Annual Water Cooling Cleaning and Rebuild Journal

Properly maintaining a water cooling loop is critical for great long term performance.  So I documented my rebuild and my thoughts as I worked my way through it.  My rig is pretty complex, but the basics are the same for any water cooling loop. The rig was first built March 2009. I drained and refilled per at least the six month window, and rebuilt my loop starting on January 8, 2010, so a bit less than one year since my rig was built.

The rebuild and draining time are variable.  I have varied in the past.  It’s really up to you, the user, as your knowledge and scheduling require.  It has to be done someday.  It’s better you do it on your time than have a messed up loop you don’t have time to repair. When you decide to rebuild, give yourself plenty of time, don’t rush it.

Here is a list of the goodies in my system:

  • I7 965 D0 (ES chip), Stock speeds
  • Two GTX 280, Stock speeds
  • CPU loop – Swiftech Apogee XT, DDC3.2, XSPC Restop on the pump, Thermochill  PA 120.3 rad
  • GPU loop – x2 GTX 280 GPU in series WC loop, DDC3.2, XSPC restop, DD Tieton x2 GPU blocks, XSPC 120×3 rad
  • Liquid – Distilled water from Walgreens, PT Nuke – PHN, and ‘iandh’ silver KillCoils, one per loop
  • Yate Loon Medium fans, 3 fans in pull on each rad
  • All fans under-volted on a cheap but great fan controller
  • And the other stuff like hard drives, etc.

I focused on four things in this rebuild:

  1. Replace my great rad fans to with better ones, hopefully with less noise.
  2. Install a new Swiftech Apogee XT CPU block, removing my Swiftech GTZ CPU block.  It’s still good, just needed a new toy.
  3. Cleaning everything, making it look and run better.
  4. Improving my ugly hose routing. Looking at this photo, I really should have done better on my original build.  I thought I wouldn’t care, I was wrong.
Really bad hose routing

Really bad hose routing

The tear-down begins.

I started Thursday evening and tore down most of the tubing, blocks, and rads with about three hours of semi-steady work.  Having the right tool matters. This is a modder’s tool collection.  I bought a nibbler for case panels at a swap meet for $3.  When I need to trim a fan hole in a case I’m set.  Never needed it, but I got one!

Tools Used

Tools Used

Case Modder's Dream Toolbox

Case Modder's Dream Toolbox

Basic tear-down, same for any PC

Just took it apart bit by bit, cleaned and dusted with a damp rag ,toothbrush, and a small paint brush.  Keeping my fingerprints off the acrylic case parts was a pain!

Station Torn Down

Station Torn Down

Radiators Removed

Radiators removed

Cleaning the case and water cooling parts

Friday morning I started again. Everything had been torn down that needed to be.  The tech stand was cleaned and dusted.  Having a smallthree gallon cheapo compressor for car tires saves a lot of money on compressed air.  I still took a toothbrush to every fan and scrubbed of the minor gunk before blowing them clean.  A lingering mote will collect ten motes vs. a clean fan surface.  Be meticulous, what the heck is your hurry?  It’s not your job; it’s just an awesome home PC and a fun hobby.  I missed gaming and my friends at this fine forum for a few days, but it’s worth it in the long run.  Tossed in a close-up picture of three fan parallel wiring from my old rad setup if anyone is curious.



"Okay" Parallel Fan Wiring

"Okay" Parallel Fan Wiring

Radiator cleaning

I tore down my rads and took the barbs off, then ran HOT sink water through them for 5 minutes or so. No pump is necessary, just the hot water dribbling from the faucet.  They were clean from my last rebuild, so I just needed to flush them and inspect the water coming out.  Filled the rad, shook it and emptied into a clear glass bowl three times. It was clean as I had hoped.  I let them drain in the sink for an hour or so while I did other stuff.

I took the compressor to them to blow the water out from the fins and the low spots at the end.  Put them in the Vegas sun (58°F sunny, January 8th, I love Vegas) .  I did NOT rinse with distilled, there was so little water in the rads it wasn’t worth it. I still feel rinsing with distilled is a good idea; I should have but didn’t. I’m being honest with my methods.  I’ve been at this for a while and hopefully have an idea of what’s an acceptable shortcut and what isn’t.

The nuts and bolts of cleaning the bits and pieces

I tore down EVERY piece of tubing and removed every clamp, except on my GPU setup; more on that later. I tore down the CPU block to the tiniest screw. Almost boiled (teeny bubbles) some sink water, added 15% vinegar (just regular store cooking stuff) to the quart pan, and put ALL the metal parts, including the CPU block parts in the mix. I let it sit and cool for 20-30 min. Poured it into a plastic drain and rinsed twice while mixing the parts by hand in the sink. I rinsed them all with distilled and put them on a towel to drain for a bit.

I cleaned my tubing with the classic old T-shirt bit, a coat hanger, and sink soap.  Ran the rag through the tubing and cleaned the outside too.  Gave it a good sink rinse and shook the water out.  Good enough.  Primochill is so flexible, it’s almost sticky and collects dust well on the outside of the tubing. If it’s out of the rig, it’s going to get 100% cleaned.  After cleaning and reinstalling it looks shiny and new.

What to expect in your fittings in a well maintained WC loop

In these photos I’m trying to show the buildup on the fittings.  They are quality Bitspower barbs.  The blue tint is from the flashlight I’m using, the buildup is actually pure white. The buildup is so very-very thin.  It’s plasticizer from the tubing, nothing more.  All quality tubing that flexes well has these chemicals that leach into the water.  It’s such a small film you can’t feel it, it’s just visible.

  • This is an un-cleaned barb.  The BLUE is from my flashlight.  The color is white in the barb in reality.
Unclean Barb

Uncleaned Barb

  • In this picture you can see the bit I wiped off using a Q-Tip.
Partially Cleaned Barb

Partially Cleaned Barb

  • This is a cleaned barb.
Clean Barb

Clean Barb

I took a toothbrush to every fitting.  Cleaned the inside and gave a quick scrub on the outside.  My purpose was to remove all the minor plasticizer buildup. I just wanted to mention this, clean it all, take your time.

Inside my CPU block – This is always interesting

My Swiftech GTZ CPU block opened up.  Looks like the world is coming to an end?  Look closely, each pin still is fully exposed to the water flow.  It’s not corrosion, it’s not gunk.  It’s expected.  It’s oxidation and does not affect temps. My GPU blocks inside have the same discoloration, but it is fine for now and doesn’t affect temps at all. In the second photo you can see how good it cleaned up with a nice soak in ketchup and a few minutes under a toothbrush. The block is 100% fine.  I showed the photos to Gabe from Swiftech (he’s the maker of these blocks) at a CES event.  He was a bit surprised, but when he saw the cleaned pictures he felt better.  You’ll get a bit of buildup, there is metal ‘leaking’ molecules and they like to stick to stuff.  This is a perfect example of why we must perform the annual cleaning.  Even though it’s working perfectly, you need to clean and inspect.  Better on your time and terms.

Dirty GTZ

Dirty GTZ

Cleaned GTZ

Cleaned GTZ

My dilemma with the GPU blocks

My two GTX280s with Danger Den Tieton GPU blocks are showing their age. There are some tarnish spots on the outside, and below the smoked color acrylic tops you can see some discoloration with a bright flashlight. I have seen this before. It’s not buildup or gunk. It’s the same as my CPU block, not to worry. It’s expected, and just fine as it is. Opening the GPU blocks and dealing with that tiny cover seal is something I don’t need to do. It’s a ton of work to remove the GPU blocks off the cards and do a full tear-down. I’ll do a MAJOR cleaning on the blocks when the Nvidia Fermi releases and I’ll sell the blocks and cards in late 2010. I’m pretty anal about cleaning, so I feel bad, but it’s my decision to leave them as-is.

In the photo, I cut the tubing off the fittings in the rig after draining the loop, not wanting to stress the rotary fittings. There have been some failures on the Bitspower rotary fittings. There is a tiny clamp and o-ring inside. So it’s best to be gentle with these awesome fittings. I did pull off the old tubing and inspect the cards before installing them again.

GPU Blocks Together

GPU Blocks Together

My old CPU block mount and Thermal Interface Material (TIM) Pictures

The TIM result from my original mount with the Swiftech GTZ was kinda scary. You never know till you pull the block off.  Photos do NOT show XT mount, they are my old GTZ mount TIM results.  I thought I did better on my install back in Mar 2009.  Temps were fine at stock.  Imagine if it was under air, I would have redone it for sure.

TIM Contact

TIM Contact

New CPU block install (Swiftech Apogee XT)

My first attempt installing the new CPU block was terrible, I did not get the CPU mount equal on turns,  I just screwed up. I used a bit less TIM and lot of it got pushed to one side.  Glad I checked my work, I’m no expert.  It just didn’t feel right so I redid it.  I was much more careful on my second attempt screwing the XT down.  Using a screwdriver, one turn, move to the cross screw, one turn, to the next till all 4 screws were down.  Temps are now within 5°C between cores, which is pretty good and 2°C better span than my old GTZ.  A few C lower than my GTZ in idle and load.  A small gain, but it’s a pretty block and better temps.  And a new toy!  Gaa I love this geek stuff!

Removing the waterblock and checking your TIM application on the CPU and GPU is a time consuming process.  If it’s a new block why not make sure you got it right?  It’s worth every single second of your time.  You should do it if you’re kinda new.  You learn a lot.  Highly recommended!  Thermal paste is cheap, awesome temps and your satisfaction is priceless.

Here is the amount if TIM I used for my second mount that gave me good temps.  I’ve made over 20 mounts using this amount of paste, and it’s kinda the standard for this paste.  I used Arctic Cooling MX-2 TIM on my CPU, larger than a grain of rice, smaller than a small pea.

Don't Need a Lot

Don't Need a Lot

My pumps and what I did for the rebuild.  Nothing!

My DDC 3.2 pumps and XSPC res-tops for each loop has served me well.  After draining the loop and putting the pumps off to the side for a day to dry they looked good.  You have to expect a bit of residue in the res, it’s just the tiniest water marks.  Sure I could spend hours cleaning them with a bent coat hanger, but why?  When filled with water they are perfectly clear and the teeny stuff doesn’t impact the cooling of my loop.  Back in they go as is!  It’s not worth my time to clean them because, functionally, they are perfect.  And this is great what you see in the photos. The acrylic res walls look pretty good, pumps look fine.  I didn’t open the pumps from the res; I put them off to the side till I needed them.  They looked great.

Dual Pumps

Dual Pumps

So it’s Saturday 1 AM, time to finish and sleep

So, its Saturday 1 AM, I finished all my installation tasks, but the rig is still dry. Getting tired,  better not be playing with water right now.  Smartly I call it a night, don’t need to get stupid and spill water.  Goodnight!

Saturday morning, it’s all hooked up and it’s time to inspect with a new perspective

Saturday morning after a fine cup of coffee, I addded water to one loop first and decided on the CPU.  Filling the loop was pretty normal.

I filled the CPU loop, filling the res to a bit below the top and bumped the pump, as explained on  OC Forums. Five seconds later the res is dry.  Shut the pump down ASAP, filled and bumped the pump four more times, water level is stable, added a bit to res, watched for leaks, looking good.  I watched it for an hour keeping an eye on water levels.

I built the loop inside the case, not doing it outside the case like I did the very first time since I have some experience at this and trust my work.  I DIDN’T power up my Mobo, GPUs, and HDs etc.  I use a separate old PSU to run my pumps and checked for leaks for over an hour after filling the loop before deciding I was leak free.  I had paper towel strips around all the critical fittings.  I use more than a few rotary fittings, and was worried about rotary leaks.

My GPU loop was next, filling went fine.  No issues.  No pictures either!

Loop liquid Amounts:  Every loop is different.  Don’t overdo the additives

The CPU loop was about 1.0 liter.  I added 1 KillCoil and 4 drops of PT Nuke-PHN.  For both loops it doesn’t matter where you put the KillCoil.  I put it on the hose output of my Rad, easy to see in the photo in the blue tubing below, and it isn’t moving because you bend it to stay, it stays in the tubing. Really!

The GPU loop was about 1.5 liters.  Used 1 KillCoil and 6 drops of PT Nuke-PHN.  I run both; they don’t react with each other and I have both, so why not?  It takes a few days/weeks for the KillCoil to leach enough ions to be a functional biocide.  So I play it safe.

Go all the way back to the beginning and look at my first photo showing the ugly drain line.  You can see in the next two pictures how much cleaner looking the loop looks.  The first photo also shows the KillCoil in the blue tubing.

Blue Tubing with Kill Coil

Blue Tubing with Kill Coil

New Drain Line

New Drain Line

Much Cleaner Looking

Much Cleaner Looking Than the Old Hose Routing

I reduced my flow rate though on both loops by changing the path though the delrin 90 deg fittings shown the the last hose picture.  It’s a cleaner looking hose routing like this.  Look at the very first photo and how I changed my hose routing to do a quick 90° bend.  How much does it hurt my flow rate?  I figure very little reduction and my pumps are strong enough since they are good pumps and my loops are simple.  I’m still over 1.5 GPM I bet (hope) and temps are fine.  It would be nice to spend $30 per loop and get better fittings and quick disconnect drain parts.  But I went with what I had.  It’s better than before and cost me nothing to make it better.

Final leak testing

I watched it like a hawk for a few more hours once the loops were running fine.  I still have small bubbles etc in the res and a bit of pump ‘bubble’ noise.  As expected, all looked great.  Monday I did some load tests and it all looked good.  Bless the WC gods, my wonderful wife, and my careful prep.  I’m sure I’ll be frowned on by the WC gods and leaks will abound someday, but not this time.

My thoughts about using quality tubing

Primochill LRT tubing is good stuff as is any quality tubing.  I use ½” ID, ¾” OD tubing.  I use Bitspower ½ OD barbs. Using the smaller ID/OD tubing is nice but why with these awesome results?  The ½” ID tubing and good hose clamps results in a perfect fit and I don’t have to cut the tubing off a fitting to get it off.  I’m able to reuse my tubing.  I use UNLINED worm/screwdrive clamps.  The tubing was marked by my previous installation by the clamps/barbs.  Since the wall thickness is so thick, the marks didn’t give any thin wall issues.  I was able to re-use much more than I expected.  The 5/8″ x 7/16″ tubing is popular but 1/2″ ID fits perfectly fine and doesn’t leak.  And you can reuse the ends and not have to cut them off.  So please consider good tubing as a long term benefit in cost savings and how it looks a year later.

Final installed Pictures

Back Side of Monitors

Back Side of Monitors

Closeup of Monitors

Closeup of Monitors

The Throne

The Throne

PC and Football, all is well!

Thanks for listening to my adventure.  Hope your annual rebuilds are as fun as mine was.


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hokiealumnus's Avatar
Everyone please congratulate Conumdrum on his first article for the front page. Job well done!
EarthDog's Avatar
Another quality article to go on the FP... GJ Conumdrum!
BobbyBubblehead's Avatar
worth his weight in waterblocks that guy.

Grandar stuff than normal winner!
mdcomp's Avatar
Awesome article man! I gotta say, I haven't been interested in watercooling in a few years, but you really grabbed my attention and got me thinking about building my own. I love the informal narrative you put together, really makes me feel like I'm your buddy hanging out in your garage helping you clean it out myself. It really shows your personality!

I tweeted this article as well ( if anyone is interested. Nice work man!

Spawn-Inc's Avatar
Nicely done !

clean up time is coming soon for me, thinking i will do a before and after cleaning and testing that new thermal paste on the weekend.
Boulard83's Avatar
Nice reading !
donuts's Avatar
Nice work. Wish I had seen it sooner, as I'm leak-testing mine now. lol
Conumdrum's Avatar
Thanks to everyone back to day one when I first wanted to go watercooling and even overclocking my old PC. This is my fav forum, my home. Thanks to Hokie for fixing my pics cuz the stoopid proggy wouldn't let me or I was just unable to make it work.

Glad I'm able to contribute directly to my home forum. I have other odds and ends helpful hints etc scattered around other forums, but this place deserves something better than my previous hacks. Was fun! Now, Mass Effect 2 is sitting on my table unopened. I got better things to do now!!!
starrant's Avatar
Great job with good detail. This will printed and by my side when I have to do my first annual maintanence. Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing with everybody.
PolePosition's Avatar
Really nice article with a wealth of information for those of us (like myself) who have yet to move into the realm of WCing. I'll be bookmarking for future reference.

Just wanted to ask one little question though. Is there any alternatives out there to using plain distillled water such as glycol (spelling) sorta like antifreeze stuff, that would extend the times one would need to do all the draining/cleaning/refilling? Much like what is used in autos where you only have to flush/fill a radiator every few years instead of 6 months-year.
Also, I have to believe some kind of new developments will eventually come out where the issues of corrosion on blocks is minimized, or is this something we'll all have to live with and goes with the territory in WCing?

I really like those fittings and especially the clamps. Chrome is nice, but it would be nice to see them in black or gold or brushed aluminum/nickel. A link to where to find parts like this would be helpful too, but I guess thats what search engines are made for.
Knufire's Avatar
Antifreeze is used when you're mixing metals (i.e. aluminum) in the loop to prevent corrosion. With normal PC loops, all the parts are brass and copper, which do not corrode when in a loop together, so it should be a non-issue unless you're modifying automotive parts to fit in your loop. There are other substances in the loop, such as plasticizer in the tubes, that will collect in places, making this necessary. AFAIK, distilled water has the highest specific heat out of any readily available liquid, which is why it's commonly used (it can hold more heat). Adding anything to the water will reduce it's performance, so we go with the bare minimum (silver kill coil or 1-2 drops of copper sulfate to prevent algae from growing in the loop).

There's a list of WC part stores in the sticky in the water-cooling subforum.
Conumdrum's Avatar
It's not corrosion we have, it's a thin film of oxidation in a distilled loop.

We tear our loops down when we feel like it, and since a drain/refill is easy enough to do, (4-5 hours including spiffing up dust bunnies etc) AND it's a hobby we don't mind. I have seen trouble free distilled loops go over a year with no drain/refill. (I'm not gonna say how long mine is been, I'll get in trouble).

The teardown is a full weekend. Again it's a hobby. And a good way to check stuff. When a WC loop goes down because of problems, it's never at a good time, so with a schedule YOU pick when.

It's a hobby 1st and formost.
Conumdrum's Avatar
Ohh the fittings/rotaries are all Bitspower, the clamps, umm lemme check.

Lamptron, they come in different colors. They are difficult to work with, the aluminum strips easy. I had to open each one to fit over my barbs, then squeeze them with pliers to get the screw started. Still stripped two out. And they are silly expensive. My suggestion is go with easy stainless hoseclamps bought usually a bit cheaper at any auto store. On your annual cleaning, upgrade, your knowledge level of how these things work will be 1000% higher and problems are easier overcome on the second time. I know, do I ever.
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