Refit and Clean up of a Water Cooled SLI System#

Before I could get into rebuilding Terrance, my triple-screen system, there was an obstacle that had to be resolved first: Phillip, the SLI system that sits on top of it.

This is what my workstation rack looked like - at the bottom, barely visible, is a Minuteman 1000RM E rackmount UPS. I had my electrician rewire the outlets in my workstation bays so that the power passed through the rack closet, so this UPS could move into the rack closet, saving me 2Us and two fans.

Above the UPS is the Terrance, triple-screen system. It was the quietest thing in the stack, a P4 based system with a Matrox Parhelia to drive the three Viewsonic 18" displays. And sitting on top was the problem child: Phillip, the AMD-based gaming system with a pair of nVidia 6800 Ultras configured for SLI. This is plugged into a Samsung 243T. This rig put out 100 frames per second in Half Life 2 at 1920x1200. It also nearly melted in the process. The 6800 Ultras are just too hot. I ended up strapping a big radiator to the top of the case with a pair of Vantec 120mm Stealth fans mounted on it. Yes I know: fan bad. But melting worse.

Here's a top view of the SLI system, you can see the size of the additional radiator. This kept the system cool even under heavy SLI use. In exchange, of course, for ugliness and noise. Whenever I would record .NET Rocks! I'd have to turn this machine off.

The solution was to get rid of the 6800 Ultras. I considered going with later model SLI cards, say a pair of 7800GTs. These are actually cooler than the 6800s, and have more horsepower. Then I got a look at ATI's X1900. A 512MB video card with comparable performance to many SLI systems. In one card. How great is that? So I switched - trade in the 6800 Ultras for one Sapphire X1900XT (and a bunch of money).

I'm very much of the mindset that anything worth doing is worth doing excessively. And since I was going to totally overhaul Terrance, why not do the same for Phillip? The problem was, there really wasn't much better than the existing gear. The ASUS A8N SLI motherboard is great. The AMD processor in it, granted a single-core 4000+, but still a great processor. 7200rpm hard drive, dual burners... what could I really do to improve it? The new video card gets rid of the heat problem, so other than that, a couple of gigs of stinky fast Corsair RAM is all I could come up with.

The upside to this is that it meant I had one machine that would stay operational - it didn't need to have a scratch re-install because I wasn't changing the motherboard, just the video card.

However, it also meant breaching the water loop of the biggest, ugliest water cooled machine I've ever built.

The number one problem you face when breaching a water loop is how to do it without making a mess. The first thing I always do is take the cap off the reservoir, which allows air in to the system. The water loop is more or less air tight, so creating some pressure relief lets water leave the lines. Next I open up the highest point in the loop, which is normally the top of the radiator. In this case (look at the photo above) the top of the radiator is quite high up, and the line is essentially dry when the pump isn't running.

Ordinarily I'd use my little bulb pump to force all the water out of the system, but since its fatal encounter with the resident terrier, it was up to my lungs. So I pulled the line from the top of the upper radiator, then added a bit of hose onto the radiator connector and aimed it at ye olde yogurt container. Then I blew into the other end. And blew, and blew. There's a lot of water in the system.

Eventually I drained enough that the lower line of the upper radiator was also dry, and then I pulled that off as well, and reconnected it to the upper connector of the lower radiator.

That got the upper radiator out of the loop. I was careful in actually removing it because it still had a lot of water in it. I had to rotate it a bunch of times to get the majority of the water out.

I took a break at this point, you can see in the above photo the now completed water loop without the additional radiator. This is how I originally configured the system until I discovered that 6800 Ultras run at sun-like temperatures.

Next step, extract the 6800s.

The 6800s were plumbed into the system between the processor block and the Northbridge block, which is between the two video cards. And boy, was that ever fun to get together the first time. However, getting them out wasn't so bad - the connectors for the water blocks sit relatively high up, so with most of the water out, the lines were pretty much high and dry. I had to cut a new segment of hose to run between the processor block and Northbridge block.

Once I got the cards out, this is what I found.

The second video card in the SLI pair had sprung a leak. That goop is from the water loop dripping down into and beside the PCI-E slot. Beats me why the thing still worked. I wasn't all that concerned, since all this was all on the second PCI-E slot, and I was switching to a single card. Notice I've already turned the ASUS Patent Pending SLI mode card over, although I don't think its actually inserted correctly...

You can see where the leak came off the water jacket and dripped down onto the motherboard. I strongly suspect I melted the seals on this water jacket when it overheated... before I realized I needed a second radiator for it.

I'd worry about the 6800 Ultras later. Now it was time to fit the new video card and get things back up and running again.

You can see the new card and the new hose running from CPU to Northbridge. It looks too high in this photo, but it wasn't. Unforunately, Innovatek hasn't made a water jacket for the X1900XT yet, so I'm going to have to leave the fan on the video card for now. The good news is that its speed sensitive, so when I'm not running anything graphically intense, its pretty quiet.

One interesting problem was that the power adapter cord that came with the video card was only a four prong cable, and there's a six prong plug on the board. I tried it, and it didn't work - the machine kept coming up with a BIOS level error on the display saying "plug power into the video card." I used one of my six prong spares and it powered up fine. Price of being first with one of these cards, I guess.

What isn't in the above photo is the 2GB matched pair of Corsair 3500LLPro I stuffed in, fast response RAM with lots of head room and blinky lights.

Phillip powered up fine in this new configuration, and Half-Life 2 plays great on it.

One machine down, one to go.

Saturday, February 18, 2006 2:29:44 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00) #    Comments [1]  |  Tracked by:
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Thursday, May 4, 2006 1:07:25 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Didn't you have problems with the schipset fan??? Everybody i know (including myself) has problems with the damn thing and i replaced it twice before installing a static cooling block. Great service by ASUS though, but it is still a shame they could nog fix the problem.
Cheers! Stephan
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