Rebuilding my computer

Over the past 2 weeks I’ve been “upgrading” my old Dell M166a into something a little faster. Since there is a lot of noise where I work, I wanted a quiet PC. So, I decided to give water cooling a try. Here are some (actually, quite a few) pictures of the construction and results.

But first, the finished product.

This is my first attempt at watercooling, and none of it would have been possible without the generous donation of a Ford Festiva radiator from my mother-in-law and some very generous help in plumbing from my grandfather-in-law. Thank you both so much! (This picture is of one of her working Festivas, not the parts car that my radiator came from. As far as I know, its the smallest automotive raidator you can get.)

This is the radiator with the 2 fittings we had to make in order to fit it to the PC’s watercooling setup (3/8″ vinyl tubing).

Getting the ATX motherboard in a proprietary Dell case took a little dremel work, but it was a good fit. I removed all the original plastic paneling from the case, except the “foot” on the bottom.

It seemed like the best way to mount the radiator was against the closed side of the case, but the radiator’s drain hose (on the bottom of the radiator) prevented me from resting it on the floor. So, I had to find some way to keep it in place.

At first, I planned to use sheet metal which I got for $20 at Home Depot. It was a very overpriced piece of zinc, and I had no tools to make precise enough bends to do what I wanted to do… so I returned it and took advantage of this old Compaq PC instead. I was actually able to use the side and top pieces of the cover to do everything I needed to do.

The size of the Compaq case was a good match for the Dell case, and only required a little cutting to trim the excess pieces of metal (like the metal tracks for its original case).

I used a sheet metal nibbling tool to make the cuts. This tool is able to make very clean and straight cuts, as well as 90 degree corners. Its also good when you’re doing construction late at night and don’t want to wake up the neighborhood with the sound of a jigsaw cutting sheet metal.

The result is some very nice flaps to hold up the radiator.

The bolts that held the radiator onto the Festiva were rusted and had broken off when I removed it from the car, so I had to drill through them and use some stiff wire (coat hanger) to fasten the radiator to the flaps. The steel of the bolts was too much trouble for a sheet metal screw, and they were too deep to use even long rivets. Oh well. After wiring the bottom end of the radiator, I bolted the Compaq case to the Dell case.

With the radiator attached, it was time to check the fit of the fan. This fan came out of some old telecom equipment, which I just had lying around (I am addicted to collecting electric motors, particularly fans).

Like most telecom equipment, the fan normally operates at 48VDC but I plan to run at 12VDC so it will be quieter.

The plan is to draw air through the radiator into the 2″ gap between the radiator and the case (caused by the mounting hardware on the radiator), and have it exhaust out the top.

I used the other piece of the Compaq case to make the mounting for the fan, and took advantage of its metal tracks to grip the corner of the Dell case. In this photo, I haven’t finished cutting — it took me 3 or 4 gradual cuts to make it fit just right.

This is the top panel with the hole for the fan cut into it. I scraped all the paint off with a dremel flapwheel, which was in preparation for a paint-on rust solution that I’m about to apply.

While that dried, I assembled part of the water circuit. I wanted an easy way to drain the system, so the valve is at the very bottom of the loop. This piece also helpes the tubing make the 180 degree turn as it enters the case.

The rust solution worked great! I sanded down the parts that didn’t quite rust (places where I had neglected some paint) and put on a second coat.

Next, I had to make a new side cover for the case, which I did with some plexiglass-type material (not plexiglass, not lexan… something “in between” in terms of quality) and some expanded steel. I ended up getting a smaller piece of zinc sheet metal from Home Depot to make the edges, then I just drilled and riveted the whole thing together. I got a nice hinge for it as well.

Then, I applied some plastic primer to the case’s original front panel. This is to prepare the surface for some of that rust paint.

To make the fan assembly easy to remove and replace, I soldered in a small plastic wiring harness that came off an old excercise bike (also my mother-in-law’s, I believe). The wire goes through existing holes in the top of the case and connects to the power supply via an in-line molex connector I got from a worn-out CPU fan. I also installed a heavy duty toggle switch to turn the fan on and off.

I attached the new door to the case with sheet metal screws, and used a spring latch for a cabinet so it snaps shut with a satsfying click. The metal work for the new case is now completed.

I picked up a submersible thermometer for the radiator, which I had to cut and re-solder to get it through the radiator’s reservoir-hose spout. It goes up to 60 degrees C, which will hopefully be more than I need.

Next, I had to figure out the pinout of the Dell cable and solder on the proper connectors.

Dinner! Homemade chicken marsala. Mmmmmm. The plate is resting on the only clean part of my kitchen; everything else is covered with tools, supplies, and metal shavings.

Time to make the coolant mix. The ingredients are distilled water (de-ionized to protect the metal), anti-freeze (corrosion protection), anti-fungal chemicals, anti-bacterial chemicals, and anti-algal additives to prevent anything from growing in there.

I decided that the existing front to the Thermaltake Aquabay wouldn’t match the work that I had done, so I used yet another piece of the Compaq case to make a rusted-looking replacement for it. I cut a jagged hole with the dremel for the window to the reservoir.

I used the flapwheel again to get rid of the protective coating on the steel. For a window to the flow meter, I cut a bunch of grooves on the back of the panel then punched through it by hitting a socket wrench with a hammer.

I think it came out well. This is also the first picture I have of the rust-painted front cover.

Here is the finished product!

The radiator works better than expected; after 2 hours of running the cpuburn utility, I could not get the temperature to go above 27 degrees C. The typical operating temperature for this CPU is 40 degrees with forced air cooling! Hopefully this will mean a long life for the processor, since I do not intend to overclock it — all I want is a quiet PC, and I’m happy to say I’ve achieved it. I think it looks damn cool, too.

Some final shots: the top

…the side…

…the back side (with the thermometer)…

…and finally, a before and after shot. (The “before” shot is actually my sister’s computer from high school — we got the same model.)