre-sealed and the hardware used is insulated to make sure that there’s no chance of condensation being an issue. It is possible a cooler could leak, but I’ve never heard of it happening.

Custom cooling is a different story because the user has to pump coolant into the system’s tubes and personally attach all the hardware. A mistake could indeed result in a leak. This is why guides to water cooling usually recommend testing the system away from your computer and checking for leaks before installing it.

Retail vs. Custom

water cooling pc

The water cooling kits you can now buy off store shelves work by attaching the radiator to a computer enclosure’s existing 120mm fan mount or mounts. Modifications are kept to a minimum, but the size of the radiator is also restricted. Retail kits also use small pumps to keep costs and power draw down.

Custom solutions don’t have these restrictions. Radiators can be as large as the case requires or can be mounted outside the enclosure, eliminating concerns about size. Some radiators are nearly 20 inches long and several inches thick.

Pumps don’t have to as small, either. Instead of hooking up to a motherboard’s fan power a pump can connect directly to the power supply via a molex connector. This makes it possible to install a pump that draws a lot of juice.

Custom solutions are also more flexible. Most retail water coolers only cool the processor. Custom solutions can be built to also cool the video card and other components.

Should You Buy A Water Cooler?

An inexpensive retail kit is the best option for most users. These products don’t always beat the best air coolers when judged by value, but they do provide similar cooling performance with less noise. I now run a Corsair H50 in my gaming computer and I highly recommend it to others. Going with water has noticeably reduced my rig’s noise levels without raising temperatures.

Users who want to overclock should definitely consider a beefier retail kit with a large radiator like the Corsair H100 or Antec Kuhler H20 920. These will beat the performance of any air cooler on the market. They can handle serious overclocking.

Custom solutions are only needed for computers that are being overclocked to the extreme. I’m not talking about just bumping up the clock speed. I’m talking about raising voltages well beyond their recommended limits in an attempt to extract ever last megahertz.  They are also the only choice for people who want silent performance. The radiators in retail kits are always paired with fans.

What do you think of water cooling? Do you think you’d ever abandon air and go water, or are you content with an inexpensive air cooler? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credits: Peritech, Bryan Farrell

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