Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009 | Down there in a box, just beneath a black widow’s frighteningly thick web, sat City Councilman Kevin Faulconer’s water meter.

The water was off inside Faulconer’s Point Loma home. Kevin Farrer, a city water sleuth with a bushy moustache and a detective’s nose for water waste, studied the meter — an odometer for water use. It wasn’t moving.

“No leaks?” Faulconer asked.

“I don’t see any movement on there,” Farrer said.

A good sign.

Farrer read the meter, noted the number. He checked Faulconer’s last meter read, punched numbers into a calculator and spit out the councilman’s average daily consumption the last few weeks: 352 gallons. Down from 417 gallons a day last July and 506 gallons daily in July 2007.

“On a downward trend,” Farrer said.

“We want to keep it that way,” Faulconer said.

“That’s why I’m here,” said the water detective.

Farrer is one of two city water detectives. They’re technically called “water conservation specialists,” and they’ll audit any San Diegan’s home water use for free. They’re busy people. Fifteen years ago, the city had 10 water waste detectives. Now it has two, and they have a two-month waitlist. Demand for their services jumped after the city told the top 750 residential water users that they were the top 750 residential water users. (Farrer isn’t a water cop. The city established those temporary jobs earlier this year to investigate water-waste complaints.)

Faulconer is one of 10 city officials whose power to set water rates makes their water bills public information. The bills show his residential use has inched down the last two years. While Faulconer’s use in the first half of the year was about average for a San Diego household (and 6 percent lower than it was in 2007), he said he’s looking for more ways for his family of four to conserve. So he requested a water audit. Which is why Farrer visited Thursday afternoon.

Farrer has been sniffing out water waste at homes and businesses around San Diego for 15 years. When you do it 7,000 times like Farrer has, you see some things. None more remarkable than a Rancho Bernardo toilet a few years back. Constantly running.

“It looked like you were boiling water in the toilet,” he said.

By Farrer’s calculations, it lost 2,000 gallons a day — enough water to run a shower for 13 hours.

Nothing at the Faulconer household came close. Farrer poked through the house, starting in a hallway bathroom, painted yellow and trimmed in sea stars. He dumped a dye packet into the toilet tank and waited.

A wispy cerulean ribbon drifted down into the bowl. That meant problems with a leaky flapper. That’s the rubbery seal that keeps water in the tank.

“That’s my weekend project,” Faulconer said.

Farrer checked both bathrooms, the faucets, showerheads, toilets. Made sure they weren’t spraying too much water. Used a marked bag to collect five seconds’ worth of water from each.

None pushed out more than two gallons a minute. Everything was in order.

They moved to the garage. Farrer peered back in the corner, behind the golf clubs, to check the water heater. Not leaking. He looked at the washing machine and gave a friendly reminder: Only wash full loads.

“That’s definitely the rule here,” Faulconer said.

Then they moved to the patches of grass in the front and back yards. Faulconer said he’s been trimming back his irrigation schedule (yes, his system is set to irrigate only on his designated days of the week). To eliminate runoff, he’s cut it to eight minutes: four minutes at 4 a.m. and four minutes at 5:15 a.m.

Farrer checked for broken sprinkler heads, tested the soil, surveyed the mulching and measured the sprinklers’ output. Using the output, he calculated a recommended watering cycle: eight minutes, three times a week in summer; four minutes, twice a week in winter.

During the hour-long audit, he compiled a laundry list of tweaks for the Faulconer household: More mulch (it’s been 10 months since the last mulching); straighten a couple of irrigation heads; aerate the lawn; capture shower warm-up water in a bucket; alter the spray direction on some irrigation heads.

Faulconer said his consciousness of water conservation has grown in the last two years. Faced with the looming potential for water cuts to continue next year, the council is now looking for ways to reduce citywide use. Faulconer said the council and mayor plan to tackle the issue in the fall.

Faulconer and a majority of council members support a strategy that includes tiered water rates that encourage conservation. That type of rate penalizes inefficient use and rewards conservation, establishing guidelines for use based on lawn and household size.

“The city is in this for the long haul,” Faulconer said. “That can be done. That’ll save a lot of water and a lot of money.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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