How to set up your PC’s fans for maximum system cooling


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Hot hardware is unhappy hardware, so where you place your PC’s fans plays a crucial part in how efficiently your precious components perform. This guide will explain how to set up your PC fans for the best cooling performance—because you didn’t stand in line for days to get your expensive new graphics card just for it to thermal throttle, after all.

There are a few important concepts that you should be aware of when it comes to setting up your various PC fans. Let’s tackle them one by one. The knowledge should flow in quickly—just like the air in a well-configured system.

Airflow direction

case fan airflow 2 Thiago Trevisan/IDG

Let’s start with the basics. How you point your fans determines whether it sucks in cool air or spits hot air out of your system. Some fans will have an arrow indicating the correct flow direction. If they don’t, a good rule of thumb is that air will almost always flow in from the front, where the branding sticker generally is. Air exits out of the back, where the technical information may be written about the fan. Our guide to telling which way your PC fan is blowing can help if you need it.

The type of fan matters too, though much less so than having them all configured in the right way. Fans with higher static pressure are ideal for moving air through dense water-cooling radiators. Fans with high airflow are great as intake or exhaust on your case as they can move large amounts of air.

Positive vs negative airflow

When fans pull in more air than they push out of a PC case, it creates positive pressure. Negative pressure pulls more air out, often creating a vacuum effect. For optimal cooling performance in a standard system, you want to be slightly more on the positive airflow side. (This setup usually results in more dust entering your PC, which you can mitigate with dust filters or more frequent cleaning.)

How do you achieve positive airflow? Easy: Just have more intake than exhaust fans, or run your intake fans slightly faster than your exhaust if they’re in equal number. Speaking of…

Intake vs exhaust

Intake and exhaust placements might be the single most crucial concept for proper fan placement. The idea is simple: Fresh cool air in, hot air out. You generally want to have both intake and exhaust fans. (There can be exceptions to this, such as in small form factor builds.)

case fan airflow 1 Thiago Trevisan/IDG

Example A: Let’s choose the popular Lian Li O11 Dynamic case. A solid fan configuration would include intake fans on the bottom, and exhaust fans on top, as shown in the image above. Fresh air will enter the case, cooling your components. Hot air generated by your hardware rises and will leave through the top exhaust fans.

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