Aquarium PC from PugetSystems

Well we are up and running and we are definitely on the bleeding edge right now. Puget Systems has been great answering questions, but this is the kind of thing where there isn’t much out there on the Internet on what is going on and how to make a mineral-bath PC really work. They essentially assume you are like them doing zillions of builds and the truth is that while I’ve built PCs (probably 7 or so), it is infrequent enough that I forget. So here are the liner notes on how to build an ridiculously expensive computer from Puget Systems. I’m assuming a specific build here to make it concrete. But we have it running and hoping others can learn. But first some resources:

  • Aquarium PC. One man’s build and has better photos as the manual is pretty obscure
  • Puget Systems. The information page for this but the information is a little scattered for their V4 kit
    • Manual. Study this carefully, it isn’t complete but is the guide
    • FAQ. This is actually more like a combo marketing sheet and some FAQs
    • Forum. This isn’t super active, but the president of Puget Systems actually answered so that is wonderful!

 
Design Goals
One of the problems is that there is complete list of what you need to actually build this. The problem of course is that as a nerd you assume you already know exactly what you want. But I guess you learn a bunch from what others did, so here was what we were thinking in adding essentially $700 to building a PC (the kit plus $200 worth of transformer oil). So if you don’t share these goals, then ask on the forums:

  1. Unbelievably fast gaming. The whole point of this was to use the oil to allow much better cooling and therefore run at unbelievable speeds. Mineral oil (aka Transformer oil or informally a clear distillate of petroleum that is non conductive and cheap. It is related to petroleum jelly). Driving the modern day PC is actually pretty hard and the main application is gaming, so this is all about cooling the GPUs. In actual use, the graphics cards draw 4x the power of the CPU (300 watts vs 75 watts). So we are looking at driving three displays at 1080p in 3D at 120Hz.
  2. Absolutely quiet. Since mineral oil is 5x denser than air, you should be able with a large radiator to have a very quiet system too. 10 gallons of transformer oil takes nearly an hour to heat when you are pushing 800 watts into it (which is way more than most systems. Turns out that air cooled systems are actually pretty quiet now which modern fans and coolers, so it more about how you get from whisper quiet. The big exception are the GPU fans which are definitely noisy. In our real world, running graphics Heaven 11 with dual GPUs pegged, so drew about an average of 450 watts. Fan control is going to be a big issue as we want the thing to be silent until the oil heats up so for most uses, it should just cool by convection.

Parts List
So you need to get parts from many different sources to make the whole system work. Puget Systems assume you are a hobbyist and know exactly what you want. So here is a punchlist along with the parts we chose. You can substitute as needed, but at least you will know what is needed:

  • Puget Systems V4 Kit. Has a bunch (but not all!) of the components you need.
  • Processor. Intel 3570K. You want a K model which is unlocked and lets you overclock. Ours overclocks 35% to 4.5GHz which is pretty amazing.
  • Motheboard. ASUS P8Z77-V Deluxe. You can put a monster motherboard in here, but this is an ATX sized board that is top end.
  • Memory. Geil. Turns out that memory isn’t as important anymore and getting to DDR2200 is pretty good. 4 x 4GB gives you plenty of room.
  • Storage. Samsung 830 (now 840). We run this in RAID 0 configuration at SATA 6Gbps. This gives us a modest 512GB of storage but is super fast and perfect for gaming.
  • Graphics. ASUS GTX-670. Running dual GTX-670 in SLI mode. Running this air cooled, I wouldn’t buy the Asus, their cooling fans are just too loud. At load, the chips run at 50C which isn’t bad in the air or in water, they have the same temps.
  • CPU Cooler. Noshua NH-14. You definitely need one for this and this NH-14 is a monster and works incredibly well in air testing and now of course is completely silent
  • Headphones. Corsair Vengeance 1500. Much writing on this, but everyone needs a fantastic headphone for locating sounds. This one works well
  • Mouse. Razer Widow. A really nice optical mouse
  • Mouse pad. Razer Goliath Medium. Need a nice one
  • Keyboard. Razer keyboard. Actually way too expensive but now that we are back to mechanical, I can’t ever go back.
  • Fans. 9x Nexus SilentX. Actually we used a much more expensive $20 set, but the $10 Nexus works just fine at the low RPMs they are spinning at.
  • Fan Grills. Buy $2 fan grills
  • Fan Connectors. 3x Modmypc 3-to-1 fan connectors. These are needed to connect the nice fans to the Fan 1 and 3 headers on the motherboard so they can be temperature controlled.
  • Monitors. 3x ASUS 278HE. These are three displays at 1080p
  • DVI Cables. 3x Monoprice cables.
  • UPS. Cyberpower. With a system as complex as this the last thing you want is to have the thing die, the Cyberpower only allows 3 minutes at full power, but smooths the cycles
  • USB Keys. Kingston 16GB. These are USB 3.0 keys and are the way to get data across and back particularly getting Windows to boot on this.
  • Optical. I’m not quite sure why we need this and would probably drop it in the future, but did get a USB Bluray drive from Samsung.
  • Transformer Oil. STE 2×5 gallons 70 weight and food grade. They hae a dedicated 12 gallon kit, but at least in our build, we only need 10 gallons.
  • Antistatic. Goto Newegg and get an antistatic mat, antistatic gloves and antistatic wrist. Connect these are to something that is grounded.
  • Games. The most intensive are Battlefield 3, Metro 2033 and Crysis 2. All are great games too by the way, but they really stress the system.
  • Stand. You need this for the aquarium and it should be strong. We used an Ikea butcher block rolling thing that is normally for the kitchen so it was easy to move around. You might also want spill protection in case the aquarium leaks. We put out a waterproof sheet and long term want to put a tub or something underneath as 10 gallons of oil will make a huge mess.

Installation Instructions
This includes every step we took to get this running. It is quite complicated to get the hardware figured out and then getting ASUS software and getting the overclocking working is yet more complicated. The overview is that you first assemble the chassis and a the hardware and run in it the air for a while to make sure it is stable and running, then you do the oil pour and retest it all again. So here is the cookbook integrating everything we know from our install:

  1. Order the components from pugetsystems.com and then compare newegg.com and amazon.com for prices as they are usual close but you can save a few dollars one way or the other.
  2. Open up the Puget Systems V4 kit, follow the instructions. There a few pieces of heavy lucite, just be aware that the bottom piece can be installed either way (it is not keyed!), so you have to look carefully, but you want the open space to be on the right when you do the install. We installed it backwards and then nothing fits right.
  3. The screws that put the lucite together are quite funky. Somehow you have to hold the nuts while turning them. We just did it finger tight because there is no way we could find to hold the nuts with a conventional screwdriver.
  4. Put the handles on with the screws provided.
  5. One point of controversy for us is still whether we should try to remove the paper that is on the lucite. The drawings seem to say yes, but this isn’t an explicit step in the instruction manual. And the paper seems not to just peel off, but seems quite stuck.
  6. When you get the three parts done, make sure the left and right are correct. Again, these are not keyed, so it is easy to get backwards.
  7. Install the pump on the left hand side and the fittings. There seem to be quite a few extra parts here and it is not clear where the clamps go. It also has a Molex connector and fan connector and you seem to need to attach both.
  8. Put on all your antistatic gear, don’t wear a big wool sweater, mat should go down, put on the wrist strap and gloves and ground everything. It is easy to zap things, so be careful.
  9. Open up the fan, this has a special bracket that you need to put behind the motherboard and you need to hold that in place.
  10. Put the motherboard onto the base. There are a set of provided brass screws that act as a standoff. There are a zillion holes drilled on the bottom. If you find the screws don’t match then you likely installed the base backwards.
  11. There is usually a plate with the labels for the various connectors. We tried to put this on on the inside, but there just wasn’t enough room, so we just stuck the plate on the outside of the lucite. Seemed to work OK.
  12. Now you can install the CPU. Be careful about this, but you want to open the CPU box and then there is ZIF socket on the motherboard. open the ZIF handle and then just drop the CPU in. Since thse are ball connections at least you can’t bend the pins. But make sure you have the right orientation. The CPU has a little diamond on it, it should match the diamond on the socket (usually the upper left looking from the front of the motherboard). Close the little flip.
  13. Install the Ram, you need to take off the coolers that are on the two DRAMs that are closest to the CPU. These won’t fit under the huge Noctua cooler. It is a set of phillips screws that takes off the cooler units. Push the RAM in and hear a satisfying click when they are in.
  14. Now you put a 2mm dab on the CPU itself from the supplied tube in the Noshua cpu cooler box. Just put a tiny bit on and put the cooler block on top and screw it on. It is a massive thing and you want to put the two NH-14 fans in (make sure you have correct orientation so the flow goes away from the power supply on the right when you are looking from the front of the motherboard. Connect the fans to CPU FAN and the CPU OPT connectors that are right next to it.
  15. Install the power supply on the right, connect the 20 pin and 4 pin for the CPU together and put into the main power that is at the front of the motherboard.
  16. Connect the additional 4 pin power connectors that is additional CPU power, this is between the motherboard and the power supply.
  17. Open up the two SSDs and use the 3.5 and 5.25 brackets on each side and put behind. Find the gray SATA cables. These are for 6GB operation and thread both a Molex SATA power from the Power supply and then connect the SATA cables to the gray connectors. Wend the connection next to the CPU on the left.
  18. Now open up the two GTX cards. Place them into the slots that are closest to the CPU.
  19. Find the SLI bridge which came with the motherboard, place that on the connector at the top of the two graphics cards
  20. From the power supply, connect the eight pin power connectors to each, you will also need to plug an additional 6 pin worth of power as well.
  21. Now you are going to do the radiator. Take it out of the box and add the hose connections and the stand feet with the included screws.
  22. Take out the nine fans and fan grills make sure they blow the right way. We used a suck, so put the fans on the outboard side to draw heat through it. There are screws included in the radiator set that are long 1 inch ones, put the grill on the fan and then screw them in.
  23. Now take 3 sets of fans and connect them to the 4 connects to single fan header. Put these into FAN 1 and FAN 3, FAN 4 on the motherboardsnaking by the CPU and the GPUs. This will let you control the speed of the radiators in software depending on the cpu temperature and other factors.
  24. Open up the monitors and connect them to the three of the four DVI connectors on the two GPUs.
  25. Plug in the UPS and plug the power supply and the monitors into it and then to 120V.
  26. Connect the mouse to the keyboard USB port
  27. Connect the optical drive, keyboard and headphones to the right most USB ports (these are the ones that will work first, the others won’t because you need a separate driver!).
  28. You are now ready to try to boot the system. You want to boot it without any oil cooling to validate the system works and burn it in as you lose all your warranties as soon as you dunk!
  29. Hit the power button and pray that a monitor lights. If you smell smoke or whatever power it off and check all the connections.
  30. You should now boot into the BIOS and wander around to see it is all working. At this point you want to configure the two SSDs into RAID 0 so you get a single logical drive that is 512GB and should also be hyper fast as well.
  31. While you can use a UsB key, Windows 7 and the ASUS drivers both come on CD, so put Windows 7 into the optical drive and boot from it and install Windows 7.
  32. load the ASUS drivers and do the same and you should now have Wifi and the ethernet working.
  33. Now spend a few hours running Windows Update to get it up to date and then go to the ASUS.com site and load the latest ASUS drivers (4GB worth!). The main one you want is AISuite II, but you also need all the many drivers from Realtek for audio and LAN as well as the SATA drivers.
  34. Install the latest nvidia drivers from nvidia.com and also the gpu-z, cpu-z, speedfan, evga precision x, Heaven 11 benchmark tools and Prime95 by doing a quick google search these.
  35. Run the pixel clock patcher from ToastyX to get rid of the 400MHz clock limitation in the latest drivers. We actually had trouble with this as the drivers then became unsigned, but you want to do this otherwise you max out at 84Hz in SLI mode. Hopefully ToastyX will fix this soon.
  36. Go to the nVidia control panel (right clock on the icon) and setup the display mode to 3 monitors and then run the surround, you should get to 1920×3 horizontal and 1080 pixels vertical.
  37. Run Fan Xpert 2 from the AISuite II menu and hit auto fan. This should find all the fans from the CPU, CPU OPT, and FAN 2, 3, 4 for the radiators. You can play with this, but I normally have the fans off until the CPU gets to 30C and then run it full up at 50C. The CPU with the Nashua shouldn’t get to more than 50C even at low (it is a great cooler). For the three radiator fans, we had one FAN 2 go on first at 30C, then FAN 3 at 40C and finally FAN 4 at 50C, so again the cooling is gradual and quiet.
  38. Run eVGA and do the same for the GPU. The GPUs don’t get to above 50C normally when running at full fan, so I leave the fans off until 30C and then gradually increase them. This makes for a whisper quiet system by the way normally although the ASUS fans are load at full speed.
  39. Run prime 95 for a day and run heaven 11 for a day to make sure the system is stable without any overclocking. Also install Battlefield 3, Metro 2033 and Crysis 3. Verify that the fan control is working properly by watching how the fans spin, in particular the radiator fans should all spin properly. If you tighten the grills too much then the fans won’t spin, so loosen as appropriate.
  40. Now you are ready to try overclocking. Go to AISuite and run the TurboEVO automatic overclocking tool. For a 3.5GHz part like the 3570K, you should easily be able to get to 4.5GHz (with ours, we we got to 43 clock per cycle and 107MHz on the main bus). The ASUS tool is pretty good at this
  41. Run Prime95 and heaven 11 again to make sure this is stable.
  42. Now we move to overclocking the GPUs. Use the EVGA Precision+ to set the voltage to maximum of 1.175V and also the power allowed to the maximum (112%) to prevent the system from artifically slowing down.
  43. Now increase the clock on the GPUS (run this in sync mode on the EVGA) to 1150Mhz (for us, this was adding 51MHz to the clock speed). make sure to turn vsync off in the nVidia control panel under 3D. Run the heaven 11 benchmark and leave it running a little for stability. Increase by 20MHz until it crashes and then back off by 10MHz and back up by 5MHz, etc until it is stable.
  44. Now overclock the GPU memory, go up by 100Mhz until a crash then back off 50MHz, then up by 25MHz to get to a stable overclock. Our runs fine at +200MHz, although some say it can go up to 400MHz. Again run benchmarks
  45. Now play Battlefield 3, Metro 2033 a bit and in Battlefield change the field of view to 90 as you have three monitors. You now have a stable system as an aircooled system. Run this as long as you like. We did it for a week because you want to see components fail before you put it into the oil. We for instance had the power supply get noisy and used Amazon’s replacment policy to get a new one.
  46. When you are happy with this performance, you are ready to add the oil. First connect the Molex pump power and then put the fan connector into FAN2 on the leftmost side. Turn the thing on and you should
  47. The STE oil comes in five gallons and you have to snip off the top lid and then pull the second. This is very messy by the way, so have towels around it. With this setup, 10 gallons is exactly right for a 12 gallon tank plus what this setup displaces, but you should fill 9 gallons and then do the remaining gallon by hand. We left about 1 inch from the top for the oil.
  48. Now disconnect all the cables and do the dunk! Reconnect all the cables and turn it on and pray.
  49. When you turn it on, you should see the burbling from the pump and all the fans should spin. We have had some issues while in the oil (see below) with the Noshua fans not spinning and reporting no rpms (see below), but otherwise it has worked like a charm.
  50. Rerun the benchmarks and see how the temperatures have gone. We’ve found the CPU temperatures to be lower at a given load and the GPUs about the same.

Open Questions and Issues
Here is what I don’t know

  • 3G vs 6G SATA. Apparently there are a bunch of different standards here and you have to pay attention to putting the SATA cables into the grey or blue connectors on the board. Grey I think is the right connector. Turns out you have to put them into the 6G SATA and you need special thick SATA cables. Argh. So I think they are in the right connectors, but the cables need to be changed.
  • Water pump. This seems to run full bore at 4500 rpm. We should have tested out of the oil, but didn’t. I’m wondering if it is speed controllable. It had both a fan connector and a regular molex connector and we did both. This is a strange beast with a four pin fan connector with only two pins on and then a molex connector for 5V power. I’m guessing, the two going to the fan connector are the fan speed (as I can see how fast the pump is going) and a PWM signal, but I need to find the underlying pump documentation. The pump seemed to go high and low for a while but now just reports stuck at 4500 RPM. Nor sure how to manage the PWM fan like this but could be a problem with the fan expert 2.
  • NH-14 isn’t spinning and CPU fans read as not available.. Right now it reads as not running. I can see one fan running but the other looks like it is windmilling. A visual inspection shows both of the fans still plugged into the headers, so pretty wierd. Maybe these big Noshua fans are too low powered to spin in oil. We had to disable the CPU fan speed monitoring (in the BIOS) to get the system to boot.
  • Disk benchmarks. We didn’t benchmark and validate our SSD setup to make sure RAID 0 is really worth it etc. Should do that shortly.
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