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A story about keeping your hardware cool
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Author:  winstep [ Sun Dec 14, 2008 11:50 am ]
Post subject:  A story about keeping your hardware cool

This article is based on several posts I made on a hardware forum, and which were merged together here, so don't be surprised if the narrative seems a bit broken or repetitive at times. :wink:

Some people spend lots of money buying gigantic CPU coolers to keep their CPUs running at low temperatures, but most of them forget or ignore that the single most important factor in controlling your hardware's temperature is actually the PC case.

Like them, I always used regular PC cases and was forever battling hard drive temperatures in the 55?C + range during Summer (hey, welcome to sunny Portugal! :wink: ). I suspect heat was responsible for killing off, in quick succession, two hard drives I had on another case, by the way (good thing I am a sucker for backups!).

One day, back in April, I was reading a Portuguese PC magazine and saw a picture of the Thermaltake vh6000bws Armor+.

I just went 'WOW!'. Couldn't resist showing it to my girlfriend who was sitting right next to me - got a really strange look back, though (you're such a geek!), hehe.

I had just built a new PC and, as usual, wasn't very happy at all with the current case and temperatures inside. The Thermaltake case therefore remained on the back of my mind for a few weeks (they were out of stock everywhere I looked) until one day I found a place that actually had them. That very same day I brought the case home. HUGE case, and the box was even bigger!

Here are a couple of pictures of the Armor+ case:

Image Image
Image Image

Now, this thing is really HUGE (and heavy too!). It's got a removable motherboard tray, a tooless design, 7 HDD Bays, 7 optical drive bays, EXCELLENT cable management, BIG 230 mm side panel fan and a front panel with 4 USB ports, 1 e-SATA, 1 1394 and headphone plus microphone jacks.

Besides the gigantic 800 RPM, 230 mm, intake side panel fan to cool off your motherboard and graphics card, the case features a 1000 RPM, 140 mm, intake front fan blowing directly over the hard drive cage and a 1300 RPM, 120 mm, exhaust fan at the top rear of the case. The most amazing part, given all those fans, is that this case is absolutely SILENT.

All cables run around the back, even HDD cables, with holes provided on the motherboard tray for the cables to run through. This makes everything very tidy and greatly increases airflow across the case.

Once I had everything setup nicely, I then proceeded to figure out what else I could do to further reduce temperatures inside the case.

First I added a 120 mm blue led exhaust fan at the very top of the case, which meant having to slide off the top plastic cover and attach the fan to the grill, but I managed to pull it off. Hot air is lighter than cold air, so it flows up and is promptly removed by the top exhaust fan.

I also added what Thermaltake calls a 120 mm 'VGA fan', which goes at the back of the HDD cage, blowing air onto the motherboard. It was a PITA attaching the fan holder to the motherboard tray, as the instructions didn't make it clear how to do this and the photos on the handbook were so small you couldn't really see what went where and which part was up.

It was well worth it, though, not only to lower the temperatures of my 8800 GT video card but especially to further lower the temperatures of my two Western Digital drives (a 150 GB Raptor and a 500 MB WD drive).

This extra fan works together with the intake fan at the front of the case and, with it, I managed to lower the temperature of the Raptor from 42-44C to 35-37C.

Intake fans are great for pulling cold air into the case, but with it comes an uninvited guest: dust. Lots of it.

All the vents at the front of the case have foam dust filters, but one thing that really bothered me was that the huge side fan did not. There are filters on sale for 140 and 120 mm fans, but I have NEVER seen a filter for a 230 mm fan.

So I ended up making a home-made filter for that 230 mm intake fan... but I bet you would never guess what I used as material... pantyhose! :oops:

Having read around the net how pantyhose actually make good air filter material (a lot of people seem to be using them with good results, the material doesn't restrict air flow much and is quite effective at blocking dust), I asked my girlfriend for an old pair. Got some strange looks and she made me promise to buy her a pair of new ones, though! :D

In order to be able to clean the filter regularly and to prevent it from being accidentally sucked into the fan blades, I decided to put the filter AFTER the fan, instead of between it and the acrylic (only drawback is that dust still accumulate on the fan blades, but at least it won't make it into the case). This also saved me the work of having to unscrew the fan from the acrylic window.

I didn't quite know how to cover the giant 230 mm fan with the pantyhose material (the piece I cut from one of the legs could not be stretched enough to cover the whole fan surface without ripping) much less how to fixate it, but, after experimenting a bit, I decided to make use of the elastic band at the waist.

Because it is elastic, it fits perfectly around the fan frame, thus keeping the fabric in place. I cut the pantyhose legs off and stretched the fabric so the two leg holes could be trapped under the elastic waist band. Presto, instant home made filter for 230 mm fans!

Visually it's not bad at all, either! From the outside all you can see is the pantyhose's brown elastic tightly wrapped around the fan frame (looks a bit like a flat brown rubber band), so it doesn't spoil the look of the case in the least!

Anyway, three months later it was the peak of the Summer and temperatures outside kept soaring. I was wondering what else I could do to further lower temperatures inside the case.

I finally added a couple of extra 120 mm Artic Cooling fans to the case. The 1500/1600 RPM Artic Cooling fans are extremely silent but move a LOT of air (56.3 CFM, I could feel the air rushing in with my hand; all other fans paled by comparison), the problem being that you can only mount them as exhausts because they have a 'frame' structure on one side. I wanted them both as intake.

What I did to solve the problem was to mount both fans backwards with plastic strappers tying the frame structure to the case.

One I placed at the front of the case, mounting it on top of my DVD drive. It uses three 5 1/4 drive bays, but I don't really care since I have no plans to add another CD ROM/DVD drive any time soon. It blows a lot of air across the case and onto the RAM, CPU and rear exhaust fan. That one lowered CPU temperatures by 4-5? C.

The other fan I mounted at the bottom of the case after removing the bottom left drive bay (I use the other drive bay as a 'drawer' to hold a speaker I removed from an old case and plugged into my motherboard, as this case does not have a built-in speaker).

First I mounted it as an exhaust (had to strap that one in as well because the screws for these fans are too thick and do not fit the openings at the bottom) but that was a mistake as GPU temperatures actually went UP a degree or two. So I inverted it (turning it into an intake fan that blows cold air from the outside directly into the GPU fan/heat sink), but not without first duct taping a bit of my 'special' dust filter (yeah, the pantyhose, hehe) to the bottom of the case.

This made quite a difference, as the GPU temperature was now 5?C lower than before.

Temperatures in the middle of July:

Ambient Temperature: 26? C

Core CPU Temperature: 38? C (Stock Intel CPU cooler)
Motherboard Temp : 31? C
GPU Temperature : 47? C
WD Raptor 150 GB : 37? C
WD 500 GB : 35? C

The CPU is a Intel E6550 Core2Duo 2.33 GHz overclocked to 3.40 GHz and the GPU is a ASUS EN8800GT, 512 MB RAM, core bus overclocked from 600 to 715 MHz and memory bus from 900 to 1000 MHz).

Hard disk temperatures should be kept at or ABOVE 35?C, as temperatures lower than this in the first two years are actually more lethal to hard drives than temperatures above 45?C. Optimum temperature range for hard drives is 35-40?C according to a study Google did on their very large hard drive population (PDF link).

Essentially I managed to create two independent horizontal air flow corridors: the first runs at the bottom, cooling the hard drives and the graphics card. The second runs above the graphics card and cools RAM, motherboard chipset and CPU. The exhaust fan at the top of the case also takes care of any remaining hot air that manages to get that far up. My apologies for the quality of the pictures, which were taken with a crappy cell phone camera.

Image Image

I know these air corridors are quite effective because stressing the CPU with Prime95 has absolutely no effect on hard drive and graphic card temperatures, and stressing the graphics card with ATI Tool also has no effect on CPU temperature, if you take into consideration that ATI Tool uses 16-20% CPU.

Here is what the 230 mm side fan looks like with the home-made filter nicely provided by my girlfriend:

Image Image

The second picture was taken with the acrylic cover off - you can see how the pantyhose wraps around the large fan. The visual effect is not too bad, because essentially all you can see from the outside is the brown elastic band that wraps around the fan - really not very noticeable, it is more evident in the first photo because of the high contrast.

So, how effective is it? After 8 months using it, I can say it is surprisingly very effective. Now, don't take me wrong, no fan filter can block every little bit of dust from getting into the case, at least not without seriously restricting air flow.

I noticed than fan blades and other surfaces still had a very thin layer of super fine dust. Then again, so did all the surfaces protected by the foam case filters! This proves pantyhose are at least as effective as the built in case filters at keeping dust out.

Also, when I removed the acrylic window to take this pictures, I patted the pantyhose filter several times with my hand - every time I did this, a very noticeable cloud of dust came out the other side. So although the material makes it hard to see the trapped dust, it is doing its job.

When I installed the Artic Cooler fan at the bottom of the case to help cool down my 8800GT graphics card (this fan really moves a LOT of air), I also covered (from the outside) all the holes at the bottom with pantyhose material:

Image Image

The Artic Cooler fan sucks cold air from the openings at the bottom of the case and throws it right at the graphics card fan/heatsink. Horizontal air current coming from the hard drive cage fans then helps expel the hot air through the holes in the PCI brackets at the back of the case.

I saw a video on YouTube where a guy strapped a 120 mm exhaust fan to the PCI brackets you can see at the left in the first photo - also a nice idea, if you don't have any PCI cards installed.

I didn't see any point in installing a second fan at the bottom, as it would mess with the air coming from the hard drives and disrupt the horizontal air flow that removes the hot hair from the graphics card through the PCI brackets at the back. As I previously stated, I also use the second hard drive cage at the bottom to house a PC speaker taken from an old case, as one was not provided with the Armor+.

To cool my two hard drives (the top is a 150 GB Raptor, the bottom a 500 GB WD) I installed an extra 120 mm fan using the adaptor provided with the case. This helps the built in intake fan at the front maintain an effective air flow across the hard disks.

Image Image

The two hard disks are actually separated by an empty HDD tray at the middle. With summer - and a closed room with no AC - bringing ambient temperatures up to 30?C, I was seeing the Raptor's temperature climb above 42?C, even with the two 120mm fans. Nothing to write home about, but I wanted to keep the temps of both drives between 35-40?C.

I had a 80 mm fan lying around here, so I strapped it to an HDD tray and inserted it between the two hard drives, as you can see in the last picture (at the top you see the Raptor, and that thing below it is the fan sitting inside the tray, which I pulled out a bit to take the picture). The horizontal 80mm fan, with its vertical air motion, actually lowered the temperatures of both hard drives by about 3-4?C, which is what I wanted. :)

Another funny thing I noticed, is that, even with the CPU (a 2.3 GHz Core2Duo E6550 overclocked to 3.4 GHz with a small increase in core voltage) running at 100% load via Prime95, the air coming out of the CPU exhaust fan at the back still feels quite cold! With the core temperatures at 65-67?C, occasionally spiking to 68?C, this was actually quite surprising (idle temps are around 38-40?C, by the way). Guess it means there are no 'dead areas' inside this case and that hot air is being sucked out as fast as it is being produced.

December UPDATE:

Ambient temperature was getting so low that the temperature of the hard disks was more often than not below 28 C, so I decided to remove the 80mm HDD fan I had installed during the summer (I'll put it back in next summer). Temperatures right now are:

Ambient Temperature: 20? C

Core CPU Temperature: 36? C
Motherboard Temp : 27? C
GPU Temperature : 43? C
WD Raptor 150 GB : 33? C
WD 500 GB : 32? C
WD Velociraptor 300 GB: 28?C

I cleaned dust that was building up in the graphics card fan and board circuits with a can of compressed air. This alone was enough to bring GPU temps down from 48?C to 43?C. That's how bad dust is.

As for the Velociraptor, that 'Icepak' passive heatsink attached to it works really well! Too well for this case, in fact, taking into account that the comfort zone for hard disks is 35?C.

Hope this article is helpful to someone, or that at least gives you some ideas. Air flow inside this case is now so effective that, taking the cover off, temperatures drop by 1? or 2? C ONLY! Can't get better than that using air cooling alone, I guess. :)

Author:  winstep [ Wed Dec 17, 2008 11:20 am ]
Post subject: 

Funny how these things are. Just a couple of days after writing the above article, one of my secondary PCs decided to give up the ghost.

The PC that died, a 1.7 GHz P4 with 2 GB of RAM running XP, was actually my previous primary computer.

I don't like to permanently 'retire' old PCs when they are still in perfectly working order, so I usually keep them around for testing and backup purposes. For instance, I still have a very ancient Pentium II 350 MHz with 128 MB of RAM running Win98 SE connected to the network in order to test Winstep Xtreme on Win9x (and its performance on very low end systems), plus a Pentium III 500 MHz with 256 MB of RAM running a Portuguese version of XP which I use to test XP compatibility and localization issues.

Both of the above machines also serve as repositories for backups made over the network.

The machine that died, on the other hand, was very rarely used and didn't really have any useful purpose. I kept it around mainly so I had a 'decent enough' desktop computer in case somebody needed to do some work here, or in case something happened to my main machine (not very likely, plus I have a continuously updated mirror copy of my whole working environment on a Toshiba P200 laptop anyway, so I can work from anywhere and not miss a step in case a catastrophe happens to the primary desktop).

I was switching monitors on the P4 when XP suddenly announced that the video driver had stopped working and I was thrown back to a 16 color VGA display. I turned the machine off and it simply wouldn't turn back on. Could have been the PSU, but I suspect it really was the motherboard. I did try doing some hardware troubleshooting initially, but I just decided it wasn't worth the hassle. It was time to permanently retire the P4, as I also needed the space it was occupying in the room.

Although I am using all four SATA channels of the PK5-SE on my primary system, I still had the single PATA IDE channel free, so I salvaged the 120 GB Western Digital and 80 GB Seagate Barracuda IDE hard drives from the dead system, leaving behind an old 4 GB SCSI Barracuda attached to an Adaptec UW SCSI Adaptor, both of which cost me a lot of money back in 1997 when the SCSI Barracuda was the second fastest hard drive on the planet, right on the tail of the 10,000 RPM Cheeta.

To keep things in perspective, the SCSI Seagate Barracuda, which was state-of-the-art and ultra fast back in 97, features an average read access rate of 5 MB/s. Even the Ultra Wide Adaptec adaptor had a maximum interface throughput of 40 MB/s - now compare that to the Velociraptor's 106 MB/s average read speed and 257 MB/s burst speed.

As a curiosity, I still have a Seagate ST3144A 130 MB hard disk drive working on the WinME system. That drive is nearly 14 years old (it was manufactured back in 1994) and is still going strong!!! A bit past warranty though (they don't make them as they used to anymore, hehe). :wink:

So now I have all 5 vertical hard drive bays occupied (i.e. all the hard disks are stacked on top of each other) for a total of 1.15 Terabytes of storage.

The older IDE 7,200 RPM drives are running at a cool 28-29?C (I kept getting alarms from HDD Thermometer about them reaching 55?C in the other system), the Velociraptor and the WD 500 GB kept their temperatures of 28 and 33?C, respectively, and the 150 GB Raptor saw the temperature go up from 33 to 37?C, a whooping 4?C increase.

No idea why the Raptor was the only drive affected so much, and while 37?C is right in the middle of the optimum temperature range (35-40?C) for hard drives, this will change in the summer. I tried switching the Raptor to another bay where it could possibly benefit a little more from the airflow created by the two HDD fans, but it didn't help.

Having all 5 bays occupied is also going to prevent me from using my 80 mm horizontal fan 'trick' to help decrease hard disk temperatures when summer comes... unless I move one of the drives to the HDD cage at the bottom of the case which is currently housing the PC Speaker. But for now I'll leave it as it is. :D

Ah, and if you think I'm being a bit too obsessive about hard drive temperatures, keep in mind that the only time I had two different drives die on me in quick succession was when they were housed on a PC case which happened to have really terrible ventilation. So hard drive temperatures matter more than you think, and data is priceless!

Anyway, I'll leave you with the average read transfer rates for the 5 hard drives, if you're into that kind of thing: :wink:

WD 1200JB (IDE 120 GB, 7200 RPM, Western Digital): 44.5 MB/s
ST 3802110A (IDE 80 GB, 7200 RPM, Seagate Barracuda): 59.9 MB/s
WD 5000AAKS (SATA 500 GB, 7200 RPM, Western Digital): 68.1 MB/s
WD 1500ADFD (SATA 150 GB, 10,000 RPM, Raptor): 82.1 MB/s
WD 3000GLFS (SATA 300 MB, 10,000 RPM, Velociraptor): 106.8 MB/s

Author:  winstep [ Fri Dec 19, 2008 12:28 am ]
Post subject: 

Ok, removed the PC Speaker from the hard drive bay at the bottom of the case that I was using to house it and found out the speaker is magnetic - so I just 'stuck it' in a corner of the metal case frame.

Moved the Velociraptor to the now empty isolated hard drive cage at the bottom, which enabled me to put the hotter Raptor at the very bottom of the 5 HDD cage, leaving an empty drawer above it (which I can use in the summer to put my 80mm horizontal fan 'cooling solution' if it becomes necessary) followed by the SATA WD 500 GB and the two IDE drives.

New temperature measurements:

Ambient Temperature: 22? C

Core CPU Temperature: 36? C
Motherboard Temp : 31? C
GPU Temperature : 45? C

WD Raptor 150 GB : 34? C
WD 500 GB : 31? C
WD Velociraptor 300 GB: 26? C
WD 120 GB IDE: 28? C
ST Barracuda 80 GB IDE: 29? C

So, I managed to reduce the Raptor's temperature by 4 degrees. Not bad. As a side effect, moving the Velociraptor to that isolated HDD cage also lowered its temperature by 2 degrees.

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