Fractal Era modding: my lack of skill has failed me. For now...
Background informationGaming

Fractal Era modding: my lack of skill has failed me. For now...

Kevin Hofer
Zurich, on 30.12.2020
Translation: Patrik Stainbrook
My dream of a completely water-cooled Mini-ITX PC has been shattered – at least for the time being. And not due to space restrictions – although I should’ve put in more effort there too. It’s all because of the bloody water cooling.

Why? It’s just ridiculous. I’ve spent hours, no days on this project. And I’ve still got some tiny bubbles in my loop. They just float around uselessly. And to think, I’m so close to completing my water-cooled high-end mini PC. How has it come to this?

As a reminder, I modded the Fractal Design Era mini-ITX case by milling a new wooden base pedestal. There’s enough room for exactly two fans. By doing this, I hoped to completely water cool the Era using two 240 radiators.

Fractal Design *Era modding:** can I improve cooling efficiency with a new base socket?
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How I thought it would go

My failure was almost predetermined. I had planned exactly where I wanted to install everything in advance and acquired the components one by one. Months before the project even started, the heart of my water cooling system was already in my cupboard: a CPU block from Barrow with an integrated DDC pump and a small reservoir. You can’t buy this stuff at digitec. I had to order it from China. I had a lot of room to play around with in the Era thanks to the integrated pump and reservoir, and the DDC pump is powerful enough for a dual radiator setup.

The preinstalled CPU block, simultaneously housing the pump and reservoir.
The preinstalled CPU block, simultaneously housing the pump and reservoir.

For the radiators, I decided on two different models. Since there’s only about 25 millimetres of space below the graphics card, I installed the TX240 from XSPC there. It’s only 20 millimetres thick, so it fits in snugly. On top, I’m going with the NexXxoS ST30 Full Copper X-Flow from Alphacool. The advantage of this radiator is that it has one port on the front and one on the back. Since the reservoir is very small and not at the top of the loop, I can fill it via the radiator.

I further relied on fittings from Corsair and Alphacool. I chose soft tubes. On the one hand, this makes replacing components easier later on. I also didn’t have the nerve to install hard tubes in such a small case.

My board turned out to be a Gigabyte X570 I Aorus Pro. The CPU is a Ryzen 9 5950X, while the Radeon RX 6800 XT with a water block from EK takes care of graphics processing. Then there’s 32 GB of RAM thanks to the G.Skill Trident Z Neo. Finally, the SF750 power supply from Corsair rounds everything off.

A bit of milling here, some filing there...

Since I already did some solid work on the foot pedestal mod, there wasn’t much intervention needed. To create access to the ports on the Alphacool radiator, I filed corresponding cutouts into the radiator mount. This was done in the blink of an eye, even the main board containing the CPU, RAM, SSDs and CPU block was quickly installed.

I had to do some filing on the radiator mount on the case to make room for the screw plug.
I had to do some filing on the radiator mount on the case to make room for the screw plug.

The installation of the graphics card turned out to be a bit more complicated: during planning I had overlooked that the graphics card doesn’t have the whole length of the case available due to the radiator ports. I had to shorten the EK water block. Next to the 8-pin PCIe cables, the water block had a design element made of POM with Radeon lettering. I removed it. Unfortunately, even that wasn’t enough, and I had to mill a recess in the back of the PCIe slot bezels so I could insert the card. All of which aren’t unusual interventions in a Mini ITX build.

There isn’t much space between the fittings and the GPU water block.
There isn’t much space between the fittings and the GPU water block.
It’s extremely tight. I even had to cut out some of the slot bezel so I could insert the video card.
It’s extremely tight. I even had to cut out some of the slot bezel so I could insert the video card.

What I unfortunately hadn’t considered: the EK water block has ports which stick out too far. As a result, the graphics card is wider than I’m used to with my current RTX 2070 GPU water block. The Radeon card is unfortunately too wide for the Era and sticks out of the case. The side panel no longer fits on it like that. I was thinking about milling a corresponding recess into the panel so I could mount it to the case. The design of the water block matches the Era quite well, and the Radeon lettering would look cheeky too. I had already thought about building a border out of wood, thereby picking up the design of the base again. Thankfully, I saved myself the effort. I wanted to get the PC running first.

The graphics card is too wide for the case.
The graphics card is too wide for the case.

Thanks to the fittings, I was able to elegantly guide the hoses around the various obstacles without bending them. After that, I set about filling the thing. At that point I still thought the PC would be up and running the next day.

Nothing whatsoever

Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve been sitting in front of the thing for several hours a day for the past few days trying to get the air out of the loop. I can twist and turn as much as I want: it still has air bubbles in it.

The temporary loop: pump – radiator bottom – graphics card – radiator top – reservoir.
The temporary loop: pump – radiator bottom – graphics card – radiator top – reservoir.

In the process, I changed the loop arrangement several times. Initially, I still wanted the pump to lead directly into the upper radiator. However, that didn’t work out at all. Another time I’d connected the lower radiator to the upper one, so the loop was running, but extremely shoddily and with a lot of air bubbles. Finally, I decided on this order: the fill port of the CPU block is connected to the upper radiator. I can then refill the loop at the top. Then it leads from the pump to the lower radiator, from there into the graphics card, then up into the radiator and from there back down into the CPU block.

I suspect my method of filling via the radiator is to blame for not getting the air bubbles out. What do you think? Should I connect an expansion tank in between? Let me know in the comments. I’d appreciate any tips and will get back to you with an update.

Era ITX - Carbon TG (Micro Tower, Small Form)
171.–
Fractal Era ITX - Carbon TG (Micro Tower, Small Form)
X570 I Aorus Pro WIFI (AM4, AMD X570, Mini ITX)
225.–
Gigabyte X570 I Aorus Pro WIFI (AM4, AMD X570, Mini ITX)
Trident Z Neo (2x, 16GB, DDR4-3600, DIMM 288)
215.–
G.Skill Trident Z Neo (2x, 16GB, DDR4-3600, DIMM 288)
980 Pro (1000GB, M.2 2280)
202.–
Samsung 980 Pro (1000GB, M.2 2280)
Black SN850 (1000GB, M.2 2280)
215.–
WD Black SN850 (1000GB, M.2 2280)
NF-A12x25 PWM (120mm, 1x)
41.90
Noctua NF-A12x25 PWM (120mm, 1x)
NF-A12x15 PWM (120mm, 1x)
30.90
Noctua NF-A12x15 PWM (120mm, 1x)

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Kevin Hofer
Kevin Hofer
Editor, Zurich
From big data to big brother, Cyborgs to Sci-Fi. All aspects of technology and society fascinate me.

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