How to build a ventilation system with PC fans
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How to build a ventilation system with PC fans

Dominik Bärlocher
Dominik Bärlocher
Zurich, on 15.08.2017
Translation: Eva Francis
When it gets hot in the office, an air con is what you need. But what if a fan or air con don't do the job? Then it's time for a bit of DIY. This is the story of how I built the best and most wacky ventilation system ever. Made of PC parts.

Anyone with an office job will know this unpleasant situation:

  • It's hot outside.
  • There's heat coming from your computer.
  • It's even hotter in the office than outside.

Getting a fan or an air con is the most obvious, but also the most illusory solution to this problem. Both apparent solutions have their downsides: A fan takes away too much space on your desk and if it's strong enough to keep you cool, it's also strong enough to blow sheets of paper from your desk into all corners of the office. Besides, fans can be quite loud. An air conditioning system might cause those sitting right underneath it to freeze while others will still be sweating away quite merrily.

It's quite simple: A better solution is needed.

The plan

Over the course of the day, I usually see quite a few parts of equipment and devices lying around in the office. Mostly in the peripherals office of Osman Erdogan, our category manager, and his crew. This is where the sale of PC components is coordinated. When we were tidying up their office on day, a PC fan well into my hands and I had an idea: If I find a way to supply this fan with electricity, I can build a ventilation system.

I can't be bothered to mess about with cables, so I go for the easy option.

Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon (LGA 1151, Intel Z270, ATX)
MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon (LGA 1151, Intel Z270, ATX)
PH-F120SP (120mm, 1x)
15.11
Phanteks PH-F120SP (120mm, 1x)
SP120 PWM High Performance Edition (120mm, 2x)
Corsair SP120 PWM High Performance Edition (120mm, 2x)

It will take more than one fan to make this work. Good thing I can connect several fans to one motherboard. You'll have to find out how many your motherboard can take and buy the suitable number of fans. For a Swiss summer, the motto has to be «the more, the merrier» or «the more fans, the cooler».

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You'll need these plug connections. As many as possible of them.

The best thing about this construction is that I don't need the computer itself. The motherboard is only serves as plug connector and to turn the whole thing on and off. Therefore, neither the processor nor RAM are required. A motherboard is all you need.

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The motherboard as improvised plug connector and power supply.

Of course it would be possible to do the same thing without a motherboard, but I like a bit of cyberpunk flair, so I'm not unhappy to add this component. And what's even better is that building it this way takes less than ten minutes – on a hot day like today, every minute that gets me closer to my air con system is precious.

Therefore, putting the system together is easy: All it takes is attaching a fan to every possible connection plug. The motherboard I'm working with is ancient, it was lying around in Osman's office. Finally, what you need to do is connect the motherboard to the power supply and plug this into the power socket.

First attempt: bug hunting

The first time I switched my construction on nothing happened. The lights on the motherboard were on, so the power supply was working. But not a single blade was spinning. What a bummer. I tried pressing a few random buttons on the motherboard. Did I need RAM or a CPU after all? I know I shouldn't, but I also know that none of the parts I'm using for my ventilation system were originally made for the purpose I'm trying to achieve here. To put it short: What do I know?

That's when Osman walks by and has a look at my construction.

«It should work», he says and pushes a few buttons on the motherboard. «Don't just push the buttons, but try this and that», are his instructions. Experts at work.

Suddenly the fans start to spin. Yay!

And why?

Osman hasn't changed a thing. He just put pressure on the motherboard. It turns out that the motherboard is slightly damaged. After all, it is old. When I apply pressure to one of the cooling elements, the set-up works. As soon as I release the pressure, it stops working.

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The solution to the puzzle

So be it. A water bottle shall now become the key component of my incredibly scientific work. A few people asked me if the water bottle added to the cooling effect. No, it's only used as weight. If I'm going to do something that makes no sense at all, then I’ll do it properly.

More than the sum of its parts

I'll admit, there are hundreds of better ways to cool down. But hardly a more techie one. However, my construction sure has a few flaws. First, PC fans are not made to stand on one side. If you're going to make a genuine effort with your ventilation system, you'll have to consider building a support for every fan. Long screws or thin wooden sticks would do the job. Without supports, the fans are in real danger if tipping over every time someone touches my desk.

Another weakness of my construction is that I can't arrange the fans in a semicircle on my desk. I would have liked to have cool air coming from all sides, but that's not possible because the cables on the fans are only 65 cm long. More or less.

Further, my construction is a real slow starter. After turning it on, it takes several minutes until you can actually feel a breeze. My guess is that the motherboard needs to reach a certain temperature before the fans start spinning.

Still, this ventilation system has great potential. Even if it's not very stable, it's quite compact. Rearranging a fan is logistical tour de force. But my writing pad can be right in the centre of the air flow without flying at me and guaranteeing paper cuts to my fingers.

What really makes this a winning construction though is that it’s the perfect office ventilation system. At least when it comes to air flow power – does this term even exist? One fan is never enough to cool you down, whereas a collection of small fans creates a small storm on your desk, every fan blowing a tiny bit of cool air towards you. In sum, a great cool breeze, but not so strong that sheets of paper are blown off your desk. I'd recommend it to anyone.

What are you waiting for? Try it out! Have fun!

P.S: Suddenly, it also worked without the water bottle. Who knows why.

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Dominik Bärlocher
Dominik Bärlocher
Senior Editor, Zurich
Journalist. Author. Hacker. A storyteller searching for boundaries, secrets and taboos – putting the world to paper. Not because I can but because I can’t not.

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