We dig into the arcane realm of home-built, liquid-cooled hot-rod computers. (Don’t be afraid, the water’s fine.)
By Milosh Nikodijevic & David E. Williams • Photos by Jorge Nuñez
When it comes to computing power, faster is always better, especially when it comes to high-end gaming machines. But the electronics-killing heat generated by such systems, especially amped-up “overclocked” rigs running multi-core processors and graphics cards at higher frequencies via more power than recommended by their manufacturers, can become a problem all its own. And while the life-and-death need to keep these machines running cool compels some users to employ powerful ventilation fans, massive heat sinks and plenty of A/C, those solutions can only go so far.
Now, if you’re among the many who believe water and electricity don’t mix, the opposite is actually true, as liquid cooling is the only practical way to beat the heat created by a high-power overclocked unit — unless you like living with a CPU that sounds like an asthmatic 737 struggling to take off from under your desk. In short, a water-cooled system operates much like the radiator in your car, using tubing, a pump and the quiet magic of simple thermal dynamics to dissipate the unwanted heat.
Successfully building your own water-cooled overclocking computer — which can essentially deliver a third more computing power than advertised — is simply a task of combining the right hardware and software to suit your needs. But, let’s face it: The initial task of sourcing the right parts and then successfully assembling them is daunting, while the secondary chore of installing the right operating system and software to get it up and running is relatively easy.
Yeah, we know, the last wrench you turned was made of flimsy plastic and had the word “Playskool” emblazoned on its side. And the only thing you really know about overclocking involved watching a YouTube clip of screaming MIT-types spilling liquid nitrogen all over a motherboard, or maybe a random episode of The Big Bang Theory. No worries, Geek is here to help, and with this GIY tutorial — coordinated with the invaluable help of the specialists at Newegg and EK Water Blocks — we’ll demonstrate how easy it can be to pull off the awesome water-cooled computer build you didn’t even know you were dreaming of doing.
Note that this article should be considered as a mere jumping-off point for your own project, and that your success will largely depend on the amount of research, prep and patience you invest.
Parts and Materials
Build parts courtesy of NewEgg
- CPU 19-116-501
- Intel Core i7-3770K Ivy Bridge 3.5GHz (3.9GHz Turbo) LGA 1155 77W Quad-Core Desktop Processor Intel HD Graphics 4000 BX80637I73770K (QTY 1)
- Motherboard 13-131-854
- ASUS Maximus V FORMULA LGA 1155 Intel Z77 HDMI SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 Extended ATX Intel Motherboard (QTY 1)
- Video Card 14-121-634
- ASUS GTX680-DC2T-2GD5 GeForce GTX 680 2GB 256-bit GDDR5 PCI Express 3.0 x16 HDCP Ready SLI Support Video Card QTY 2
- Memory 20-233-356
- CORSAIR Dominator Platinum 16GB (4 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 2666 Desktop Memory Model CMD16GX3M4A2666C11 (QTY 1)
- PSU 17-139-039
- CORSAIR AX1200i 1200W Digital ATX12V v2.31 and EPS 2.92 SLI Ready CrossFire Ready 80 PLUS PLATINUM Certified Full Modular Active PFC Power Supply QTY 1
- Case 11-139-001
- Corsair Obsidian Series 800D CC800DW Black Aluminum / Steel ATX Full Tower Computer Case (QTY 1)
- Storage (SSD) 20-233-398
- Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB QTY 2
- CORSAIR Vengeance 1500 Dolby 7.1 Gaming Headset QTY 1
- CORSAIR Vengeance K70 Mechanical Gaming Keyboard QTY 1
- CORSAIR M65 Performance Gaming Mouse QTY 1
Build parts courtesy of ekwb
- EK-FB KIT ASUS M5F – Nickel Maximus V Formula Full Water Block( QTY 1)
- EK-Supremacy CPU Water Block (QTY 1)
- EK-FC680 GTX DCII Water Block (QTY 2)
- EK-FC680 GTX DCII Backplate (QTY 2)
- EK-FC Bridge DUAL Serial 3-Slot (CSQ Plexi QTY 1)
- EK-CoolStream RAD XTX (360) (QTY 1)
- EK-CoolStream RAD XT (120) (QTY 1)
- EK-FAN Silent 120-1600 RPM QTY 4)
- EK-D5 Vario X-RES 140 (incl. pump) Pump Top/Reservoir Combo (QTY 1)
- EK-RES X3 – TUBE 250 (204mm) (QTY 1)
- EK-CSQ Fitting 10/16mm G1/4 – Nickel (QTY 12)
- EK-CSQ Adapter 90° G1/4 Nickel (QTY 2)
- EK-Ekoolant Blood Red Coolant (premix 1000ml) (QTY 2)
- PrimoChill PrimoFlex Advanced LRT 15.9/9.5mm — Bloodshed Red (PFLEXA-58-R) Tubing (QTY 3)
5 things to know before tackling this build.
What Is Overclocking?
Modifying your computer’s operating system to operate the CPU at a higher frequency in order to boost performance.
Computer enthusiasts who won’t settle for manufacturer-imposed performance limitations.
Maximize the performance of your computer by as much as 30% for gaming, image rendering and editing? Why not!
As overclocking increases the heat created by your computer, you have to do something to keep it running cool. No other method will accomplish this as effectively.
Can I Actually Do This?
Yes, it’s not that hard. There are Lego kits that are far more difficult to assemble.
Step-By-Step: Water-Cooled Computer Build
Step 01. – VRM Cooler
(1.A) Here’s the EK Water Blocks (EKWB) EK-FB KIT ASUS M5F cooler set and the ASUS Maximus V Formula motherboard from Newegg.
(1.B) Wearing anti-static gloves, remove the screws holding the backplate to the motherboard’s voltage regulator module (VRM) cooling solution. Lift the backplate, remove the stock cooler and remove any thermal material found there.
(1.C) Using isopropyl alcohol and cotton swabs, clean off any residue left after removing the old thermal material.
(1.D) Remove the double-sided protective tape on the supplied EKWB thermal pad material and place across the VRM components.
(1.E) Attach the L-shaped EKWB water block using supplied screws and washers in factory holes. The factory backplate is then replaced.
Step 02. – GFX Card
(2.A) This is the ASUS GTX680 graphics (GFX) card and we’re removing the stock cooling solution as well as the backplate and attaching a new EKWB EK-FC680 GTX DCII block and EK-FC680 GTX DCII backplate. We’ll do this twice, once for each card. We start by removing the four screws on the back of the first GFX card.
(2.B) The factory cooler, a large heat sink, will pop off and expose the graphics core, the VRM and other internals. Also detach the fan connector to completely remove and discard the factory cooling unit.
(2.C) Remove two screws to detach the heat sink for the VRM. The EKWB unit you’re installing will not only cool the core unit of the GFX card, but its VRM.
(2.D) Using isopropyl alcohol and cotton swabs, clean off all old thermal paste that may have been left behind after removing the factory cooler. This is very important, as new paste will be your thermal connector between the GFX core and the new water block.
(2.E) Using a razor blade, custom cut the supplied EKWB thermal pad material to cover the VRM and RAM chips. The VRM pads are cut in two rectangular strips, while squares cover the separate RAM chips.
(2.F) Apply a pea-sized ball of Arctic MX4 thermal paste to the middle of the graphics chip. Don’t over-do it. More is not better.
(2.G) Position EKWB water block atop the GFX card.
(H) Cut and attach a piece of thermal pad to the new EKWB backplate for the GFX card.
(I) Secure the new backplate to the GFX card using supplied screws.
(J) Remove the triple-slot factory bracket. As we have changed this card from fan-based cooling to water-block cooling, we have reduced it to a two-slot card.
(K) Install the supplied EKWB two-slot bracket.
Step 03. – CPU Block
(3.A) We’re attaching an EKWB backplate mechanism to the motherboard that will hold the EK-Supremacy CPU water block in place using its Precise Mounting System. This is a rubber backplate spacer being put in place.
(3.B) Position the metal plate over the rubber plate, carefully lining up the screw holes.
(3.C) Four provided self-mounting thumbscrews from EKWB are placed around the motherboard and secured into the previously positioned metal backplate to support the water block. Note that supplied plastic washers must be used between the motherboard and the four thumbscrews. Hand-tighten the screws.
(3.D) All four thumbscrews are in place.
(3.E) Apply a pea-sized blob of Arctic MX4 thermal paste to the middle of the CPU that has been placed in the CPU socket.
(3.F) Peel off the protective film backing from the EK-Supremacy CPU water block.
(3.G) Place the water block over the four previously secured thumbscrews.
(3.H) Supplied springs are positioned on each thumbscrew.
(3.I) Install the four supplied thumbnuts to secure the water block. Do this in a cross pattern using equal amounts of torque, ensuring that the block is positioned securely and evenly. Note the positioning of the CPU water block’s in and out ports. The inlet port is closer to the center of the block.
Step 04. – Radiator & Fan
(4.A) We’re installing a EKWB CoolStream RAD XT 120mm radiator with a CoolStream 120mm silent fan. For this build, we have selected a “pull” configuration, so hot air will be pulled out of the radiator by the fan. This has better thermal characteristics and also reduces dust build-up in the case.
(4.B) Using four screws, we’re attaching the radiator and fan to the back of the Corsair Obsidian Series 800D case.
Step 05. – Main Radiator
(5.A) We’re installing the EK-CoolStream RAD XTX (360) radiator. It is very thick and will remove most of the heat from the machine. This radiator has numerous inlets and outlets, allowing you to customize your water flow. After we planned the build, we attached the correct fittings to inlets and outlets we wanted to use, while closing off others with provided plugs.
(5.B) Another angle on the radiator.
(5.C) It’s difficult to install the EKWB fan assembly into a case that’s standing upright, so we inverted it to simplify the process.
(5.D) The radiator is placed in the inverted case on top of the three lined-up fans.
(5.E) Edging the case off the assembly table allows you to then easily tighten down the radiator using provided EKWB screws. Be sure to check your components and the thickness of the case itself so as to not accidentally puncture your radiator with screws that are too long.
Step 06. – GFX Bridge
(6.A) We’re mounting the EKWB Bridge DUAL Serial 3-Slot connector to the two GFX card water block assemblies. If you plan on using two GFX cards in scalable link interface (SLI), make sure you have the right EKWB bridge blocks, which will depend on the card slots and the width of the card.
(6.B) We have installed the GFX cards onto the motherboard and positioned the bridge between the two EKWB EK-FC680 GTX DCII blocks that we have installed.
(6.C) Take care that the supplied EKWB rubber O-rigs are correctly in place on the bridge. They must be placed precisely in the circular groves in order to avoid leaks.
(6.D) This clearly shows the placement of the GFX cards and bridge adapters.
(6.E) Tightening the bridge between the EKWB EK-FC680 GTX DCII blocks.
Step 07. – Pump and Reservoir
(7.A) Assembling the EK-D5 Vario X-RES 140 pump with the EKWB pump top. Again, it’s very important to properly position the O-rings to prevent leaks.
(7.B) Attaching the reservoir to the pump/top assembly with provided screws.
(7.C) Tighten screws in cross pattern with even torque.
Step 08. – Plumbing
(8.A) With the motherboard, GFX cards and bridge in place and EKWB tube fittings installed, you’re ready to run the tubing. Measure tubing from one connector to another, mark with permanent marker and then cut with a razor blade.
(8.B) Running more tubing, from the CPU block to a radiator.
(8.C) More tubing. We used 90° adapters where necessary and paid extra attention to the fact that the CPU block and bridge between the GFX cards have dedicated inlet and outlet ports. (The instructions from EKWB note this as well.) Your water flow plan must take that into account, as well as the flow of water from the pump.
(8.D) With the tubing complete, we used an inexpensive hand pump purchased from a marine supply store to deliver our blood-red EKWB coolant into the system. Fill the reservoir to the top.
(8.E) With the system full of coolant, place paper towels within the case to quickly reveal and soak up any leaks. The coloring in the coolant helps this as well.
(8.F) Using the 24-pin motherboard plug from the power supply, we attached a paperclip to connect the green plus wire to any black wire on this plug in order to run the pump for several hours to check for leaks and purge air from the system. We then topped off the reservoir and repeated the process several times, shifting the case slightly to help displace all air bubbles. After running the system for 24 hours without leaks, reattach the power to the motherboard and start congratulating yourself for a job well done.