Handling NULL values with the COALESCE function

The COALESCE function allows you to provide fallback functions in case of NULL values to ensure there's a value for any operation - or that you don't send NULLs back to the client.

When working with PostgreSQL, handling NULL values is a common challenge. NULL indicates the absence of a value, and it can complicate arithmetic operations, comparisons, and function calls. PostgreSQL provides a versatile function named COALESCE to simplify working with NULL values. This function returns the first non-null value in the list of its arguments, allowing for more readable and concise SQL queries by providing default values for otherwise null results.

Understanding COALESCE

The syntax for COALESCE is straightforward:

COALESCE(value1, value2, ..., valueN)

The function scans its arguments from left to right and returns the first non-null value. If all arguments are null, COALESCE returns null.

Examples of Using COALESCE

Example 1: Providing a Default Value

Suppose you have a table employees with a column bonus that might contain null values for employees who haven't received a bonus. To list all employees with their bonuses, substituting any null bonus values with 0, you can use:

SELECT name, COALESCE(bonus, 0) AS bonus

FROM employees;

This query ensures that instead of showing a null value for bonus, you display 0, making the data more understandable and cleaner for reporting purposes.

Example 2: Combining with Other Functions

COALESCE can be used in combination with other PostgreSQL functions to perform more complex operations. For example, if you want to concatenate a user's first and last name, but either part might be null, you can ensure a proper full name is always returned:

SELECT COALESCE(first_name || ' ', '') || COALESCE(last_name, '') AS full_name

FROM users;

This query concatenates first_name and last_name with a space in between, but if first_name or last_name is null, it avoids adding extra spaces or returning a null result.

Example 3: Handling Multiple Null Values

COALESCE can handle multiple arguments and return the first non-null one. This feature is useful for prioritizing multiple potential sources of a value:

SELECT COALESCE(primary_email, secondary_email, '[email protected]') AS email

FROM contacts;

In this query, COALESCE attempts to use primary_email first; if it's null, it tries secondary_email; if that's also null, it defaults to '[email protected]'.


The COALESCE function is a powerful tool in PostgreSQL for managing NULL values effectively. By providing default values or handling missing data gracefully, it allows for the creation of more robust, readable, and maintainable SQL queries. Whether you're consolidating data from multiple columns, ensuring output consistency, or setting defaults, COALESCE can simplify your data manipulation tasks and help avoid common pitfalls associated with NULL values.