Dear Umbra,

I heard a rumor that President Bush’s Texas ranch is off the grid. I find it very hard to believe (unless “off the grid” means he has his own oil well and refinery set up) and I can’t find any documentation about it. Ever heard this? Know if it’s true or false?

Chicago, Ill.

Dearest Julie,

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“Off the grid,” for our curious readers, is not a reference to pancake cookery but rather a jargon-ish term used by energy wonks to indicate the ultimate in enviro chic: a building that generates its own electricity using onsite energy sources, and thus does not need to be connected to a regional power source — i.e., the grid. More generally, “off the grid” refers to a home that doesn’t rely on regional services for other basic life necessities either: water supply, waste disposal, etc. It’s good to differentiate this ultra-cool, eco-friendly type of “off the grid” from the involuntary, poverty-induced type of “off the grid.”

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Bush (with Gen. Tommy Franks) in front of his Crawford getaway.

Photo: White House.

A divinely hip eco-home would liberate itself from the grid using a combination of, say, solar power systems, efficient wood-burning stoves, water cisterns and wells, wastewater recycling, composting, and other sensible technologies.

Is Bush’s Crawford ranch off the grid? No.

To use cheesy magazine speak, the ranch was designed “in harmony with the landscape.” To reduce heating and cooling needs, prevailing winds and temperatures were taken into account in situating the building. The house also uses two lesser-known environmentally friendly technologies: geothermal heating and wastewater recycling.

Inside a closet at Bush’s special vacation compound, a collection of pipes is thrust deep into the earth, down where the sun don’t shine and the temperature is perpetually 67 degrees. Water circulates through this zone and then back up into house pipes to heat or cool the building. The system uses less electricity than conventional heating and cooling installations, but that electricity does come from the Crawford electric grid. The ranch also has a well and recycles its water. Water that flows out a tub drain is known as “gray water”; water from the toilet is “black water.” Our fearless leader’s holiday home recycles both types via subterranean filtration tanks and uses the resultant cleaner water in the garden.

All in all, the house sounds pretty nice. (For a rich person’s vacation home, it’s kinda small, and it sure is quiet and remote.) Still, off-grid or not, it’s an utter mystery: How can this man, whose administration has gutted environmental protection as though it were a trout, care enough to recycle toilet water in his home? Who knows — but let’s hope that when Bush arrives at his little Texas paradise in January of 2005, it won’t be for a vacation, but with a moving van.