Once computers have begun scaling up their performance and power consumption, they have faced a constant and fundamental problem: heat. It’s a by-product of using too much electricity to power up some of the most demanding applications and programs (mostly video games). This has called for a more robust cooling solution, liquid cooling. But that has also spawned another issue; is liquid cooling safe for your computer?
The answer is not as simple as you think.
Because while liquid cooling has gone a long way from its past iterations, your computer is never truly safe from anything. Liquid cooling somehow only increases this risk factor; after all, we learned early on in our lives that electricity and liquid don’t pair well for safety.
Instead of giving a precise and positively misleading yes or no, let’s just have a look at facts to help you decide whether liquid cooling is safe. It’s an expensive cooling solution, after all.
But first, let’s take a look at what makes liquid cooling so dangerous for computers.
How Liquid Cooling Can Ruin Your PC
Liquid cooling works by introducing a closed loop of conductive liquid which draws heat away from the components and onto a radiator or heatsink unit which is then cooled with traditional fans. The liquid is then cooled after passing through the radiator and gets re-circulated back to the hot components so they can draw the heat away again.
This component is usually the CPU and in most computer setups, the CPU is located right on top of the GPU– which tends to be the most expensive component in a gaming PC. Right below the GPU is the power supply or PSU.
Now, imagine if the tube in which the cooling liquid gets cycled somehow managed to become loose or breaks. The liquid will leak and pour straight onto the GPU and if you’re unlucky, right on the PSU, possibly causing a frightening short circuit. This liquid cooling leak can happen due to a number of factors such as (but not limited to):
- Factory defect/low-quality products (lemon batch)
- User/installation error
- Wear and tear
Also, it’s hard to predict where the leak might happen theoretically; so you can probably understand where all the worry and fear for liquid cooling comes from. Because, unlike air coolers, a malfunctioning liquid cooler can and might destroy your computer.
The Failure Rate for Liquid Cooling
So the big question is, how reliable is liquid cooling?
Sadly, it’s likely not a good business idea for a liquid cooler manufacturer to post their statistics about failure rates. Hence, an exact figure is not publicly available. We can only speculate.
Moreover, a few dozen people who have had problems with liquid cooling will be a lot more vocal than those who have had success with theirs so you’ll want to watch out for that kind of cognitive bias.
Let’s say, for example, a liquid cooler or all-in-one (AIO) cooler manufacturer sells out a million units, and only around 100 of those didn’t work– 10 leaked on the board and ruined it. Of course, those 10 would be vocal and might even tarnish the reputation of the liquid cooler unit based on their anecdote; eventually, this can lead to some anecdotal horror stories about the dangers of liquid cooling, because people love to validate their fears and worries or are just feeding their cognitive dissonance.
However, 10 failures out of a million is an incredibly low number and translate to around 0.1% or less than that. Most liquid coolers are assumed to have a catastrophic failure rate of around that percentage– otherwise, there would be too many complaints and it would put the product line out of commission simply due to some oversights that got too overblown.
Thankfully, the usual cases for liquid cooling failure tend to be isolated incidents and are not great representations of batch integrity or overall product quality.
So if you were to purchase a liquid cooler or AIO, chances are, you and your computer are safe as long as you follow the installation instructions correctly. Remember that user error can often be a big factor in computer-related problems. So troubleshooting and general attentiveness are expected for a consumer of your level.
But What If…?
Well, we did say that failure rate and risk are never zero, right? There’s always an off-chance that you or someone else was the negatively chosen one for the factory defect or damaged product.
What exactly do you do if a liquid cooler or AIO destroys your PC?
You’ll be pleased to know that most manufacturers and brands that sell liquid coolers or AIO units will bundle their products with extensive (and intricate) warranties. The average warranty for these liquid coolers is around five to seven years (and you can expect the lifespan of a liquid cooler to be around that, often longer).
This warranty can cover the failure of the liquid cooler’s components. However, it’s not black-and-white. Requests for returns or compensation tend to have an exhaustive review process to eliminate the causes, factors, and ultimately who gets the blame, which determines whether it falls under warranty or not.
Even then, that replacement, compensation, or investigations could still depend on after-sales or customer service, which differs from brand to brand.
There have been isolated and extremely rare (lottery-type rare) nightmare scenarios where the liquid cooler spilled on the GPU and destroyed it. However, these are usually from lesser-known budget AIO or liquid cooler brands. Just to be on the safe side, always check for reviews on sites like Newegg.
The rule of thumb here is also to expect less or the worst from your liquid cooling setup after around five years or more; it’s around that time that the warranty expires and the general assumption is that’s also how long the manufacturers were confident about their liquid cooler or AIO.
There’s Nothing To Worry About, Most of the Time
Still, as we said earlier, don’t feel too dissuaded by rare events, especially if you purchase from big brands that are more expensive than the rest. Remember that you get what you pay for, and sometimes, you’re actually paying an extra premium for the more accommodating or lenient warranty.
Again, there’s a big chance that the highly-rated liquid cooler or AIO you’re considering will work flawlessly (user error notwithstanding). The chances of a reputable and highly-rated liquid cooling destroying your PC are around the same as winning a lottery. And generally, liquid cooling is safe, now more than ever. Things can change until further notice, of course.