Considering how much expensive hardware PC builders cram into their system, it might surprise you to hear that putting tubes filled with water—the unequivocal enemy of electronics—inside those systems is a pretty common practice. Odd as it may seem at first glance, there’s actually a pretty good reason for it.
The successful operation of a computer is—at its core—a game of heat management. The lower the temps, the better the performance.
As the name suggests, liquid coolers channel water through pumps to carry heat away from the CPU, rather than air like more “traditional” coolers.
While liquid coolers are generally more efficient than their fan-powered counterparts, considering the fact that they carry one of the most hazardous materials to your system, it pays to know: How long do they last?
Custom Cooling vs AIOs
First off, it’s important to note that there’s two types of liquid cooling: Custom tubing, and All in One coolers (AIO).
Custom tubing is the more complicated of the two, as it requires the user to completely assemble the loop: bending tubes into shape, placing the pump and reservoir, and so on. The assembly process itself is outside the scope of this article, but if trying to decide between the two, it’s something to keep in mind.
Even putting that aside, there’s some pretty substantial differences between the two: Custom tubing is an “open system”, meaning it can be taken apart, and the individual parts cleaned and/or replaced. This is not the case for an AIO. While they technically can be disassembled and reassembled, they’re not really meant to be—and tempting fate with water surrounded by delicate electronics isn’t exactly the greatest of ideas.
It should come as no surprise that these differences lead to a distinct difference in lifespan. Custom tubing setups typically make use of rigid tubing, which has a much, much longer lifespan than the soft tubing used in AIOs. Furthermore, their modular nature means that even if one part does break, you don’t need to buy a completely new setup.
That said, while you can expect the tubing itself to last anywhere from 10-20 years, the coolant inside them is a different story. Over time—despite having biocide and lubricant mixed in—the coolant will build up debris and potentially biological growths, slowing down the loop.
Not only does this affect the cooling efficacy of the loop, it puts more strain on the pump, making it more prone to failure. For this reason, it’s recommended to clean out the tubing and replace the coolant once a year at minimum.
On the other hand, the driving engine (literally) of a custom tubing setup is the pump, which keeps water circulating throughout the loop. This means that it’s always running while the computer is powered on, in turn making it the component that takes on the most wear and tear.
Still, though, the pump will generally last around 10 years before failing, at which point it can simply be replaced.
Custom Liquid Cooling Lifespan
Overall, the longevity of custom setups really depends on how well you take care of it. One of my buddies has had a custom loop in his system for more than 10 years, and he’s never had any major issues.
The beauty of custom solutions is that they can last pretty much indefinitely—as long as you’re willing to replace parts as necessary.
AIO Liquid Cooler Lifespan
On the other hand, as the name suggests, an AIO is an all-in-one solution. It contains a pump, a sealed liquid loop, a radiator, and fans. Not only does this make installation much simpler, as it requires the installation of fewer parts, but they also require significantly less maintenance than custom setups.
While you can (and should) clean off an AIO regularly, the fact that it’s a closed loop means that there’s no need to open up, drain, and clean out the tubing itself—leaving the radiator as the main point of concern.
This more hands-off, minimal maintenance approach to liquid cooling comes at a cost, however.
While it is technically possible to disassemble and service an AIO, it’s just not a good idea. If something goes wrong and fluid leaks, chances are you won’t realize it until it’s too late. And while the loop itself is very much closed, air will eventually find its way in, leading to a performance loss, as well as greater wear and tear.
It’s also important to note that the radiator should be placed either higher than the pump, or level with it. Placing the radiator at the bottom slows down the loop cycle, forcing the pump to spin faster to compensate, leading it to break down more quickly.
On average, you should expect a good quality AIO to last somewhere from 3-5 years—though because of the above, it’s recommended to simply replace the entire thing once it reaches the end of its lifespan.
How Long Will A Liquid Cooler Last You?
Anecdotally, I’ve been using NZXT’s 240mm Kraken AIO for around a year now. And yes, part of the reason I chose it was for the little screen on the CPU block. I fully expect it to last around 3 more years going forwards.
In conclusion, the longevity of liquid cooling solutions largely depends on which of the two types you decide to make use of. While custom solutions will generally last longer than an AIO, this longevity stems mainly from the ability to replace separate parts, and the continued maintenance that they require.
If looking to decide between the two, consider how much time (and how often) you want to spend keeping them in working order.