My Journey into Overclocking and Watercooling

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One step at a time – Virgil Scott

It must have been around 3 or 4 years ago when I first heard of overclocking. And about a year after that I came across an article on water-cooling personal computers. Like your average new-comer, I found both of these things somewhat dubious.

I mean, if your processor can run at a 50% higher than stock clock speed then why wouldn’t the manufacturer sell it at that speed and make a few more pounds? And as for the water-cooling, well, that seemed a little absurd at the time. There’s the gut reaction (that sounds somewhat cliché because it occurs in so many cooling articles) that mixing water and electrical components is going to be ‘exciting’ to say the least.

Added to that there’s the cost of buying all the specialised equipment and all the hassles involved, corrosion, pump relay circuits, bleeding and refilling etc.

And yet here I am, typing on an overclocked, water-cooled machine. Despite my scepticism, I was filled with intrigue the moment I heard about both of these things. Being cautious, it was about a year after I first heard of overclocking that I actually attempted it myself.

Believe it or not I think I read about it in a printed hardware magazine. That seems so ridiculous to me now, the very idea of a PC hardware magazine. What could they possibly offer that couldn’t be found on tens, or even hundreds of hardware related websites. There may be problems with the integrity of some review sites, but the same rules apply for magazines. Why would a website be more likely to bias its review than a magazine when it only receives ‘free samples’ if the reviews are favourable?

Having read up extensively on my particular processor and motherboard, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my processor may well be capable of a 50% increase in MHz. From what I’d heard, overclocking could push your temperatures through the roof. So first I ordered a 90mm fan and set about cutting a big hole in the side of my case. I didn’t have any Dremel gizmos, so I picked the biggest drill bit ‘for steel’ out of the set, marked out a 90mm hole, and started tearing away at my case.

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Virgil Scott – England

Case

Like the mouth of that sand monster in Star Wars – it was hideous – jagged teeth and twisted steel. I couldn’t keep track of how many times I cut myself whilst making that thing. But so long as I could keep my case cool I didn’t mind how it looked or how much excruciating pain I went through.

I was too impatient to wait for the fan to arrive, so I started making my own case fan. I look back in embarrassment now at what I created; you have to promise me you won’t send me tormenting emails before I show you this. You must also realise how eager I was to be so foolish as to think that I could make a working fan.

Fan

Blade

OK, so it looks a bit like a fan. It’s made from a cut up CD, some Lego, bits of foam and a whole bunch of glue from a glue gun. I set this up inside my computer hooked up to a couple of Lego motors. It worked just fine for a while, but it wasn’t perfectly symmetrical and so it waggled about a lot. The motors burned out all too soon.

So I gave up on the fan idea. I’d have to wait ’till tomorrow to get a fan. In the meantime I’d just leave the side of the case off and keep a close eye on the temperatures. This would make changing jumper settings on the motherboard easier too.

The overclocking options on my motherboard were quite simple: She either runs at 66 MHz FSB or 100 MHz. No voltages, no increments, just one giant leap. After the removal of one jumper she booted up just fine at 500 Mhz. Phew!

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Virgil Scott – England

I set the BIOS to beep aggressively if it went above 55°C and gleefully started playing around with my ‘new’ computer. It was such a great feeling, knowing that you’ve just got a whole lot of extra performance for no cost at all. And the boost it gave the computer was really noticeable, especially in 3D games.

The fan arrived the next day and I managed to fit it onto my side panel with only minor lacerations on my hands. I plugged it into a motherboard fan header and hit the power button. The computer booted up just fine, but the fan span up for a second and then stopped. How odd. I opened her up and tried plugging it into the other fan header. Still nothing. So I ended up cutting off the 3-pin plug and sticking the wires straight into a Molex plug. A little electrical tape to keep them in place and I was all set.

The temperatures dropped considerably, but it was a pretty high powered fan. Members of the family began to complain about the noise and to be honest, I could only agree. I started wearing headphones whilst playing games but this didn’t solve the problem for the people in the same room watching TV. Perhaps there was a price to pay for this added performance after all. I continued like this for a few months, delighted with the new zap of life my computer had been given but frustrated about the noise.

A few more months passed when I came across an article about watercooling. It boasted that watercooling was both quieter and cooler and that was exactly what I needed to hear. Again I started reading up on it, but it soon dawned on me that watercooling isn’t cheap. That wasn’t what I needed to hear.

You could buy a great heatsink-fan for £25 or the necessary watercooling components for £150. I certainly wasn’t going to spend that much. This is when I attempted to make my own components.

Recently, the pump in the garden pond had failed. We already had a new one installed, but the old ‘broken’ one was still hanging around in a bag in the cupboard under the stairs. I cleaned it off and opened it up to find a whole lot of pondweed jammed inside.

After removing the wildlife the pump worked just fine. Never mind about the fact that I had already bought a nice new pump for the pond when the old one wasn’t even broken – I now had the first component that I needed! At 38 Litres/minute, this thing is no slouch!

Pump

From there on I set about trying to make a waterblock. My first attempt fell to pieces as soon as I pumped water through it. The second held out for longer, but had a few spouts of water from certain bonds.

WB

A real beauty eh? Ahem. Well, as you can see I pasted silicon and epoxy all over it. That sorted out the leaks. It may look as though I salvaged it from a scrap yard, but so long as it did the job, I didn’t really mind.

It had a 1.5 mm copper sheet as its base and the outer casing was made from 5 sheets of mm acrylic. I laminated 4 of the 5 sheets of acrylic then drilled out an area in the middle for the water to flow through. I put a couple of holes in the final sheet of acrylic for the copper pipe fittings then epoxied them on and glued the lid to the middle, then the middle to the base.

Finally, for added safety, I drilled four holes, one in each corner so that I could screw it all up. And screw it all up I did. After adding these holes it leaked from all four corners, another tube of epoxy did the trick though.

All the construction took place in my, erm, workshop:

Shop

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Virgil Scott – England

I decided to make an external box to hold all the watercooling components separately from the computer. This would enable me to place the radiator and reservoir in the cold British outdoors. With mild summers and often sub-zero winters I couldn’t go wrong. That’s one plus side to living in this ‘orrible place.

I bought a container from Asda to house all the bits in:

Container

That’s one hole in either side with a 90 mm fan on each – they will be keeping air flowing through the radiator. Don’t ask what the rubber wheels are doing in there.

I drove down to the local wrecker in search of a car heater core and found this for £8:

Rad

The man at the wrecker tells me it’s from a Suzuki. Please note that when I bought it there was no damage to the fins, I mashed them up accidentally when I dropped it onto my foot whilst walking and consequently kicked it.

Soon after buying the heater core I found out that a friend of mine had upgraded his computer, so he no longer needed his PPGA Celeron 533. The only hitch was that I had a Slot 1 motherboard. So I bought a nifty ‘slocket’:

Cel

This would give a nice little boost to performance if I could get it to overclock at all. I’ll explain the red/brown residue on the CPU housing later.

I was ready at last, with all the components I needed. I fitted everything into the blue box and placed this outside my computer room:

Tub

Out

I had copper pipes leading into the room through holes that I drilled into the window frame. The pipes would act as an additional means of dissipating heat, a passive radiator in addition to the heater core. The box leaked at first (see the puddle?) but there is nothing a bit of silicon can’t fix. I made a lid out an old desk so that the rain and bugs and dirt couldn’t get inside. Here you can see closer where the pipes and power cord (for the pump) enter the house:

Enter

The water then sneaks into the rear of the case through some old washing machine tubes:

Tubes

After which it enters the waterblock:

WB

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Virgil Scott – England

Quite a tight fit under the power supply. You must give credit to the guy who designed a case that has the hot power supply snuggling right up next to the processor.

Everything was ready. I did the obligatory testing for leaks whilst the computer was turned off then booted up to check the temperature.

  • Idle: 32°C
  • Load: 41°C

Not too bad. Not great, but I was satisfied, certainly an improvement over the air cooling temperatures (about 5°C better). Not only was the computer much quieter but after a quick reboot she was up and running at 600 MHz – a nice 100 MHz increase over my 333 @ 500 Mhz at almost no extra cost. I was quite chuffed actually.

Then one day, a couple months later, it just didn’t start up. Fearing the worst I grabbed the power cord out from the back and opened her up to take a look. Everything seemed OK, no puddles or fountains. I thought I’d better double check the waterblock, so I removed it for closer inspection.

Leak

I put so much silicon all over the place that the leak had been concealed. In the meantime the waterblock was rusting and leaking onto the processor. I guess you could call it accidental direct die cooling. Remember the red/brown residue on the CPU housing? That’s rust.

I removed the processor and began to clean it up. Peeling off the silicon from the waterblock and used a soldering iron to seal the leaks by melting the plastic. I lapped the block with some 800 grit wet and dry and tried putting down onto the processor to see how it fit.

It seemed that the processor needed lapping too. I left it in the slocket so that I could get a good grip on it and started lapping. After a few strokes I felt a little ‘pop’. I hadn’t noticed that there was a capacitor protruding from the slocket further out that the CPU.

Time for some soldering. Having just used the soldering iron to melt plastic it needed a good clean first. My soldering skills are such that I managed to snap off a tiny rectangular beige thing from the slocket whilst putting the capacitor back on. This unknown component fell onto the carpet never to be found again. So it goes. I’d have to switch back to using the old 333 Celeron again.

Not satisfied with my waterblock I left the Celeron running on air. My father suggested that I contact my uncle that lives in Canada; he’s an experienced metal worker and could undoubtedly do a much better job at making a waterblock than I.

First I set about figuring out exactly what I wanted. Then with the help of an article on WATERBLOCK DESIGN (with detailed technical drawings) by Petar Lazarevski, I figured out the specification of a new waterblock. I sent a request to my uncle with all the details and he soon replied with a few questions regarding some of the dimensions and the material (decided upon using aluminium instead of copper to make his life easier). A few weeks later this arrived through the door:

WB 2

Base

Perfect! I was very impressed by the quality and the finish on the bottom was excellent – very smooth and flat.

In the meantime my Dad had shown some interest in doing a major computer upgrade. He was getting frustrated on the old 333 MHz Celeron so he wanted something with a little more power. I had recently read about how some XP1700s were reaching 2.2-2.5GHz, a quick browse through my list of tech retailers and I found a place that sold guaranteed DLT3C stepping. Gradually a list of components came together:

  • Abit NF7-S Rev. 2
  • XP1700 DLT3C
  • Twinmoss PC3200 256 MB
  • Lian Li PC60
  • 60 GB Seagate HDD
  • SK7 heat sink (for use when watercooling is being serviced)

The stuff was ordered and most of it arrived surprisingly quickly (the next day) despite the fact that the processor and heatsink were labelled as out of stock:

Box

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Virgil Scott – England

The case was yet to arrive though so in the meantime I set about preparing the watercooling system. Using Petar Lazarevski’s technical drawings again (for the dimensions and spacing of the motherboard mounting holes) I cut out a hold down plate from an old power supply:

Plate

Plate 1

I also ordered a danger den hold down kit (set of bolts, nuts and washers) to use in conjunction with the hold down plate. I then popped out to the nearest Halfords to get some distilled water:

Aqua

With an aluminium waterblock there was no way that I was going to keep those copper pipes outside the window. So I replaced them with PVC tubes:

PVC

Finally the case arrived and I set to work putting everything together.

Case

WB

Tubes

The tubes use an empty PCI bay as an entry point. Quite a tight fit, got to be careful not to move them around too much so as to avoid cutting them on the aluminium.

Fit

There’s the point at which the water enters/leaves the house, through holes drilled into the window frame. This time I have more safety precautions (threaded tube clips).

In fear that I’ve dragged on for far too long I’ll cut straight to the results

  • Stock speed: 1.47 GHz
  • Current speed: 2.35 Ghz @ 1.7 v
  • Idle: 29°C
  • Load: 36°C

Having trouble hitting 200 FSB, I think it’s because I was a cheapskate with the RAM, it only set me back £35 and I think that’s what’s holding me back. Still, I’m very pleased with the results overall.

Well, that’s all for now. Thank you for bearing with me through this marathon. I hope you have found it interesting or useful in some way. I decided to cut out the part where I attempted to distil my own water, it didn’t really work and this is too long already, maybe I’ll submit it sometime later as a ‘mini’ article.

Thanks again for reading!

Virgil Scott – England

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