Does RTX 3090 need liquid cooling?

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Written By Dominic Howard

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The Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090 is currently the most powerful consumer graphics card on the market. With its massive 24GB of video memory and GA102 GPU, the RTX 3090 delivers unrivaled performance for gaming, creative workloads, and more. However, the RTX 3090 is also known for running extremely hot under load. This has led many to wonder if liquid cooling is necessary to properly cool and maximize the performance of the RTX 3090.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll examine if the RTX 3090 truly needs liquid cooling or if air cooling solutions are sufficient.

RTX 3090 Thermal Overview

The RTX 3090 has a total graphics power (TGP) of 350W. For reference, the previous generation RTX 2080 Ti had a TGP of 260W. This means the 3090 generates significantly more heat than prior flagship cards.

Nvidia recommends a minimum 650W power supply for RTX 3090 builds. Adequate power delivery is critical to extract the most performance from the 3090. Insufficient power can lead to instability or throttling under load.

The RTX 3090 uses the new Ada Lovelace architecture. This shrinks the transistor size from 12nm to 7nm. The smaller process allows Nvidia to pack more cores and memory into the GA102 GPU. However, the tradeoff is a dense chip that runs hotter.

With a boost clock of 1.7 GHz, the RTX 3090 can hit temperatures over 90°C with demanding workloads. Power draw also exceeds 400W in some cases. This combination of heat and power draw makes thermal management incredibly important for the 3090.

Air Cooling the RTX 3090

The RTX 3090 ships with a dual-axial air cooler from Nvidia. It utilizes a large vapor chamber and thick heatsink array to manage heat. This is similar to the Founders Edition coolers used on prior generation cards.

In reviews, the stock RTX 3090 air cooler is able to maintain the boost clock under gaming loads. However, it still reaches 80-84°C in thermally intensive games like Metro Exodus. The card is also clearly audible when the fans spool up to cool the GPU.

Aftermarket RTX 3090 cards from AIB partners like Asus and EVGA offer larger coolers with more heat pipes and fans. These beefed-up designs provide slightly improved thermals compared to Nvidia’s reference cooler. But GPU temperatures still average in the 70-80°C range in demanding games.

For example, the Asus TUF RTX 3090 sees temperatures around 75°C while gaming. The EVGA FTW3 RTX 3090 reaches 70-75°C as well. So even with maxed-out air coolers, GPU temperatures are still quite high.

Most air-cooled RTX 3090 cards will hit 80-84°C in stress testing or heavy workloads. They are able to maintain the rated boost clock, but the GPU is clearly still heating up significantly.

While safe for the silicon, operating at 80°C+ for extended periods does impact longevity to some degree. It also means the RTX 3090 is producing copious amounts of heat dumped into your PC case.

Liquid Cooling the RTX 3090

Liquid cooling has become increasingly popular with high-end hardware like the RTX 3090. A water block can make direct contact with the GPU die for drastically improved heat transfer.

Custom loop liquid cooling setups are the most effective at cooling a GPU. With a beefy radiator and fans, an open loop can keep an RTX 3090 at 40-50°C under heavy loads. However, open loops require maintenance, have the risk of leaks, and are quite expensive.

A more accessible option is an AIO (all-in-one) liquid cooler. These are closed-loop coolers with the water block, tubing, and radiator pre-filled and sealed. RTX 3090 AIO options from Arctic, NZXT, Corsair, and others can easily mount to the graphics card.

Benchmarks show an RTX 3090 AIO will reduce temperatures by 20-30°C on average versus air cooling. This keeps the GPU under 60°C even in demanding loads. An overclocked 3090 that might hit 84°C on air stays below 70°C with an AIO.

RTX 3090 AIO coolers like the Arctic Liquid Freezer II 240mm and 360mm manage noise well also. By using a dedicated radiator with larger fans, they don’t need to ramp RPMs up as high as a stock blower fan. Even at full load, the fans stay relatively quiet.

Liquid cooling also prevents recirculating hot air inside your case. With an air-cooled card, the 300W+ of heat soaks your CPU, RAM, drives, and the rest of the components. Liquid cooling dissipates this heat outside the case through the radiator.

Liquid Cooling Performance Benefits

Beyond better temperatures, liquid cooling also unlocks more performance from the RTX 3090. Lower temperatures mean the GPU can sustain higher boost clocks for longer. Especially in non-traditional PC cases like small form factor builds.

For example, the Raijintek Morpheus II cooler added an average of 50 MHz over the stock RTX 3090 Founders Edition clock speeds. Similarly, the NZXT Kraken G12 and X53 cooler boosted an RTX 3090 by around 30-40 MHz generally.

With a beefier 360mm AIO liquid cooler, the gains can be even higher. The large radiators maintain coolant temperature so well that temperatures stay low even at a sustained 100% GPU load.

An overclocked RTX 3090 under liquid cooling can maintain 2.1 GHz or higher on the core in some cases. On air, the temperature would spike and force downclocking with the same overclock applied.

Memory overclocking also benefits from liquid cooling. GDDR6X runs very hotly, and reducing the core temperature gives more thermal headroom for the VRAM. A liquid-cooled 3090 can generally achieve +1500 MHz or higher on the memory.

Finally, liquid cooling also extends the longevity of the graphics card. By keeping temperatures 20-30°C cooler, the overall lifespan of the silicon sees improvement. Electronic migration effects are reduced at lower temperatures.

Liquid Cooling Concerns

While liquid cooling can transform temperatures and noise levels for the RTX 3090, there are some downsides to consider as well:

  • Added cost – A quality AIO liquid cooler for GPUs costs $100-200 depending on size. Custom loop components drive costs even higher.
  • Potential for leaks – Closed loop coolers mitigate this, but any liquid cooling system intrinsically carries risk. Proper mounting is critical.
  • Condensation potential – Large delta-T between coolant and room temp can lead to sweating on the tubing. Needs to be monitored.
  • Maintainance – AIO units are maintenance-free, but custom loops require periodic topping off coolant as water permeates through the tubing over time.
  • GPU die contact – Applying too much mounting pressure can damage the GPU die. Thermal paste application is also important.
  • Warranty considerations – Installing liquid cooling may void the GPU manufacturer’s warranty depending on the brand.
  • Added weight – With tubing and radiator, liquid cooling adds more weight to the GPU sagging in the PCIe slot. May require a brace.

So liquid cooling is not strictly plug-and-play. Proper installation and maintenance are required to utilize it safely. And it may not be supported by the OEM warranty.

Liquid Cooling Recommendations

Given the RTX 3090’s thermal demands, we think liquid cooling is justified for a few specific use cases:

  • 1. Overclocking – To maximize overclocking headroom, liquid cooling is almost mandatory. The reduced temperatures allow much higher stable clocks.’
  • 2. SFF builds – In small form factor cases with limited airflow, an AIO liquid cooler is an excellent way to tame the 350W TDP.
  • 3. Noise-sensitive applications – For silent computing, liquid cooling is a great solution. It effectively eliminates the blower fan ramping up and down.
  • 4. Critical workloads – If the RTX 3090 is being used for business or high-value computing, liquid cooling ensures maximum performance and stability.

However, for many users an air-cooled RTX 3090 is likely still sufficient:

  • In a well-ventilated ATX case, air coolers still get the job done. Temperatures are kept in check though the fans are audible.
  • Light to moderate gaming doesn’t heat soak the card excessively. Temperatures are easily managed with default fan curves.
  • Workstation tasks that don’t fully peg the GPU continuously won’t require the full thermal capacity of liquid cooling.

So for non-overclocked RTX 3090 builds in roomy cases, we think air cooling is adequate. Only enthusiasts really need to consider liquid cooling in our opinion. But for these demanding use cases, it can make a big difference.

RTX 3090 Cooling Recommendations

Based on all the factors discussed, here are our specific RTX 3090 cooling recommendations:

  • Stock air cooling – Fine for moderate gaming and workloads. Expect 75-84C temps depending on the card model and case airflow. Will be loud at full load.
  • Beefy air coolers – Aftermarket cards like Asus TUF, EVGA FTW3, etc can improve a few C over Founders Edition. But still get loud.
  • 120mm/240mm AIO – Solid step up over air cooling. Will reduce load temps by 15-20C for quieter operation. Good balance of cost and performance.
  • 360mm AIO – For hardcore users. Can nearly match a custom loop for cooling capacity. Ideal for SFF builds. Expect load temps under 60C.
  • Full custom loop – Overkill for most users, but will deliver the absolute best thermals. Requires proper setup and maintenance.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Do I need to use liquid cooling with an RTX 3090?

No, it’s not mandatory. The RTX 3090 is designed to function with its stock air cooling system. However, liquid cooling can help manage temperatures better under heavy loads.

2. What are the benefits of liquid cooling for an RTX 3090?

Liquid cooling can provide superior heat dissipation compared to air cooling, potentially leading to lower temperatures and better overall performance, especially during demanding tasks like gaming or content creation.

3. Will liquid cooling improve the RTX 3090’s performance?

Liquid cooling might not significantly boost the card’s base performance, but it can help maintain consistent performance over extended periods by preventing thermal throttling due to excessive heat.

4. Is liquid cooling quieter than the stock cooling on the RTX 3090?

Generally, yes. Liquid cooling setups tend to be quieter because they involve larger radiators and slower-spinning fans, resulting in reduced noise levels compared to the stock air cooler when the GPU is under load.

5. Is liquid cooling difficult to install for the RTX 3090?

Installing a liquid cooling solution can be more complex than simply using the stock cooler. It may involve disassembling parts, installing a water block or cooling plate, setting up a pump and reservoir, and connecting tubes. Some technical expertise is recommended.

6. Will liquid cooling void my RTX 3090’s warranty?

It depends on the manufacturer. Some companies might consider liquid cooling modifications as voiding the warranty, while others might have more lenient policies. It’s essential to check your GPU’s warranty terms before making any modifications.

7. How much does a liquid cooling setup cost for the RTX 3090?

The cost can vary widely depending on the components you choose. A complete liquid cooling solution, including a water block, radiator, pump, reservoir, and tubing, can range from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars.

8. Can I use a hybrid cooling solution instead of full liquid cooling?

Yes, many manufacturers offer hybrid cooling solutions, which combine elements of both air and liquid cooling. These usually involve a liquid-cooled GPU core with an attached fan for additional cooling, simplifying installation compared to full custom loops.

9. Is liquid cooling recommended for everyone using an RTX 3090?

Liquid cooling is recommended primarily for enthusiasts who engage in heavy GPU-intensive tasks like gaming at high resolutions, 3D rendering, or video editing. Casual users might find the stock air cooling sufficient for their needs.

10. Are there any risks associated with liquid cooling an RTX 3090?

Liquid cooling setups carry some risks, such as the potential for leaks, component failure, or improper installation leading to damage. It’s crucial to research and follow proper guidelines if you decide to implement liquid cooling.


The RTX 3090 delivers unprecedented graphics performance. But with great power comes great thermals. The 350W TDP demands serious cooling to maintain boost clocks and avoid throttling.

While the RTX 3090 *can* get by on the stock air cooler, liquid cooling objectively provides better thermals. AIO coolers can reduce load temperatures by 20-30C for minimal noise. They also enable higher overclocking potential.

Liquid cooling is certainly not required but recommended for SFF systems, overclocking, and noise-sensitive applications. Otherwise, quality air coolers are still sufficient for general gaming and workstation uses.

If you have an RTX 3090, think about your use case and case airflow needs. Liquid cooling can take things to the next level, but may not be essential depending on your demands and tolerances. With good installation and maintenance, it can reliably tame the beast that is the RTX 3090.

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