Air Cooling vs Water Cooling : Things You Need To Know

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Last Updated March, 28, 2018.

First of all there are many threads with endless questions regarding air and water cooling, so lets start with the obvious and go from there.

Question 1; I have no intentions of overclocking at all, do I need an aftermarket air or water cooler?

No, Your AMD or Intel stock air cooler is all the cooling you need, and was specifically designed to cool your CPU with a limited 3 year boxed warranty.

Edit Note:

Unfortunately this doesn't cover the more recent CPUs that do not come with a cooler of any type. So keep the TDP (Thermal Design Power) of the CPU in mind, to be sure you're buying a cooler with high enough TDP cooling capability, to handle the CPUs TDP rating, and an even higher TDP capability, if you intend overclocking the CPU.

Question 2; I want to overclock a little, can I do this with a stock cooler?

Some have, but unfortunately those wanting to overclock just a little, are not going to manually overclock, but use the auto overclocking features of their motherboard. In that case, overclocking with a stock cooler is absolutely not recommended!

Reason being some motherboard auto overclocking features spike voltages to remain stable to the point of excess, which in turn, pushes up the CPU temperature past the stock coolers capability.

Overclocking adds additional heat over what the stock heat was before the overclocking, for CPU longevity that extra heat has to be taken care of, as the stock cooler is not designed to handle overclocking heat load, it is designed to handle a stock clocked heat load.

So to be on the safe side if you're desiring to overclock, you need to invest in an aftermarket cooling solution, but you do not need the high end air or even the AIO water cooling solution, for this purpose a proven air cooler such as the traditionally recommended Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO should be sufficient.

Question 3; I have a Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO but my load temperatures are scary on the high side, will adding another fan in push/pull drop my temperatures a lot?

No, unfortunately you may see a 1c ~ 3c load temperature drop, even if you completely change the stock fan setup to two 110cfm fans in a push/pull setup. The Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO is already at it's pinnacle of TDP cooling performance with the fan it comes with. Edit: FYI, Today the Cooler Master Hyper 212X Turbo comes with 2 120mm cooling fans but the extra fan doesn't increase it's TDP it is still 150w maximum TDP.

Question 4; Before I seriously consider water cooling, can the cooling performance be increased on the high quality air coolers, like the Noctua, Phantek, Thermalright, etc., etc.?

Yes, Almost all of the high end heat pipe air coolers are high quality passive coolers, which means they can actually cool to a certain extent, with no mounted fan at all just good case air flow over them. Coolers of that high of cooling capable TDP performance level, do benefit from higher speed and higher CFM cooling fans, than the ones that came with the cooler.

The manufacturers of these coolers are not just competing in cooling performance, but are staying within a tolerable noise level marketing. The cooling fans they come with are the highest performance they can add to the cooler, and still be in an acceptable customer sound level range.

So if you already own one of those high end heat pipe air coolers, and you do not mind an increased noise level, you can improve the cooling performance by changing the fans to higher speed, higher CFM cooling fans than the ones they came with.

Question 5; High Quality Heat Pipe Air coolers vs AIO water coolers?

Many are under the illusion that AIO water coolers are the cure all, yielding higher cooling than the air coolers, and lower noise as well, and that is not true.

Some of the cheaper AIO water coolers do not out perform the higher TDP air coolers and even some of the more expensive AIOs cannot best the cooling performance of some of the high quality air coolers running the higher speed cooling fans mentioned in question 4.

AIO water coolers are not a silent option either as some of the cooling fans are tolerable but loud as well.

You have to remember whether air coolers or water coolers they both are ambient air cooled!

The radiator of the AIO water cooler has everything to do with it's cooling capabilities, it will take the larger sized radiator AIO water cooler to begin to pass the performance levels of the high quality air coolers. Also it's not just the perimeter size like 120, 240, 360, etc. but how thick is the radiator core.

Reviews and testing comparisons will give you some idea of where the temperature performance of each type cooler crosses paths, but pay attention to whether the ambient temperature was controlled in the testing, and how does that tested ambient compare to your ambient.

Question 6; Does mounting position matter with Heat Pipe Style Air Coolers?

Absolutely Yes!

First you need to understand how a heat pipe cooler actually works, and the links below are the best explanations I have found.

Once you gain an understanding of how the individual heat pipes work you need to understand that all the heat pipe coolers are designed for their maximum cooling efficiency mounted vertically on a horizontal surface.

So what happens when they are mounted in a tower case, and the heat pipes themselves are horizontally mounted on a vertical positioned motherboard?

Many have asked here at Toms what's the best performance mounting in a tower case front to rear alignment or bottom to top alignment, well actually it really depends on what type of heat pipe air cooler you have.

How the pipes have been formed and arranged in the air cooler directly affects the efficiency of the cooler vs the position it is mounted in.

The information above should bring you to a better understanding of the best possible mounting for the heat pipe cooler you own, or are contemplating buying.

The link below covers some tests of different mounting of a mid quality 3 heat pipe air cooler and the load temperatures of each test with the cooler in different positions.

Hopefully the information you gained from the links above will aid your understanding of why the different mountings yielded different temperature results, and will aid you in deciding the best mounting for your heat pipe air cooler.

Question 7; I want to do some serious overclocking and I'm considering going to a custom water cooling setup, what do I need to know?

Overclocking Performance water cooling requires enough radiator cooling area to bring your water temperatures as close to ambient room temperature as possible, which means you will not have the radiator cooling area you need inside a mid tower case, and even the majority of the full tower cases, that were specifically designed for air cooling.

So many of you want the best overclocking water cooling performance you can possibly get, but want it all crammed inside some teeny tiny case, well I am sorry but that's just not going to get the job done.

Many that are after serious overclocking cooling performance headroom mount radiators on the side, top, rear, or even completely independent as a stand alone radiator, or multiple radiators mounted in a Rad-Box. Some have built their own, some have just modified a separate case dedicated to the radiators, pumps, and cooling fans and usually a fan controller as well.

It is all about having enough radiator cooling field to do the job!

So if you really want overclocking water cooling performance you start with research to find a case that can house your radiator mounting needs, some cases that are designed from scratch just for water cooling are the MountainMods and Caselabs lines of cases. Thankfully some of the brand name cases today have taken water cooling more seriously and you can find excellent water cooling cases much more reasonably priced through E-tailors like Newegg.

If your goal is high performance water cooling for the maximum stable overclocks you can safely run, don't cut short when it comes to the radiator cooling field, or prepare yourself for some gut punching serious disappointment after a major monetary investment falls way short of your hoped for goals.

Note: If you are only considering water cooling for looks, or because you think it's a neat cooling solution, and you personally could care less about overclocking head room, then pretty much any case will do that can house what you want to put in it, and any loop configuration will do, because dissipating overclocking heat is not going to be an issue to you.

Question 8; I want to overclock my CPU and GPU much further than my present cooling allows, can I do it all in one loop?

Of course you can as long as you're complying with Question 7 and having enough radiator cooling field to handle the combined TDP heat load, can it be done with a single or maybe two 240 radiators, NO!

This is the most common mistake made today and most make this mistake because of old information from old stickies and reviews that do not fully address the heat load of the CPUs and high end GPUs presently on the market today.

If you are overclocking your CPU and are expecting high overclock results approaching 5ghz and also running multiple GPUs, you'll get better results and higher CPU stable overclocks, by running 2 separate loops and keeping the GPUs and CPU overclocked heat, from combining the CPU and GPU DeltaT into the same loop. (Note: DeltaT is explained very well by Conumdrum in the 2nd link at the bottom of the page.)

However those of us even intending on pushing your CPU overclock to 5ghz are a minority here at Toms Hardware, so the traditional CPU overclock target seems to be around 4.5ghz, and may well work with a single loop problem free.

Looped together the GPUs will affect your CPUs overclock top end, it won't be as bad on the GPU because water cooling is much better on the GPU than air cooling is, and the GPU runs much cooler water cooled.

Adding the GPUs heat even idling to the CPU, will add overclock limiting heat to the CPU, much less when the GPU and CPU are under a heavy gaming load, and you then reach game crashing temperatures.

It seriously depends on just how far you intend pushing that CPU overclock!

Question 9; Since I'm water cooling do I still need case fans running?

Absolutely Yes! Case airflow is still a critical need to cool memory, and other motherboard connected components still relying on air to cool them!

When the stock CPU air cooler is removed from the socket and replaced with a CPU water block or an AIO water pump block, you just removed the stock air cooling around the CPU socket that was cooling the motherboard voltage regulators!

The stock air cooler was not just designed to cool the CPU.

It was designed to cool the surrounding heat producing motherboard voltage controlling modules, that is the reason the VRs are positioned on the motherboard clustered around the CPU socket, so the stock air cooler can cool them, at the same time the CPU is being cooled.

So unless you have a motherboard that is manufactured with dedicated water or built in fan cooled VR heat sink blocks, the volume of airflow that was cooling those VRs has got to be replaced at equal value, or you will seriously shorten the life of your motherboard, whether you overclock or not.

Just because you are water cooling does not mean you no longer need case fans, but you need to be extremely aware of what still needs air flow to remain cool on that motherboard.

You need to supply any air you completely removed with some type of dedicated air cooling, even if it takes adding an additional fan mounting bracket, to support a dedicated fan to replace that cooling you removed, or suffer the consequences of the neglect.

Regarding Radiators:

Your water cooling is still air cooled with fans mounted on your radiators and if fresh air flow is not supplied to them, no matter how many fans you have on the radiators, the cooling performance is seriously compromised, you have to have good case air flow!

The best overall cooling results are accomplished by fresh ambient air getting to the elements that need cooling, and if a radiator is pulling in preheated air, the cooling capabilities are diminished.

Question 10; Will adding additional fans to my radiator increase it's cooling performance?

It depends on whether the radiator in question is a low FPI (Fins Per Inch) or high FPI radiator.

Low FPI radiators are generally 8 FPI or lower and are specifically designed to use low fan speed, low cfm, which equals low noise, cooling fans.

Adding additional fans to those radiators don't add cooling performance, as most are fully factory tested especially in a kit or AIO, and are already either pre-fitted, or supplied in the kit, with the best performing cooling fan, or fans, out the factory door.

Note: However there are low FPI radiators that are thicker core, such as the Alphacool NexXxos Monsta with approximately a 76mm core thickness, these radiators show a significant cooling increase when High Static Pressure cooling fans are mounted to them. And high static pressure usually equates to higher speed, cfm, and noise levels.

High FPI radiators around at least a 12 count will benefit from adding fans of higher speed, cfm, and static pressure, which equals higher noise levels, as the more airflow through the fins they get, the better they cool.

The higher FPI performance radiators require higher static pressure for maximum performance, static pressure is the fans ability to sustain a constant airflow forced through the cooling fins, the tighter the fins the higher the static pressure needs to be.

The higher the fin count the higher performing fans are needed to force the air through the tighter fin gap, you have to supply the needs or requirements of the radiator in question, or you will not get it's maximum cooling capability.

High FPI radiators are for the more serious overclockers after the lowest DeltaT values they can achieve, DeltaT meaning the sustained system operating water temperature above ambient room temperature.

The more serious overclockers are also not concerned with higher levels of cooling fan noise, as higher CFM and higher static pressure fans are also higher noise rated.

Fan designs have seriously improved as of late, with blade pitch and angle being able to increase static pressure at lower fan speed, with not too much of noise increase, but whether they do the best job or not, well that's up to you to discover.

When you compromise your cooling, you compromise your cooling performance!

I hope this answers at least some of your questions, these are things I have already learned the hard way, at my own monetary expense, from air and water cooling!

I am in hopes that these questions and answers will keep some of you from making costly mistakes, that can seriously discourage you, and end up kicking yourself for wasting the money the mistakes cost you, because the end cooling results were disappointing!

Any of you that may be considering water cooling, I suggest you start your adventure reading and studying these resources:

Some of you that are considering overclocking your CPUs whether by air or water, or even past that, this Overclocking study linked below contains some very valuable information, not only backing some of what I've tried to share with you in this thread, but can seriously open your eyes to what's actually possible or not, with the cooling you decide to use.

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Jun 10, 2009
One of the best articles I've read anywhere in regards to cooling solutions : no specifics, only sane and logical global principals... Acquiring this knowledge is the 1st step for any intention in customizing some cooling solution. Why did you retire? We NEED experienced people who know how to look at those matters "in the Grand Scheme of things"! Thanks.

I only retired as a moderator, not from Toms Hardware, and the reasons I retired was first because I felt I had given enough of my free time to being a moderator, (served as a mod for 3 years), and secondly it gave me more time to invest in things like this thread.

My goal is to help others reach their goals. :) Ryan

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