Technology Explained

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

Matt Smith 09-10-2012

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.


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 How To Keep Your Computer Quiet On The Cheap I doubt that anyone has ever listened to computer fan noise and thought "wow, that’s awesome. Let’s have some more of that!" At best, fan noise is simply there, an ambient whirr that be mostly... Read More 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 Power Supplies Explained: How To Pick The Perfect PSU For Your Computer Most geeks interested in buying new hardware or building a new system think first of the processor, graphics card and perhaps the hard drive. These components have the most impact on performance, so they are... Read More 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 What Is Overclocking, And How It Can Help Your PC, Tablet, & Phone [MakeUseOf Explains] Provided that you have hardware from a manufacturer who understands those principles, you can do plenty to juice up your system, whether it be a computer, tablet, or smartphone. One of the best things you... Read More .

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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  1. Anonymous
    March 1, 2016 at 12:00 am

    Personally, I don't feel the need for water cooling. My desktop uses an old Athlon 64 X2 3800+ dual-core. With the stock K8 cooler, which is a massive hunk of ally, and running Puppy Linux as I do, the highest temps I ever see are around the 45-48c mark.....and that's when she's video encoding. At tickover, the lowest it runs at is around 16C; that's right, 16 centigrade..!

    No point in water cooling here.....

  2. Yashodhan Bhatt
    January 24, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    In my opinion an air cooler is (and should be) a feasible option for most of us.

    October 26, 2012 at 10:16 am

    water cooling is ok , but if the water is leaking , there comes the problem . ENTIRE PCB OR ELECTRONIC COMPONENTS GETS DESTROYED . i prefer air to water especially for Electronics products.

  4. druv vb
    October 12, 2012 at 11:04 am

    I will stick with air cooling. Not because of its complexity or efficiency, but the price of it here is out of reach. 3 times the price of a premium grade air cooler. And the quality we get here is usually defective or short lasting products...
    Maybe one day I will go completely on heatsinks only!

  5. Mihovil Pletikos
    October 10, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    i just wait for closed system for graphic cards and make computer fan-less :) i don't want clunky big systems....

  6. Kulwinder Rouri
    October 10, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    I have heard a lot about this, but now i understand it and i think i have to use this on my next PC.

  7. Igor Rizvi?
    October 10, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Few years ago i was imaging this system of water cooling,and now its a "chosable standard" for the pc sytem....ill buy one and try out on my old motherboard 775

  8. Patrick Saunders
    October 10, 2012 at 6:33 am

    Call me a luddite but 1. Overclocking is not the ideal way to treat a processor and 2. Water and electricity don't mix well. The biggest problem with watercooling is that the manufacturer has little control over installation. Sure, the enthusiasts are capable of whipping a complex cooler into their systems but for those who have no idea what they are doing (and they are, by far, the majority) there is simply to great a scope for failure to make it worthwhile. Not to mention that your PC maker's warranty probably doesn't cover things like flooding.

  9. gpvprasad
    October 10, 2012 at 3:18 am

    I think this is not available frequently.

  10. Mark Silos
    October 9, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    I still worry for the spills....

  11. Edwin Williams
    October 9, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    I always wanted to try watercooling with my pc :o

  12. Vinh
    October 9, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Closed-loop liquid coolers have come a long way in the last few years and have become a true contender against high-end air coolers in terms of performance and noise.

    Unfortunately, I have yet to pick a closed-loop liquid cooler over an air cooler for three major reasons. Firstly, the pump of a liquid cooler is susceptible to failure. You don't need to worry about that with an air cooler. Secondly, air coolers work better with low spinning fans, especially fanless configuration, and this all leads to a quieter PC experience (see Thirdly, air coolers are much cheaper and offer respectable performance.

    For anyone that isn't planning on overclocking intensely, air coolers are good enough. If you're planning on overclocking quite a bit and are serious about it, get a custom water cooling kit.

  13. Scott Reyes
    October 9, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    This is nearly impossible to do on an imac because of its case ... why ... oh why

  14. Scutterman
    October 9, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    My next upgrade is a video card, but after that I may look into water cooling.

  15. Imesh Chandrasiri
    October 9, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    nice article... it would be awesome if you can do a review for few water cooling products!

  16. Ales Mole
    October 9, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    I use the exact watercooling as above - Corsair, and it's amazing. Totally silent. Temperature is very decent with overclocked system - Intel i5 - overclocked to 4,2 Ghz. Works like a charm. With corsair retail watercooling you can easily upgrade your system for a reasonable price. I totally recommend retail watercooling.

  17. Al Franko
    October 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Liquid cooling is far more efficient and it is much quieter then air cooling. Liquid all the way.

  18. Joel Lee
    October 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    My hesitation with water cooling is in the setup. How much more difficult is it to install compared to simple air fans? Because I'm more of a build-my-PC kinda guy, and screwing fans into the case is very easy. If water cooling requires anything more than that, I may be wary.

    • Matt Smith
      October 9, 2012 at 10:49 pm

      A factory kit isn't any harder to install than an air cooler. They are built to screw in to existing fan mounts. So you install the cooler on your processor, remove a case fan, install the radiator into that fan mount, then re-install the case fan. They come with extra-long screws to secure the fan and radiator at once, as well.

      • Joel Lee
        October 9, 2012 at 10:53 pm

        Very nice. I'll look into water cooling the next time I build a PC. Thanks!

  19. Alex Perkins
    October 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    What would be neat was if someone got a huge radiator (nice looking one) and mounted it to a wall as a showpiece and it would be big enough for decent cooling without fans.

  20. Arron Walker
    October 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    When I can finally afford to upgrade my computer, water cooling is third on the list.