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Everything You Needed To Know About AIO Orientation

Everyone’s doing liquid cooling or AIO (all-in-one) cooling nowadays, and it’s no surprise. Processors are becoming more powerful and the amount of heat they generate is just absurd especially when gaming, editing videos, or rendering 3D models.

But what most people assume is that AIO liquid cooling is all the same, when in fact, it all depends on the brand and make of the cooling system. To properly install your AIO coolers, you need to know a thing or two about AIO orientation and how it affects the performance of the system.

And that’s what we’ll be discussing in this article…

Which Is It? Top, Middle, or Bottom?

The biggest debate when it comes to the proper orientation is its mounting. More specifically, mounting your radiator and the flow of the tubes.

You’d think that manufacturers should’ve at least told you where to mount the radiator, but unfortunately, it’s vague. No two manufacturers will have the same set of mounting guide, as seen here from our example. Here, we have the mounting guide for the MSI Coreliquid 240R AiO

On a more serious note, this is the epicentre of the debate surrounding AiO water cooling mounting. More specifically, the radiator and flow direction of the cooling tubes. Knowing where you should mount your new radiator should be a breeze, and you would think manufacturers have this core piece of information in their literature. The mounting of your water cooling system is – at best – open to interpretation or – worse still – quite vague in most manuals.

MSI Mag Coreliquid AIO Orientation

For instance, here’s the mounting guide for the MSI Coreliquid 240R AiO, which has long been a best seller at CCL. 

MSI Coreliquid Mounting Manual AIO Orientation

The radiator is mounted at the top of the case, which also happens to be the most preferred orientation by a lot of PC builders. But how come people over at Reddit’s r/PCMasterRace would often scoff at others who mount the radiator top side? How bad, or how well, does a topside orientation affect the performance overall?

Why Does The Location of the AIO Radiator Matter?

Before we talk about AIO orientation, we need to first understand your AIO radiator.

The radiator is basically the heatsink. Your liquid cooler will route the cooling solution through the tubes and passing through the CPU/GPU blocks. The cooling solution absorbs the heat coming from the CPU/GPU and runs it across the pipes until it reaches the radiator. The heat is then expelled through the radiator’s fans. In contrast, your traditional air coolers will run a cycle of pulling cold air into the system and expelling hot air out continuously.

As you can see, there’s no difference in term of functionality between a water cooling system and an air cooler. It just so happens that water cooling systems are more efficient in heat dissipation than air coolers.

Having said that, you would think that people who run with an AIO system would think twice about where to place their radiators. But most PC builders will run different configurations for their systems.

According to Reddit, where you place your radiators will affect your system’s temperatures differently. A front-mounted radiator had lower temperatures by about 10 degrees less than a top-mounted radiator, all while using a standard open-air GPU.

Does this mean that front-loaded radiators are the way to go? Well, yes and no. Temperatures are within the normal range even if you’re using a top-mounted radiator. The biggest issue with using a top mount radiator is that an open-air GPU will seep in hot air to the radiator. This actually makes the radiator work twice as hard.

On the other hand, a blower-style GPU will expel heat directly outside of the case, so using a top mounted radiator shouldn’t be an issue since it won’t have to deal with excess heat.

Tubes Pointing Up or Tubes Down? Does It Even Matter?

We’re done talking about the radiator. Another big issue that we have to talk about is the orientation of the tubes.

Now, first time users of an AIO liquid cooler would probably focus more on tube orientation for the sake of aesthetics, or if they simply don’t know any better. Having your tubes pointing to the right direction could mean the difference between efficient heat dissipation and lackluster AIO cooler performance.

If your tubes are pointing the wrong direction, it will make your AIO work harder than it should. You’re also putting your system at risk for getting excess air into the loop, which could damage the system in the long run.

The main reason why knowing if your tubes should point up or down from the radiator is that it directly affects your pump’s overall health.

The pump is usually built into the CPU block, but some models will place the pump right alongside the radiator. The pump ensures that the liquid is circulating properly throughout the system. If your pump isn’t working properly, your AIO liquid cooler isn’t working properly. It’s as simple as that.

So which is actually better for your AIO pump?

The sad thing is that there’s no DEFINITIVE ANSWER on which tube orientation is the best. It depends on how you’ve actually mounted your radiator.

How Should You Mount The Radiator?

We’re now talking about the radiator again. How you mount the radiator will depend on the case you have. Majority of cases in the market right now will allow you to mount either a 240mm or 280mm radiator for AIO liquid cooling. You’ll see mounts for both the top side and the front side.

Common orientations for AIO radiators are as follows:

  • Front mount radiator with tubes at the top
  • Front mount radiator with tubes at the bottom
  • Top mount radiator with tubes at the bottom
  • Top mount radiator with tubes at the left
  • Top mount radiator with tubes at the right
  • Bottom mount radiator with tubes on the right
  • Bottom mount radiator with tubes on the left

Please note that bottom mounted radiators are usually installed in Mini ITX cases, due to the fact that manufacturers have to deal with limited space issues.

Top Mounted Radiator AIO Orientation

PCs running open-air graphics card will often go for for a front mounted radiator with tubes pointing down. This kind of configuration would allow your pump to work without any hindrances, but the issue here would be the cable management since you have to route the cables differently.

Will Radiator Placement Matter For Custom Loop Systems?

Custom loop systems are the AIO liquid cooler’s most expensive sibling. Both custom loops and AIO coolers work the same way, except that the former is built differently and as the name implies, everything is built from the ground up.

Simply put, radiator placement will not be an issue for custom loop systems because they’re just built differently. The pumps, radiators, tubes, and liquids are all handpicked, so they’re more durable.

The only downside is that you have to do a lot more maintenance and you’ll need to spend more money to set things up.

What If I Went For The Wrong Mounting Orientation?

What is actually going to happen if you used the wrong AIO orientation? How detrimental is a wrong orientation?

The biggest issue with using the wrong orientation is the access to excess air. Small quantities of air in excess can end up damaging your system in the long run. This is because air can cause problems for your pump. Remember, when your pump and radiator end up working harder than they should be, you end up shortening the system’s life span.

On top of that, you also have to deal with the following issues:

  • Noise – A radiator that’s mounted the wrong way can lead to unwanted noises coming from the AIO liquid cooling system. Remember, AIO coolers are marketed to be more silent than your traditional air coolers. Under normal loads, pumps make a certain level for noise. Introducing air bubbles into the system can cause gurgling, whining, and choking noises. The reason why you get these noises is because the pump and radiator are working harder than they should. Air bubbles can also cause rattling sides as they bump across the pump’s sides.
  • Temperatures – CPU temperatures are going to be higher than they should when you mount the radiator improperly. This is because the liquid isn’t moved efficiently, so heat dissipation isn’t optimal due to the unwanted air inside.

Wrapping It Up

AIO liquid coolers are great at what they do when it comes to making sure that your CPU and GPU are as cool as possible even under heavy workloads. AIO coolers are also more affordable than custom loops but slightly more expensive than traditional air coolers.

AIO coolers will have the same parts, from the water block to the radiator to the tubes. But it will depend on the brand and make. That’s why it’s important for you to know how to properly mount the radiator for your AIO.

If your mounting is done incorrectly, you’ll end up with different issues ranging from higher than normal CPU temperatures to higher noise levels. Worst case scenario, your AIO cooler ends up with a shorter life span. On average, you should be replacing your AIO system when they’re more than five years old. An improperly mounted radiator can force you to replace your system in a few years.