Liquid cooling has been taking over the CPU cooling market over the last few years, and it has been the primary choice of overclocking enthusiasts. With more powerful CPUs being released every year, there’s also a very important need for better cooling solutions to cool these powerful chips, especially if you’re looking to overclock. That’s where liquid cooling comes into play.

An important factor that often confuses people who opt for these liquid coolers is whether they should install their coolers with a push or a pull configuration, or going the extra mile for a push-pull configuration. Therefore, our topic for today is Push vs Pull vs Push-Pull configuration for liquid cooling. We will cover the performance differences and other factors and go over what push and pull configurations are, exactly. 

Liquid Cooling

Before we get into the main topic, a brief introduction to liquid cooling. Liquid Cooling refers to the use of water/liquid as the cooling medium where heat is directed away from the CPU in the form of liquid. This heat is then dissipated from the radiator through the fans. These fans are installed in either a push, or a pull configuration.

Push vs Pull vs Push-Pull
Closed-Loop Liquid Cooling Process (Picture Courtesy: Intel)

Types of Liquid Cooling

Liquid cooling is of two types, closed-loop liquid cooling (also known as all-in-one liquid cooling) and open-loop liquid cooling (also known as custom loop liquid cooling). For ease of understanding, we will summarize the key differences between these two through the use of a table.   

Open Loop Closed Loop
Open-loop liquid coolers generally provide better cooling performance.  Closed-loop liquid coolers provide somewhat worse performance.
Open-loop liquid coolers are much more expensive. (for example, Thermaltake Pacific M240 240mm Kit, $299) Closed-loop liquid coolers are cheaper. (for example, NZXT Kraken X53 240mm, $135)

Open-loop liquid coolers components are installed in steps and installation is rather complicated.

Closed-loop liquid coolers are easy to install. You only need to install the fans on the radiator and then mount the radiator on the case.
Open-loop liquid coolers are completely customizable, including the fans, radiator, block, tubing as well as reservoir. Closed-loop liquid coolers are not customizable, except for the fans.
Compatibility is often an issue for open-loop liquid coolers, primarily because of the reservoirs, which take up a lot of space. Compatibility isn’t a major problem; case manufacturers detail which AIO coolers their cases can accommodate.
Open-loop liquid cooling can be used to cool your CPU, graphics cards, motherboard VRMs, as well as your memory.  Closed-loop liquid cooling is generally used for cooling CPUs, but GPU and RAM cooling AIO coolers are also manufactured. 

This table sums up the main differences between the two types of liquid cooling. In terms of components, most of the things are the same in both closed-loop and open-loop liquid cooling. Both use radiators and fans to dissipate heat, which is where the question of push and pull configuration comes into play.

Push vs Pull vs Push-Pull Configuration 

Push or pull configuration basically refers to the direction in which the radiator’s fans direct the air. 

In a push configuration, the fans are mounted before the radiator. The fans push air through the radiator which then moves out of the case (Exhaust).

In a pull configuration, the fans are mounted behind the radiator which directs fresh air from outside the case, inside (Intake). This air then passes through the radiator. The air becomes warm after passing through the radiator, and normally moves out through the case fans. 

In a push-pull configuration, fans are mounted on both sides of the radiator, the fans on the back push air toward the radiator and the fans on the front direct air away from the radiator. The push-pull configuration can be used as either an exhaust or an intake.

Depending on the airflow across the rest of your case, there might be a slight difference in cooling performance between push and pull. However, the significant performance difference comes with a push-pull configuration, which we will be discussing just now. We will also be discussing some other factors to consider, such as cost and compatibility. 

Cooling Performance

We will perform our tests with EK’s 240mm SE (28mm thick, 22 FPI) and the thicker XE (60mm thick, 16 FPI) radiators, using a GPU and a four-core CPU to generate heat for our tests. Performing our tests with 240mm radiators gives us a good middle ground between 120mm and 360mm radiators (Read: 240mm vs 280mm AIO). We’ll perform the tests at 800 RPM and 1600 RPM. Our stress tests give us the following results:

Stress Testing EK's 240mm SE (thin) and XE (thick) Liquid Coolers with, push, pull and push-pull configurations for both GPU and CPU. Fan speed at 800 RPM.
Stress Test at 800 RPM
Push vs Pull vs Push-Pull
Stress Test at 1600 RPM (Tests Courtesy: EKWB)

There are a few takeaways from these performance tests. 

  • Without a surprise, the push-pull configuration takes the lead in every test.
  • In a best-case scenario, there’s only a difference of 1.25°C between push and pull configurations. 
  • The thicker radiator variant (XE, 60mm; 16 FPI) gives us better cooling than the slimmer variant (SE, 28mm; 22 FPI)
  • Surprisingly, At 1600 RPM, we see far less gain for the thicker XE variant in push-pull configuration. But the thinner variant sees up to 7.75°C of improvement in temperatures with the push-pull configuration. Therefore, the variant with more FPI benefits more from the push-pull configuration, at least at higher fan speeds.

Takeaways From the Performance Tests

Our testing gives us somewhat mixed results, but it does give us some clarity and allows us to get some things out of the way. Most importantly, there is hardly any difference in push and pull configurations. Push-pull, however, gives you a somewhat noticeable improvement in performance (in any case). This performance difference will vary according to radiator size and thickness.

If your single fan push or pull configuration already creates enough pressure against the resistance, then the push-pull configuration will provide you with very little benefit. The problem is that there’s no evident way of knowing this. Moreover, larger radiators might not benefit from the push-pull configurations, because of their large surface area that allows heat dissipation to be effectively distributed among the fans. 

So in any case, the actual factors to keep in mind in terms of performance is radiator thickness, where a thicker radiator will give you better cooling performance. Fin density is also a factor to keep in mind. Thicker radiators typically have lower fin density, but higher FPI radiators benefit more from push-pull configurations, at least in our tests. Another thing to keep in mind is radiator placement (where on your case you’ll be installing your radiator). Typically, radiators installed in the front of the case are used for intake and those that are installed in the top are used as exhausts. Lastly, while radiators fans are already designed for higher static pressure, different fans will differ for static pressure ratings. So, the better the static pressure rating of the fan, the more cooling performance you get. 

Costs

Cost is a major factor when comparing push or pull against push-pull, since push-pull requires extra fans. Some 120mm all-in-one coolers ship with two fans, such as Corsair’s H80i v2, but these coolers are on the expensive side. The larger the radiator (240 mm to 360mm to 420mm), the more you’ll be spending on extra fans. So cost is something to keep in mind when comparing push or pull against push-pull. 

In the case of an open-loop liquid cooling setup, the same applies as you’ll be spending an extra on fans for your push-pull configurations. 

Aesthetics

The push-pull configuration will take the prize in terms of aesthetics, but this is purely down to personal preference.

Push vs Pull vs Push-Pull
Image Courtesy: BinaryTides

Aesthetics for Push-Pull

In a push-pull configuration, you have the option to use RGB fans at the front of the radiator, and non-RGB fans inside the case. Or you can go all-out with RGB fans on the inside and outside the case if you’re really into the RGB gimmicks. So your fans will be on display through the side panels (provided you have a windowed side panel) and the front/top. 

Aesthetics for Push and Pull

In a push or a pull configuration, you technically won’t benefit from aesthetics since in any case, your radiator will be facing the outside of the casing and not the fans. The fans will be on display inside the case where you’ll be able to see them as long as you’re using a see-through side panel casing, which most modern cases have. 

Noise

Noise is also something to keep in mind when comparing push, pull and push-pull configurations. While there is no difference in noise when comparing push and pull, there is a significant difference in noise when you’re running a push-pull configuration, as double the fans will essentially double the noise. However, a push-pull configuration allows you to run fans at lower speeds without sacrificing much on performance. So, the noise factor is sort of a mixed argument.

Compatibility

Compatibility is also a factor to be wary of when comparing push, pull, and push-pull configurations. A push-pull configuration may cause clearance issues, especially when installed at the top of cases where it may interfere with the motherboard. Moreover, case manufacturers do not label cases for push-pull compatibility when it comes to liquid cooling so you need to figure out for yourself whether your case will accommodate your push-pull configuration, by measuring the clearance.

Ease of Installation and Cleaning

Another major factor that accounts for differentiating push vs pull vs push-pull, is cleaning and ease of installation. 

Installation and Cleaning for Push vs Pull

Installation is the easiest for a pull configuration on the front of the case (intake). For a push configuration, you would have to install the radiator fans from the front of the case, and then you need to install the radiator screws through these fans, which is quite difficult. Similarly, installation is easier for a push configuration at the top of the case (exhaust), since you’d be in an awkward position trying to install the radiator from inside the case. Reverse these cases and installation will become difficult.

Cleaning the radiator is pretty much impossible when you’re using a push configuration, and you need to remove the fans from the radiator to clean it. While in a pull configuration, you can easily clean up the dust on the radiator from inside the case by use of compressed air, or an air blower.

Installation and Cleaning for Push-Pull

Installing a push-pull configuration provides you the same difficulty that you will get installing a pull configuration at the top of your case. If you’re installing at the top, you will be in an awkward position trying to install your radiator. On the other hand, push-pull at the front is more straightforward as you’ll be screwing in the radiator from inside the case to hold it in place.

For a push-pull configuration, you’ll need to remove the fans on the inside (the fans that are pushing the air) in order to clean up the dust.  

Which Configuration is For You? 

We will be discussing push and pull configurations altogether, but push-pull separately. 

Push vs Pull

As we’ve discussed earlier, push and pull are essentially the same in terms of performance. Even if you remove the variables, the performance difference between them will be minimal, so we can’t recommend one over the other in terms of performance. The rest comes down to the positioning of the radiator in the case and ease of installation.

A pull configuration gives you better aesthetics, at least if you’re installing the radiator in the front of the case. Also, you can easily deal with the dust build-up inside the radiator. Furthermore, it doesn’t come at any extra cost compared to a push-pull configuration. 

A push configuration is ideal for installation at the top of the case to be used as an exhaust, where installation is easy, but again, cleaning up dust will be a hassle as you will need to remove the fans for that.

Push-Pull

As seen in our performance tests, a push-pull configuration gives you better performance if you have a radiator with higher FPI, where a single fan can’t create enough pressure, or at least not at lower fan speeds. In any case, a push-pull configuration is a better choice, especially for radiators larger than 120mm.

Which One To Get

Summing up our tests as well as the points we’ve discussed, it is better to go with a push-pull configuration as it will give you better cooling in any case. However, it comes at an extra cost, and buying a thicker radiator might give you a better price-to-performance ratio, since radiator fans are typically quite expensive. Again, there’s no major difference between push and pull configurations in terms of performance, and it’s better to focus on radiator thickness and radiator sizes when you’re considering cooling performance. 

Common Questions

Is push configuration better than pull configuration, or vice versa?

In terms of performance, there is a minimal difference, and there is no evident winner between the push vs pull competition. 

Is push-pull configuration better than push or pull?

Push-pull configuration gives you better performance than either push or pull; however, it costs more, and you need to remove the fans pushing the air to clean your radiator.

Which configuration should I use?

There is no real argument to back using a push configuration over a pull configuration and vice versa. Both give an identical cooling performance. Push-pull gives you better performance than push or pull, but it costs more. If you can afford the extra fans, the push-pull configuration is worth it. But it’s typically better to spend the extra money on a larger or a thicker radiator.

What other factors affect liquid cooling performance?

Radiator size, radiator thickness, and fin density greatly affect performance. Fan size and fan blade design also affect performance.

Abdemanaf has been a creative writer since 2011. He first dwelled in the tech world in early 2015 and has since compared many product offerings by different companies. Abdemanaf started working for Tech4Gamers in February 2022 as a blog and comparison writer.