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Close-Up of Water-cooled Rig

The brains of the outfit must constantly be kept cool from all the hot ideas being developed. Below solid copper waterblocks these two Dual-Core 2 GHz Opteron 270s hover around 50° Fahrenheit even during profound inspiration.

Water-Cooling Mania

Building liquid-cooled workstations out of necessity.

Fire and Ice

It was hot. So hot I was sweating bullets. I had a half-dozen fans going and it was still hot, the noise a deafening roar. I couldn't concentrate... ..couldn't function. Baking hot in a wind tunnel. I lolled over and stared the gauge again. Higher still. 69° Celsius, 156° Fahrenheit.

My brain was boiling, strung out, throat raw and dry...water...maybe water was the answer...

Keepin' it Cool

That's probably the same story for a lot of people. System's running too hot or the fans are too loud and —bing! Quieter alternatives are sought. Passive heatsinks? Possibly. Peltier? Perhaps. Liquid nitrogen? Right. Liquid gallium and magnetic pumps. Sure, someday. Refrigerant compressor? Uh huh. Cooking oil? Seriously. Okay, so obviously the best overall system is liquid cooling, right? It's manageable, clean and relatively inexpensive. The mechanics are simple and good results are guaranteed if precautions are taken. A liquid-cooling system may include passive radiators and Peltier thermoelectric units, and could be considered a stepping-stone to more complex, labor-intensive options like refrigeration. Good reasons all. I plunged in.

Some background on this particular problem. About six years and four machines ago I started on this line of systems running dual processors and SCSI drives in an aluminum case. Made to be a workstation churning lots of apps at once, some cpu-intensive, generally multi-tasking. It will be reincarnated as a server if a new machine is built. When I drafted up plans for this one, I did a cross-check of all qualifying parts. Usually some compromises are made. I finally settled on a server board from Supermicro with room for two Xeons, one AGP and five PCI cards, and two U320 SCSI channels. Latest and greatest at the time, recent history now.

The Earliest Version of the Liquid-Cooling System

This Liquid-Cooling System reduced the average CPU temperature by about 10° C to the mid 50s over the stock heatsink and CPU fan that come with Intel Xeons. After all the work involved the gain wasn't impressive but this should have been expected when using only two 80mm radiators. Even routing the pump output into the first radiators to try cool the water a tad before hitting block #1 didn't result in a notable temperature drop. An additional radiator or cooling unit would be necessary to reduce the temperature into a safer zone.

The Next Version of the Liquid-Cooling System

With the External Reserator. Back in proper config with the pump cooling both CPUs before washing through both internal radiators and out to the Zalman Reserator. The pump draws water director from the Reserator, which doubles as a high-volume reservoir and cooling tower. It's also very easy to change the water in the Reserator.

Rear of Computer Case Showing Tubes Running to and from the Reserator

Tubes out the back lead to the Reserator. The tubes used for this part of the cooling loop are stronger plastic and don't kink as easily. The 1/2" pipe connection fit through the PCI bracket slot almost perfectly, avoiding a potential bottleneck.

Zalman's Stylish External Reserator: Radiator and Reservoir

Zalman's Reserator. A cumbersome object to tote around with a heavy computer system, but after helping to lower the temperature nearly 25° Celsius or 45° Fahrenheit, it's worth the trouble. But there must be a more compact solution.

Internal Water-Cooling System, Inside of almunimum case showing hardware components

Building the Machine

Once I got all the parts, assembly proceeded normally—meaning lots of problems from the get-go. The first task: put the motherboard in the case. The Thermaltake case that advertised its Extended-ATX capability was just barely unable to fit the definition 12"x13" board. So I cast it forth from my possession and scrambled about San Diego to secure another, this one a comfortable Lian Li with a clear side-view panel. Eventually the system would be again transplanted into the austere Silverstone TJ03 for improved cooling.

Seating the processors is always a challenge. These came with huge heatsinks and fans. Not fancy-looking by contemporary standards, the assembled cooling unit was rather solid, bulky. Fixing those paperweights over delicate wafers was difficult. But no sweat, right?

Installing all the parts is rather satisfying, a simple mechanical pleasure that descendants of Habilis enjoy in the quest to build the Super Tool: a modern computer.

Powering On for the First Time

Even when it's all together it doesn't power on just yet. It beeps hysterically, making me check everything at least a dozen times, pulling plugs out then carefully and correctly re-inserting them, the same for slotted cards and memory chips. In between, fanatically discharging static electrity into the aluminum case, check everything again, swoop over like a surgical bird, poking and prying, then fly through the manual again. Try this, try that. Dragging on and on. I'm exhausted, burnt out, borderline insanity. Beep! Finally it starts.

Hurray! I'm totally elated. All my energy floods back. I need it to configure two BIOSs. The main one needed some basic edits, booting the RAID card, which needed to be setup completely and the drive arrays created. A minor headache unto itself, but no sweat.

System Config and App Install

Then there's installing the system and all the applications and configuring everything and fine-tuning the system. That just goes on and on, doesn't it? Install this, install that, reboot. Over and over. How many times? Its crazy.

But hey, no sweat! You do what you gotta do, when you gotta do it.

Finally...!

Exactly one million reboots later I am staring vapidly at a wallpaper pattern on a brand new desktop with everything I need installed nice and comfy and the OS meticulously configured for maximum speed. My sanity is shredded into rags, eyeballs bulging from their sockets. What do we do now? The Voice in my head asks. And who's this we? I just stare. Now that the system was running, I actually had some work to do on it

The obnoxious noise again, distracting me. Did I mention the CPU fans were really loud? You probably didn't hear me. I'll shout above the din: THEY WERE REALLY FREAKIN' LOUD!

That Shrill Noise

With the case open both fans screamed and CPU temperatures hovered in the high 50s Celsius. With the case closed internal temperatures skyrocketed into the upper 60s and the cooling fans' piercing whine soared like jet engines. I wasn't overclocking this system. Why were these stock fans so ineffective at cooling even idle Xeons? My new machine was just cooking...the bad way. When one of the processors hit 69° I shut it down and let it cool. That was enough.. .feel like I'm gonna pass out. My head sank into my clammy palms.

NOW I was sweating.

Various quick solutions were employed. A desk fan was directed at the exposed motherboard and turned on to full blast. Music volume was increased. Idle banter too. Noise-covering noises. The fans shrieked like an air raid siren across my office, and still the temperatures crept inexorably higher.

Water....

Heat produced by the CPU fans was raising system temperatures across the board. It must be transferred out of the case as stealthily as possible. Some research later I decided a water-cooling system would be the most optimal solution. Swiftech came highly recommended in several places and over time I've worked with good quality water-cooling tinkertoys and thingmajiggers from Danger Den, Thermaltake and Zalman to vanquish the twin foes heat and noise: sturdy noiseless pumps, radiators and reservoirs, tubin' everywhere. Project city! Besides building computers I also build aquariums and this water-cooling venture merges both hobbies. Perhaps the next project will involve constructing an exotic aquarium in a computer case and toured about on the Tom's Hardware Weird PC circus.

Start with Radiators

The system initally had two 80mm radiators, an internal plastic reservoir and pump connected using 3/8" inner-diameter tubing. This managed to reduce the average temperature by only a meager 10°C to the mid-50s and ease the brain back from the frying pan. The two Xeons ran super-hot and two 80mm radiators weren't sufficient to dramatically reduce the temperature. Unfortunately there was no place in the case to put a large 120mm radiator or an additional 90mm. I experimented with some external reservoirs but most of them are plagued with weak pumps, 1/4" ID tubing, and notoriously breakable parts. An internal 2-bay system from CoolerMaster had a spiffy front interface and turned out to be a nightmare. The system was designed with large tubes between parts, but the flow through the in-and-out tubes on the rear of the unit were inexplicably stifled with 1/4" fittings. Double-you tea eff? Removing and bypassing this blockage was a nice solution, but the pump's exhaust nozzle was of very thin plastic and cracked as I tightened down the new tubing. No quantity of silicon deftly applied would quash that conflagration. Cheap on Craigslist with other byproducts (bye products!). It did have a nice reservoir in a block of aluminum with heat spreaders on the side...

Geez. I got so bent out of shape about that beautiful but botched CoolerMaster disaster that I didn't harangue you with the other ship that hit the fan in the external radiator department. Horrible it was! What brand was that one? I forget. But I'll tell ya about it in a sec.

Internal Water-Cooling System, Inside of almunimum case showing hardware components

Next-Generation. Two dual-core Opteron 270s cooled with Thermaltake copper CPU blocks. The Silverstone TJ07 case puts the power supply (and water-filled radiator), and six hard drives at the very bottom, and the case itself is a solid piece of alumi

Internal Water-Cooling System, Inside of almunimum case showing hardware components

The Gutz. After the last fiasco, this machine would certainly have an internal reservoir but I didn't want to have to situate the bulky Swiftech pump somewhere, so after tons of research into reservoir/pump options, I finally came back to Swiftech's combo unit that fits into a single drive bay. The pump is not as powerful as its predecessor but it gets the job done. The 120mm radiator at the bottom is cooled by the intake fans of the power supply. Even though both top chassis fans are 120mm, it was impossible to mount the radiator without interfering with the banks of RAM. I was prepared to mount two 120mm radiators this time, just to be sure. One turned out to be sufficient. Surprisingly the Opterons run very cool.

The Reservoir and the Reserator

The original internal single-drive-bay reservoir was usually hot to the touch, and leaked from the beginning right onto a block of hard drives. I attacked it with silicon. The silicon dried and the reservoir still leaked. Liquid bubbled out the cap. Tightening it down it snapped. More silicon. More leaking. Since that was the only internal reservoir I could find at the time I opted for an external box that sat on top. It had its own crappy pump and a small reservoir and connected via tubes from the back of the system. This gizmo did nothing to reduce the temperature, except as catalyst in the fool-money separation continuum. That POS went the way of most S.

At Fry's I saw the Zalman Reserator cooling tower and thought it an unlikely option until I had trudged through a few other ideas-turned-fiascos and began to wonder if the aluminum phallus might be a solution. After all, I just needed another radiator and not another lame kit. The Reserator holds alot of liquid which helps moderate the temperature. Its pump isn't strong enough to run the whole loop but does facilitate flow from the tower back down to the main pump, Swiftech's powerhouse MCP655, which could do all the work by itself.

Totally Tubin'

Generally the best route the water should take is directly from the output of the pump onto the main processor. If there are additional processors the output from the first processor goes directly into the input of the second processor's waterblock. Hot water from the processors is pushed into the radiators in succession and then deposited into the reservoir. The pump should always be drawing from a fairly full reservoir or it could burn out if the water feed is interrupted. Tubing width should be consistent with all components or flow could be reduced and increased pressure puts stress on weak points. No bottlenecks or kinky tubing, baby. Inner diameter (ID) is what to look for, with 3/8" and half inch what to shoot for. Lots of good tubing out there but I've settled on Tygon for three reasons: flexible, tough, and excellent clarity. Seals snugly too. It's lab-grade and not just some cheap hobby tubing like you'd use to siphon gas tanks in your spare time. Tighten firmly but don't crank it down...it may have to be removed many times.

Liquid Mixture

Coolant and water. You mix it for your car's engine and that sucker gets purdy hot driving out in the desert. Okay, since leaking a conductive liquid in a computer is a bad idea, be sure to use distilled water and a name-brand radiator fluid that is anti-corrosive and helps prevents algae growing in the warm channels. Stable, pure, two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen aren't conductive, but metals and other impurities bridge the gap in a drop of water. Distilled water is boiled and and the vapor condensed to leave the impurities behind. A 50-50 mix from a freshly opened bottle of radiator fluid and a freshly opened jug of distilled water will do just fine. Good enough for the car, eh? Check out additives for extra algae protection or to make the liquid UV-reactive. Some stuff is blue and some green and it's all pretty trippy man. Remember when testing the integrity of a liquid-cooling system amidst hydrophobic hardware to use static-free plastic or paper towels to protect the volatile zones. Remember Murphy's Law. If unsure about a certain joint, wrap a paper towel around it. Heck just stuff the whole damn case with paper towels, okay? You don't want a rainstorm in your box soaking your boards and hard drives.

Epilogue

All this started in 2005. After over six years of using water-cooling systems to improve the performance of these heavy-duty workstation towers as possible, I finally switched to using a laptop as my primary machine rather than just an accessory. Tiny solid-state drives in large capacity are offsetting the need for SCSI / SAS drives. Cooler, more efficient multi-core chips are reducing the need for multi-chip systems that get super hot.

But despite all the hardships and frustration, all this was very enjoyable to construct and troubleshoot. I hope this article was helpful to anyone dealing with the same issues.

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