GPU Cooling Modifications

OK it looks a bit DIY or “getto” but breathing new life into an older graphics card by vastly improving its cooling capability and then overlocking its ass off is fun times.

As usual you still need a well ventilated PC case, or an open air rig with some directed air over the card… just to be sure the RAM and other graphics card components still get the love they deserve.

But the real fun comes in replacing those very weak stock graphics card fans with something that really move some air.

Obviously doing these mods to a graphics card will void any warranty they have left, so its really for the mad mechanic.

Level 1 - Replace The Stock Fans (Easy, Low Risk)

Most of the time once the plastic shroud is prised off the graphics card (sometimes harder to do than it should be) You’ll notice the heat pipe cooling solution is quite good but its just not getting the air flow it needs.

The pictures below of the 120mm fans I zip tied onto a MATRIX 280x are an excellent example of a vastly improved cooling solution by simply replacing the fans. After modification I could overlock the card even further than normal with out graphical glitches and it was at least 30% quieter.

This “level 1” cooling modification is really easy to do and I recommend it to any PC gaming enthusiast out there.

The only “pro-tip” I have for this type of modification is when removing the stock fans take note of the original fan specs like voltage and amp, and try to match them as close as you can with the new fans. This is so that the card can still perform its normal fan speed control functions… graphics cards do not “auto detect” the fans they have and are always going to be “factory tuned” to their original stock fans.

As it so happens the 120mm Corsair high pressure PWM fans pictured in the mod below matched the voltage and amp specs of the original fans 1:1


Level 2 - Replace All The Things (Hard, High Risk)

If you are observant you’ll notice that when a new graphics card comes onto the market for the first few months they will usually ship with the “drum fan” style cooling solution. From the outside the graphics card will look like a long closed box with a single large hole towards the end containing a single “drum” fan.

I don’t know why they do this. Its almost as if they push the new model card out to market before they have managed to design a cooling solution for it. But anyway the performance of this cooling solution is 100% shit.   

Once you pull the large plastic shroud off a graphics card that has this type of cooling solution, you should instantly notice that its basically blowing air along the length of the card. Meaning by design it will blow air that has already been warmed by the RAM chips into the grill that is supposed to be dissipating heat from the GPU. Whoever thought this is a good idea is a donut.

The good news is that the price of these first generation cards that ship with his really rubbish cooling solution depreciates greatly after the initial release. Meaning that after a short time you can grab a “first generation” card for a much cheaper price than normal. For example the first batch of the recent Radeon R9 290x graphics cards all had this type of cooling and are now typically $200 cheaper than the second and third batch for R9 290x’s that have better cooling solutions.

So… are you brave? Do you have a bit of mad PC mechanic running around in that PC head of yours?

So this first thing you do is pull it all apart. All of it, and take some photos with your phone as you go so that you remember where everything goes. Especially when you are dismantling the heat pipes or grill as sometimes the little screws are spring loaded.

Once it is 100% dismantled, and you have wiped off the grey thermal paste off the GPU you will notice that the GPU area is roughly the same size as a CPU and will likely fit a new cooling solution.

When replacing the cooling solution completely in this way, its best to think of it like your CPU you can either go a cheap liquid cooling solution (easier) or you can go a replacement air cooled solution.. just like the choices you have for a CPU.

The objective is to get the cooling solution onto the GPU in exactly the same way as you would for your main CPU. Have a look at what can fit into your case and what you can afford before making a decision, and don’t worry about what sort of “socket type” the cooling suitor supports because you are not even going to be doing that at all. Pick a cooler that has roughly the correct surface area for your GPU and you are in the green.

The next step is to get yourself a set of zip ties that are small enough to be threaded through the original screw holes that secured the original copper onto the GPU. You can usually get these cheaply form your local hardware store or sometimes even the supermarket. Just be sure they are of a reasonable quality because they will still need to handle an 80c temperature and not melt or stretch.

There is no right to wrong way to secure your choice of cooler onto the GPU, but here are some pointers to get you started.

  1. The square head of the zip ties is not big enough to pull through the original screw holes in the graphics card PCB. Use this to your advantage when figuring out how you are gong to secure the cooler down.   
  2. Its really difficult to over-tighten zip ties as they have a notch locking system so the threat of over-tightening and cracking your graphics cards PCB is really quite low.
  3. You have a whole bag of zip ties so try out a few different combinations before you decide on a final configuration that works.

Once you have a configuration of zip ties you think will work, take a photo and then cut them all off for your final assembly. You need to re-build your zip attachment solution once more, however this time using thermal paste on the GPU so that the cooler is making contact with it over the largest surface area possible.

When assembling your cooling solution for the final time use a bit less thermal paste than you normally would for a CPU cooling install. Its going to be a bit of tricky origami trying to get it all together in one go so make sure you have a clear working space, plenty of patience and a steady hand. 

Once you have it all assembled don’t put it in your PC straight away. I find its better to leave it for 30mins or so and then re-check all the zip ties are a tight as they can be. It might be voodoo but i like leaving this gap to let the thermal paste ooze where it needs to before firing it up for the first time.

If you have chosen an air solution feel free connect the fan to the original fan power socket on the graphics card. There are a few different models so google search the best way to do this.

Otherwise… and also if you have a chosen a liquid cooling solution, its best to plug all your fans and pump into the motherboard itself. If you have some sort of fan controller for your PC then plunging your new cooling solution into this is even better.


Testing Your New Custom PC Graphics Card Solution Is Working

The easiest way to test your new graphics card cooling solution is working after connecting it all up, is to simply unplug your boot drive form your PC (so the PC never boots to windows) and then turn your PC on.

If you see all the fans spinning or observe the liquid cooler working then you can move onto the next step. Otherwise cut the power, check all your connections and try again.

Be aware that if you have your new fans connected to the graphics card fan header, some graphics cards have a power saving feature that means the fan will only start spinning when a certain temperature is reached. Meaning that you may need to wait a bit longer before you can verify your fan is in-fact not connected properly.

Next, re-connect the boot drive and let your PC boot to windows. After its all booted up go into the AMD catalyst settings or Nvidia control panel and observe the idle temperature of your card… if there are no warnings like a temperature over 40c at idle load with no overclock then you can proceed to the next step.

Next grab a free benchmarking tool like, Unigine Valley and run it in a window (not full screen) so that you can see the AMD or Nvidia control panel temperature display at the same time as the benchmark runs in its own window (Unigine Valley is particularly good choice because it has an on screen temp display baked into it also)  

If everything looks and sounds OK and your max temp is something around the 70c - 80c mark (or even less) then you have a winner!

Before overclocking take the time to get the feel of your new cooling solution. Figure out what the max temp is and how long it takes to climb to that temp under load. Also worth noting is the amount of time your new cooler takes to return to room temperature after its max temp has been reached and the workload is removed. A rapid decline in temperature is a sign of an efficient cooling solution.