For some, the pinnacle of system building is all about custom liquid cooling. You can build the a perfect of air-cooled rig, complete with custom braided cables, slick case mods, and even include your favorite pop vinyl to prop up your GPU. But ultimately, if you’re not packing that sweet silencing coolant, your build just isn’t worth its salt.
That said, liquid-cooling is certainly daunting to the uninitiated. It’s expensive and it takes a time to master. More importantly, you’re effectively mixing electricity with water. That’s grade-A “bad idea” territory if you don’t know what you’re doing, and could lead to thousands of dollars of ruined hardware.
But, when it comes to heat transference and reducing fan noise, liquid cooling is too much of a temptation for many enthusiasts to resist. There really is nothing like taking a graphics card that typically runs at 85 degrees Celsius (185 F) under air-cooled load and dropping it down to a comparatively chill (and silent) 40 degrees C (104 F).
Still, as appealing as it is, applying a water block to GPU is arguably one of the most daunting and complicated parts of producing your first liquid-cooled system. GPUs are expensive, especially in today’s market of $1,000-plus consumer cards. Stripping a card from its stock cooler, voiding the warranty in the process, and attaching a liquid-cooled block on top can be intimidating. Fear not, though. We’re here to show you the way to liquid-cooled GPU perfection.
A note before we get started though: This tutorial is just about prepping a graphics card to be installed in an existing cooling loop. For a more general look at custom cooling, check out our feature Building My First Custom Water Cooling Loop.
Step 1: Preparation
Liquid cooling right requires lots of planning before you even get to the building stage. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the graphics card. We’ll cover what you need for a full loop later on. But when it comes to your GPU specifically, you have to consider two primary things. First, you’ve got to decide what card you’re going to want to cool. Second, with your card in mind, you need to choose your liquid-cooling hardware manufacturer.
In our case, we’re using an Alphacool Eisblock GPX, alongside Asus’ RTX 2080 Ti Turbo graphics card. Getting this combo right from the beginning is key. The more you spend on an aftermarket graphics card, the more likely you are to find a non-standard PCB, with non-standard layouts for key components like VRMs, MOSFETs, coils and more. Each full-cover water block is designed for a specific card. And the most common blocks are developed with a reference GPU in mind, although there are exceptions for popular third-party card designs. In other words, if you can get hold of a reference graphics card from Nvidia or AMD, you’ll definitely be making your life a lot easier–and likely giving yourself more choices when it comes to water blocks.
For those reasons, we’ve decided to go with the Asus RTX 2080 Ti. It’s easy to work with and comes with that handy reference PCB we mentioned earlier. Combine that with Alphacool’s Eisblock GPX, and a few select tools, and you should be good to go. You may just need a couple of small screwdrivers for dismantling your card. But for a stock Nvidia GPU, you’ll need to also invest in a 4mm hex socket screwdriver as well, to remove the screws located under the backplate of the Founder’s Edition cards. You could technically remove them with pliers, but there’s a greater chance of damaging or killing your card this way.
Step 2: Water Block Unpackaging
Now that planning’s out of the way and you’ve got your parts in hand, the first thing you’ll want do is clean the surface area you’re going to be working on. You can lay down an anti-static mat if you’d like, or a soft microfiber cloth. But we’ve done this a few times, so we’re comfortable working on our wooden test bench. As for static worries, we typically just ground ourselves on a nearby radiator or something else metal every now and then whilst we work. But if you live in a very dry environment or just want some extra assurance that you won’t fry your high-end hardware, you can always use a wrist strap.
Finally, it’s time to open your boxes, carefully take out all the parts, and remember to keep a track of your instruction manuals.
Step 3: GPU Analysis
This next step will vary depending on the GPU you have. But effectively you’ll need to identify the location of all the screws on your cooler that attach it to the PCB and the GPU itself. During that process, you’ll also need to figure out what screwdrivers you’re going to need to disassemble your card.
With our Asus Turbo, we’ve got three screws located on the bottom that we can actually ignore, as they don’t attach the cooler to the GPU, just parts internally to the cooler. Likewise, the screws located on the back of the GPU near the I/O ports don’t usually need to be removed either, as they secure the PCB part of the card to the rear I/O bracket. Some liquid-cooling blocks do come with single-slot adapters, but you’ll need to refer to the instruction manual as to how to attach them during the installation process.
Most of the screws you’ll need to remove are usually located on the back of the card, either on the bare PCB like our graphics card is, or under whatever backplate is included on your card.
Step 4: Screw Removal
Finally, you’ll need to start removing the screws. In our case, we don’t have a backplate to worry about, but the same process still applies regardless of whether you do or don’t. You’re going to want to remove the screws from the backplate, lift the backplate up and off, and then remove the remaining screws underneath. With Nvidia’s reference cards, you’ll find the 4mm hex screws we mentioned earlier.
Once the majority of the small screws are removed, you’ll notice four major screws in the middle, securing the cooler onto the GPU itself (the big square in the center). We advise leaving these to last, and then undoing them a little at a time, via alternate corners, similar to how you’d secure a CPU heatsink down, but in reverse.
Step 5: Prize Apart the Card
Now for the scary bit. With all the screws removed from the back (and secured safely in a magnetic or bowl or tub), you’ll want to carefully take the card apart. With one hand holding the PCB and the other on the cooler, give the two sections a little wiggle to loosen the thermal paste holding them together, and they should come apart. Be gentle and don’t not rip off the cooler, as you’ll likely find short fan cables and RGB connectors attached to both sections as well.
If it’s not coming apart, take another look at the card and see if you can identify any additional screws holding the cooler down that you might have missed.
Step 6: Clean Up
Now you’ve got the two parts of the card apart and disconnected any fan or lighting cables, you can then begin clean up. Remove all the thermal pads stuck to the memory chips (preferably leave them where they were on the stock cooler, in case you need to reattach it later), and use isopropyl alcohol to clean off the GPU until it’s nice and shiny. A soft microfiber cloth or some heavy duty blue shop paper towels will work wonders here. After the cleanup, you can prop the card up and take pretty photos for your Instagram account.
Step 7: Thermal Paste Application
Since we’ve cleaned off all the old thermal paste that Asus used, it’s time to apply a new layer of TIM (thermal interface material). Almost all water blocks will come with some as standard, and each manufacturer will likely recommend a unique spreading technique for the paste, depending on the consistency. For instance EKWB suggests lines of paste in a eight-point point star shape, whilst Alphacool (which we’re working with here), recommends you smooth out a “less than 1mm” thick spread across the entirety of the IHS (integrated heat spreader, the shiny metal bit that covers the GPU).
We’ve opted for Alphacool’s paste-spreading strategy here, however we’re going to be using Noctua’s NT-H1 thermal paste instead. Why? It has a seriously thick consistency, making it easy to spread, and it’s non-conductive too (not that Alphacool’s isn’t), meaning if we do mess up and get some on the green PCB, we don’t have to worry about it shorting out our expensive hardware.
Protip: If you don’t have a dedicated paste spreader, a business card works perfectly well to spread paste. Sorry Gary, your business deets have been sacrificed to the thermal paste gods.
Step 8: Thermal Pads
Next up, it’s time to attach the thermal pads we’re going to need to cool everything else. From memory chips to MOSFETs, keeping these parts in contact with the water block is vitally important. What happens if you don’t these pads? Worst-case scenario is your GPU will make contact with the copper/nickel plated block and short out. Alternatively, your card will just overheat and switch off. Obviously neither is ideal.
Alphacool’s pads are color-coded for your convenience: red for the internal part of the card, and yellow for attaching between the backplate and the rear of the graphics card. These pads will need to be cut down to size, then carefully placed on all of the parts indicated in the instruction manual (typically each and every memory chip and the bands of MOSFETs; don’t worry about the empty memory slot).
To apply the pads, remove both pieces of plastic from either side of the pad, then carefully lay them on each part you need to cool.
Step 9: Water Block Prep
Alphacool’s Eisblock comes pre-assembled with spacers to protect it during shipping. That also means you’re going to have to spend a bit of time taking the block apart before installing it on to your graphics card.
Simply undo the screws on the back of GPU block, then carefully lift up the backplate (we recommend lifting from the I/O side of the card first) and then remove all of the plastic spacers that sit on the screw threads.
This is also a good opportunity for you to swap out the inlet and outlet ports located at the top of the card if you’d like. Alphacool includes a shorter vertical inlet and outlet adapter for more compact rigs or for those looking for an alternative fittings style. To do this, use a small flatheaded screwdriver to pry off the Alphacool logo at the top, then remove the hex screws and replace the inlet / outlet unit with the bagged one included in the kit. Remember to install the rubber o-ring with the pack, otherwise you’ll end up with leaks later down the line during filling.
Step 10: More Alcohol Cleaning
Finally, you’ll want to use that microfiber cloth and alcohol to clean the GPU block one more time before you place it on the card itself.
Step 11 – Aligning the Block with the GPU
Now the hard part: You’re going to have to align the water block with the graphics card. Pick sections up and carefully place them together, making sure that the holes on the back of the card align with the screw threads in the block itself, while making sure not to significantly move the thermal pads.
Don’t worry if you don’t get this perfectly right the first time; you can take the pieces apart and re-attach the thermal pads if need be. Or alternatively, if you’re only a little bit out of alignment, you can nudge the card into position gently.
At this point we’ve had to hang our card off the edge of the table, as the rear I/O bracket is actually taller than the block itself. Because we can’t secure our GPU block to the PCB without its backplate, this is minor problem.
Step 12 – More Thermal Pads
Now that your block’s aligned, it’s time to apply the final thermal pads, in the yellow bag, to the back of the card. Again, cut these to shape and place them on the locations documented in the included instruction manual.
Step 13 – Securing the Backplate
Once that’s done, you can now line the backplate up with the card. This can be a touch tricky, as you’ve effectively got to line the backplate’s holes up with the holes in the PCB and the threads in the water block as well, so take your time.
We recommend you secure the four major screws around the GPU in place first. Again much like you’d do it with a CPU cooler, do this in a star or diamond pattern till you get just enough bite to hold the screw in place, securing the diagonals first. Then once all four are in, tighten them until you reach the end of the thread, and don’t over-tighten. Finally, secure the rest of the smaller screws in place, and you’ll be done with your assembly.
Step 14: Water Block Complete
And there you have it, one completed water block ready to be added to your liquid-cooling loop. If you’ve got any smudgy finger marks on the cooling housing (we’re not sure how you wouldn’t unless you’ve been using gloves since step one), you can use alcohol and a microfiber cloth to clean it up. One last thing you might want to do is add the included plugs to the two ports you won’t be using. At the very least, you don’t forget to plug them in before you begin the filling process, or you’ll wind up spilling coolant out onto your machine.
Although we’ve done this using an Alphacool full-cover water block and a reference Asus PCB, the procedure above is very nearly identical across manufacturers. That said, there are a few noticeable differences between this block and, say, one from EKWB. With EK, you typically purchase the block and the backplate separately. Because of this, there are effectively two installation methods. So while you can use this story as a basic guide, we always recommend you refer closely to the manufacturer’s installation guide.
Want to comment on this story? Let us know what you think in the Tom’s Hardware Forums.