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Liquid Cooling [What, Why, How To Install]

Learn what liquid cooling is, its working, the parts of a liquid cooler, and how these coolers compare to air coolers.

With computers becoming more and more powerful over the years, the need to provide them with better cooling has also increased. In high-end PC builds, especially, there’s a high chance that you’ll find one or more components running on liquid cooling. All of this may have made you curious about how liquid cooling works. 

If that’s the case, don’t worry; I’ll explain the workings of liquid cooling, its pros and cons, and compare it to air cooling.


Key Takeaways

  • Liquid or water cooling is a method of cooling your components (CPU/GPU/RAM) that uses liquid (water or a coolant) as a medium to direct heat away from them.
  • There are two types of liquid coolers: All-in-one liquid coolers and custom loop water cooling kits.
  • Water coolers involve a pump, water block, pipes/tubes, radiator and fans, and optionally, a reservoir.
  • Compared to air coolers, liquid coolers provide better cooling, are less noisy, don’t have clearance issues, and may be more aesthetically pleasing. Additionally, AIO coolers can be installed in most cases due to their small size.
  • In terms of their disadvantages compared to air coolers, they are pricier and may be slightly or much harder to install. Furthermore, water cooling loops require large cases and maintenance, including replacing the coolant and cleaning the water block.

What Is Liquid Cooling?

Liquid cooling, or water cooling, is a method of cooling your computer’s components (typically the CPU) using a liquid (typically distilled water). This is considered a more efficient method than traditional air cooling because water conducts heat about 25 times faster than air.

Corsair Liquid Cooler
The Corsair H150i Elite Capellix XT Liquid Cooler (Image by Tech4Gamers)

To learn how CPU coolers work in general, you can check out our guide.

How Liquid Cooling Works (And The Parts Of A Liquid Cooler)

You can conveniently understand how liquid cooling works as you learn about the different parts of a liquid cooler. Here’s a picture for easier understanding, though.

Liquid cooler functioning
Working of an AIO cooler (Image by Intel)

Note: The following points describe the typical and most recommended flow order of liquid in a water cooling loop. 

  1. Pump: The pump is the driving force behind liquid cooling as it circulates the liquid through the loop.
  2. Water Block: Consists of a baseplate/coldplate which takes the heat from the CPU and transports it to the liquid inside the water block. Thermal paste is applied on the integrated heat spreader of the CPU/GPU, which allows it to make contact with the baseplate effectively.
    Parts of a CPU
    Parts of a CPU, the IHS being the topmost one (Image by Intel)
  3. Tubes/Pipes: They connect all the components in a loop and transport the liquid to and from the radiator or reservoir.
  4. Radiator And Fans: The warm liquid reaches the radiator through the tube(s). It then moves into the radiator’s inlet and through the fins, which absorb the heat from the liquid. Then, the fans direct the heat away from the fins and out the case. Afterward, the cooled liquid is circulated back to the CPU, and the cycle repeats.
  5. The Liquid: Again, this is normally distilled or de-ionized water because tap water contains contaminants like sodium, which can clog the channels in the radiator. Generally, the better option is using a coolant since it eliminates the risk of corrosion and bacterial growth. The base chemical used in most coolants is Ethylene Glycol.
  6. Reservoir (Optional): All-in-one liquid coolers don’t use reservoirs — and in custom loop water cooling, they are optional. However, it’s generally recommended that you install a water cooling loop WITH a reservoir due to several reasons. This is because it holds extra coolant and makes filling the loop (during installation) easier. Furthermore, it helps to get rid of air bubbles after installation. In setups that include a reservoir-motor combo, the cooled liquid reaches the reservoir and heads back to the CPU. If the reservoir and motor are separate, the liquid goes from the reservoir to the liquid, to the water block. 

Types Of Liquid Cooling

Liquid cooling is of two types: Open-loop (or custom loop) liquid cooling and closed-loop (or all-in-one/AIO) liquid cooling. Both work in the same way, but all-in-one liquid coolers are typically designed for CPUs, while custom loop kits can cool CPUs, GPUs, and even the RAM all at once.

Open Loop Liquid Cooling

Raijintek Scylla Elite Water Cooling Kit
Raijintek Scylla Elite Water Cooling Kit (Image By Tech4Gamers)

It involves a water-cooling kit that is assembled by the user. It is highly customizable but also more difficult to install. In addition, custom loop water cooling kits are costlier than AIO coolers. 

Custom loop liquid cooling kits may involve a reservoir for holding extra coolant. Custom loop water cooler setups require occasional coolant replacement; thus, maintenance cost and effort come into play. Also, there’s an increased risk of leakage in custom loop cooling, but this is typically due to negligence during installation.

All-In-One Liquid Cooling

ARCTIC Liquid Freezer II 240 ARGB Effects
ARCTIC Liquid Freezer II 240 ARGB (Image By Tech4Gamers)

These involve pre-assembled kits that are much easier to install and are ideal for most users. They are cheaper, efficient, and don’t require active maintenance — although some AIOs are designed to be refillable.

They come in different sizes, but the most common sizes are 240mm, 280mm, and 360mm.

Open Loop Water Cooling Closed Loop Water Cooling
Its expensive but offers the best performance.  It is more affordable while still offering good performance. 
The loops require maintenance, including replacement of the coolant. AIO coolers don’t require any maintenance, but some are refillable. 
Installation is difficult, namely the assembly of the tubing.  Installation is straightforward. 
It’s highly customizable.  There are no options in terms of customization.

Read more on AIO vs custom loop water cooling in our guide.

Installing A Liquid Cooler

Installation differs quite significantly between closed-loop and custom-loop water coolers. 

Installing An AIO Cooler: Installing an all-in-one cooler is quite simple. To put it simply, involves installing the water block first. Following that, the fans are installed onto the radiator in your desired configuration and hooked onto your case. 

Installing A Water Cooling Kit: Similar to installing an AIO cooler, installing a water cooling kit starts with the installation of the water block and the radiator-fan combination. The additional work is installing the pump, reservoir, and the tubing. Additionally, you’ll need to fill the loop with coolant and test it for leaks.

Installing the first two is also straightforward — the real challenge is installing the tubing. This is because you need to cut and bend it to fit correctly. The more radiators you install (and the more components you water-cool), the more time you’ll spend setting up the tubing.

For A Step-By-Step Tutorial, Check:

Liquid Cooling Vs Air Cooling

As mentioned earlier, water cooling is preferred over air cooling because water conducts heat faster than air. The basic principle is the same; the difference is just in using liquid over air. Air coolers consist of a heatsink, which receives heat from the CPU, and fans, which dissipate that heat.

Parts of a CPU air cooler
Parts of an air cooler (Image by Tech4Gamers)

Now, let’s talk about how they compare in various aspects.

Performance

Performance-wise, liquid/AIO coolers are generally better. However, there are variables since different air and liquid coolers perform differently. Some air coolers have more efficient designs, use bigger (and dual) fans, and have more fins, etc. Similarly, liquid coolers differ in the radiator’s size, thickness and fin density.

At best, the most premium air coolers can compete with 280mm AIO coolers

Prices 

Due to their simpler design, air coolers are significantly cheaper than liquid coolers. Again, both liquid and air coolers vary greatly in price. Here is a rough breakdown of how much each category of cooler can cost:

  • Air Coolers: $25-$130
  • AIO Coolers: $70-$300
  • Liquid Cooling Kits: $200-$1000

Ease Of Installation

For a first-timer, installing an AIO cooler may seem daunting, but it’s really not that difficult compared to installing an air cooler. The real challenge is installing a custom loop water cooling kit, as it involves correctly assembling the tubing. Improperly installed tubing can lead to leakage, which can damage your components.

Installing an air cooler involves attaching the fans to the heatsink and then installing the heatsink onto your CPU. Meanwhile, installing an AIO cooler involves hooking up the fans to the radiator; then, the radiator is attached to your case. Then, the water block is placed and screwed onto the CPU.

Compatibility/Clearance

DeepCool AK620 Digital - Clearance Rear IO
DeepCool AK620 Digital – Clearance Rear IO (Image By Tech4Gamers)

Air coolers typically use more space than AIO coolers but less than water cooling kits. The main issue that arises with air coolers is RAM clearance. Furthermore, it’s necessary to ensure that the case is wide enough to accommodate the heatsink. For AIO coolers, this is not an issue; even mini-ITX cases support AIO coolers. You just need to make sure that at least one side of your case can support the radiator.

For water cooling kits, you’ll want a large ATX case to accommodate the tubes and the reservoirs. 

Noise

Since air coolers can’t dissipate heat as fast as liquid coolers, they rely heavily on the fan(s) and must run their fan(s) at higher speeds to efficiently get rid of the heat. So, air coolers are typically noisier than water coolers.

Aesthetics

This is subjective, but some people may find liquid coolers aesthetically unappealing due to their industrial-like design. However, in recent years, air cooler manufacturers have upped their game with RGB fans and beautiful black/white finishes. 

An RGB illuminated PC case
The Origin Neuron (2023) PC (Image by Tech4Gamers)

Meanwhile, most liquid coolers come with RGB, and in custom loop water coolers, you can buy colored coolant or dye the water to match your PC’s RGB theme. What’s more, many water blocks have LCD/LCS displays to further decorate your setup.

Maintenance

Unlike air coolers, liquid coolers setups require occasional maintenance. AIO coolers don’t require maintenance, although, as mentioned earlier, some allow you to replace the coolant

Here’s a breakdown of all the key differences.

Liquid Coolers Air Coolers
Liquid coolers use water or a coolant to cool your CPU/GPU/RAM.  Air coolers use air to direct heat away from your CPU and cool it. 
Liquid coolers generally perform better than air coolers.  Air coolers, at best, can compete with 280mm liquid coolers. 
Liquid coolers are relatively costly ($70-$1000).  Air coolers are much more economical than liquid coolers ($25-130).
AIO coolers don’t have any clearance issues, but your case should have a place to support your radiator. Custom liquid cooling loops need large cases to accommodate the tubing. Case/RAM clearance can be a problem. 
Air coolers are generally noisier than liquid coolers.  Liquid coolers are not as noisy since the fans can run at slower speeds without sacrificing much performance. 
Installing air coolers is super easy.  Installing AIO coolers is also easy, but installing water cooling kits is much more difficult. 
Air coolers don’t require any maintenance other than occasional dust cleanup. AIO coolers also don’t require any maintenance other than dust cleanup. However, custom water cooling loops require active maintenance, including replacing the coolant and cleaning the water block.

You can learn how air coolers compare to AIOs in more detail in our guide.

As far as custom loop water cooling is concerned, the following heading dives into detail about their maintenance.

Liquid Cooling Maintenance

A few measures are necessary to keep your open-loop liquid cooling setup running optimally. 

Cleaning The Radiator And Fans

ARCTIC Liquid Freezer II 360
ARCTIC Liquid Freezer II 360 (Image By Tech4Gamers)

Depending on the area where you live and your particular chassis, dust builds up over your radiator and fans, which will need cleaning at a certain point to ensure optimal function. This period may vary anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. A compressed air can or an air blower can be used to clear out the dust. For the radiator, a paintbrush or toothbrush also works.

Cleaning The Water Block

be quiet! Silent Loop 2 360 - Block 4
be quiet! Silent Loop 2 360 Block (Image By Tech4Gamers)

Occasionally, it’s also a good idea to clean the water block to prevent oxidation and dust buildup. For this, you need to take the block apart by unscrewing the base. Next, fill up a bowl with water. Now, depending on the material of the block, you should use the following combinations to clean the block.

  • For Bare Copper: Water and vinegar or lemon juice
  • For Nickel-Plated Copper: Just warm water, then non-abrasive metal polish
  • For Acrylic Glass: Soap and warm water
  • For Acetal: Soap and warm water

Submerge the block parts in the solution for 5-10 minutes, take them out, dip a brush in that solution, and rub all the parts to get rid of any debris. Afterward, rinse the block thoroughly with distilled water.

Flushing/Draining Your System

Alphacool Eisbaer Pro Aurora 420 - Radiator
Alphacool Eisbaer Pro Aurora 420 – Radiator (Image By Tech4Gamers)

This refers to clearing out the coolant/liquid from your water cooling loop and replacing it with fresh coolant/distilled water. Make sure to use distilled water to clear out the liquid to prevent corrosion.

The process of flushing the loop is outside the scope of this article, but you can check out this neat video from Jayztwocents to familiarise yourself with it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is liquid cooling worth it?

Liquid cooling may or may not be worth it, depending on your needs and priorities. If you have a high-end system and want the best performance, less noise, and the best aesthetics, then liquid cooling is the way to go.

Is liquid cooling better than air cooling?

Water cooling has its pros and cons compared to air cooling. It’s better when it comes to performance, noise (or lack thereof), aesthetics, and clearance. However, it’s costlier, may be harder to install, and requires maintenance.

 

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